Not too long ago I used to run up and down the road doing development work for a college. During that time, I would stop by the public library and pick up some of the newer books on CD to take along for the ride. This was a new experience for me. I know that sounds a bit behind the times, but I discovered the joy of following a story in much greater detail and length than most of us experience among our tweets and texts these days.
One particular joy unwrapped itself in the telling of Ernest Shackleton’s great adventure to Antarctica on the Endurance. Caroline Alexander’s The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition provided the perfect escape from the day as I moved to and fro. If you don’t know this extraordinary feat of an expedition, you must find the book. I have been captivated only a few times like this.
For time’s sake, I can’t get into a detailed retelling. But I do want to focus on one moment where I sensed something beyond me, something that was quite spiritual. In fact, I was moved to tears. Toward what was to be an end to their journey and at the most extreme fatigue and impossible circumstances, Shackleton and two of his crew, Worsly and Crean, walked across a mountain without any equipment for mountain climbing. It would have seemed that death was close, however they moved on in determination to save their expedition and the lives of the other men waiting behind.
They made it under conditions beyond human endurance. At a later point in comparing notes about the trip, Shackleton shared that he had a strange feeling that there was a fourth person in their party. Crean confessed the same thing. All three remembered a strong arm helping them down the mountain. Hallucinations are not unusual under extreme conditions of suffering, but all three men shared the same account of a fourth man. You’ve got to read this book.
Well, I started thinking about this the other day when I read in the Wall Street Journal about a new book coming out next week called The Third Man Factor by John Geiger. Geiger retells the Shackleton experience among other accounts of humans that survived and transcended extreme conditions. Each of these accounts describe some force, some presence, that helped them survive or that guarded them from danger. Geiger surveys the theories behind the third man phenomenon and seems to endorse a biochemical explanation for this response. He does not shoot down any of the other theories for the third man, including the spiritual. But I am curious about this quote by the author, “Imagine the impact on our lives if we could learn to access this feeling at will. There could be no loneliness with so constant a companion. There could be no stress in life that we would ever again have to confront alone.”
I just reached down from the laptop to pet our cat Celeste, a constant companion as we sit on our porch. But I don’t think Geiger was talking about pets. Geiger comes to the edge of admitting a spiritual presence, but leaves us with his physiological theory of accessing this companionship at will. I felt sorry for Geiger, or I should say I feel sorry for Geiger because he is afraid to accept the existence of God.
Christian, think again. God is with us. He is ever present. His name is called Immanuel, which means “God with us.” One of His characteristics is His omnipresence. Are you award of this as a believer, as one who is experiencing salvation? I take great comfort in reminding myself of this each day. When I awake, when I work, when I play, when I lie down again, God is with me. I don’t have to summon some biochemical response to remind me. The Holy Spirit reminds me.
If you don’t realize this as a believer, find something in God’s Word to awaken you. One of my favorite thoughts is expressed in James 4:8, “Come near to God and He will come near to you.” Approach Him with clean hands and a pure heart. God has said, “Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5 as quoted from Deuteronomy 31:6). Does that not excite you? Wow, the God of the universe is with me!
It is reassuring for the Christian to know these things and it helps us understand when others try to explain the phenomenon of a presence they can’t explain. We are His creation, we belong to Him, and He is present with us all the time. Our senses are surely heightened when we are in stressful situations and I am thankful that God made me that way, so that I draw near to Him during those times and am reminded of His presence.