The Secret Vocabulary of the Heart

The Secret Vocabulary of the Heart

WHEN GOD SPOKE TO ME IN A DREAM in the summer of 1988, my life was overnight transformed, from dull lead and gravel in shadow to shimmering gold and diamonds in sunlight. It was not a healing from illness, but a resurrection from death. Or is that putting it too strongly?

In the dream, God spoke to me in a way that would have made little sense to anyone else, using what I have often called “the secret vocabulary of my heart.” It was his way of letting me know that he knew me intimately—and knew me infinitely better than I knew myself, which got my attention. To be specific, he used the magical fairytale image of a golden fish, lovingly stooping down to speak to me as though talking to a little child, even condescending to use my own silly—and mostly secular and New Age—ideas about “the godhead” or “the divinity” in order to lead me beyond them, to show me a far better way, and to point me to the living person of his son, Jesus. It was so personal and so beautiful that I had no doubt then or in the years since that it was God himself speaking to me; and by his grace I have never looked back.

My literary hero C.S. Lewis understood that to communicate the difficult things of God we may need to be a little bit sneaky, and might need to employ the strangest of stratagems. Of course there is a vital place for straightforward doctrine and theology, but that will only carry us to the border, so to speak. God’s Kingdom lies just beyond it, beyond anything we can find in a short creed or even in a long book of systematic theology.

To communicate the impossible transcendence and ineffable glory of that greatest Story of stories, Lewis himself chose the form of a fairytale. He once explained that by freeing this overly familiar story from its “stained-glass Sunday school trappings” and telling it in an utterly new and foreign way, we might see it as though for the first time. His invented fairytale involved a talking lion who was the king over a kingdom called Narnia, and most of us who have read those seven heavenly fairytales were led by them into a previously undiscovered realm of truth about who Jesus is and what it means to follow him, as though we had been taken off the well-trod forest path and led into an undiscovered glade filled with sunshine.

Truth is not fixed, like a date from history, and cannot be pinned down like a dead beetle. It is like a photon of light, simultaneously particle and wave, noun and verb. More than this, Christians know that Truth is a living person; and Jesus is the living image of truth. Who could reduce a living person to anything less? People are infinitely complicated and dimensional. So how are we to communicate the living truth of God effectively?

Cover of Fish Out of Water book by Eric MetaxasDietrich Bonhoeffer said that every sermon “ought to have a shot of heresy in it.” This hardly meant he didn’t take theological orthodoxy seriously. On the contrary, to really get at the truth of God we sometimes have to exaggerate a point or say something that startles the listener into really listening, and have to approach it obliquely. Flannery O’Connor employed what she called “grotesques”—characters and stories and brilliant humor—that she felt could better illustrate the truth of who God was. A hundred years earlier Emily Dickinson famously said “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”  But why does God’s truth need to be “told slant”?

Jesus did not descend to Earth and hand out mimeographed sheets with bullet points and then quickly ascend back into Heaven, but rather “tabernacled among us” and showed us in his own person something that mere statements on paper could never communicate. And told challenging parables, too.

When in my early twenties I was searching for the meaning of life and for truth, I had no idea whether such things existed—or whether we could find them if they did. I’d been miseducated at Yale toward a simplistic distrust of such ideas, and after graduation found myself in a quiet panic that truth and meaning were pious fictions we could no longer believe, that we were here alone, without meaning, and that the best we could do was keep our minds from dwelling on this by busying ourselves with work and family and art and pleasure. Anything but thinking about the horror of the meaninglessness of our lives. 

But it seems that somehow during this time God was tracking me as a lion tracks his prey, padding alongside me so quietly that I almost never heard his footfall—until he had trapped me inside my own dream, where I could not escape. And there, with my full attention, he spoke to me in a way I hadn’t expected, in a way that startled me awake inside my sleep, and that gave me a golden glimpse of the Jesus who had lived and died and lived again for me and for you, and who is himself Truth.

In my new book Fish Out of Water: A Search for the Meaning of Life, I try to do the same thing, to tell my own story in a way that doesn’t let the suspicious reader know where I am headed, or what lies at the end of the journey, hoping that they—like me—will be startled and moved and overjoyed by what they discover in the end, when they glimpse the golden truth of the person who found me, and who wishes to find them too, and who is quietly and patiently and lovingly tracking them even now, this very minute.

Image courtesy: Eric Metaxas

Eric Metaxas is the author of the brand-new Fish Out of Water: A Search for the Meaning of Life (Salem Books). Learn more about the book here. Eric Metaxas is a New York Times #1 bestselling author. He is the host of the Eric Metaxas Radio Show, a nationally syndicated radio program heard in more than 120 cities around the U.S. Learn more at