search for substance, the Transforming Power of Story, foundations, truth, pillars, reality, spiritual realities, beneath the surface, Destiny at Dolphin Bay, Hope Chest, Pursuit of the Pudú Deer, Legacy of the Linnebrink Light, values, fiction, story, theme, eternal

The Search for Substance

I am a realist. Though my mother might disagree (I suspect she equated my head in a book with my head in the clouds), on the bottom line I’m the ultimate pragmatist. I believe—and write—about life in all its humble glory, yet that’s a spiritual reality. I search for SUBSTANCE, the core value inside the cover image, the message beyond the marketing blurb.

Isn’t that what our faith is all about—a substance beyond the concrete world, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). Not that MY faith qualifies as so highly significant–that place goes to the eternal reality on which I hang my faith and my very life, Jesus. He is the hidden Truth below the surface. He is the real Premise behind the plot of all our stories.

But I am also a writer of fiction. Although I don’t write fantasy (which I do enjoy thoroughly when it’s built on a solid spiritual worldview), even my contemporary Christian series stem from creative imagination. They’re…well, inventions, based on spiritual ideals, of course, but nevertheless non-existent non-realities.

“Fantasy is hardly an escape from reality. It is a way of understanding it.” –Lloyd Alexander, YA fantasy writer

Yet there is nothing more real than the spiritual. That ambiguity is what I’m addressing today in my search for substance.

Foundations of Fiction—and Life

Spiritual doesn’t mean insubstantial, flimsy or light. In fact, in my mind, it means just the opposite—depth, texture, and perspective. So many people merely exist in a shallow, fragmented reality. They don’t know who they are or why they’re here. They live without joy, disconnected from meaning. And often lack even a sense of longing for those sometimes-elusive realities.

But behind the veil, beneath the surface, Jesus Christ offers a spiritual center. A real life shared in moment-by-moment communion with Himself and a destiny beyond our fantasies. A call to adventure: “…that I (Jesus, as wisdom personified) may cause those who love me to inherit substance…” (Prov. 8:21).

In this passage, the basic meaning of “substance” is wealth, but I believe we may amplify the idea to include much more than material riches. Jesus wants to give us the treasure of His life and add value to ours. My search for substance ends in seeing through the obvious face of things to their deeper significance.

Jesus reflects this perfect balance of the practical and the ideal. He is a bedrock of truth ruling both the heart and head. That’s where I want to build my life—on that foundational theme of spiritual and eternal realities.

Pillars of Truth

Recently I was challenged to name ten important pillars of my life. My touchstones, my north star, if you will. That’s a hard list to draw up and even more difficult to limit to ten. I plan to share some of those items in the next while, but the one I’ll mention today is this:

A rich and growing relationship with the Lord matters to me. I refuse to allow my spiritual life to stagnate into mediocrity. So I continually seek quality time to feed my soul. And then I try to invest those spiritual benefits in things that have practical purpose—and substance.

“The spiritual is the parent of the practical.” –Thomas Carlyle

That’s why I need to keep reminding myself that “…we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18).

Lord, open my eyes to discern what’s important AND real.

The devout missionary to India, Amy Carmichael (who certainly did more good in the world than I can pretend to), had no patience with trifles. Yet most of our lives are made up of those despised small things in the daily grind of reality.

I once feared that perhaps it was arrogance to desire lives that matter, to search for substance and significance…when He’s given most of us seemingly trivial “real” lives. But surely God Himself planted those yearnings within the human soul.

We may live in the reality of a small pond, yet… May God grant us the vision to see clearly below the surface to the eternal, spiritual realities at our muddy bottoms. As we discover the depths, we won’t stay wading in the shallows.

Bread or Marshmallows?

Are the days of my existence chunks of nourishing bread…or puffed-up cubes of sugar? They look kind of alike from a distance (especially to my poor eyesight!) Is my life a chain of paste beads or a valuable pearl necklace? Sometimes not even expert eyes can tell at a glance.

The whole style vs. substance debate has some merit, of course. “Don’t be afraid to embrace whimsy,” Donald Miller tells us. Whimsy, according to the dictionary, brings in the ideas of quirkiness, singularity, fantasy, and fancy. In the universe of spiritual realities, it’s that ever-lingering wonder: “What if I jumped all in with Jesus?” Or, as the song asks, “What if I gave all?”

“In the spiritual realm, the opposite of ignorance is not knowledge, it’s obedience.” –Howard G. Hendricks

In the search for substance, godly obedience isn’t always about slavishly following all the rules. It’s more about…

  • A call to throw caution (i.e. doubt, insecurity, er…unbelief) to the wind and risk the adventure God sends.
  • A willingness to step out in faith, even fly…with the “magic” of prayer.
  • The trust to “spend and be spent” freely, to imagine outside the “tin” of comfort and safety.
  • The sense to value pure childlike play and dancing-in-the-rain joy.

If all that sounds a little unreal to us realists, perhaps we need to get more of a grip on spiritual realities than our practical point of view can envision. By fun, I don’t mean foolhardy fluff. I don’t mean reckless irresponsibility or blind brashness.

But if I ever dared to act half as unconventional as the sober-minded Amy Carmichael, I could turn my city upside down.

Pillars of Story

So this is what I hope to convey in my fiction. While the focus falls on various topics that I’m interested in or passionate about, I aim for an entertaining tale built on a solid foundation of core truth. A stylish story based on singular substance.

I ask questions. I believe God has answers. It’s true I struggle with doubts about everything from myself to the Milky Way, but still I trust that Jesus Christ is trustworthy. The theme of all I write, which should weave organically into every story, is the certainty of spiritual reality.

Lord, help me integrate in each line…

  • the eternal with the temporal
  • the mystery of godliness with our neediness of grace
  • our desire for worth with our daily doldrums
  • the unseen depths with the façade we show the world
  • the sparkle of whimsy with the skin and dirt, work and pain, of ordinary lives
  • and the motor of our extraordinary potential with the rubber-hits-the-road.

“Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” –Jessamyn West

Of course, it’s impossible to explore all themes in one book. (That’s why I can’t stop writing!) But, for example, in Destiny at Dolphin Bay, I trace: What’s beneath the surface of the teen who quietly resists doing what’s expected? The discovery: My own doubts, questions, and a good deal of thought.

In Pursuit of the Pudú Deer, I take it a step further: What happens when you fall in love, but it’s not the right time or place…or even the right person? When all you want is love, but it’s complicated? What’s so bad about being good? And how do you know who you can trust?

And then in Legacy of the Linnebrink Light, I consider some of life’s biggies: What’s worth investing in? How can you make a difference when there’s so much wrong, so much darkness?

Not Every Spirit

On the other hand, the search for substance—spiritual reality—leads some in the opposite direction from Jesus’s Via Dolorosa. Try googling “spiritual,” and you’ll come up with anything but God. The search engine will pull up mention of spirit guides and Mother Nature, inner tranquility and higher realms of consciousness. There’ll be talk of tapping into the “energies” of the next dimension.

In both Destiny at Dolphin Bay and my current Work-in-Progress, Hope Chest, several characters search for spiritual realities through occult rituals. The lust for secret knowledge and the greed for a hidden source of power and riches drive many to seek their heart’s desires down a twisted path to the Arch Adversary’s camp.  

“…The real universe is always one step beyond logic.” –Frank Herbert, Dune

Yet I understand, in a strange way, the heartbreaking vanity of the search. We all long for something more than we find on the surface of our known world. We hunger for soul satisfaction and profound peace. But so often we look to “inherit substance” in all the wrong places.

But everything real is here… if we have eyes to see and ears to hear and hearts to obey. Because “God…calls into being that which does not exist” (Rom. 4:17). Let’s dig up the buried imagination that can sustain the hard realities of our lives.

“Since we cannot change reality, let us change the eyes which see reality.” –Nikos Kazantzakis

And let’s recall the servant of Elisha who panicked when he saw the enemy hosts surrounding them. But the prophet said, “…Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prayed and said, “O Lord, I pray, open his eyes that he may see” (2 Kings 6:16-17).

Lord, open my eyes!

Instead of freaking at the spiritual enemies thronging on every hand, I choose to cling to the substance of truth, seek the spiritual realities, and write for the global impact of the glory of God.

What are the foundations of your life? What matters, what has substance, for you? Beneath the exterior plot, what do you look for in a book? Do you see spiritual realities?

This realist (me) knows for sure that Jesus goes before me, behind me, above me–and beneath me. In the search for substance, He’s the steadfast rock under my feet.


  1. I love this. It’s so encouraging. And it would seem that the key is to view reality through a God-directed lens. Thank you for this.

    1. Thank YOU! Yes, I agree, because, though we often lose sight of this, God and the spirit are the greatest realities of all. Have a lovely day.

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