Some thirty years ago, when I lived in downtown Chicago, I wrote this reflection on my aquarium.  It became a kind of parable with special significance in the Christmas season.  A shorter version made its way into one of my books; here is the original.

When I look out my downtown window I see a twelve-story apartment building, all concrete and glass, its balconies speckled by a random assortment of bicycles, Weber grills and lawn chairs.  Closer, I see twisted metal antennae growing like bare branches from a video store, the pebbly gray roof of a Donut shop, the aluminum exhaust vent from an Italian restaurant, and a web of black wires to bring electricity to all these monuments of civilization.  (We didn’t choose this place for the view.)

aquariumBut if I turn my head to the right, as I often do, I can watch a thriving tropical paradise.  A piece of the Caribbean has snuck into my study.  A glass rectangle contains five seashells coated with velvety algae, stalks of coral planted like shrubbery in the gravel bottom, and seven creatures as exotic as any that exist on God’s earth.  Saltwater fish have colors so pure and lustrous that it seems the fish themselves are actively creating the hues, rather than merely reflecting light waves to produce them.

Bi-ColorPseudochromisThe most brightly colored fish in my aquarium is split in half, with a glowing yellow tail and a shocking magenta head, as if he had stuck his head in a paint bucket.

Mcowfishy tastes tend toward the bizarre, and in addition to beautiful fish I have two that are startling but hardly beautiful.  A long-horned cowfish, so named because of the horns extending from his head and tail, propels his boxy body around with impossibly small side fins.  If a bumblebee defies aerodynamics, the cowfish defies aquatics.

Another, a lion fish, is all fins and spikes and menacing protuberances like one of those gaudy paper creatures that dance across the stage in Chinese opera.lionfish

I keep the aquarium as a reminder.  When writer’s loneliness sets in, or suffering hits too close, or the gray of Chicago’s sky and buildings invades to color my mind and moods, I turn and gaze.  There are no mountains out my window, and the nearest blue whale is half a world away, but I do have this small rectangle to remind me of the larger world outside.  Half a million species of beetles, ten thousand wild butterfly designs, a billion fish just like mine poking around in coral reef—a lot of beauty is going on out there, often unobserved by human eyes.  My aquarium reminds me.

Yet even here, amid the beauty of my artificial universe, suffering thrives as well.  Nature, said G. K. Chesterton, is our sister, not our mother; she too has fallen.  The spikes and fins on my lion fish are appropriately menacing; they can contain enough toxin to kill a person.  And when any one fish shows a sign of weakness, the others will turn on it, tormenting without mercy.  Just last week the other six fish were brutally attacking the infected eye of the cowfish.  In aquariums, pacifists die young.

I spend much time and effort fighting off the parasites and bacteria that invade the tank.  I run a portable chemical laboratory to test the specific gravity, nitrate and nitrite levels, and ammonia content.  I pump in vitamins and antibiotics and sulfa drugs, and enough enzymes to make a rock grow.  I filter the water through glass fibers and charcoal and expose it to an ultraviolet light.  Even so, the fish don t last long.  Fish make dubious pets, I tell my friends; their only “tricks” are eating, getting sick, and dying.

Blue-MandarinYou would think, in view of all this energy expended on their behalf, that my fish would at least be grateful.  Not so.  Every time my shadow appears above the tank, they dive for cover into the nearest shell.  Three times a day I open the lid and drop in food, yet they respond to each opening as a sure sign of my designs to torture them.  Fish are surely not affirming pets.

The arduous demands of aquarium management have taught me to appreciate what is involved in running a universe based on dependable physical laws.  To my fish I am deity, and one who does not hesitate to intervene.  I balance the salts and trace elements in their water.  No food enters their tank unless I retrieve it from my freezer and drop it in.  They would not live a day without the electrical gadget that brings oxygen to the water.

Whenever I must treat an infection, I face an agonizing choice.  Ideally, I should move the infected fish to a quarantine tank in order to keep the others from pestering it and to protect them from contagion.  But such violent intervention in the tank, the mere act of chasing the sick fish with the net, could do more damage than the infection.  Stress resulting from the treatment itself may actually cause death.

I bought my aquarium to brighten a dull room, but ended up learning a few lessons about running a universe.  Maintaining one requires constant effort and a precarious balancing of physical laws.  Often the most gracious acts go unnoticed or even cause resentment.  As for direct intervention, that is never simple, in universes large or small.

ITunnelaquarium_14-05-2009_15-54-09 often long for a way to communicate with those small-brained water-dwellers.  Out of ignorance, they perceive me as a constant threat.  I cannot convince them of my true concern.  I am too large for them, my actions too incomprehensible.  My acts of mercy they see as cruelty; my attempts at healing they view as destruction.  To change their perceptions would require a form of incarnation.  I would need to become a fish.


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26 responses to “The Universe and My Aquarium”

  1. Cindy Paz says:

    I didn’t catch the name of your book that you mentioned this writing was included in. My great pastor Jerry Giles at The Chapel a Crosspoint in Amherst, NY referenced your writing about your aquarium being like the universe. I was intrigued and thinking it was a book, I attempted to find it online after the service. I ended up here and just wanted to say I love your comparison about how God became man by sending us Jesus! Sometimes I think I’d rather be a fish but then I’m not sure if they get to live in eternity so I guess it’s good to be human. A human that knows Jesus!!

    • Philip Yancey says:

      That was a column I first wrote for Christianity Today magazine, later collected in the book, I Was Just Wondering.

  2. Eddie Brand says:

    A good option for a beginner wanting a fancy looking tank is to opt for African Cichlids. Those are tropical freshwater fish that are simple to look after, but with their beautiful colors, they look just like saltwater fish.

  3. Derek says:

    Beautifully written, but I also liked that aquarium metaphor! 🙂

  4. Benjamin says:

    Amazing aquarium, Phil

  5. Will rent the book from my friend (who sings your praises!)

  6. Al says:

    Hi Phillip, thanks for the nice post about the Universe and your tank. I’ve kept an aquarium for years and have enjoyed the challenges it unwaveringly presents. I suppose my tank is a reminder of beauty to me, much like yours is to you–although I never really put it in those words until I saw how you described it.

  7. Linda says:

    I really love brightly colored fish and in my aquarium is split in half too. It looks so beautiful!!!

  8. Joshua says:

    “Three times a day I open the lid and drop in food, yet they respond to each opening as a sure sign of my designs to torture them. Fish are surely not affirming pets.”

    Sorry your fish behave like this. My mandarins fly right up to the glass when it’s feeding time. Also I so agree it feels like we’re doing more harm than good when we have to net a sick fish out of the tank. Still those who do survive and lead full lives are proof enough that it’s worth the scare.

  9. Robert says:

    “I bought my aquarium to brighten a dull room, but ended up learning a few lessons about running a universe.”
    That is basically my story.

    That was a great read, thank you for sharing it, Philip.

    • Philip Yancey says:

      I wish your website had been around when I was trying to keep that universe running, Bob! –Philip

  10. Rob says:

    What a nice post, Philip. Your view is unique as well as appealing. Glad to know about your experiences. 🙂

  11. kenny gallagher says:

    Mr. Yancey,

    I just finished, ” The Jesus I never knew “. It had a bit of the fish tale in it. I bought the book at a second hand bookstore. It had belonged originally to the Auburn WA Police Department, or so the inscription read. I don’t know why I find that interesting. Do authors care if we by used books? Do you? That is a real question, but not why I wrote.

    I get hung up on legalism. It paralyses me. The sermon on the mount, obedience in general, slays me in my mind on a good day. On a bad day it is faith crippling. Me and Mr. Tolstoy, I guess. Your book has given me a new outlook. You having said, you probably would have been a Pharisee, I found to be on point for me as well. I was judging them far to harshly before. The way you tied the sermon on the mount together at the end, and made it out to be far more strict than the expectations of “the law” itself, is making me research the OT in a far less judgmental light. No more us and them. Thank you.

    I am trying imagine the tension that must have existed in the church after the Christ’s ascension, and before the destruction of Jerusalem. The Lord is gone and the kids are minding the school. I am sure this has got to be when and where the first WWJD bracelet was minted, right? Keep fighting the good fight Mr. Yancey and thank you, again, for giving me a little perspective. Great read.

    Warm regards,

    • Philip Yancey says:

      I’m glad you’re getting to know a “new” Jesus too. He’s hard to pigeonhole, no? Brennan Manning said that 183 times people asked him a direct question, and only three times did he give a direct answer.

      Do writers mind if you buy used books? That all depends on whether we’re trying to make a living. Used books pay the publisher and the author nothing while Amazon or whoever pockets the profits. I keep cranking out new books, so that doesn’t affect me much, but in general author royalties have gone down about 30% in the past few years. I wish the police department had kept their copy–cops need Jesus too.


  12. John Macdonell says:

    Hi there-

    Perceptive metaphor drawn from the aquarium. I’m wondering how Philip feels about evolution. If he considers it valid science, how does he reconcile it with the stories in Genesis, and indeed, his faith?



    • Philip Yancey says:

      Excellent question for which I don’t have a short answer. I recommend The Quest for Adam by Tim Stafford, which presents all the major ways of reconciling science and Genesis.

      • John Macdonell says:

        Thank you for your reply. Would it be OK to cut my question in half to ask you if you consider evolution(“descent with modification”) to be a valid explanation of how the diversity of life we see today got here? I actually anticipate you do, possibly theistic evolution like Francis Collins advocates for(“The Language of God”) – but, then, maybe I’m not right on that. I would just like to know.



  13. Laurie Esquivel says:

    I’ve just been reading your book What Good is God? and I am on the verge of tears. I’ve only read Life in a Bubble, I Wish I’d Known, Grace Like Water… and Why I Wish I was an Alcoholic, but my head and heart are just fluttering right now because in your words and your experiences, I feel as though someone gets me. No need to go into all of my life’s circumstances, but there have been some major losses recently, including a church that I just felt the need to leave because of a lack of grace and an alcoholic husband who I separated from almost two years ago. Your words describing the victorious Christian life, I’ve said them in different contexts and been shot down as though with bullets by Christian leaders. But God is still talking to my heart and you have renewed my spirit. Be blessed and thank you for building us up with your beautiful gift.

  14. Lee Scott says:

    Mr. Yancey,

    What a great illustration! Thank you for making such profound truths as the incarnation of Christ so accessible. My wife and I really enjoyed meeting you and Janet and hearing you speak in Golden a couple of weeks ago (we were the ones from Woodland Park). Your writing has taught us both so much and it was an honor to meet you. We look forward to seeing you in our area again!

  15. Jack says:

    You’re insane.

  16. Miche says:

    Good one.

    I actually think the little cowfish is cute!

  17. June Parker says:

    Thank you for this Christmas blog, a remarkable insight to explain the incarnation. Your commitment to such high care pets is commendable. In recent days the news of carnage at the Pakistani school makes me wonder how God can bare to watch how the people created in His image can treat each other so. Surely He must intervene and soon return. May you be blessed as you write and communicate God’s love and grace. Happy Christmas. June.

  18. Margie Shealy says:

    Mr. Yancey,
    How do we contact you for an interview on your latest book, Vanishing Grace?

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