read Luke 19. People who push back against the tides of world opinion make it into the news. The President of Syria continues to bomb his own people in the face of condemnation by the UN General Assembly. The Iranian President broadcasts pictures of himself inspecting his country’s nuclear program despite world sanctions. These people and leaders are thumbing their noses at others. They echo the sentiment described by the author of the poem Invictus with the defiant words: “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.”
It’s an alluring sentiment. The underlying idea is that no matter what comes, we can be in charge. Here’s the poem in its entirety:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
The history behind the poem is even more moving. Its author, William Ernest Henley, contracted tuberculosis of the bone at age 12. When the disease progressed to his foot, doctors amputated his leg below the knee. And so at age 17 Henley penned this poem, a tribute to stoicism. He led an active life until his death at age 53. It’s an inspiring story and an inspiring sentiment. But how true is it? Can we really be masters of our fate, no matter what happens? Can we be the captains of our soul?
Invictus is the Latin word for “unconquered.” As the above examples from the news demonstrate, however, sometimes it is good to be conquered. Why? Because sometimes we humans can be stubbornly, pig-headedly wrong. We can go charging off into the darkness, like untamed horses. We can all spot an adult who was spoiled as a child. How? Because they’re a nightmare to be with. Of the many people who have invoked the poem Invictus over the years, one of them was the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh. He chose to be master of his fate – and it ended the lives of many and landed him in prison. Even if most of us are not murderers, there are aspects of each of us that need taming. There is something inside the human soul that needs conquering.
The Bible teaches that there is something inside each human that only the gentle loving hand of God can conquer. Why? Because we are blind to our darkness. We are blind to faults that are glaringly obvious to us when we see them in others. In addition, sometimes we can see our own faults – and yet feel helpless to change them. The harder someone tells us to change, the more we buck against them and their words.
That is where love comes in. Love can tame the wild beast in us, just as Jesus Christ rode in triumph a colt who had never before been ridden. “A child who is criticized learns to condemn” – and we have all been criticized and condemned as children. Jesus Christ came not to condemn us, but to set us free. When we start to trust Him, and the liberty He brings us through his sacrificial death on the cross, we can indeed become masters of our fate. Paradoxically, we become masters of our fate by submitting to our one true master. Submitting all that is dark in us to all that is light in God is the only “way to peace.”
How do we control our ability to let God control us? We become victors through giving up. When we reach the end of ourselves, we finally give up our pride, vanity, insecurity, anxiety and fears. God gives us instead His peace, his presence and His wisdom. It’s a divine exchange – an unfair exchange – but then love has nothing to do with fairness.
How do we do this? Do we have any control over divine revelation? Can we be masters of our salvation?
Yes, and no. Salvation is a gift from God alone. And yet like Zacchaus in Luke 19, we can do whatever it takes to ask, seek and knock at the door of God. Zacchaus was short, so he climbed a sycamore-fig tree. We don’t mind looking “dumb” when it comes to getting a good view of a play or a football game or tennis match – what is it that stops us from trying to get as good a view of God? Look at the reward Zacchaus got – Jesus called him by name. Jesus said he “came to seek and save those who are lost.” Luke 19. So if we can admit we are lost, He will seek and save us. We can, as Jesus’ parable in this chapter suggests, invest in the things of God; we can invest in peace, patience, kindness and generosity. We can, like the crowds at the end of the chapter, start to hang “on every word” Christ says. We can control one thing – we can single-mindedly seek Jesus.
But we cannot tame the wild beast. God alone can tame us. All we can do is surrender. Surrendering feels like the worst thing, but it’s really the best – because we are surrending not to another flawed human, but to Love itself. And so in losing our life, we gain it. In letting God be our master, we find our true destiny. In letting God be our captain, we let him steer our ships toward the stars. Control is an illusion – how much better to accept reality, cast off fantasies, and cry out to our one true Master to lavish His love upon us – and see what Love will bring?
posted by Caroline Coleman in carolinecolemanbooks.com on February 17, 2012