read Acts 14. Is life meant to feel like a war or a party? It’s an important question because our expectations so determine our quality of life. Self-pity can set in faster than a New York City cab driver can honk at a changing traffic light if we think life is supposed to be all feast and we find it coming up nothing but famine. So which is the appropriate metaphor? And why?
One of the most moving op ed pieces I’ve ever read appeared last week in the New York Times by journalist Ben Mattlin. Mattlin wrote about how he was born with a condition that means he’s never walked or stood or had much use of his hands. He says that as a “good pro-choice liberal” he ought to be in favor of assisted suicide, but as a person who has lived his life “so close to death for so long”, he says: not so fast. He writes that doctors take one look at him and routinely assume his quality of life is terrible. They have no idea that at age 50, he’s a husband, father, journalist and author. His wife has learned to tell doctors to proceed “full code” – i.e. to tell them to keep him alive using any and all means necessary. From this experience of discovering “how thin and porous the border between coercion and free choice is,” Mattlin says he cannot support an assisted-suicde law like the one just rejected by Massachusetts voters. Mattlin says that the reaction of doctors is just “one of many invisible forces of coercion. Others include that look of exhaustion in a loved one’s eyes… All these can cause a dangerous cloud of depression upon even the most cheery of optimists… If nobody wants you at the party, why should you stay?” Mattlin’s conclusion is that a suicide pill is rife for abuse – both by doctors and by the patient succumbing to a moment of depression. “Suicide by Choice? Not so Fast,” NY Times, Nov. 1, 2012, A31 (click link for full op ed piece).
The article is moving not only because it describes so well an experience any of us could have – of being terminally ill and feeling like a burden on those around us – but also an experience all of us do have – that sense, deep in our bones, that no one wants us around. In those moments, what is there to celebrate? In those moments, we all feel that life has become nothing but war, and we have somehow just lost, for reasons we often don’t understand at all. We wonder what the rules are. We wonder what the weapons are. And we wonder how we, alone among all the people we see around us, seem to have just drawn the short straw.
The problem, I think, is that humans are fickle. So if we depend on other people for our sense of joy, we’re doomed. Look at Paul in chapter 14 of Acts. One minute the crowds are hailing him as a god – literally – they’ve decided he’s Hermes and Barnabas is Zeus – and the next minute they’re stoning him and leaving him for dead. Humans shift from adulation to blame to adulation to blame – yes, even faster than a New York City cab driver can honk at a changing traffic light. It’s no wonder that after Paul’s experience at the fickle hands of the crowds that when he rejoins his fellow believers he reminds them they must “suffer many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God.” Acts 14:22.
As author Eric Greitens says of the Navy Seals, it’s not a great recruiting message. Why would you want to enter a kingdom which requires you to “suffer many hardships”?
The question brings us back to our original question: is life a war or a party? The answer, I think, is … yes. The Bible presents this world as a battleground between good and evil. The Bible says our enemies are not other people, however. Our enemies are not the weary doctors who don’t always feel like fighting for our lives, or the other people who sometimes become bored of our presence or even actively dislike us. Our enemies are the powers and principalities of darkness. Ephesians 6:12 (“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”)
Our real enemy in Mattlin’s piece, for instance, is the depression. It’s the fear, the dark thought that no one wants you.
Eric Greitens would probably concur. He says that during Hell Week, which occurs early on in Navy Seal training, at any moment you can ring a bell three times and quit. He says that the time most people quit isn’t during physical hardship but mental. On the second night the men are lined up on the beach at sunset. Officers with bullhorns speak to their fears. They yell things like: “you’re right. This will be the worst night of your life. This will be the worst week of your life. You’ll never make it. You can’t do it. You’re a failure. You’re going to fail. Get out now while you still can.” Greitens says men bolted for the bell in droves. And yet, as Greitens points out all that was being asked of them was to stand on a beach and watch the sun set. But the inner darkness – the feeling that you can’t win – is the most powerful and dangerous enemy of all.
And that’s the war we all fight. Those bullhorns in Hell Week – a week so aptly named – voice the weapons of our true enemies, the powers and principalities of darkness. Those voices, coming straight from the pit of hell, are the enemies that beset us all – overtly and covertly – all day long, and tell us we should just give up now because we’ll NEVER make it. They say that no matter how hard we try, we’ll never be enough.
And that’s the beauty of those voices. Because they’re half right, even though they’re wrong. They’re right to say we’ll never will make it on our own. They’re right to say we’ll never be good enough, strong enough, beautiful enough or successful enough to win every battle or be invited to every party, no matter how hard we try. But they’re wrong to say we should give up.
Because the good news is that that war has already been won. Jesus Christ already stood up to the powers of darkness. On the cross, he bore the crushing burden of hell’s hatred and venom. When Jesus cried out: “My God, My God, why has thou forsaken me?” he was crying out from the loneliest place in the entire universe – the place where God was not. If God is all that is good, hell is the absence of God. Jesus was shrieking from hell itself – a place Jesus went voluntarily to fight the battle we could never win, and suffer the punishment we deserve, to win it for us.
Jesus Christ’s love did what our strength could never do. His love defeated the powers of darkness. He crushed hell. He bore everything hell could cast on Him. He allowed hell to crush Him. And then He rose again, victorious. If we accept that Christ died for us, heaven awaits us. And heaven is the place that Jesus consistently describes in the gospels as a party or feast. He should know. He left heaven to come down to this earth to suffer and die for us.
All we have to do is lay down our weapons – our perceived right to choose our own way. If we’ve lived long enough, we’ve already realized that choosing our own way does nothing but get us into trouble, anyway. Knowing that our ways don’t get us where we want in life can soften our hearts to accept God’s ways. God’s ways mean that instead of reacting to life like a male peacock, fluffing our prideful feathers the moment we feel the first perceived threat of an insult or the first little hint of rejection by another human, we get to react to life with humility. We look to God, not our fellow fickle humans, for our sense of beauty. We can go to God feeling as drab as the female peacock – and God decks us out in Christ’s radiant beauty. When God looks at us, no matter what we’ve done, thought or failed to do, God sees us through the lens of Christ’s perfection. He sees us as even more splendid than the male peacock.
That’s the paradox of the Christian life. Even if we go to Christ feeling as worthless as a Navy Seal with a bullhorn in our ear yelling about how no one wants us at the party – we always leave victorious. We discover that the “living God who made heaven and earth,” made us, too. He made each of us in a unique way, with a unique life plan – whether we can run a four minute mile or if we’ve never walked a step in our lives. Christ has rescued us from the powers of darkness, and while our peacock feathers may feel like they’re suffering when they’re plucked out, one by one – we discover that what looks like drabness is actually beautiful. The cross redeems our battle wounds. The cross gives us a forever beauty that grows brighter and brighter with each day. If we point our compass to the true north and hold on for dear life, God lifts us higher and higher — until we find ourselves celebrating at the party where we’re always wanted, and always will be.
by Caroline Coleman in carolinecolemanbooks.com, A Chapter a Day, on November 8, 2012