what is the real battle and how do we win it?: John 1


read John 1.  Don’t make the mistake of starting to read The Hunger Games at night.  You won’t sleep – partially because you’ll have to stay up until you finish it, and partially because you’ll be so terrified for the heroine that you won’t sleep even after you do finish it.  While reading it, I shivered and sweated.  I’m not sure how you can be cold and hot at the same time, but that’s what this YA novel did to me.  Books 2 and 3 aren’t nearly as good, but you will want to read them anyway, just to find out what happens to the characters.  Because what happens right away, is that we care about the characters.   And caring about the characters is what distinguishes a good book from a great one.

There are many reasons we care, but the main one is because the characters, while fully human, fight against injustice with divine determination.  It makes the reader want to go find something to fight for, too.  So when I finished it, I asked myself:

What is the battle that matters most?

Even the most dilettante reader of dystopian fiction will know that if you replace an evil regime, you will find the new regime is also evil.  One of the hallmarks of dystopian literature – and its main attraction – is a deep understanding of the evils and blindness of the human heart.  So what is the real battle?  Is it just to replace tyranny with democracy?  Or is it something far more subtle, far more profound, far more impossible.

The real battle, I believe, is the softening of the hard, selfish, bitter, hurt human heart.

If so, the place to start is with our own hearts.  We can’t control anyone else’s heart.  And the moment we start to try to control our own hearts, something curious happens.  We discover we can’t do that, either.  In fact, the harder we try to be good, the worse we discover we are.  So what’s the solution?

This brings us back to The Hunger Games.  As mentioned above, the characters in The Hunger Games are fully human.  Katniss evaluates her own motives often and considers herself selfish, proud, rebellious, stubborn and distant.  She’s right.  She is all those things.  And yet we root for her from the get go.  Why?  Because she cares.  She will fight hardest to help those who can’t help themselves.  Her stubborn resistance melts in the face of pathetic vulnerability.  And here is where she crosses over into the divine, despite her humanity.

For it is in the character of God to rescue us for the sole reason that we need rescuing.  Just as Katniss plunges her face between the whip and the bloodied pulp that has become the back of her best friend Gale, so Christ flung himself between us and the powers and principalities of darkness.  As we see in the resounding opening lines of John 1, Jesus Christ was, unlike Katniss, fully divine.  He was – and is – God.  He is the Word.  He was there from the beginning of  creation.  All things were made through Him.  He is the light of the world – which may explain why God said, upon creating the world: “LET THERE BE LIGHT!” – even though He didn’t make the sun until later.  God made the world, and Christ came into it.

But when that same world needed saving, because humans started acting in the evil ways highlighted in dystopian novels like The Hunger Games, God came into the world to save it.  But this time, God didn’t come with power and might but with vulnerability.  He came as a baby – the most vulnerable form He could have taken.  Human babies are completely defenseless.  And just as the defenseless Rue melts Katniss’ resistance in the Arena, enabling Katniss to befriend Rue instead of kill her, so the defenseless God melts our resistance.  Jesus came into the world in a form so unrecognizable that it took a vision from God – the image of a dove resting on Jesus as he came up out of the water – for his cousin John to even recognize him as the Savior of the world.

Because what God did was like the most moving action Katniss does in The Hunger Games.  When Katniss’ little sister is chosen to have to fight 23 other children to the death in the Arena, Katniss volunteers to take her place.  Katniss is a trained hunter.  Her sister would have been slaughtered in the bloodbath that is the opening of the Hunger Games.  Katniss risked her own life to save someone who couldn’t have protected themselves.  And that’s what God did for us on the cross.  He became, as John writes here, like a lamb.  He became the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

We are all, like Katniss, stubborn, proud, resistant to direct orders, wanting people to like us, but unable to make it happen, and furious in the face of evil.  No matter how hard we try to be good, we all fail.  That’s why the law “kills” us.  The law shows us how stubborn we are.  The law kills our false image of ourselves as good and deserving.  “I’m basically a good person,” I hear people say a lot.

Really?  Are you really a good person?  Because I’m not.  And if you think you are, ask children what adults are really like.  Children know the truth.  That’s why kids respond to fairy tales.  That’s why teenagers are eating up The Hunger Games.  Because kids and teens know what adults seem to have forgotten.

No one is good.

That’s why John writes here that we humans need to be “reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God.” v. 13.  The harder we try to be good – the harder we try to win the battle that counts most, conquering the selfishness of our hearts – the more quickly we lose.

The solution is, paradoxically, to admit failure.  The way to win the battle is to lay down our weapons and wave the white flag of surrender.  “I GIVE UP,” are the words that spring to our lips when we honestly, sincerely and completely try to do things God’s way.

“Thank goodness,” are the words we will hear in response from God.  “I was waiting for that,” He will say.  “Now we can finally get to work.”

Because God can’t do anything with us while we are still in denial, still pretending we’re good, still pretending we can climb our own ladder to heaven.  But the moment we accept Christ’s invitation to “come and see”, we will find in God everything we lack.  If we, like these early disciples, hear God whisper, “Come, follow me,” and respond, as they did, with the desire to follow Him, we will find all of heaven opens up to us.

But heaven comes, like all battles, at the heaviest of prices.  Heaven unlocks upon death alone.  There is a reason we respond to stories like The Hunger Games where children fight to the death.  Heaven opened because God sacrificed himself for us.  That’s why Jesus says here in John 1 that He is the stairway to heaven.  Jesus’ body is the stairway.  We climb on the back of His body.  We get to heaven not through our own efforts, but through His perfection.

But there is a second death involved in our ascent to heaven.  It is the death of our selves.  Heaven requires the death of our pride.  The stairway to heaven opens magically before us when we admit we can’t even climb the first rung on our own.  The next rung appears when we ask God to help us be like Him.  When someone insults us, for instance,and instead of defending ourselves, and snapping back, we bite our tongues and think: “they just don’t understand.”   That’s when the next rung appears.  Because in fighting God’s way, we have used the weapon that counts:  the weapon of humility and truth.  Because the only way we can know that our fellow humans don’t understand what they’re doing, is because we have come to accept that we, too, didn’t understand. We know we’ve done the same thing.

This world is dystopian.  We are dystopian.  But utopia is available.  It’s available not with blasting people with AK-47s, but through bending the knee to the one true God.

And when that happens, let the Games begin.  When we are finally listening to the still small voice of God, the battle is on.  When we are reborn with the Spirit of God inside of us, we can finally begin to rid the world of injustice – by starting with getting rid of our own injustice.  We can speak in love when we want to hate.  We can forgive those who don’t deserve it.  We can stay silent instead of gossiping – no matter how dainty and tasty a morsel we have quivering on our lips.  We can stop wishing for grandiosity and fame and instead start asking for God’s help right where we are – even if it’s doing a task so humdrum and boring our very flesh chafes under the strain of it.  And when we feel like fighting injustice with more injustice, we need to, just as Haymitch reminds Katniss her second time in the arena, remember who our true enemies are. Our real enemies are not other people.  They’re the powers and principalities of darkness.  And the only way to defeat those dark powers is with the power of God.

We will fail.  We will fail often.  But the good news is, when we choose the right team, we can never be kicked off for failure.  We just have to make sure we’re fighting on the right team – we want to be on the team of the One who Cares about us.  And if we side with Him, He will show us the right battle, give us the right weapons, and whisper that He’s already won, because He laid down His life so He could be with us – even if the entire world rejects us.

What is the reward?  God will give us the peace that passes all understanding.  He will open our eyes to the beauty of the world.  The patterns on the back of a snail shell will move us to tears (literally – it just happened to me).  The birds sing more sweetly.  The colors shine more brightly.  Grumpiness melts into joy. Heaven appears on earth – it’s the one true magic, the glory to which every fairy tale points – as we abandon trying to be perfect, or to live in a perfect world, but instead enjoy the journey with the only One who is truly Perfect – who fought to the death to win us to his side.

posted by Caroline Coleman in carolinecolemanbooks.com on March 21, 2012