A little novel I wrote called: Beatrice & Phillip (a short story on life and love) is now available on Amazon thanks to Kenny Chumbley, Aaron Cozhort & Beth Weaver.
In this brief piece I’m taking it for granted that Satan is an actual being and not just the name that refers to an evil force. There’s more to be said about that but not here at this moment.
In John 8 Jesus says of some people that their father is the Devil. 1 John 3:10 speaks of others as “children of the Devil.” 2 Timothy 2:26 speaks of people who are the Devil’s captives and 1 John speaks of others, saying that they are “of the evil one”. And so on.
At first glance we might think that Satan owns people; that they belong to him in some non-relational manner; that somewhere a deal was struck between him and God that if we sinned Satan would get to own us. That’s not the truth at all!
Satan doesn’t actually “father” the sinners mentioned. They aren’t really his “children” nor are they actually his “slaves” that need to be bought from him. These are metaphors! [That’s a tricky word.]
We’re also called “sons of disobedience,” “captives” of sin, and “children of wrath” and even captives to the “law of sin” (Ephesians 2:2-3 and 5:6, Romans 6:6 and 7:25). So, is “disobedience” our “father” is “wrath” our “parent”? Does “the law of sin and death” own us?
None of these “own” us or “father” us. We’re not to turn such speech into literal fact. These are ways of stressing our dire need or helpless condition.
Furthermore, we need to remember that Satan himself is a captive to sin and a child of wrath. He isn’t the lord of Sin. Sin is his lord. He didn’t overthrow Sin. Sin overthrew him. Satan is a fellow-sinner with us.
There is an actual and very real relationship existing between sinners and sin, between sinners and Satan and between sinners in their weakened moral condition. That is not to be denied! We have taken sides against God and joined the ranks of all those that are anti-God, anti-holiness and anti-life. In the New Testament, Satan is regarded as the chief of sinners, the foremost enemy of God, the shrewd Deceiver and Snake but for all that he is just another sinner!
The Devil has no “legal” or “moral” right to own us! We “belong” to him the same way we “belong” to a gang called “The Mad Dogs” that has Jerry Hxystwnp as the chosen leader. He is our “father” only because we choose to mirror his spirit and we’re his “slaves” only as long as we freely choose to serve him. He has no coercive power! (We entirely misread Job 1 & 2 when we think Satan has power over tornadoes, climate and warring armies. Pursue me on that if you wish.)
Once more, Satan is not the lord of Sin nor is he the author of it. If we were to personify sin (as Paul often does) we can envisage a day when Sin walked up to Satan and overthrew him and made him a captive. If Satan dropped stone-dead this minute sin would still continue in us without him! Sin has no objective existence apart from sinners so when we speak this way of sin we need to be careful that we don’t suggest that it has eternally existed in some form or other. The Bible is death on all such forms of Dualism.
When people say we “belong” to Satan because we have sinned they are missing the mark. On what grounds would we ”belong” to him? How does our sinning make us “belong” to him? Why doesn’t he “belong” to us since he has sinned? Why don’t sinners “belong” to other sinners as a result of their sin? God owns us! God alone owns us! We are his offspring and he gives us “life and all things” (Acts 17:25-29). It is “in Him” we have our very existence/being and He is our Father (Acts 17 again). Satan and everyone else exists and continues to exist because God continues to have it so (Revelation 4:11).
Satan has given his name to everything that is anti-God, anti-life and anti-human. Everything! But we, as a human family, became his servants because we chose and continue to choose to be so. (This truth needs developed, of course.)
(Holy One, help us to understand that you and you alone “own” us even though as a family we have walked away from you. Help us to trust you and see your beauty and splendor in the Lord Jesus that more and more we can find joy not only in complete forgiveness in Christ Jesus but in our sorrow for and in our rejection of all that is satanic within us and around us. Help us to understand that He that is in us, He that seeks to bless us is greater in every way than he that would usurp your place in our hearts. This prayer in the “Fairest Lord Jesus”.)
This piece is too long. But I can’t help it.
Barry Reed, a highly respected trial lawyer honored in a number of important ways by his peers died in 2002. He specialized in medical malpractice, retired and wrote The Verdict, which was adapted by David Mamet for the screen and came out in 1982 with Paul Newman playing the lead.
Newman plays Frank Galvin, a lawyer who spirals down to being nothing more than an “ambulance chaser” and his wrestle with alcohol was a major factor in that downward plunge. But he gets a shot at redemption when he is offered a case involving a young woman who is given wrong medical treatment and is now in a permanent vegetative state. The medical people are guilty and clear evidence is offered to prove it but the testimony is stricken due to a genuine legal ruling. It seems clear that like countless millions in various situations down the centuries the stricken girl and her family will be denied justice and it’s at that point Galvin, deeply grieved, offers an emotional but accurate summation to the jury. Hesitant and groping now and then for the right words and recognizing the difficulty facing the jury he says this:
“Well…so much of the time we’re just lost. We say, ‘Please, God, tell us what is right; tell us what is true.’ And there is no justice. The rich win and the poor are powerless. We become…tired of hearing people lie and after a time we become dead, we think of ourselves as victims. We become victims. We become weak. We doubt ourselves, we doubt our beliefs; we doubt our institutions. We doubt the law. But today you are the law. You are the law! Not some book. Not the lawyers. Not a marble statue or the trappings of the court. Those are just symbols of our desire to be just. They are, in fact, a payer, a fervent frightened prayer. In my religion they say, ‘Act as if you had faith and faith will be given to you.’ If we are to have faith, faith in justice we need only to believe in ourselves and act with justice. I believe there is justice in our hearts.” 1
The jury returns and renders a verdict in favor of the patient and her family..
What I find compelling in Galvin’s speech is that the longing for righteousness is not entirely absent from human hearts though as in this movie it isn’t always present—for here the church and the medical fraternity were suppressing it. Jesus would tell you this wasn’t the first time religious people and the powers were united against justice.
Galvin reminds the jury (and us) that the visible structures and written laws bear witness to something deeper. He reminds them (and us) that in a very real sense these things are “a prayer, a very frightened prayer” that our longing for justice will be heard. The structures, the “trappings,” the marble statues and the thousands of law books all speak and they speak falteringly; they speak sometimes poorly and they speak to people who feel helpless and unsure, people who don’t always know what is right or how to bring it about.
Still, in a world, a big round teeming world, where injustice is rampant, where the liars and the powerful hold sway these buildings and judges and trappings and laws continue to protest. And we need to remember that the movie originated in the heart of a real-life Barry Reed and isn’t just a movie—it describes life as it is in this fallen world. And when a movie has the impact that this movie had it’s only an ignorant cynic that dismisses it as having nothing worthwhile to say.
As the visible structures that are part of the judicial system point to something beyond themselves and become a sort of prayer for the best and for what is right so it is that the visible act of Baptism is a profound act of trust and commitment and it’s a prayer that reaches out in trust to Someone who lived, died and lives again for the entire human family. Baptism proclaims and in its very action it images the resurrection of Jesus. In doing that it shouts to an enslaved human family that it has a champion. Baptism says, “The One who lives again and forever is not your enemy; He is the enemy and conqueror of your enemies!”
In Acts 17:30-31 Paul contrasts the years that passed before the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ with what is now revealed about God and he speaks of them as years of ignorance. God had never been concerned only about the welfare of a single nation or a particular group! In Christ who died for all in all the ages we learn that all tyranny in all the nations will be taken into account and dealt with. Victims and oppressors will all be treated with fairness, a righteousness that only God can exercise, a righteousness that’s perfectly imaged in the person of the Lord Jesus. “Look at Him, “ baptism says, “That’s the embodiment of fairness and righteousness that will judge the world.”
And our assurance of that is what? Once more, God assures us that this will take place by raising Jesus Christ from the dead. Every man, woman, boy and girl that rises from the watery grave announces the coming righting of all wrongs! The groaning, anguished world needs to hear that truth—all wrongs will be righted—and God appointed baptism as a witness to that truth.
It’s too easy to reduce this true word about judgment and the entire section to threat and ignore the assurance, the promise, and to leave the impression that God is nothing more than a heavenly legalist. The section is not threat so much as it is assurance for it identifies the one true God who will judge the world in faithfulness and fairness as the giver of life and everything else; it tells us that He gives these because we are His children and because He wishes for us to seek after Him and find Him. Seek after Him guided by His abundant provision, seek after Him and find Him! God wants us to find Him; to find Him!
God loves to be longed for,
He longs to be sought
For he sought us Himself
With such longing and love.
He died for desire of us,
And he yearns for us now
To live with Him in love. 2
All the gods in the world’s ancient and modern marketplaces make their claims and offer their credentials and promises but one of them stands out above all the rest. Other than this one, the rest have kept their distance from the human family, living in myths and in imagination on far away mountains and in “once upon a time” periods—playing games with mankind and feasting as the lords they were imagined to be.
Heinrich Heine died in 1856. He was a highly regarded German-born poet, journalist and literary figure and he wrote about his travels in Travel Pictures. In the book he quotes the Homeric description of the feasting gods and then he imagines and says this:
“Then suddenly approached, panting, a pale Jew with drops of blood on his brow, with a crown of thorns on his head, and a great cross laid on his shoulders; and he threw the cross on the high table of the gods so that the golden cups tottered, and the gods became dumb and pale, and grew even paler till at last they melted away into vapor.” (I wish I’d written that!) He goes on to say this.
“Anyone who sees his god suffering finds it easier to endure his own pain. The merry gods of the past, who felt no pain, did not know either how poor tortured human beings feel, and a poor person in desperation could have no real confidence in them. They were holiday gods; people danced around them merrily, and could only thank them. For this reason they never received whole-hearted love. To receive whole-hearted love one must suffer. Compassion is the last sacrament of love; it may be love itself. Therefore of all the gods who ever lived, Christ is the god who has been loved the most.”3
Paul claimed that the one true God permitted the human family freedom to reject him and go its own way but he left a witness of himself. He didn’t go into a ceaseless divine sulk and rage he continued to do good, to give us sunshine and rain, fruitful seasons and to fill our hearts with gladness.4 And the final proof, the climatic proof, the astonishing truth (hard for some to believe) is Jesus!
We must come to understand that it’s life God offers to the world in Jesus Christ. God isn’t like a vain man or woman who is interested only in being told how wonderful he is; he created humans to love and be loved, to live in righteousness and enjoy life in which warm and gladly expressed righteousness prevails.
Those who have little concern about justice for all haven’t yet understood the mission of God. He is about the forgiveness of sins but He is about humanity and about humanity’s needs; He is about dying but He is about living. When He came to us in and as Jesus Christ He not only forgave, He healed and fed and He called on people to do the same (see Acts 10:38). “Religion” that is not “life” is not the religion God is about. The OT is saturated with the truth that God is profoundly concerned about injustice, the deprivation of people, about their hunger and their needs. Because this is so we hear about Him dismantling national and political structures that abuse and deprive the poor and needy [Ezekiel 16, Daniel 4; Amos 7 illustrate].
How people live and die matters to Him! And one vast and complex aspect of His mission to reconcile the world to Himself and to one another is to bring about life and peace and joy under the kingship of the Lord Jesus Christ!
All our best dreams in our best moments include life that is joy-filled and with reachable opportunities for all that will permit them to grow and love and live in the fullness of life. Our wise reforms smash on the rock of human wickedness. Despite our best efforts in our best and wisest moments horror stories reach us about cruelty, humiliation, slavery and despair that defy adequate description.
Though it is many things baptism is a confession and a prayer. It is a confession that humans cannot cure themselves and that if a warm justice is to prevail God will have to step in and see it is done.5 Baptism is a prayer, sometimes a hesitant prayer, because we humans are so vulnerable and easily frightened by power that’s demonic; but it is a prayer that what is right will triumph because Jesus Christ who is truth and right has triumphed. It’s a prayer based on the truth that He didn’t triumph just for Himself; He didn’t triumph simply to show how much wiser and stronger God is than humans—He triumphed for us—for His human family, for his Father’s children. 6
This truth is an aspect of the gospel! Whatever else we take to humans that live in distant lands or close to home, and live under oppression or in ceaseless deprivation; whatever we take we must take that truth!
Of course we’ll tell them that they too are sinners but we must tell them that God has sent us to tell them that He sees their pain and suffering and that in Jesus He will right all wrongs and will “restore the years that the locusts have eaten.” We need to tell them that and then we need to tell them that God wills it that they join Him in telling this to their family and friends and enemies and nations. God is more than a judge; He is a Savior who is their Father!
And when they go down into the water and rise again they say to all those powers that oppose Christ and his Spirit, “Your day is coming! You think we’re beaten because you enslave, torment and kill us? You’re wrong! You’ve done that with millions of us but one day you did it with one who had your number! In us, in our faith and our living hope He continues to defeat, even now and He’s returning and will obliterate you!” And to all the victims of oppression, all the multiplied millions that have gone down or are going down under the heel of oppressive governments, under unjust laws and systems their baptism says, “You are not forgotten! All wrongs will be righted and life that spills over with life will go on forever!”
[Holy Father, help us to believe in the Son you love and who simply by being Himself is the Judge of the world. We can’t deny that we believe in Him but there are times when we look inward and around and we know with a disappointing certainty that we desperately need you to help us in our unbelief. Now and then and for a while we realize how difficult faith in Him is for those whose lives are one long experience of rejection or ill health or economic oppression or humiliation or loneliness—they hear His name spoken and sung but they know only hurt and loss and a daily trudge toward old age, feebleness and the grave, while the rich and powerful and their content supporters, the lairs and those that manipulate the truth and control the flow of information are blessed. In truth, at times we wonder how anyone can be saved. In our sinfulness we have helped build a world that has become our master, it frightens us and it is too strong for us. We find our faith is fervent within the walls of a place of public worship but find it listless when intimidated by daily life that confuses and hurts us so that we put our trust in power and shrewdness and lies. We remember sometimes that you will gain your eternal loving purpose even if we do not help you but in our hearts we do not wish you to do it without us. Leave us not, continue your patient work with us and trust in us and equip us better for your service. Though we deserve it not, keep us ever near to your heart that ours might find its rhythm in yours. Deliver us from the temptation to make alliances with the gloomy and savage powers of the world as did your People in ancient times and if need be rip away all the props we use to support ourselves and leave us with no option to but to trust in you through Him. Help your Church to remember our Baptism and to daily live its message that poor tortured suffers might hear and be drawn to trust and to live in vibrant hope because of Jesus Christ. This prayer in the Lord Jesus.]
- I’m well aware that that speech will offend many serious church-going people who might mutter, “Humanism.” But I’m not interested at this point in discussing the weaknesses of the “theology” in the speech. I wish only to say before moving on that God does not bring justice about by magic. And he does not bring it about solely through people who have a perfectly worded theology. He does it through flawed humans; humans that are not so flawed that they can’t recognize and long for social justice in this world; humans that God has helped to so shape whether they know it or not and sometimes—as in the situation in view—they that are able to see that it’s done. In this book/movie he does it through a jury of twelve ordinary people.
- The closing verse [last line slightly adapted] of F.W. Faber’s great poem, The Desire of God. Easily found online.
- Archipelago Books, 2008, translation by Peter Wortsman, page 174. 4. Acts 14:15-17
- Baptism calls Christians to live life now in the image of Jesus Christ who is the embodiment of the fullness of life in the final unveiling of kingdom life. We’re not given the right to yawn and say God will make the difference when he comes so noting is asked of us.
- & 6 See Acts 17:23-29
The KJV and others render John 1:36, “Behold the lamb of God.” The NIV and some others render it, “Look, the lamb of God.” Look works, of course, but behold works better. In Revelation 21:5 we hear that he who sat on the throne said (KJV), “Behold, I make all things new.” The NIV renders it, “Look, I make all things new.” Again, look works but behold works better.
If people in the kitchen are searching for the salt and someone finds it, he might say, “Look, the salt!” Unless he means to be amusing he won’t say, “Behold, the salt!” The word look would work if he wanted people to know he had found the salt but behold wouldn’t. Why is that?
We know the word behold doesn’t work for the very ordinary, the very familiar. It’s a word we’d reserve for something grand, something out of the ordinary; it’s a word we’d tend to associate with pageantry and the blowing of trumpets, with something wondrous. It has, for perfectly good reasons, an old English sound because that’s what it is—an old English word that has dropped out of use because people have lost something of the sense of wonder and if you lose that then you have no use for the speech of wonder. And it works in a vicious circle for part of the reason we have lost the sense of wonder at life is because we cheapen it with speech that cheapens it. You only have to think of the long list of tasteless slang used for the lovemaking between two who love one another. So many words that have dropped out of common use and we’re the poorer for it. I’m glad that some versions have had the good sense and good taste to retain the word behold.
It’s a word that promises the looker something mezmerizing if he looks. Behold, says the King who sits on the throne, as he draws attention to a glorious renewing of the entire creation. Behold, says John and focuses their attention on something, on someone, more wondrous than the entire creation—the Lamb of God! Behold said the angel of God to the trembling shepherds when he came to announce the arrival of the Messiah, the incarnate Son of God.
It doesn’t matter that the human family didn’t understand; it doesn’t matter that the human family still doesn’t understand the reality and nature of its misery, the depth of its alienation from the Holy Father or the cure for it. Voices here and there with some sense of it all have asked the questions for us. We’ve always sensed that something was wrong and Dwight and Adams spoke the truth about us and for us when they wrote something we could sing and confess: “Long lay the world in sin and error pining/ till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.” There is a great multitude of us that has felt and do now feel a desperate need for some assurance outside ourselves that our souls are worth something, for we can’t find that assurance in ourselves.
It isn’t only that we find us doing outrageous again and again; it’s more than that, but not less. Many of us, beyond the outrageous, see our lives as pathetic, weak, inglorious—lives with nothing we feel worthy to bring and lay at the feet of our Savior as a gift. We aren’t seeking to earn His favor, we seek only to please Him but unlike the Magi the things we have to offer Him and have offered Him are shabby, threadbare, pitiful. Sigh
This is true not only of individuals—it’s true of the human family as a single family. We’ve tried everything to bring peace and satisfaction to ourselves. We’ve murdered our brothers as Cain did, we’ve cheapened marriage as Lamech did, we abandoned ourselves to self-actualization, swore we’d build towers and glorify ourselves by ourselves and our masterful skills and we’ve armed ourselves to steal and keep what we grabbed. We’re still doing it—aren’t we!
Then every now and then (wouldn’t you hope?) the awful realization of the depths of evil to which we can plunge and have plunged fills us with self-loathing and we thought ourselves—God’s creation, God’s children—we thought ourselves unworthy of His redemption. We heard Him say, “After you’ve done all you were asked to do, consider yourselves unworthy servants,” and completely misunderstood what He meant.
His Bethlehem arrival to rescue us showed that God thought more of us than we thought of ourselves. He said, “You’re worth it to me!”
One day God visited the ancient city of Ur not far from the river Euphrates and knocked on a door.
“You Abram?” he said to the man who answered.
“I am sir, and who are you?” the man asked.
“For now, just call me El Shaddai.”
“And what is it you want, sir?”
“I want you to come with me, you and your wife. I want to save a
world and I want you to help me.”
Then one day God sent Abraham on a three-day ride with his future riding beside him, his future embodied in a boy called Isaac. They got to the place and the boy asked, “I see the wood and the fire, but where is the lamb?” His faith-filled father said God would provide and so the question became, “Where is the lamb of God?” Now there was a ”lamb” (ram) that kept Isaac from death and God assured Abraham that He thought highly of sinful but faithful Abraham (Hebrews 11: 16) and that He too was faithful to the human family through the faithful old man.
Then later came a fearful night when God strode into Egypt and thundered on Pharaoh’s door demanding that the king let his son Israel go and Pharaoh refused. He continued to refuse until one awful night when an angel of death visited every home in the land of Egypt and spared only the homes of those who took shelter under the blood of lambs. Now there was a lamb that redeemed Israel from death and enabled them to begin their journey to a promised land. This Passover lamb too bore witness to God’s faithfulness to Israel and their father Abraham.
And on another day a psalmist called the nations of the world to sing God’s praises. Notice how he puts it:1
O praise the LORD, all ye nations: praise him, all ye people.
For his merciful kindness is great toward us: and the truth of
the LORD endureth for ever. Praise ye the LORD.
He calls the entire human family to sing God’s praises because he was good to Israel—“to us.” But why should the non-Jewish nations sing praise to God because he is good to Israel?
Because this psalmist knew that a God so great and so generous as Israel’s God would be good also to the entire human family He created.
If in His goodness He would deal with sinful Israel’s need, in keeping with His promise to Abraham, He would deal with the need of all the nations in keeping with His promise to Abraham concerning “all the families of the earth.” 2
The question, “Where is the lamb of God?” became, “Where is the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world?”
The Baptist having witnessed Jesus fully identifying Himself with His sinful Israelite family by being baptized with a baptism meant for them and having seen the Spirit of God descend on Him later points Him out and says: “Behold, the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world!”
Was that a sight or not? Do you “look” at Him or do you “Behold” such a one?
Sometime when you’re able, sometime when you’re alone and nothing else is demanding your attention, sit down, dismiss the talk of the preachers (sometimes Jesus is hidden under our talk—too much talk, too much “explanation”) and behold Him; envision and take a long lingering, thoughtful look at the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world—yours and mine included.
(1) Psalm 117
(2) Genesis 12:3: 22:18; 28:13-14; Psalm 67:1-5
Stan Cunningham’s father Joe died (11-19-2017). Stan and Linda brought him to their home to spend his final days. I watched him slowly dying, getting ready to make his way to the Holy Father as the Lord Jesus Christ did, through suffering. He lay upstairs for more than a month lovingly attended to by these two, with good support at needy times from attentive and kind medical people.
I’ve watched this happening repeatedly in the last couple of months and it reminded me again of the bankrupt nature of religious lecturing that’s so often offered as a substitute for constant gospeling. “Gospely” words spoken in subdued and pious tones close to the end are themselves a judgment on our month after month and year after year lecturing fashion. That judgment remains sharp even when the “gospely”words are sincere.
No one lists the towns of Paul’s missionary journeys under the above conditions. No one wants to explain “the qualifications of deacons” at such a place. And how pathetic and tragic is it when those who ceaselessly offer some version of the “health & wealth now” story whisper their parting words to the sufferer rather than the public “religion of the healthy mind” they peddle.
The throbbing center of the Christian faith, the heart of the Gospel is God Himself. He makes Himself present via the foundational truth of the Bible’s message and the embodiment of that divine presence in lives lived before us. GOD is the Gospel and it is the Gospel that is “able to build us up and give us an inheritance among all those that are sanctified” (Acts 20:32). It isn’t a Bible God gives us! He gives Himself in giving us the truth He tells about Himself! That’s how He makes himself present in us and to us. It isn’t information He wishes to give us—it’s Himself via the transformative information (truth) He gives us. Bible texts are no substitute for an absent God, they are the way GOD makes Himself present.
It’s long past time when we try to “prepare the dear sufferer for his/her death” with some pious words about “the more important matters.” The business of those who are called to minister for GOD is to help prepare us for life and if they purpose to be faithful to that calling and have the wisdom enough to know the difference between “gospel” and the rehearsal of interesting material that we can live and die well without knowing, they will constantly gospel to us from behind pulpits or lecterns.
I don’t say they can do it flawlessly! I don’t expect that they would! But it’s GOD people like me need—not just any old God; the God of the Bible, the God of historical reality, the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, the God who entered, actually and historically, into the human situation as Jesus of Nazareth. We need teachers to take us seriously and speak constantly to us the world creating word of Truth in and through which GOD makes Himself present.
(Holy One, come to our aid that we might come to the aid of others that life might become life, here and now and that then we will understand that those who believe on your Holy Son do not die. John 6:50; 11:26, your truth-filled claim. This prayer in Jesus our Savior.)
(God’s salvation in Christ is more than forgiveness! Dear God, we want more than forgiveness!)
It’s true we get back to business as usual after hearing another story of the awful evil in the world—we’ve no alternative; we can’t stand permanently stunned; life must go on. Still, don’t we adjust quickly after the initial shock at the report of some truly savage event? Yes, we do, but just the same, maybe it’s strange that we’re shocked at all. Wouldn’t you think that history ancient and modern, the daily news from all the media—wouldn’t you think these would have made us shockproof? There’s something amazing about that. There’s something else that’s astonishing—it’s God’s amazing patience and trust in humans.
As soon as I wrote that last sentence I thought how startled or angry many people would be if they read it. Some would think he’s an idiot if he trusts us and some would rage against him (presuming he even exists); they’d say his patience is at humanity’s expense; they’d say his patience isn’t a virtue—it’s a crime! They’d say it isn’t God who is patient; it’s humans. They’d think of Edwin Markham’s words:
Two things, said Kant, fill me with awe
The starry heaven and the moral law.
But I know something more mysterious and obscure
The long, long, patience of the plundered poor.
That truly makes sense to me! A quick glance at history and that makes sense to me; at a national and an individual level that makes sense to me. If things are anywhere nearly as bad as they appear how can Christians, with straight faces and pious songs, go on speaking about God’s trust and patience? There’s no simple answer to that question—there may be a correct answer to it (and I believe there is), but it’s not a simple one; it’s profoundly complex and richly textured but there is one and it climaxes in someone called Jesus Christ who saw the world not only as it is but as it should be and as it will be. Well, that’s what he said; but of course, the question is, “Can we believe him?”
Humans, whether they believe in God or not can’t help but feel that there ought to be someone. The atheist H.J. Blackham confessed that for him the greatest argument against non-belief was not a rational argument—it was that it was “too bad to be true!” What is demonstrably false should be acknowledged as false—humans get that! They do! But if a proposal is one of cosmic and unyielding despair, if it’s too bad to be true, people don’t want to believe it and that means if there’s something, some story, some argument, some event that defies unyielding despair they’ll go for it. If it’s in anyway reasonable and suggests that non-belief with its pointlessness (Blackham again) is too bad to be true, then distressed humans will take sides with it. They’ll go for God—they’ll go for a God like Jesus Christ if they get the chance to hear about him. They’ll go for such a God even if they don’t understand why he doesn’t now step in to right all wrongs and obliterate agony that tempts millions to curse existence itself. They’ll settle for a promise if that promise has any foundation to rest on rather than settle for the arguments that support atheism with its despair and pointlessness message.
“There’s an answer,” they will insist, “there must be” and the words of some alleged wise man or woman aren’t enough to bury their longing to believe that there is right and wrong; and if they know that then maybe there is Someone who knows it also. In their best moments they know this too: though they know the job is far beyond human accomplishment, they’d fix everything even if it took a thousand lifetimes and if they would maybe there’s someone who will, someone who’s able; someone who cares at least as much as they do.
Let someone (Jesus Christ) come to them to tell them that what they feel down in their bones is true, that what they want to be true is indeed true and humans in their millions will believe his Story. (Do humans embrace lies in the face of demonstrable truth to the contrary? Of course! But they also embrace truth in the face of a life full or a world full of plausible, persuasive lies.)
Look what happened to Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote. It was written as a fierce protest against overly-romantic literature about chivalry and knightly conduct all dressed up in clothing too unreal. His central character is plainly a lunatic who makes a mockery of outlandish literary knights. But somehow in the great mystery of humanness the novel took on a life of its own and it has become one of the Western world’s greatest literary forces promoting chivalry and knightly behavior and making it desirable. The literary argument against chivalry becomes its greatest champion. He makes us want to be Don Quixote—a sane one, of course, but in our best moments we’d rather be the lunatic than all his sane critics who want to cure him!
I offer the observations not as proof that atheism is false, only that no one wants atheism’s pointlessness, only that atheism will always be a minority view and that to even stay alive it will continue to feed on food from the Hebrew—Christian Scriptures, as agnostic T.H. Huxley said it did.
On his quest to right all wrongs or die in the process, Don Quixote, Cervantes’ glorious madman, comes across a self-hating, man-hating and world-hating scullery maid working in an inn where the flagrantly immoral and cynical traders gather.* She’s a self-confessed prostitute, used, abused and sneered at by her patrons.
When he sees her and calls her Dulcinea and “fair virgin” the heartless users laugh out loud and she is doubly embarrassed—not only does she know better, her vile companions know it only too well—”Dulcinea indeed; fair virgin” indeed! Nevertheless, in that woman who calls herself a whore and a slut he sees beauty and honor and denies what she and they say about her and claims he knows her better than she knows herself. “I have dreamed thee too long…I see heaven when I see thee Dulcinea…I have sought thee, sung thee, visioned thee.” He sees her this way because he sees woman that way—he sees woman as the “soul of man.” His lunacy is lovelier than the sanity of the world he moves in!
On the night when he is keeping vigil, believing that in the morning he is to be dubbed a knight he is alone and speaks to himself: “Don Quixote, take a deep breath of life and consider how it should be lived.”
Call nothing thine except thy soul
Love not what thou art,
Only what thou may become.
Do not pursue pleasure
Or thou mayest have the misfortune to overtake it.
Look always forward.
In last year’s nests, there are no birds this year.
Be just to all men, courteous to all women.
Live in the vision of the one for whom great deeds are done, Dulcinea.
She, coming up behind him, snaps, “Why do you call me by that name?”
Because it is yours.
My name is Aldonza
I know you milady
I think you know me not
All my years I have known you, your nobility of spirit, long have I seen you in my heart.
Why do you do these things? These ridiculous things you do?
I come in a world of iron to make a world of gold.
The world’s a dung heap and we are maggots that crawl on it.
No, milady knows better in her heart.
What’s in my heart will get me halfway to hell and you…your head is going to end up a stranger to your neck.
That doesn’t matter…only that I follow the quest.
[She spits] That for your quest. (Then) What’s this “quest”?
The mission of each true knight is duty; nay, is privilege
[and at this point he sings The Impossible Dream].
Later Aldonza is dragged off, used and dumped. Don Q turns up and swears the crime will be punished and she snarls back:
Crime? Do you know the worst crime of all? To be born!
For that you get punished your whole life.
Dulcinea!—Quixote says to her..
Enough of that! Get yourself to a madhouse!
Rave about nobility where no one can hear.
Milady. he says.
I’m not your lady!
I’m not any kind of a lady.
A lady has virtue and maidenly airs
That a blind man could see that I lack
It’s hard to develop these maidenly airs
In a stable laid flat on your back.
Won’t you look at me, look at me
God won’t you look at me?
Look at the kitchen slut reeking of sweat
Born on a dung heap to die on a dung heap
A strumpet men use and forget.
“Never deny that you are Dulcinea,” Quixote says and she snarls back,
Take the shades from your eyes and see me as I really am.
You have shown me the sky but what good is the sky
To a creature who’ll never do better than crawl?
Of all the cruel villains who badgered and battered me
You are the cruelest of all.
Can’t you see what your gentle insanities do to me?
Rob me of anger and give me despair
Blows and abuse I can take and give back again
Tenderness I cannot bear.
So torture me now with your sweet Dulcineas no more
I am no one, I am nothing
I’m only Aldonza the whore!
Don Quixote is robbed of his insane vision by the lords of the mirrors. They take his eyes off his glorious quest and make him look closely at himself with his pathetic appearance and too obvious limitations and make him see “the world as it is” rather than the world as it should and could be. With the loss of vision he sinks back into agedness, weakness, illness and pointlessness.
But one convert, one genuine convert changes everything; one Aldonza reborn as a Dulcinea restores his blessed insanity and in one he sees ten and in ten he sees a hundred and in a hundred he sees a thousand and in a thousand he sees a world. They called him mad because he refused to keep his eyes focused on the world “as it is”
We need to keep in mind that this book was written as a satire, a withering criticism of outlandish and unrealistic literature and look what happened. Year after year it remains at the top of the list of history’s greatest novels.
Why do famous painters like Picasso link Don Quixote with Jesus of Nazareth? Why after we’ve brushed aside the silliness in the “knight of the woeful countenance” do we still want to be like him?
There’s something in the character we know as Don Quixote that makes us think of Christ. He turns out to be the hero, while we despise the men of abuse and are thrilled at the transformation of Aldonza. He rescues her not only from any band of men who would buy or rape her—he rescues her from her self-hatred that results in the hatred of all men and the hatred of life itself.
But how does such a thing happen? I mean in literature and in life? In the case of Quixote and Aldonza an insane man sees beauty and dignity and decency in a woman who knows it isn’t there; but he makes her want it to be there! He makes such a life desirable and though he fills her with agony and though what he sees is at war with everything she thinks and feels and robs her of the energy that rage brings, she wants to be the vision he sees rather than the one she sees when she looks in the mirror.
Yes, but how does it happen? It’s a great question but while we’re working on the lovely mystery we ought to acknowledge the reality of such transformations and thank God for them.
(I’ve taken this material from Dale Wasserman’s stage play adapted as a musical movie called The Man of La Mancha. The music and lyrics are from Joe Darian and Mitch Leigh. The movie could easily have been better made but I think it is one of those “must see” creations.)
Jesus was brought up in Nazareth and He moved to Capernaum (“the village of Nahum ”) and it became a center of His ministry. There He became noted as a teacher and a healer (Luke 4:16, 23) and it was there that He was stunned by a pagan. Twice in the New Testament we’re told that Jesus was astonished and in both cases it had to do with faith.
Luke 7:1-10 (see also Matthew 11:5-10) tells us of a foreigner, a Roman officer, who despite being a part of the forces of occupation loved Israel and honored them and as a consequence he was esteemed by the Jewish leaders.
He had a servant he really cared for and that servant was very ill so the foreigner sent Jewish people to ask a favor of this young Jewish prophet. He wanted him to heal the sick man and Jesus was on his way to do just that. Before Christ got to the house the soldier sent word that he didn’t mean for Jesus to come to his house, only that he speak and the healing would be done. The soldier said he knew what authority was. He had soldiers under him and he himself was under others. When he or his superiors spoke the response was immediate–the order was carried out. He saw it as sufficient that Jesus simply command the disease to leave and it would.
Luke 7:9 tells us that Jesus was amazemed and turned to the crowd saying He hadn’t seen faith like that in His own nation. We’ve become accustomed to the idea that Jesus wept, became angry or was tender, that He was moved with compassion and pity but is there not something astonishing about Jesus being astonished? How did He look when He heard what the centurion had to say? What registered on His face? More important, what are the implications in the fact that He was astonished at the man’s great faith?
It implies that something utterly unexpected had happened, doesn’t it? But what are the implications in that? Did Jesus not see Himself or His Father as worthy of such trust? No, that wasn’t the problem, He knew they were worthy. What astonished Him then? We can guess about the man’s pagan raising and that he was living in a town that Jesus cursed for its arrogance and hard heart (Matthew 11:23-24). Maybe that enters into it. Be that as it may, whatever the man’s past or present environment, it’s clear that Jesus thought it astonishing that such faith could be found in such a person. And that should remind us that it isn’t always easy to believe or to believe with deep conviction. If believing and believing profoundly were as simple as hearing the gospel there would be no reason to be astonished. Exodus 6:7 reminds us of that.
That’s what’s so fine about Jesus Christ. That’s what leads millions to not only love Him but to like and admire Him. He just blurts out His pleasure when He meets up with something glorious and weeps His heart out when He meets something tragic. There’s an openness about Him that while it makes Him vulnerable to His enemies makes Him adorable to those with eyes to trust Him.
Neither Matthew nor Luke gives us a psychological study of Christ on this occasion but it’s not hard to see and sense His joy. “Can you beat that?” we can hear Him say to the following crowd. We understand very well that faith is God’s work in us but it isn’t coercive work; the believer is not turned into a mindless being, he or she must personally and freely give themselves in the process. And people can choose not to believe (see Mark 6:6). When we come across a believer we come across someone who has gladly allowed God to have His way with them.
All of that’s plain enough but still, Jesus was astonished! Given the norm, this man shouldn’t have that faith. Imagine Jesus with his eyes shining, turning to the centurion (compare Matthew 8:13 ), smiling and saying, “How’d you do that?” We can easily imagine the centurion saying, “Oh, sir, we both know that God accomplishes all such things in us.” Christ would totally agree but He is still mesmerized at a lovely human response.
We’ve met people who were raised and continue to live in horrendous circumstances and there they are, up to their hearts in trust. And I don’t find it difficult in the least to imagine Christ with joyful astonishment on His face looking at them and saying, “How’d you do that?”
Here’s to all you “centurions” who provoke in God’s chosen people a godly jealousy and a Christlike astonishment.