on looking out in despair

You remember that scene in Return of the King where Denethor pines over the mortally-wounded Faramir? He thinks his biggest problem is that his son is dead and his line extinguished, but he walks to the edge of the cliff and sees that it’s much worse: the host of Mordor is at the gates and he’s had no idea. And so he despairs, telling his soldiers “Flee! Flee for your lives!”

I had a Denethor moment the other day. Now a group of young men in my church including myself have kept in contact with each other to pursue purity and fight the addictive power of pornography. Things go up and down, some weeks are better than others, but we’re weak and broken guys really, and it seems that all too often we have more failures to admit and sins to confess than tales of triumph to tell.

Which got me thinking, after a few weeks of long nights at work: while there’s a lot we can do to encourage each other – in terms of prayer, reminding each other of the beauty of Jesus, taking proactive steps to stop each other and check up on each other – if we’re honest, there’s also a lot out there that is beyond proactivity, and seemingly beyond prayer.

You see, the whole culture we live in is against us. I’m not just talking about consumerism, individualism, the commodification of sex, or the hypersexualised nature of just about everything around us today; I’m talking about things as simple as work and home. When we work these days, so many of us work ourselves to the bone. We regularly flay ourselves to within an inch of our lives. It’s soul-killing, mind-numbing stuff, day in, day out, for weeks or months on end. And our homes: often we’ve turned our homes not into a safe, nurturing environment that gives life, but rather a temple to ourselves, where we can let our hair down, do what we want, do what we don’t really want other people to know about. And the way we work ourselves to death encourages this. When we go home, of course we just want to unwind and have everything to ourselves. If we’ve spent hours slaving away of course we want comfort. We don’t want to resist temptation – not if we’ve been fighting and striving all day long.

It was a Denethor moment. Here we’d been looking at prayer and proactive steps and I now thought that this is impossible, because things go way deeper than that. What can we do? The entire system is rotten. What on earth can get us out of this save for withdrawing to some Christian ghetto, or taking to the desert or the top of a pillar like the old church fathers? Flee for your lives!

So I shared this with a friend of mine. I asked “what are we going to do? The cards are stacked so high!”

But then came the Gandalf to my Denethor. He asked me back, “when have the cards not been stacked high against God’s people?”

God made his promised seed hinge on a desiccated old man and his old wife.

God rescued his people from Egypt not through a mighty army but through the agency of a convicted murderer-turned nomadic shepherd.

God planned his salvation and restoration of the world not through a shining beacon of civilisation, but through a tiny nation that was half a generation away from slavery.

God told his people to assault mighty Jericho not with siegeworks but by marching around it, bearing the inhabitants’ jeers, for seven days. Then blowing on their trumpets real hard.

God rescued his people from the numberless host of the Midianites through the smallest fry possible – Gideon. And when the man assembled an army that could be just about described as pitiful, God made him send most of them home.

God sent against the dread champion Goliath not an army or even an army of one, but a slight boy with a bit of cord and a rock.

When God wanted to show his power through the prophet Elijah, he sent fire down from heaven. But not before inspiring the man to drench the sacrificial offering three times – the thing was halfway to becoming soup before the fire rained down.

God had promised to deliver the world through Israel, through a future saviour from the House of David – and yet he sent his vessel of salvation into exile. For all intents and purposes this vessel seemed consigned to the rubbish heap of history.

And when God brought about his final triumph over the sin that kills his people, he did it not through legions of angels or fire from heaven, but through a man. A man who who’d grown up as a carpenter, spent the final three years of his life as a homeless preacher, and in the final few hours of his life was naked, bleeding and bruised beyond recognition. And God allowed the grave to swallow him up.

And this man Jesus built his Church not on educated, qualified teachers. He chose small-town fishermen, an ex-crook and a reformed terrorist – these were later joined by a man who not only looked utterly unimpressive but had spent most of his former life throwing Jesus’ followers in prison. Almost all of them were killed while the Church was still young, scattered and disunited.

So my friend’s point was this: when our sinfulness and the world’s brokenness seem impossible, the answer is not to despair, but neither is it to try harder or commit more. It’s to remember our God. The cards are always stacked high against his people; and if they’re not high enough God sometimes stacks them even higher. But that’s the kind of God we serve. He has never backed down from showing us that he has the authority and power, never allowed anything to get in the way of his redemption.

We may see the depth of our sin and want to give up. But when that happens, when we want to despair, we remember our risen King. Jesus’ victory over sin is ours too! And won despite the fact that he was dead, but is now alive – the cards don’t get stacked higher than that.

So of course, let’s try to work in the culture to redeem it. Let’s work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Let’s do our best and fight our hardest to resist temptation. Let’s not stop praying, encouraging each other and working on practical steps. But we do that not because our efforts might just pay off (because they won’t, not in and of themselves and not in the long run) but because of who Jesus is, because he stands righteous for us, because he is bigger than all of our sins past, present and future. The God who saw his Son through the grave and then glorified him promises us that same victory over sin and death; not an easy way through – not if the history of his people is any indication – but victory. Victory!

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