As we walk through 2020, it can feel at times as though things could not get worse in our society or our world. You may be experiencing this on an external level, depressed by the direction of our culture, the political battles, the pandemic, living in the midst of a partial societal shutdown. You may also be experiencing this internally – affected by grief, by the loss or restriction of interaction with friends and families, the removal of familiar routines and hobbies, the constant temptation and burden of your own sins, etc. It can be quite tempting to curl up into a ball and rock back and forth until such a time as the sun comes out from the clouds, the riots and election are past, and COVID is defanged.
Consider a snapshot from Middle Earth (if Lord of the Rings is not your pint of ale, as it were, feel free to skip this paragraph). One of the things I have most enjoyed about 2020 is reading through Lord of the Rings with my wife once our three little ones are asleep. We have finally made it to The Return of the King, which is one of my favorite books of all time. Early in the book there is a beautiful scene where Pippin, one of the pint-sized hobbits, has just arrived in the stronghold of Minas Tirith. He is gazing across the plains at the mountains of Mordor, wherein dwells the full strength of the evil Sauron. Pippin, overcome by the enormity of the battle before them and their long, long odds of success, cowers in fear. He remains so for some time before eventually regaining composure and encouraging himself with these words: “No, my heart will not yet despair. Gandalf fell and has returned and is with us. We may stand, if only on one leg, or at least be left still upon our knees.” Pippin’s hope rests not upon the strength of their armies, or the courage of their hearts – for he knew such things to not be sufficient – rather he finds hope in a transformed Gandalf, who has come back from the dead.
This scene struck me with regards to our Christian call to respond to the overwhelming circumstances of this life by looking beyond them to the crucified and risen Christ. Tolkien may not have been trying to write a Christian allegory, but in moments like this the Christian reader can no doubt draw important parallels to their own life circumstances. So long as we focus upon the circumstances and struggles of this life, despair is the best outlook, and we will sink like Peter as he noticed the waves (Matthew 14:30). We must draw our gaze away from these things and focus our attention to something even more powerful than the decay of society, the grip of sin, and the schemes of the devil. Pippin finds solace and strength to stand even in the face of evil because of a powerful being come back from the pit; we find solace and strength to stand because of a Savior who has died and rose again.
Here is where the illustration breaks down. We should not simply say “Christ died and is with us therefore let us have hope.” Rather, we rest upon the sure and certain truth that by His death He has defeated our enemies – sin, death, and the Devil. While we may not feel the reality of it yet, the destruction of all these foes is certain. Yet unlike Gandalf, our Lord Jesus is not “with us” in His physical presence, rather He has ascended into Heaven. He left us, in order that He could send us His Spirit, which He declared as being an even better situation than if He were to still be with us physically (John 16:7)! Although absent physically, He is doing greater work on our behalf; He is our Great High Priest representing us to God while preparing for us that new and eternal City and glorious New Creation promised in His Word (John 14:2-3, Revelation 21-22).
How then can we stand firm in the face of despair and amidst the difficult circumstances of this life? I do not write this from an ivory tower. My wife and I are little more than a week removed from a miscarriage, one which left us awash in a greater grief than either of us had ever known. For comfort, I have taken my cues from Scripture. Whatever your struggles may be, I invite you to look with me to Christ, remembering that since we are His disciples, we should expect nothing less than to walk the path that He walked (Matthew 10:24-25). His way was the way of suffering in this life, only then followed by eternal glory (Philippians 2:1-11).
In closing, I take great encouragement from how Paul constantly points to this identification with Christ as he considers the suffering of this life, saying in Romans 8:18, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” Perhaps this perspective is best summed up in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18, which after Paul considered the trials he had endured concludes thus: “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”
So, when you are tempted to despair, when your situation looks bleak and it feels like sin and death have won out, gaze upon the crucified, risen, and triumphant Jesus, in view of whom all the difficulties of our lives are re-cast as transient “light and momentary troubles.” Remember that He is with you by His Spirit as you walk His path of suffering, a path whose end is to be with Christ in glory. This is the only way I know to stand firm in the midst of overwhelming times.