Fidelity in the Dark
I am constantly amazed by the poets’ ability to capture facets of human experience. Recently, Emily Dickinson caught my attention with her poem “The Duel”:
I took my power in my hand
And went against the world;
‘T was not so much as David had,
But I was twice as bold.
I aimed my pebble, but myself
Was all the one that fell.
Was it Goliath was too large,
Or only I too small?1
Two of Dickinson’s phrases captured my attention: “I took my power in my hand…” and “I aimed my pebble, but myself/Was all the one that fell.”
On the one hand, we join the opening of a conquest – not necessarily an easy conquest, but one with the expectation of success. On the other, our abrupt realization of failure. As the pebble’s impact settles in, a haunting question remains, “Were the opposing forces too great, or our strength and efforts too small?” Following close on that question’s heels, “How are we supposed to effect change when the forces of evil are too strong for us to win?”
Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and the history of Middle Earth in general, illuminates the path to our answers.
Among the valuable lessons in Middle Earth is the reminder that the battle between Good and Evil does not always appear to end well for the good. Galadriel’s words ring true to experience: “…your Quest stands upon the edge of a knife. Stray but a little and it will fail, to the ruin of all.”2 Gandalf falls in Moria. Aragorn watches the Fellowship break up. During the First Age, the Elves fight a losing battle against Morgoth. The message is clear – our strength and effort cannot ensure victory.
At the same time, we also get glimpses of someone else working just beyond our range of vision. Gandalf perhaps does the best job communicating these glimpses: “Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.”3
Both of these facets converge neatly in the story of Joseph’s life. While the whole is worth reading, the thoughts most to our point gather concisely in Genesis 50:19-21:
“But Joseph said to them, ‘Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.’ Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them” (Genesis 50:19-21 ESV).4
This summation of Joseph’s life presents us three aspects to consider:
- Lack of Control – This is another way of saying that, yes, bad things do happen to good people. The easy assumption is that the pain was avoidable, that, practically speaking, we are responsible for the pain and evil we are suffering through. Sometimes this is the case – but not always. Or, as Gandalf puts it, “I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.”5
- God is in Control – This is a corollary to the first point. Neither Joseph nor you and I have complete control over our lives because that is God’s role. To paraphrase Gandalf, the Rings in our lives were meant to be. Notice further though, that suffering placed in Joseph’s life was not there solely for Joseph’s benefit – God’s purposes stretched beyond Joseph. This is a point of humility for us – we should not assume our life circumstances are centered around us and our benefit. Instead, we need to recognize that God’s reasons for what is happening stretch beyond us.
- Take Action – Despite everything that happens to him, Joseph pursues the next step. These steps all follow God’s directions for everyday life: obey your master, care for those around you, provide for your family. Discerning our immediate responsibilities should accompany recognition of God’s overarching responsibility.
These thoughts are mirrored in a conversation between Frodo and Gandalf:
“‘I am not made for perilous quests. I wish I had never seen the Ring! Why did it come to me? Why was I chosen?’
‘Such questions cannot be answered,’ said Gandalf. ‘You may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess: not for power or wisdom, at any rate. But you have been chosen, and you must therefore use such strength and heart and wits as you have.'”6
The assessment of Frodo’s strength is accurate – and is often an accurate assessment of our situation. Generally, we are not up to the struggles before us. On top of that, life often seems to deal us a bad hand. However, this does not change our call to use the strength we do have in pursuit of our next step. Simultaneously, we should remind ourselves of God’s overall control. The call to put everything into tackling our tasks is not a call to muscle up and complete them on our own. It is a call to fidelity – to recall who our Lord is, trust in His provision, and follow His directions.
How do you determine when it is time to rest when it is time to work?
How do you determine whether an ambitious task is God’s call vs. your pride’s call?
View Sources 1 Emily Dickinson. Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson (Avenel: Gramercy Books, 1982), 55. 2 John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993), 376. 3 Ibid, 69. 4 Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved. 5 Tolkien, 1068. 6 Ibid, 74-75.
1 Emily Dickinson. Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson (Avenel: Gramercy Books, 1982), 55.
2 John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993), 376.
3 Ibid, 69.
4 Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
5 Tolkien, 1068.
6 Ibid, 74-75.