Musing from Middle-Earth

Suppose that you live in Middle Earth and you’re an elf. But you’re not just any elf: you’re an elf with a secret. You know a secret that none of the orcs know:

You know that they can, all of them, be changed back into elves.

So you walk right up to a cannibalistic, cruel, disgusting orc and you say,

“You can be an elf again.”

What do you supposed the response would be?

Well, you could certainly be attacked. Most orcs wouldn’t want to change. And most of them would think you were out of your mind to be coming over to their war camp with such strange news.

But . . not all of them would feel this way. There would be a few who would actually question you to find out what you meant.

Suppose one asked you, “How do you know?”

And suppose you said, “Because I used to be an orc.”

.         .         .         .         .         .

This is what happens when saved sinners share the Gospel.

Published in: on August 4, 2014 at 2:03 pm  Leave a Comment  
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From elf to orc to elf

“Do you know how the Orcs first came into being? They were Elves once, taken by the dark powers. Tortured and mutilated . . a ruined and terrible form of life.” –Saruman, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring by New Line Cinema. [1]

If you want to know the first half of your story, J.R.R. Tolkien had it about right.

Elves. Beautiful, immortal, flawless.

We were like that once.

If that were where the story ended, the Happily Ever After would follow straight after the Once Upon a Time. But . . it isn’t. Between the two lies the biggest catastrophe of human history.

We were taken in by the dark power. Satan, to be exact. Oh yes, he tricked Eve, sabotaged Adam . . and within the halls of time became the worst memory of all:

The fall.

But what happened next is something so unexpected, not even the great J.R.R. Tolkien could capture it in his stories.

The orc . . had the chance to once again . . become elf.

It’s as though time unwinds. The torture, the mutilation, the ruined and terrible life . . all play backwards, like a movie on rewind. And suddenly, we’re back at the beginning, beautifully, stunningly standing in the Garden of Eden once more.

This is what it means to be redeemed.

To go from elf to orc . . to elf.

This is the story of everyone who has ever believed the sacrifice of Christ has the power to change you back into who you were created to be.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.
 (2 Corinthians 5:17, ESV)

__________________________________

[1] Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, New Line Cinema.  Screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson.  Based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s book, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

Why Earth is better than Middle-Earth

I recognize there might be a danger in titling this blog thusly.  I’m hoping I don’t find an angry group of LOTR fans armed with swords and bow & arrows in my driveway tomorrow morning as I leave for work.

Note: I’ve written this blog based mostly on the storyline from the movies.  I have a tiny bit of background knowledge of the Silmarillion and books, mostly from friends who read the series and loved it.  But this blog is nearly all based on the New Line Cinema movies, which I know about.

As crazy a fan as I was when the LOTR series came out by New Line Cinema, and as much importance as the movies had in my life, there was something that always bothered me about the third movie.  Because I am usually an extremist in what I like–and used to be even more so–I wanted the movies to be totally perfect.  But there was something about the ending in the third that I could never exactly resolve to perfection in my mind.  As though there were rows and rows of check-off boxes for everything I liked about the movie, there was this important box that I could never successfully check off.  When I tried, it always came back to bother me later on.

It was something about Frodo and the ship.  Something about him sailing away always bothered me.  It was a let-down to me.  I always wanted a different ending.  It wasn’t that Frodo had to live, but sailing off in a ship for the Undying Lands (the ‘heavens’ of Middle Earth to me, though there is another heaven Tolkien readers will know about that more ordinary ?good? beings get to go to) just didn’t seem right to me.  There was something frustrating about it, something that seemed defeatist in his giving up of life, but also a disturbing, What are the heavens of Middle Earth question, or, to be more pointed, What is the Middle Earth Heaven?

There was no satisfaction for me in him disappearing in a land far away with very little, if any description–but it has become more than that.  Before today I could never have phrased it, but it is, What, exactly, did Frodo do to earn Heaven?

But before we try to answer that . . let’s try to answer the opposite of that question by looking at the most vile, malevolent creatures of Middle-Earth.  Do they go to the Undying Lands (or any heaven at all)?  Well, surely not.

As Elrond boards the ship, he doesn’t say he hopes the orcs won’t be so bothersome in Heaven.  They aren’t planning for more war.

Everyone that I know assumes certain characters will not make it to the Middle Earth Heaven, such as: Sauron, Saurumon, the orcs, the urak-hai, the goblins, etc.  And, to be honest, I doubt anyone thinks Gollum or Grima make it, either.

So let’s try to answer the opposite of the question we first posed, which is, What did (Sauron, Saurumon, the orcs, Urak-hai, Gollum, Grima) do to NOT earn Heaven?

I think Sauron is an obvious one.  He doesn’t make it because he’s the whole initial cause of the evil.  He’s the instigator.  All right, fair enough.  Let’s move on.

Who’s the next most evil character?  Well, that depends on who is measuring evil and what their objective measure of evil is.  To me, subjectively, the next most evil would have to be the Goblin-King (of the Hobbit) and the Mouth of Sauron.  Looking at the Mouth of Sauron (since he’s truly in the series and the Goblin-King is only in the prequel), why do I think he wouldn’t make it to Heaven?

Most of all, because he talks about enjoying the torture (although it is a lie) of Frodo.  For that reason, I’d say he doesn’t get to heaven of any sort.

What about the next tier of evil characters?  I’d say probably (and subjectively), for different reasons, the Wraiths, Saruman, Gothmog, and the orcs who torture Gollum.  The Wraiths, especially the Witch-King, are black magic ghouls of horror.  Saruman really should know better than to be so evil, as Tree-Beard points out.  He has so much knowledge of good, and yet he sells out for wickedness and he kills children.  Gothmog (the orc leader in the underground invasion of Gondor) cuts off the humans’ heads and throws them over the city wall.  The orcs who torture Gollum are doing it at the bidding of their master, but still, it’s awful.

The next tier down?  Grishnakh (the orc who wants to eat Merry and Pippin’s legs), Lurtz (the Uruk-hai who keeps shooting the wounded Boromir), the weird orc with the skull on top of his head, etc.

Now, I could go on and on, but here’s the point I want to make.  At some tier down, however far down, you have to include evil characters who you might be less comfortable including, such as: the innkeeper who tells the wraiths which room the hobbits are lodging, Frodo who betrays Sam and gives in to corruption by the ring, Boromir who tries to kill Frodo, and, actually, all the hobbits, men, elves, ents, and dwarves who sit complacently while a bloody war goes on outside their doors.

And, actually, if you keep going, what about Pippin, whose foolishness and carelessness cost Gandalf greatly and places the quest in peril more than once, and Merry who is kind-of a goof-off though most of the series, and King Theoden who doesn’t always act humbly or wisely, and Aragorn who shirks his responsibility as royalty for so long, and Legolas and Gimli who both have unjust prejudice against the other, and Faramir who places the quest in peril through his wrong motives, and . .

So where exactly do you draw the line?

Someone might say, “You are being ridiculous!  How could you compare Frodo’s giving in to temptation after he bravely fights it for so long to, for example, Gothmog?”

But wait a minute, wait a minute.

What if we asked Gothmog about that?

He could say, “Hey, I know I was evil, but I was raised that way!  I grew up abused and never knew any better.  What’s more, the whole reason I am an orc and not an elf is because my people were tricked by a wizard and after months of torture succumbed to evil.  My ancestors withstood a lot more than Frodo did before we gave in.  What’s more, if I didn’t act evil, my own kinfolk would have torn me to pieces and eaten me.  That’s the world in which I live.  And besides that, I was not as evil as I could have been.  I want to point out, for example, that when Gondor’s captain lay at my feet critically wounded, I could have done horrible things to him.  I didn’t.  I stabbed him straight through with a spear.  Sure, I did the dirty work, but Frodo caused just as many problems as me–and maybe more–and he had a beautiful childhood.  I would have given anything to have had even one person love me, and Frodo had a whole village.”

Do you realize you could do that exact same thing for nearly any two characters in LOTR?  Nearly all of them, to one degree or another, are fallen (which is another word for wicked).  Galadriel is obsessed with power, Gandalf is short-tempered, Elrond isn’t even sure he wants to engage in the war, Sam is bitter about and short-tempered with Gollum, Eowyn is hostile, and even Arwen falters in knowing what the right thing is to do.  The only characters who might be claimed to be innocent that I can think of are those who have little time in the movies and we get to see very little of their actual lives.

So, What, exactly, did Frodo do to earn heaven?

Why should Frodo go to heaven and Gollum not?  What separated them, but that one fell over the cliff into the lava and the other did not?  Why should Elrond go to Heaven and not Denethor?  What separated them, but that Elrond’s daughter made the right choice in spite of his unwise council and Boromir did not?  Even if Denethor is more responsible because of other poor decisions he made, that doesn’t excuse Elrond from even one poor decision he made.

If it’s a game of outweighing each other, then who makes it and who doesn’t?  Does Grima?  He caused the deaths of children, but he was Saruman’s pawn.  Should Grima make it and not Saruman?  But Saruman was Sauron’s pawn.  So should he make it, too?

The first reason why Earth is better than Middle-Earth:

Heaven isn’t real in Middle-Earth; Heaven is real here.

Heaven can’t be real in Middle-Earth.  There is no reason to it.  The Heaven of Tolkien’s world is madness.  It rests on no foundation; when the characters sail away to it, we can have no assurance where they are going or who will be there when they get there.  Does Boromir get to be there, because he was sorry?  Denethor was sorry, too.  Should he be there, too?  What about the men from the southlands who, as Faramir point out, are deceived into going into war?  Do they make it?

As much as I have dearly loved the movies, I hate Tolkien’s Heaven.  I would have rather Frodo died in Mordor and have left it to the reader’s imagination what happened next.  A Heaven with no foundation is worse than no Heaven at all.  To think that you might get there, or might not, depending on who you are compared to–and depending on who is judging–and depending on just how much evil you are allowed to commit and still be there . . that is depressing.  No wonder the ships sail away and my heart sinks.

The second reason why Earth is better than Middle-Earth:

Since there is no standard for Heaven in Middle-Earth, there is no reality of good or evil there, either.  But we have a standard for Heaven here, and a reality of good and evil.

In the end, Bilbo is just as culpable as Lurtz.  They certainly carry different burdens of guilt, but they are both guilty–and how can we say who is more guilty?  Bilbo had a life of experiencing goodness and a family and friends who loved him.  Lurtz certainly did not.  He was brought out of the mud in evil, and it was all he knew his whole life.  Maybe it is less evil that he killed Boromir than that Bilbo brought on the multiplication of millions of orcs, the torture of Gollum, the corruption of his own dear nephew, and, really, the death of hundreds of humans and elves, because he held onto his idolic ring without telling anyone for so many years.  He should have no more assurance he is sailing away to Heaven than Lurtz should have had the last moment of his life.

Really, if you carefully think about it, all the characters in Lord of the Rings should, for one reason or another, be punished for their actions, BUT

Because there is no involved Creator in the Lord of the Rings, ACTUALLY

ALL of the characters should experience the same fate.  There is no ultimate authority.  The only god ever mentioned in the movies is phony Grond, the god of the orcs.  If there is a real god, he is uninvolved and not present.

Without God’s presence, everything is ambiguous.

It may turn out that Sauron is just as heroic a character as Aragorn.  Like Hindi philosophy, Who is to say what is good or evil?  Do we go by Gandalf’s word about what is good or a cave troll’s?  (If it’s about the majority opinion winning, well, all Saruman needs to do is keep factory-birthing the Urak-Hai.)

The danger of the LOTR is that it strongly suggests themes of good and evil without having any right to do so, leading someone to believe that if you live a “relatively” “good” existence in Middle-Earth, you can get to Heaven . . which is exactly what many people believe in this world.  But what is relatively; where is the line?  And what is good, who decides?

If there was a Creator in Middle Earth, and he was a good Creator, he would not allow Frodo into Heaven.  His justice would not permit it.  In order for him to punish any evil, he would have to punish all evil.  Otherwise, it’s a slide scale where nothing makes sense.  You cannot arbitrarily say Denethor should be punished for, by his delusion, nearly murdering his son Faramir but Bilbo should not be punished for, by his delinquency, nearly causing the death of his nephew, Frodo.  You cannot arbitrarily say that Grishnakh should be punished for his prejudice against hobbits but Legolas should not be punished for his prejudice against dwarves.  Either all evil is punished, or no evil is punished, because all evil is either really evil or it isn’t.  There is no in between.

It would not be a victorious ending if Frodo, Gollum, Lurtz, Grima, Pippin, Saruman, and Gandalf were all banished forever from the presence of goodness because their evil did not permit them in.  But, if the series did have a good Creator God, that would be their fate at the end.

There would be no ride away in a ship to a beautiful land.

There would be only regret, sorrow, and darkness for all of them because their life choices made all of them evil.  They may have been sorry for their evil, and they may have tried to change, but ultimately all of them were evil, because you cannot dabble in evil and step back out: you are in it for good once you choose it, and the consequences of your choice cannot be undone.  Because Frodo wavered in throwing the ring into the cauldron of Mount Doom, more men died in battle.  Those men had families of their own.  The course of history was forever changed by Frodo’s choice, and someone has to pay for those consequences if there is to be any accountability for anything.

And this brings us to the third reason why Earth is better than Middle-Earth:

There is no possibility for redemption on Middle-Earth.

When evil isn’t really evil, it cannot be paid for or forgiven.  When everything is relative, rescue is impossible. When there is no real line between good and evil, there can be no delight in good or salvation from evil.  When nothing is good, there can be no love.  And when there is no identification of sin, there can be no redemption.

The fourth reason why Earth is better than Middle-Earth:

No one can choose to be redeemed on Middle-Earth. 

Not Lurtz, not Aragorn.  Not Gollum, not Frodo.  Not Saruman, not Gandalf.  Not Grishnakh, not Merry.  Not Boromir and not even Sam.  No one can choose to be redeemed because there is allegedly nothing to be redeemed from in a world where good and evil do not exist in reality.  There is no heroism, courage, or truth.  There is only the meaninglessness of vague ships headed to nowhere.

But we do know good and evil exist.  And the LOTR series succeeds to the extent that we impose good and evil on it, even if the infrastructure fails to provide it.  We want to see Frodo redeemed.  We want Boromir, repentant Boromir, to be released from his sin and carried into Heaven.  We want Faramir to have another chance.  We may even wish there had been salvation for Grima at the end of his life.

But here is the best reason why Earth is better than Middle-Earth:

There is no redeemer for Middle-Earth; we have a Redeemer.

While many of the characters try to be good, none of them are good.  They all react in disappointing ways at times.  All of them need a hero who is desperately absent in LOTR . .

They need a redeemer.

At different times, different characters in the series try to play this role.  Arwen tries to save Frodo’s life by giving him her strength.  Sam tries to redeem the quest by carrying Frodo up Mount Doom.  Aragorn tries to draw Sauron’s eye away from Frodo and onto himself.  But none of the characters are truly able to protect each other, because none of the characters are truly good.

There isn’t a solution for this in LOTR.  There isn’t a character who pays the penalty for Frodo’s sin, or who steps up to suffer the consequences of Grima’s poor choices in his stead.  There isn’t a character who calls Lurtz to repentance or shows mercy to Gothmog.  There isn’t a character who saves Boromir by taking every ramification for his betrayal in his own flesh.  And there isn’t a character who makes perfect restitution for the wake of Denethor’s error or the ruin of Gollum’s lust.

There isn’t a redeemer for the LOTR.  And so they are left, at the end, with an unraveling cord of good and evil, parting ships, and nonexistence.  We say goodbye to them, and we wave sadly to them as they disappear into the emptiness of relativity, and as Middle-Earth fades from our vision, we turn to look at what we have in our world.

We see the permanent Law of God, the truth of His Word, and, off in the distance either far or near, the Day of Judgment and the eternal existence of our souls.  We have an accountability we might have liked to not have had.  We cannot, like Gollum and Lurtz, hope for an unconscious realm where nothing matters when we die.  And so at first, we might envy our friends (and enemies) from Lord of the Rings.  There they are, with no wrong or right credited to them–and, as we watch, they vaporize into the nothing that their morality dictates.

As we look again at our world, we see once more the accountability we hold, and the fear of justice quivering inside us . . but then we see something that not one character in the Lord of the Rings ever saw.

And now we must not envy them, but grieve in pity for Sam and Frodo, Grima and Gothmog, and all the others, for we see what they can never have:

We see the Savior.  We see the Redeemer.  We see the GOD who gave Himself as the penalty paid for our sin.

We see Jesus.

“Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

(John 1:29b, NIV)

The reach

One of the most intense scenes in Lord of the Rings comes when Frodo has fallen off the edge of Mount Doom, and is holding on by one hand[1].  The one ring has just fallen into the lake of molten lava, and Frodo has nearly been destroyed by its fall.  So bound is he to the ring that he goes over the edge with it and almost, almost ends his life in the same fire of its demise.

Mount Doom has began to rumble, the ring is beginning to melt, and Sam is down on his hands and knees at the edge of the cliff.  In one of the most moving scenes in the movie, despite Frodo’s betrayal of him and all that he has done wrong and his complete failure to destroy the ring of his own will, Sam reaches for his hand.

“Give me your hand,” Sam says. [1]

But Frodo doesn’t.  His reaching hand is bloody from the finger Golum bit off in his earlier struggle with, and defeat by, evil.

“Take my hand,” Sam commands.

Frodo brokenheartedly, lackadaisically reaches up to take his hand, and misses.  He nearly falls into the destruction below him.

As the mountain quakes, Sam strains even more, reaches even farther.  “Don’t you let go!” he shouts, as Frodo nearly gives up and lets himself drop.  “Don’t let go!  Reach!” Sam commands, and now Frodo strains with everything has.  This time, the two hands meet.

.                     .                     .                     .                     .

“When you notice Michelangelo’s painting of God reaching out to Adam, you see how outstretched God’s arm is.  Every muscle on His face is contorted, and the hand is reaching as far as possible to make contact.  By contrast, Adam lackadaisically lets a limpish hand dangle with apathy in an attitude that seems to say, ‘If it meets it meets.’  That reflects the contrasting inclinations of the heart very well.” – Ravi Zacharias

.                     .                     .                     .                     .

When you think of your relationship with God, is He reaching for you?  Are you reaching for Him?

Are your hands struggling to meet?

Do you think of your hand as straining its hardest, but falling short?

Do you think of God’s hand as withdrawn, never allowing you to reach it?

Or have your two hands already met?

The scene between Sam and Frodo on Mount Doom is moving.  Most of us want to believe that God is like Sam, reaching for our hand.  Some of us believe that God, like Sam, is commanding us to reach His hand.  Those of us who are desperately trying to reach God want to believe He is still reaching for us, that He hasn’t turned away and withdrawn from us.  But we can never seem to catch His hand.

It may surprise you that, in actuality, the scene of Frodo and Sam at Mount Doom has very little to represent about God’s hand, or ours.  As beautiful as the scene is, it is not nearly as beautiful, or as humbling, as what God’s reach for us looks like.

If the Lord of the Rings scene were to play out in a way that would represent what God has done for us, it would look very different.

We would still be off the edge of Mount Doom.  But this time, it would not be our hand holding onto the edge of the cliff as we dangle in mid-air.  It would be God’s hand holding us.  You may have never thought about it, but we are not held on this world by our own strength or ability.  It is God who has given us the breath of life and who keeps our lungs inflating and our heart beating.  None of us can hold ourselves to this earth.  We are all completely reliant on God for that.  Colossians 1:17 (NLT) says about Jesus,

He existed before anything else, and he holds all creation together.

God’s first reach holds us into existence.  His second reach is to hold us into eternity with Him.

This is a reach that is very different than the reach to keep us in existence.  The first reach is the expected reach of a good Creator to His creation.  He must reach for us if we are to be and survive.  But the second reach is very unexpected.  It is the reach of the holy God to His rebellious humans (us). 

Sam reached for Frodo even though he had betrayed him, refused to listen to him, and gone against his directions in the most critical moment (which was to let go of the ring).  In a much bigger way, God loves us even though we have betrayed Him, refused to listen to Him, and gone against His directions in the most critical moment [which was when He told us (represented by Adam) in the Garden not to eat of the Tree of Good and Evil; and which was when He commands us (you, I, and everyone) to follow Him so that we may be saved despite our disobedience and we still refuse].

God’s reach spans a chasm we cannot possibly bridge.  For us to reach God in spite of our sin would be like trying to walk off one side of the Grand Canyon to reach the other side.  When we rebelled, we broke alliance with God (see Genesis 3, Romans 6:20).  We cannot go back to who He created us to be any more than Gollum can go back to looking like a hobbit after his corruption by the ring[2].  It cannot happen.

Reach, Creative Commons Use

Sculpture by Kenneth Armitage, his last work, “Reach for the Stars”.
I wonder if the stars were what he really wanted to reach for . .
Photograph by Thunderchild7

Some of us don’t try.  We are like Frodo at first, believing we’re too far gone to even try to reach.  Or maybe we like our sin too much to leave it behind, even if it means falling into its burning destruction.

Others of us do try.  We reach out like Frodo with a broken-heart, trying to earn our way back to God.  But we can never reach that far.  Our sin separates us further and further from God.  We are moving away from Him, not towards Him.  The more we try to reach, the more discouraged, disheartened, and embittered we become.  There is no way for us to reach God.  We cannot be like Frodo, who, if he only tried hard enough, could meet the hand of Sam.  We cannot meet the hand of God no matter what or how hard we try.

This is where God’s second reach comes in to change everything.

Frodo’s hand was bloody from his battle with Gollum, a battle Sam couldn’t fight for him.  But Jesus’ hand is bloody from his battle with Satan, a battle He could and did fight for us.

We, like Frodo, always lose the battle with evil.  Just as Frodo couldn’t win the battle over the evil persuasion of the ring, we can’t win the battle over the evil persuasion of sin in our lives.  Scripture tells us that evil holds us captive and we are slaves to it.

Gently instruct those who oppose the truth. Perhaps God will change those people’s hearts, and they will learn the truth. Then they will come to their senses and escape from the devil’s trap. For they have been held captive by him to do whatever he wants. (2 Timothy 2:25-26, NLT)

For when you were slaves of sin, you were free from allegiance to righteousness. (Romans 6:20, HCSB)

Our hand is so burdened by guilt, ignorance, and evil, that we cannot even lift it a millimeter up to God’s hand.  If our salvation depended in any part on our effort, the way that Frodo’s salvation depended in part on his own effort, we would be doomed.  We cannot reach for God.  Romans 3:10b-12 (NLT) says,

“There is no one righteous, not even one;

there is no one who understands;

there is no one who seeks God.

All have turned away,

they have together become worthless;

there is no one who does good,

not even one. (Romans 3:10b-12, NIV)

Did you catch that?

there is no one who seeks God.

We cannot reach for Him.  He must reach for us.  Not only has He created us and keeps us alive, but He must be the one to pull us up from the edge of the cliff.  He alone can do this.

If we were to reenact the Mount Doom scene with what God did for us, we would be held up first by His arm of sustaining power, the only thing separating us from a free fall into Hell.

And then Jesus would pull us back from the edge, dragging us inch by inch away from the lava of our choices and up to the cliff of redemption that stands as an isle of escape from the devastation below.

His brow is matted in sweat and blood; through the agony of His suffering He pulls us up.  Every moment is excruciating, and every moment we are totally helpless, totally reliant that He will keep pulling and not turn away out of either disgust of our sin or the grueling exhaustion of saving us.

The cliff is quaking, and all Hell is breaking loose below Christ, but He keeps pulling us, keeps pulling us, keeps pulling us until He has pulled us to the ground above the shaking volcano.

Though we betrayed Him, though we lost our war with evil, though we disobeyed every command He ever gave us, though we totally failed to listen to Him, He reached for us still.

This is what Jesus did for every single person when He died on the cross.

He pulled all of us from the edge of Mount Doom, and He saved each of us from the Hell below us.

Wait a minute, you say.  Wait a minute.  But I thought not everyone is saved.

That’s right.  But that’s not because Jesus has not dragged everyone up from the cliff.  It is because many people will choose to scorn His safety and refuse to follow Him out of the cavern.

After Sam pulled Frodo up from the edge, the two ran together out of the mouth of the cavern and to a rock to the side of the mountain, where they were safe from the catastrophic flow of lava down the mountainside.  Eagles rescued them and carried them away.

Frodo chose to follow Sam and escape, but many people will refuse to follow Christ and escape.  They will stay on that cliff inside that cavern of death as Mount Doom collapses around them and they are swallowed up into the lava below.  Many people will reject the redemption reached for them by Christ.  As my pastor says often:

People do not go to Hell because they are bad and people do not go to Heaven because they are good.  They go to Hell because they have not believed in Jesus or Heaven because they have.[3]

We do not go to Hell because we are bad, but because we have rejected the redemptive reach of Christ.  Christ has saved us from our sin.  We will either become guilty of rejecting that salvation, or we will run out of the cavern following Him in faith that He has rescued us.

If you or I find ourselves in Hell, it is not because of our sin.  It is because we turned away from the rescue that Christ Jesus, and only Christ Jesus, has given us.

Jesus is holding us in existence (e.g., see Acts 17:28, Colossians 1:17, Hebrews 1:3).  And He has already dragged us up from the Hell we would have fallen into the moment we die (e.g., see John 1:4, John 3:16-18, John 3:36, John 6:40, John 11:25-26, John 12:47, Romans 5:8, Ephesians 2:4-5).

The question is, will you follow Him away from Mount Doom, or will you turn away from Him and find out how terrible the consequences are that He pulled you up from by His death on the cross?

He personally carried our sins in his body on the cross so that we can be dead to sin and live for what is right. By his wounds you are healed. (1 Peter 2:24, NLT)

______________________________________________

[1] Lord of the Rings: return of the king, extended edition script, New Line Cinema.  Screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson.  Based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s book, Lord of the Rings: The return of the king.

[2] See, Hobbits: Was Gollum a Hobbit? by William D.B. Loos, http://tolkien.cro.net/hobbits/gollum.html

[3] Paraphrase from my pastor, John Marshall

Photograph by Thunderchild7, profile on http://www.flickr.com/people/thunderchild5/

Photographs under Creative Commons License.

The Ring

“We put it away, we keep it hidden! We never speak of it again. No one knows it’s here, do they?”

–Frodo, The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), New Line Cinema

It all started like paradise.

Twirling dresses, picnic food in heaps, bursting fireworks, jolly dancing, loud laughter, warm-baked pies, wet tousley grass, children streaking past, clapping on the shoulders, grand garlands, and the smell of summer air.

In that moment, there couldn’t be anything terrible on Frodo’s mind.  He had no more concern than nudging a shy friend to dance with his secret crush.

But now–only days later–Frodo’s world has fallen apart at the seams–seams he didn’t even know were there.

From a night of careless chuckles and silly conversations, he enters his home, and the once gentle hove has become a still-as-death mess.  As he staggers to try to make sense of it all, he is grasped on the shoulder by an old friend–who frightens him as an enemy.

“Is it secret–is it safe?” Gandalf asks and commands.

He means the ring.

Up until that moment, the ring had been only an odd curiosity.  A treasure his uncle had once owned.  A page in the tale, perhaps, of his uncle’s untold adventure.

Now it has become the force of madness.

Gandalf teaches Frodo the detestable story of the ring–how it has brought only treachery and torture on its warpath to burn all good with the Wheel of Fire–the Great Eye of Sauron.

One ring to rule them all

One ring to find them

One ring to bring them all

And in the darkness bind them.

[J.R.R. Tolkien, “Fellowship of the Ring”]

And the ring becomes, in the instant Frodo realizes its thirst for evil, a horror.  It belongs far outside the world he wants.  Away, away from all good–and he wants to be rid of it now.

This ring is nothing of summer strawberries and flourishing gardenias and fine-footed ponies and friendly meadows.

This ring is dread.

He must get rid of the great dread.  Of an earth of fiery enslavement, an earth without tree or crop, an earth without quiet creeks or grassy hills, an earth without horses or their riders, an earth without loyalty or love.

Quickly–quickly!  His thoughts fly as he works through a plan to end the dread–this horrible thing, this monstrous thing that has brought upon him.

“We put it away, we keep it hidden! We never speak of it again.”

It reminds me of what it is like to live–to be born, to die–with a sin nature.

Those of us who realize the evil that lies within have been awakened to its presence with horror.  One moment, we had not a care in the world.  The next, we began to feel that something was terribly wrong.  And when we discover what it is: that we ourselves are evil . . we are overcome with desperation.  We, like Frodo with the ring, would hastily bury our sin nature–if we could.  If only we could.

But, as Frodo carries the ring around his neck, as it bruises and burns and tracks the Great Eye everlastingly, as it drives from Frodo the taste of food, even the desire for water . . as it casts out the memories of the sweetness of life . . and finally, even all remnants of love and the loyalty . . so we carry our sin nature, heavy about us, and sometimes fear we will have no better ending than Frodo–who chooses, at the very last, to keep the ring, betray his closest friend, destroy Middle Earth, and rule as its warpath master.  (He does not get away with this, but that is not to his credit.)

Those of us awakened to the horror of our nature want, we long, WE ACHE to “be rid of it” (as Sam says).

And yet we carry it with us.  And we are afraid, so afraid, that it will be always.

As Frodo says about the ring, It is such a burden.”

It is such a burden.

With every resolve we have, we can vow to hide our sin nature from sight–but that would only draw a quicker victory from evil.

Evil loves the hidden dark.

Unlike Frodo, who is faced merely with “the” hidden dark of his world (darkness he has done nothing to cause), we are faced with OUR hidden dark.

And unlike Frodo, who is unwittingly bound to a nightmare ring, we are not.  In metaphor, we reached out to Sauron’s very hand to ask for the ring.  We may not have known what we were getting, but we were warned by God.  And yet we reached anyway.

From the moment Eve reached her hand for the forbidden fruit, a course and curse of bondage has been set in motion.  And from the moment Adam–responsible for all humanity–ate that fruit, ate that death . . we have been bound for Hell.  It truly was

One cursed choice to rule us all

One cursed choice to find us

One cursed choice to bring us all

And in the darkness bind us.

Adam and Eve were not the only ones who ate of evil.  Since then, every human save One has picked fruits from the forests of sin . . eaten their fill . . and yet never felt contentment.  We are like Frodo but even worse, for if he’d played with the ring the way we play with sin, Middle Earth would have been destroyed before he’d set out of the shire.  As Frodo considers the ring, toys with it, imagines slipping it on his finger, and at last obeys the craving he has fed, so we feed our sin nature until we are utterly overwhelmed by the very thing we were once only fascinated by.

And like Frodo, even when we try, even when we really try, to break out of the bondage . . we do not know how.

Lot chose the nicer land; it turned into ash.  Solomon lavished himself with the finest pleasures; he bought himself into meaninglessness.  Hezekiah longed for a longer life; the extra years delivered him into shame.

Would that we–like Frodo with his map to Mordor–have a map to the place where we can destroy our sin.

. . Suppose we did.  Suppose there was a place we could go to destroy, once and for all, the sin nature within us.

If we could endure the trials to get to that fiery abyss . . would we throw our sin nature in . . or would we say with a slow, entranced, evil-hungry smile, as Frodo did,

“No.”

For, if we were to find such a place, we would realize what Frodo did.  We would see that we would have to burn all that has ever lured us to rebel against God within us.  We would have to throw ourselves in.  Frodo’s life force had become bound to the ring.  To destroy it was to destroy himself.  And he did not choose that.

And neither would we.  We, too, would refuse.  Even if we could somehow be heroic enough to make it to the Gates of Hell, we would not throw ourselves in.  For we cannot part with our sin nature by any amount of willpower.  It is too precious to us.

. . Frodo was not saved from the death that came from throwing the ring in.  And he was not saved from the total disgrace that it was only a mere accident which caused the ring to fall into the abyss.  Frodo lived for the rest of his life knowing he would not have thrown it in.  He slipped away on a ship of death with that reminder–and the hope of peace in another world.

But there is no hope for us that, like Gollum with Frodo, some sin-crazed creature will fight with us and, in that tussle, our sin nature will get thrown into Hell.  Our sin nature is not so easily removed as a ring on a chain.  As hard as it was for Frodo to let the ring go, our sin nature is impossible for us to let go.  It is us.

It is who we are.

We did not worship a ring and place it upon our finger.  We ate the fruit of our rebellion.  We consumed evil.  We brought its existence within us.  Every drop of blood in our body, every pulse of our heart is ruined by sin.

But it gets far, far worse than this.

For we did not just invite the sin into our body.

We ate the sin into our soul.

Were we to commit suicide to try to rid ourselves of our sin nature, we would only succeed in destroying our body.  We would not have removed one fiber of sin from within our soul.

What a horrible plight we share in this world, infinitely worse than Frodo’s . .

Only, our salvation is infinitely better.

Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. (John 10:10b, ESV)

Jesus gave up His body for us and–in the infinite mystery of the crucifixion–He suffered every poison of our soul in His, and He absorbed it.  Only goodness can swallow evil.  And only Jesus, perfect and sinless, could destroy our ring, our sin nature forever.

[Jesus] said, “It is finished!” (John 19:30b, HCSB)

________________________________

[1]The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.  New Line Cinema.  Screenwrite by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson.  Based on the book by the same name by J.R.R. Tolkien, 1954.

Kicking the helmet

The quest has fallen into almost total disaster.

The fellowship of 9, allied to bring the essence of evil (the one ring) to the heart of Mordor to destroy it, had shattered.

The leader, Gandalf, had fallen in an underground mine just when it had looked as though he’d won his fight with the balrog demon.  The once honorable Boromir had become overcome by evil, and, in desiring to steal the ring for himself, caused the ringbearer to flee.  And Boromir had died trying to make right what he’d done wrong–bringing the fellowship down to 7.

The rest of the fellowship had crumbled.  Aragorn, the new leader, was an unlikely choice.  He was heir to the throne of Gondor, but wanted nothing to do with any kingdom.  He was a ranger, a fugitive from Sauron’s eye, and he wanted to stay that way.

And what of the others?  Legolas and Gimli, feuding elf and dwarf, had a history of racial distrust between them.  Two of the hobbits, Merry and Pippin, had been captured by the enemy and kidnapped to who-knows-what end.  And the other two, Frodo the ringbearer and his gardener–both hobbits and as such the smallest of the peoples of Middle Earth–had escaped into Mordor with the one ring that could destroy the entire world.

So the quest has fallen into almost total disaster.  The fellowship is split up and the plan is unraveling.  Aragorn has no idea how to bring the fellowship back together, or if there is any hope that naive and timid Frodo–oh, yes, and his gardener, as if that could matter-can possibly outwit Sauron, sneak past droves of orcs, elude the nazgul, and survive in the wastelands of Mordor to complete the quest.

Aragorn–with dwarf and elf with him–struggles to catch up with the uruk-hai who have captured Merry and Pippin.  Aragorn refuses to stop to eat or even sleep.

Just when they’ve narrowed the gap and it looks as if they might catch up, they learn that the entire band of uruk-hai was killed the night before by a band of men.

They rush to the sight of the battle and find it abysmal: carcasses piled high for burning, and the head of an uruk-hai on a stake to mark the death scene.

On the smoldering death pile, they find a belt of one of the hobbits.

In a rage of frustration, Aragorn yells and kicks a helmet from the pile.  In that moment, it looks as if the whole quest was worthless.  There’s no way Merry and Pippin are alive.  Boromir’s brave death was useless.  It doesn’t even matter if the elf and dwarf get along.  And what chance does Frodo and his dim-witted gardener have to make it through the fierce iron gates of Mordor, anyway?

. . Anyone who knows how the story ends can smile here.  Merry and Pippin have actually escaped into the forest and met up with Gandalf, who did not die from the fall but fought the balrog and won.  Boromir’s change of heart did matter.  Legolas and Gimli are becoming lifelong friends.  Frodo’s “dim-witted gardener” will rescue him from a spider so monstrous it could frighten away an uruk-hai.  Aragorn will draw Sauron’s eye to himself so that Frodo can slip past the enemy without notice.  The ring will be destroyed.  The quest will be completed . .

But when Aragorn kicks the helmet, he doesn’t know any of that.  He, like us, lives in the present.  He doesn’t have foresight or any such gift.  All he sees is the frustration of seemingly bad luck and the anger of personal failure.

He could have, at that moment, disappeared back into the wilderness and become a mysterious ranger again.  Or he could have even fallen on his own sword.  He could have kicked more helmets or cursed his friends or just laid down to rest after days of traveling without sleep.

But instead, he pauses, just for a second, and he notices something he did not notice before.

A slight slope in the ground in the shape of a hobbit.

Realizing one of the hobbits lay on that exact spot, he begins to do something he hadn’t been dreaming of doing when he kicked the helmet.  He begins to search again.

And this time, he does not stop at the burn pile.  He tracks the path the two hobbits took.  And he discovers that the path leads him to the brink of a forest.

And on goes the quest that, only a few moments before, he’d just about given up on when he kicked the helmet.

.          .          .          .          .          .          .          .

We all have times in our lives where we feel like kicking the helmet.  Times where it feels like evil is just going to win, and there is nothing we can do about it.  Times where our lives feel worthless and useless.  Times where we want to throw our hands up in despair and give up.

But at that very moment, there is always, always a trail that leads us to Christ.

The question is not whether or not it is there, but whether or not we will look for it.

The difference between hope and despair is that hope looks for the trail . . despair is too busy kicking at the rubble of something dead.

In all times, there is a way that leads to Christ.  And it isn’t clues that only a ranger could pick up.  The way that leads to Christ is unmissable.  It’s at the foot of a cross.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. (1 Peter 1:3-5, NIV)

Gríma

I have a knack of identifying with characters that others might not.  From the first viewing of The Two Towers, I had a powerful connection to Gríma.  Gríma Wormtongue.

I admit, not the nicest of names.  And not the nicest of characters.  Gríma is a groveling, no-good-for-nothing human who’s taken alliance with an evil wizard (an evil wizard who thinks less of him than a can of worms).  With a bit of skill in witchcraft and what can only be classified as worm-like conniving, Gríma has betrayed King Théoden, underhandedly murdered his son, and pathetically tried to win his daughter’s heart.  All this fails to get Gríma what he wants, of course, and when King Théoden wakes up from his trance he is not on the best of terms with Gríma.

Fortunately for Gríma, King Théoden doesn’t even realize at this point that his son is dead, or Gríma surely would be a goner.  In rage over the spell Gríma cast on him, King Théoden shoves the weakling villain down the outside stairs of the castle.  Gríma winds up on the landing with a bleeding mouth and a kowtowing spirit.

Gríma, outnumbered so outrageously–and so pitifully exposed as a powerless villain– answers this unexpected turn of events with what to me are the most haunting words in the trilogy series.

“Send me not from your sight.”

Send me not from your sight.

It’s manipulative, it’s artificial, and it’s pathetic–and, deeper still, it’s the cry of every scared sinner before a righteous judge.

King Théoden answers in the way we would expect–he tries to kill him.  In a tricking kind of way, the king is fulfilling Gríma’s plea not to be sent from his sight.  Can we blame King Théoden for responding in this way?  No.  Gríma is a completely worthless, very weird, and extremely unlikable groveling little villain responsible for abominable devastation.  This isn’t the kind of guy anyone would expect a king to give another chance.

Gríma does end up getting away, and his painfully pathetic saga continues, but I am still on that landing outside the castle.  In fact, I take a seat, take a thinker’s pose, and reflect on just how altogether marvelous Jesus Christ is.

What does Jesus Christ have to do with the scene that just unfolded?  Absolutely everything.

Because that scene that unfolded is the story of humanity–but with a turn that would have the best surprise we could possibly imagine look like a dud.

We are all Gríma.  We are all conniving, pathetic, evil-hearted creatures groveling at the feet of Satan.  We have all betrayed what is good and right.  We have all tried to twist good to look like evil and evil to look like good.  We have all played with other people’s lives–often the most helpless–for the purpose of growing more powerful ourselves.  And none of it works, of course, and we wake up one day to find we are not on the best of terms with God.

God has thrown us out of His Kingdom.  You will not be surprised to learn that this is not Heaven.  Down here, cars break and bones break, diseases grow and damnation grows, & dreams are buried and bodies are buried.

Once upon a time, earth was our Heaven.  Today, it is our graveyard.  Once upon a time, God walked with us in a garden.  Today, God the Father and Son are in a Heaven we have no hope of reaching on our own.

We are like Gríma on the landing of the stairs, wounded by our sin and by the curse God has placed on this world because of our sin.  We are in a state of morose pouting, withdrawal, anger, artificiality, manipulation, conniving, and utter patheticness.  And if we get even the tiniest glimpse of ourselves through the eyes of God, we know it.  We know God has sent us from His Presence because if we were to even glimpse at Him, we’d be goners.

But here is where the story takes a turn no one could possibly expect.

When we cry out to God, as wrapped in our sin as Gríma is in his ugly fur cloak, with all our best attempts to impress, with all our bitterness, brokenness, and bewilderment, with all our superficiality and conniving . . and with, at last, the plea of a repentant sinner’s heart before God,

“Send me not from Your Presence.  Bring me back to You.”

–What we find is not that God awaits with a sword to chop us down, but with a hand to help us up.  That hand is scarred with the print of a spike.  It is the hand that took our sin and drove it into Himself on the cross.

It is the hand of Jesus Christ.  And it is outstretched for you and me.

It is a grace King Théoden would not, could not offer Gríma.  But it is a grace God offers each one of us, even with knowing full well who we really are and what we have really done.

Maybe it is unimaginable to think of King Théoden as inviting Gríma back in his kingdom and giving the wretch new clothes and a seat at his table.  But it is not unimaginable to think of God doing this for us, if we come to Him through the helping hand of Jesus Christ.

Jesus has sent the Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity, to show us how to reach for His hand.  If you are broken and repentant before Him, you can ask Him right now, right where you are, and He will not reject you.

Before the throne of God above

I have a strong and perfect plea

A great high Priest whose name is Love

Who ever lives and pleads for me

My name is graven on His hands

My name is written on His heart

I know that while in Heaven He stands

No tongue can bid me thence depart

(From Before the Throne of God Above by Charitie Lees Smith)

Because of Christ and our faith in him, we can now come boldly and confidently into God’s presence. (Ephesians 3:12, NLT)

We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are. (Romans 3:22, NLT)

Startling sin

Sin can startle us into looking at who we really are.  We ask ourselves, Did I really say that?  Did I really do that?  Did I really think that? 

–From Pastor John’s sermon.

Sin can startle us into looking for a Savior.

Only when we know we are wretched do we look for a way out of the mess we’ve made.

As my pastor said on Sunday, the things we never thought we’d say . . the things we never thought we’d do . . the ways we’d never thought we’d think . . can give us a reality check of who we really are.

I think in an analogy from Lord of the Rings.  There are these orcs–ugly, twisted, horrible, cannibalistic creatures who were once elves.  Now it doesn’t do any good to pretend they are still elves.  They aren’t.  They are totally fallen, irredeemable in themselves (they can’t change who they are in essence).  Whatever bad thing it is, they would say that, would do that, would think that.

Of course, in Lord of the Rings, there were never any orcs who turned back to the good side.  But I thought it would be really cool if there were.  If a mighty wizard could change them back into the elves they once were, long ago.

Actually, those orcs are better off than we humans are, in this sense: We are often outrageously out-of-touch with how sinful we are.  We are connoisseurs at covering up what we do.  We are brilliant at denial.  We are justifiers to the max.

We will try to make anything, no matter how atrocious, seem acceptable if we were the ones who did it.  (If somebody else did it, Heaven help them.  But if it was us, well, we had our reasons.)

But often it’s in the really awful things in our lives . . the times we know we have fallen badly and can’t get up . . the times we see how twisted and gruesome we really are . . that we get a glimpse of how we look in the sight of God.

In and of itself, that is one of the most dangerous states of depression around.  But if we look to Christ, then it is really just like the molting state of the caterpillar.

Sin can startle us into covering up what we did, denying what we did, or justifying what we did.

Or, we can look at our sin straight in the face, and find an urgent need to find the Savior.

He is able to change us into new creatures.

Whoever is a believer in Christ is a new creation. The old way of living has disappeared. A new way of living has come into existence. (2 Corinthians 5:17, GW)

The Battle

The ending to Lord of the Rings is magnificent.  All the orcs vanish forever as the earth falls out underneath them.  The nazgul are ripped apart and the dragons fall from the sky.

Oh, yeah.  Victory dance time.

In my life, I try to get that same rush of exhilaration as I try to cast evil out of my life forever.

But I don’t get that rush, not for long.  Because the evil keeps coming back with fight still left in it.  And coming back.  And coming back.  And coming back.  And coming back.

I can tell you the unmistakable pattern in my life is this:

Oh, that was an awful fight with sin.  But that was the last time I have to deal with that.  Look at me.  I battled it, I conquered it, I asked forgiveness for it–and now it’s no more.  That sin is all over.  I will never be tempted by that again; I’ll never go back through that valley again; that part of my walk is over.  Check that training off; I’ve climbed that mountain; I’ve crossed that river, I’ve hiked that trail.  No more.  Goodbye.  It’s over.  Yes.  Now peace.

That’s the first part.

Here’s the second part:

Now how did that come back again?  I said I conquered that already!  I defeated that sin!  I put a flag on that mountain!  I know I rowed through this very river and I’m sure that was the trail I went down yesterday.  What am I doing here again?  WHY ISN’T THERE ANY CLOSURE?

I feel abandoned by God.  I feel like a worse failure than before.  I hate myself, I’m mad, and I feel like God slighted me.  Where is my moment of orcs falling through crumbled earth?  Where is my chance to see the nazgul rip apart?  Where is my time in the spotlight, doing my super cool victory dance?  Where is the epic moment where I get to be the winner and all my sins know it?

I actually got to a point where I would watch the last scenes in Lord of the Rings with secret sighing.  I felt like God’s plan was so . . confounding.  Why couldn’t I deal the death blow to my problems–or at least one of my problems?  Why did Christianity seem so unglamorous compared to the final battles in blockbuster movies?

. . . . . . . Oh my.  Looking back, it’s hard for me to express how little I understood about anything.  It makes me wonder, in eight more years, how much more will I realize I didn’t get?  (Or eight days.)

This was more, though, than a problem of a greenhorn status in God’s kingdom.  This was a problem of inexperience with God.  I did not understand who God was, and so I didn’t understand what His kingdom was like.  Oh, I could talk in Christian-ese, but that sometimes no more than if I’d memorized programming jargon so I could sling it around to impress my friends.

Now that I have awakened to the nature of God, I would want to go back to my old self, grab me by the shoulders, and say, “Hey, this is what you don’t understand, for starters . . .”

1.  The focus of a believer’s victory is not Armageddon or spiritual warfare between a believer and the world.  The focus of a believer’s victory is the choice of Christ.

Satan always knows what to tempt us with.  He is not clueless.  He knows that nothing excites us so much as channeling our arrogance to get power and superiority.  Why else would Eve have ever accepted the forbidden fruit, treason against God?  She wanted power and superiority equal to God, and in her arrogance she thought she could get there.

The part in me that looks with longing at epic movies and thinks, “Oh, man, I want to be that guy that kills the evil king” or “I want to be that kid who flips the switch and saves the planet” or “I want to be that hobbit who throws the ring into the molten lava and saves Middle Earth from Mount Doom” . . . that is the arrogance in me that wants to usurp what Christ has already done.

This is a fatally serious offense.  It’s something like going into the Battle for Bunker Hill as a squid.

The squid is not going to win the Battle for Bunker Hill.  The squid can’t even pick up a sword or gun.  Can you imagine a squid being plopped down in front of an army of advancing soldiers?  What is going to happen?  Sushi, that’s what.

This is how stupid I am when I think I can do something to cinch the victory for God’s Kingdom.  ME?  I haven’t even lived a day of my life without sin.  I haven’t even lived an hour of my life without sin.  How in the world do I think I could fight the father of all evil himself, when I am still, in the flesh, drawn to evil and, if not saved by God’s Spirit, hypnotized by evil, trapped by evil, destroyed by evil, and damned by evil?

NO WAY.

It is Christ’s choice to save me that is the focus of attention.  It is Him who has the victory.  I’m the one who’s rescued.  How abominably selfish, how utterly deluded, how horrifically arrogant for me to think that I should be saved by Christ from everlasting Hell and then I should be the one who gets the credit.

2.  My sin nature isn’t going to die until I die.

As much as I want to prematurely see the end to sin, it is only when my flesh dies that the sin nature in me dies.  This is a great mystery.  Paul talks about how we are saturated in evil from our sin nature, like a donut soaked in arsenic.  We might get by with looking okay on the outside, but we are poison to ourselves and others.  If God’s image were not stamped on us, we would have no good whatsoever.  But we are guilty of poisoning the image of God!  And it’s not just our body that is poisoned.  It’s our mind, and our soul, too.  We are totally saturated with destruction.

But when a person believes in Jesus, something radical happens.  The Holy Spirit fills the person’s soul and irradiates sin.  The sin nature that was rooted in our soul shrivels up and vanishes–poof.  Like orcs in bright sunlight, sin flees from God.

The soul of a believer is clean, a perfect sanctuary washed by God with His blood so that no trace of sin can ever be found.

The body–the flesh–is still haunted by a sin nature.  This isn’t just my skin and bones, but this is the essence of my existence on earth.  My carnality.  This life on earth, where I chose, along with Adam and Eve, to disobey God forever, is doomed.  Wrecked.  Forever ruined.  There is no way to live in Eden as me, as I am here.  This part of me is trashed.

It sure would seem convenient if, as soon a person believed in Christ, (s)he would instantly die and go to Heaven.  Convenient, maybe, but what would happen to the part where we live out our faith?  What would happen to faith?  What would happen to the part where we show the world that Jesus really has changed us, that we really can fight our sin nature and, through God’s power, win?  What would happen to all the other people who would have heard about Christ through that believer?

My mission here is to do battle.  I do battle with me.

Don’t you know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run like that, that you may win. Every man who strives in the games exercises self-control in all things. Now they do it to receive a corruptible crown, but we an incorruptible. I therefore run like that, as not uncertainly. I fight like that, as not beating the air, but I beat my body and bring it into submission (1 Corinthians 9:24-27a, WEB)

I do battle with me and I do battle with

evil rulers

authorities of the unseen world

mighty  powers in the dark world

evil spirits in the heavenly places

For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12, NLT)

It isn’t the final battle; it isn’t the epic battle.  It’s the battle after the war is won–yes, the battle after the war is won–where I have the chance to show just how much I care about the hero who won the war.

When everyone realizes what Jesus did on the cross . . . . . there will be no drawn swords, no raised shields, no hidden weapons that can stand a chance.  When the very breath of Jesus is breathed on evil, that’ll be it.  Jesus is the Word who has told us what He has done for us; we are without excuse.  If we refuse to hear His words, then His very breath will in the snap of an instant break all arrogance.  Then everyone–everyone–will fall on their knees before Him and acknowledge that He is Lord.

Then the man of lawlessness will be revealed, but the Lord Jesus will kill him with the breath of his mouth and destroy him by the splendor of his coming. (2 Thessalonians 2:8, NLT)

It will be a scene that will make Lord of the Rings look podunk.

But . . here’s the kind of God we serve.  Rather than show Himself through war against us, He would rather show Himself through love for us.  We have the choice to fall on our faces before Him now, so that He will fight for us, not against us.  We can join the ranks of the Lord’s army, justified not by our heroism, but by His.  For God would rather shelter us in His peace than destroy us in His wrath.  But He leaves the choice to us.
The power of darkness comes in like a flood

The battle belongs to the Lord

He’s raised up a standard, the power of His blood

The battle belongs to the Lord

When your enemy presses in hard do not fear

The battle belongs to the Lord

Take courage my friend, your redemption is near

The battle belongs to the Lord

–“The Battle Belongs to the Lord” by Jamie Owens-Collins
Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11, ESV)

“Just let go.”

Frodo stands on the precipice of Mount Doom, ring dangling from its chain, holding it over the brink.

He stares down at it, and the rhythmic pounding of the ring is now so loud it shakes the whole mountaintop.  Cultic lightning flashes down on the ring, and it burns into Froto’s eyes as if the light is acid.

And then Sam says it.

“Just let go.”

.               .               .                .               .               .                .

It’s been a journey of time, travel, battle, friendship, and betrayal.  Frodo has seen friends fight for them, enemies magnetize to him, and even one of his own fellowship overcome by the power of the ring and try to kill him.

He’s been stabbed by the sword of a wraith, a wraith so consumed by lust for the ring it knows nothing else.  He’s been almost swallowed alive by a gigantic sea creature.  He’s been tricked by a villainous friend into entering the cave of a monstrous spider alone.  He’s watched one of his dearest friends be dragged off the edge of a cliff as he gave Frodo time to escape.  He’s been beaten and almost stabbed by a nasty-hearted orc.  And the giant hand of a troll has groped for him behind the rocks of a cave.

And all this time, all this time, he’s been carrying the ring.

It’s the one reason why all allies have gone on this journey and fight for him.  And it’s the one reason why all enemies pursue him and fight against him.

And here he is, at the very edge of the world he knows, and only one thing, only one prevents him from total freedom.

The chain he holds in his hand, the chain that holds the ring.

All the enticement Sauron can muster to convince Frodo to keep the ring is in full-force.  A wicked delight pours through Frodo as he begins to dream what his life would be like if he just held on to that little gold ring.

All the power.  All the glory.  All the worship.  He could rule everything.  He could grow in metallic greatness as all the things evil loves most overtake him.  He can see it in the gleam of gold.

And he puts the ring on.

Evil hears the silent shriek of the ring, as it deals the deathblow to Frodo, and all evil comes running.

All allies have had their epic battle.  For Sam, it was Shelob.  For Aragorn, it was identity.  For Boromir, it was temptation.  For Gimli, prejudice.  For Legolas, connection.  For Elron, apathy.  For Faramir, worth.  For Galadriel, power.  For Gandalf, the Balrog.

And for Frodo . . the ring.

And Frodo won’t let go.

.               .               .                .               .               .                .

I heard the Lord of the Rings first when I was a kid, and I felt like something deep within the story had been left buried.  I didn’t like the series at all.

Years later, when the first movie came out in theaters, I tagged along with friends.  I was astonished at the exquisite depth of Tolkien’s world and I was again captivated, more so even than before.

But at the close of the third movie, as many times as I watched the series, I never understood why Frodo’s role ended without victory.

Tolkien’s purpose had seemed all along to engage me in the fight between good and evil.  In the end, the heroes all win . . . all but the focal hero of the whole series: Frodo.

Frodo loses his battle to the ring.  He does not let go.

Yes, the ring is destroyed.  Yes, Sauron is defeated.  But Frodo never lets go of the ring.

Even at the end of the story, when Frodo bows out of the Shire to take a ship to the land of the dead, I never felt like he’d let go.  The wound the wraith gave him still hurts.  And he has been so utterly captured by the ring that it’s like he dies a slow death after its quick death.

It was like . . the ring was the most powerful.  The ring won.  The world was rescued from its powers . . but the ringbearer wasn’t.  He had sold himself to the ring, and he couldn’t buy himself back.

It bothered me.  There are so many parallels between the fight for good and evil in Lord of the Rings and real life.  But what was Tolkien trying to say about temptation and evil in Frodo’s story?

I don’t know the answer to that.  But I know for sure I don’t want to be Frodo.

I don’t want to live my life on a journey for God’s Kingdom, only to betray everything I know and give in to the power of Satan at the end.  Like Frodo, I have a league of allies who have devoted their lives to protecting me from Satan’s lies.  I think of all the martyrs, missionaries, preachers, authors, and guides who have, by the power of God, stopped the onslaught of Satan’s army from overtaking the world.

And I think of Christ Himself, the forerunner of this epic journey.  Christ, who gave every footstep, every word, every act to drawing us to the Father.  Christ dealt the death blow to Satan’s seductive slavery over our lives.  He placed Himself in the hands of evil itself to die to evil’s worst and to prove, once and for all, that God will never give in to even the most powerful temptation Satan can ever muster.

And then Jesus died.  And evil was leveled.  Flattened.  Crumpled.

It was like Jesus took a sledgehammer and shattered the cages of sin that had held us captive for so long.  In fact, listen to how the Bible predicts what Jesus’ epic life will be like, many hundred years before Jesus comes to earth:

This is what God the Lord says—

he who created the heavens and stretched them out,

who spread out the earth and all that comes out of it,

who gives breath to its people,

and life to those who walk on it:

“I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness;

I will take hold of your hand.

I will keep you and will make you

to be a covenant for the people

and a light for the Gentiles,

to open eyes that are blind,

to free captives from prison

and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness. (Isaiah 42:5-7, NIV)

Because of Jesus, we don’t have to put on the ring.  He has proven, once and for all, that we really can throw the ring–whatever that is for us–into the molten lava where it belongs . . . and be free.  But we can do that one way, and only one way: by the power of Christ.

I guess that’s why Frodo couldn’t let go.  He just did not know about the Savior who has power over everything.

“All power in Heaven and over the earth has been given to me.” (Jesus, quoted in Matthew 28:18b, WNT)