The worst fate a person can endure? That would be loss of self. It is not the same as selflessness, a desirable state of humility which YHVH honors. Loss of self means removal of what defines a person as a person. We see this in loved ones who slip slowly away through the ravages of progressive dementia. Little by little they forget who they are until in the end there is nothing left of them but the memory carried in the hearts of those who once knew them. It is a tragedy as old as humanity.
Some of our best stories spring from this loss of identity. Nearly 2,500 years ago Sophocles dramatized this phenomenon in Oedipus the King, a tale of a man whose birth was accompanied by a prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother. The parents attempt to circumvent the prophecy by ordering the infant slain, but to no avail. Oedipus is saved and brought up by foster parents, completely ignorant of his identity. Eventually he fulfills the prophecy. When at last the secret of his identity is revealed, his mother commits suicide and Oedipus puts out his own eyes.
This motif of hidden identity and forgotten knowledge manifests not merely in classic Greek drama, but in every literary form. It appears even in fairy tales, where protagonists like Beauty’s Beast and the Frog Prince lose their humanity. Rapunzel’s prince retains his identity, but he wanders in blindness. Similarly, Hansel and Gretel lose their way in the forest despite their best efforts. Princesses also succumb to identity loss, as we learn from Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. Even Cinderella’s true station in life is a mystery to her prince.
The fairy tales generally have happy endings, or at least the Disney renditions make them so, but that is not the case in every tale of this sort. One might say this identity issue is a perpetual human condition. We make it worse by ignoring our history, severing the connection with our fathers and mothers of ages past. This ignorance, whether self-inflicted or imposed by other forces, is the foundation of George Santayana’s famous warning, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. It is also a reflection of prophetic truth uttered by two men of God in the 8th century BCE:
My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I also will reject you from being My priest. Since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children. (Hosea 4:6 NASB)
Therefore My people go into exile for their lack of knowledge; and their honorable men are famished, and their multitude is parched with thirst. (Isaiah 5:13 NASB)
When General Lew Wallace published Ben Hur in 1880, he had no idea that his tale of a wrongfully condemned Jewish prince would have such an impact on modern audiences. It is a tale of redemption, being the product of Wallace’s own investigation into the validity of the Christian faith. The epic scale of the story lends itself to the big screen, but Hollywood’s first effort at bringing Wallace’s characters to life in 1925 fell short of the mark. It took another generation of filmmakers, capitalizing on improved technology and cinematic techniques, to do justice to the tale. The result was William Wyler’s 1959 production of Ben Hur, a film that surpassed the achievements of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, released just three years previously. Wyler and DeMille both worked with the same leading man: Charlton Heston, a handsome actor known for his portrayals of tough men of action. Heston’s depiction of Moses remains the standard for cinematic portrayals of Israel’s Lawgiver, but it was his role as Judah Ben Hur which won him an Oscar as Best Actor.
The story follows Judah in his quest for revenge after his family is unjustly accused and sentenced for allegedly attempting to kill the new Roman governor of Judea. His mother and sister are taken to prison, but Judah is condemned to a hellish existence rowing the galleys of Rome’s navy. After three years his ship receives a new commander, Consul Quintus Arrius (played by Jack Hawkins), who leads the fleet against pirates who have menaced the sea lanes. On inspecting the rowers, Arrius takes notice of Judah as a man full of hate, but able to control it, a trait the Consul finds useful. Upon concluding his inspection Arrius offers this advice:
Now listen to me, all of you. You are all condemned men. We keep you alive to serve this ship. So row well, and live.
Judah finds opportunity to do more than that. In battle his ship is rammed and sinks, but he is able to escape and save the life of Consul Arrius. Later they learn the Roman fleet has won the day and Arrius is a hero. He returns to Rome, bringing Judah with him in hope of repaying the debt of his life. Judah becomes a famous chariot racer, trusted with some of his master’s most prized possessions. In time, Arrius rewards Judah with the greatest gift he can bestow: adoption as his son and heir.
Eventually Judah returns home, finds his mother and sister, and avenges the wrong done to his house. Yet it is not until he encounters Yeshua (Jesus) of Nazareth that he finds true peace. Lew Wallace’s story is, after all, a tale of the Christ, and would be incomplete without the redemption the Messiah offers. The roots of the story, however, go back to the time of Moses, when he spoke these words to the people of Israel:
The Lord has today declared you to be His people, a treasured possession, as He promised you, and that you should keep all His commandments; and that He will set you high above all nations which He has made, for praise, fame, and honor; and that you shall be a consecrated people to the Lord your God, as He has spoken. (Deuteronomy 26:18-19 NASB)
As with all good spy stories, the 1968 movie adaptation of Alistair MacLean’s Ice Station Zebra does not reveal the full truth until near the end. All we know at the beginning is that a US Navy submarine is on a mission to rescue British scientists trapped at a weather station on the Arctic ice pack. We realize something unusual is afoot since the boat’s captain, James Ferraday (played by Rock Hudson), has been ordered to take aboard not only a platoon of Marines, but also a British Intelligence officer who goes by the name Jones (Patrick McGoohan). At sea they are joined by Boris Vaslov (Ernest Borgnine), a Russian defector. After an act of sabotage nearly destroys the submarine, Captain Ferraday confronts Vaslov, asking why he should not believe him to be the saboteur. Vaslov responds, “That should be obvious, Captain. I was born a Russian, but I chose my side out of conviction, not by accident of birth.” Jones vouches for him, and the mission continues.
In time the submarine reaches the destination and breaks through the Arctic ice near Ice Station Zebra. As the Navy crewmen rescue the surviving scientists, Jones and Vaslov go about the real business of the mission. Ferraday finds opportunity to speak with Jones alone as the British agent searches for what we learn is a canister of highly sensitive photographic film created in the United States for use in a British camera of extraordinary technical capabilities. Soviet agents had stolen the film and the camera, and the Soviet Union adapted both for use in a spy satellite. Jones explains this in one of the movie’s most famous lines:
The Russians put our camera made by “our” German scientists and your film made by “your” German scientists into their satellite made by “their” German scientists, and up it went, round and round, whizzing by the United States of America seven times a day.
Just as the film canister is discovered, a force of Soviet paratroopers lands near the ice station. Their mission, of course, is also to recover the film canister. It is at that point that we learn Vaslov’s convictions are not as strong as he would have others believe. He assaults Jones and reveals himself as a double agent whose real intent is to assist the Soviets in recovering the film. As the American and Soviet forces engage in a firefight, Jones kills Vaslov. The fighting ends when the hopelessly outnumbered Americans agree to surrender the canister, but then succeed in destroying it by a final act of intrigue. Having no further reason to remain in conflict, both sides withdraw, leaving the body of the treacherous Vaslov on the ice.
Boris Vaslov teaches us an eternal truth. Unable to choose between two identities, in the end he loses them both. So it is with everyone who halts between allegiance to the Kingdom of Heaven and the kingdom of this world. It is best to choose wisely since Scripture provides an unambiguous statement on the conclusion of this matter:
Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.” (Revelation 11:15 NRSV)
One wonders whether Lewis Carroll required chemical substances to help him create the absurd worlds of his literature. Readers of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and audiences of the screen and stage adaptations thereof often conclude that the author – whose real name was Charles Dodgson – must have been on opium or some other sort of mind-altering substance fashionable in Victorian England. If we are to believe the Lewis Carroll Society of North America and other authoritative sources, there is no truth in such allegations. How, then, could a rational man come up with such outrageous fiction, creating characters and situations that defy logic and even sanity? Most likely Carroll would have explained in the same way C.S. Lewis explained how he could create the diabolical correspondence of the demon Screwtape a generation later:
Some have paid me an undeserved compliment by supposing that my Letters were the ripe fruit of many years’ study in moral and ascetic theology. They forgot that there is an equally reliable, though less creditable, way of learning how temptation works. “My heart”—I need no other’s—“showeth me the wickedness of the ungodly.” (C.S. Lewis, 1961. The Screwtape Letters with Screwtape Proposes a Toast. New York: MacMillan.)
What Professor Lewis tells us is that all humans have the capacity to imagine evil, and to act upon it once it is imagined. Evil is abnormal; the opposite of good and right and true. If our hearts are inclined toward evil, they are also inclined toward everything else that is contrary to good and right and true – things which are unsuitable, wrong, and illogical. That is why Carroll can depict an absurd criminal trial with such success. The King and Queen of Hearts sit as judges to determine the guilt or innocence of the Knave, who stands accused of having stolen the Queen’s tarts. As judge, the King has trouble getting beyond his instructions to the jury to consider the verdict before any evidence has been given. As witnesses, the Mad Hatter and the Knave say nothing of substance, and throughout the trial no one seems to care that the stolen tarts are there in the courtroom, presumably having been returned by the thief. The trial ends with a mockery of due process of law as the Queen says, “Sentence first—verdict afterwards”, and then pronounces summary judgment on Alice: “Off with her head!”
The sad thing about this trial is that it is not far removed from reality. For much, perhaps most, of history unjust judges have made people’s lives miserable and shorter than they should be. This is true even for judges among the people of God, which is why in promising to restore His nation of Israel, YHVH delivers this glowing promise:
“Then I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counselors as at the beginning; after that you will be called the city of righteousness, a faithful city.” Zion will be redeemed with justice and her repentant ones with righteousness. (Isaiah 1:26-27 NASB)
The great military leaders of World War II include nine who attained the highest rank awarded by the United States of America. Those five-star leaders are Generals of the Army George C. Marshall, Douglas MacArthur, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Omar Bradley; Fleet Admirals William D. Leahy, Ernest King, Chester W. Nimitz, and William Halsey, Jr.; and General of the Air Force Henry H. Arnold. Each man accomplished great things for his nation, and all deserved the honors bestowed on them, yet some students of history would say there is a name missing from the list. Where is George S. Patton, Jr.?
Patton died too soon, losing his life as the result of an automobile accident in December 1945. Had he lived he might eventually have become a five-star general. Might, that is, had he been able to refrain from the controversy that followed him throughout his very public military career. By the time World War II erupted he had proven his worth at home and abroad, including combat operations in Mexico and France. Less than a year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Patton commanded the only all-American force in Operation Torch, the Allied landings on North Africa in November 1942. His Western Task Force conducted the longest amphibious operation in history, sailing from Hampton Roads, Virginia, to the shores of French Morocco. From there he went on to a stunning series of battlefield successes in Tunisia, Sicily, France, and Germany.
Along with Patton’s skilled leadership came his shortcomings: a volatile temper, and a tendency to speak indiscreetly. Twice in Sicily he encountered soldiers suffering from battle fatigue; both times he slapped them and accused them of cowardice. For that he was reprimanded and kept from a field command for nearly a year. When he returned to combat in command of the Third Army, he engineered the breakout from the Normandy beachhead and raced across France at astonishing speed. December 1944 witnessed his greatest battlefield accomplishment: the relief of Bastogne at the height of the Battle of the Bulge. Patton’s troops remained on the offensive thereafter, advancing across Germany and into Czechoslovakia. After the war, as an occupation commander, he continued to generate controversy by retaining former Nazi Party members in positions of authority in the belief that they were best qualified to restore and run Germany’s shattered infrastructure. While he had good reason, Patton chose to defend his decision by saying that membership in the Nazi Party in Germany was no different than membership in the Democratic or Republican parties in the United States. His remarks came at the time when the heinous crimes of the Third Reich were becoming public knowledge. As a result, he was relieved of command of Third Army and assigned to the less prestigious post he occupied at the time of his death.
As with all people it is impossible to separate Patton’s strengths from his weaknesses. Patton could “read” an enemy, understanding not only his opponent’s capabilities, but also his state of mind. That ability made him one of the greatest battlefield commanders of modern warfare. What kept him from true greatness was his inability to control himself – or, more accurately, what came out of his mouth. In that sense George Patton was very much like Balaam, a man who aspired to greatness, but whose inability to match his words with his deeds ensured that he would never attain it.
Is it possible to be a hero without paying a price? A hero is one who does something worthy of esteem on behalf of someone else, and that requires sacrifice. Sometimes it requires the sacrifice of a life, and sometimes merely the sacrifice of time and attention. Sometimes heroes save nations, and sometimes they save little children from tears of embarrassment, pain, or grief. Every act of salvation, no matter how small, entails a sacrifice that someone offers willingly. And that is what makes a hero.
We learn about heroes in The Karate Kid, a 1984 film starring Ralph Macchio as Daniel Larusso, a fatherless teenager very much in need of a hero. Daniel suffers a vicious beating by boys from a local martial arts school. He is saved by a humble janitor, Mr. Miyagi (played by Noriyuki “Pat” Morita), who drives off the attackers with a masterful display of karate skills. Before long Mr. Miyagi agrees to teach karate to Daniel. The instruction begins when Miyagi assigns Daniel a number of hard tasks. First he must wash and wax Miyagi’s antique automobiles, using special hand motions to “wax on” and “wax off”. Then he must sand the walkway around Miyagi’s house, paint the fence around the property, and finally paint the house itself. Each task features a specific set of hand motions. After days of arduous labor, Daniel complains that he has learned nothing about karate while working like a slave. Miyagi responds by having Daniel perform the hand motions for each task. He then throws punches and kicks at Daniel, demonstrating that “wax on, wax off”, “sand the floor”, “paint the fence”, and “paint the house” have trained the boy to defend against attacks from many angles. As he blocks Miyagi’s attacks, Daniel realizes the truth: his faithfulness in seemingly unconnected menial tasks has made him ready for further instruction and greater responsibility in the art of karate.
In time Daniel becomes competent at karate and confident in himself as Miyagi’s training transforms him from a self-absorbed braggart into a self-controlled warrior. In the concluding scenes he enters a martial arts tournament where he faces the boys who first attacked him. Each is a formidable opponent, yet while Daniel learned karate as a means of disciplining himself in service of others, they had learned it as a means to exalt themselves over the weak. They do not realize that the humble attitude Miyagi cultivated in Daniel has made him stronger and better able to withstand pain and suffering. Their combined efforts at wounding and weakening Daniel only help him discover deeper wells of strength which in the end bring him victory.
This is a life lesson few are willing to learn. Either we walk humbly in the confidence of our King, or we get eaten by our adversary. As the Apostle Peter says:
You younger men, likewise, be subject to your elders; and all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you. Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. (I Peter 5:5-8 NASB)
At the distance of two hundred years the specter of Napoleon Bonaparte is no longer frightening. Now he is nothing more than a historical figure often depicted as a comic caricature of the man who once ruled most of Europe. In his lifetime he inspired admiration to the point of worship not only for his genius at the art of war, but for his genius at bringing responsible government out of the chaotic revolution of France. Yet his ambition pushed him beyond the limits of himself and of France, and in time he lost everything.
We have a picture passed on through the years of a bitter Napoleon who blames everyone but himself for his setbacks. That is the picture C.S. Lewis invokes in his description of Napoleon in hell in his classic work, The Great Divorce. A similar picture appears in Waterloo, the 1970 movie about Napoleon’s final battle starring Rod Steiger as the Emperor. In the midst of the battle, illness overcomes Napoleon and compels him to leave the field briefly. During that time Marshal Michel Ney (played by Dan O’Herlihy), Napoleon’s trusted subordinate, orders the French cavalry to attack when he believes the enemy is retreating. What he does not realize is that the Duke of Wellington (played by Christopher Plummer) has ordered his infantry to shift their position to the other side of the hill they occupied. As the French cavalry charge, the British infantry form squares, a tactic designed for defense against cavalry. In charge after charge, the French horsemen expend their lives to little effect, eventually crippling that arm of Napoleon’s force and contributing significantly to his ultimate defeat. In the movie, Napoleon returns to the field just as Ney is leading the charge. In rage and dismay he says,
What’s he doing? What’s Ney doing? What’s happening? Can’t I leave the field for a minute? What’s he doing there? How can a man go forward with the cavalry without infantry support? What’s the matter with you?
To the military mind this outburst is perfectly understandable. Napoleon the general trained his men well and expected them to act not only with initiative, but also according to his commands and within the parameters of good order and discipline. It is no surprise that he became angry at learning that a trusted and experienced subordinate acted impetuously, violating a cardinal principle of war and endangering the entire army. It is the same reason our God becomes very angry when His people disregard the good order, discipline, and sound judgment He expects of them.
Walking Through The Open Gate
An Enduring Standard
We see from Scripture that the Creator’s processes are lengthy, thorough, and often completely different from what humans desire or expect. This should not be a surprise. YHVH says quite plainly that His ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts. Nevertheless, He does tell us what we need to know, and He reveals things at the appointed times to those who bother to seek Him. What we often learn is that the answer has been there all along, but we have never understood it correctly until the right time and until we approach with the right heart. When it comes to the purpose of the Lord’s processes regarding His people Israel, the answer has been staring at us for about 3,000 years. He spoke it through Moses to prepare the people for their first great meeting with Him at Sinai:
In the third month after the sons of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day they came into the wilderness of Sinai. When they set out from Rephidim, they came to the wilderness of Sinai and camped in the wilderness; and there Israel camped in front of the mountain. Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel: You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel.” (Exodus 19:1-6 NASB, emphasis added)