Have you ever felt like the world was getting worse, like everything was going wrong? Does it feel like no matter how hard you try, you can’t make a difference? Does it seem like the darkness is laying it on so thick that you can’t see the light? If you’ve felt that way, you’re in good company with Frodo Baggins, the hobbit faced with the impossible task of destroying the One Ring to rule them all in J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy, The Lord of the Rings.
Eighteen years after Peter Jackson released the first installment of his mammoth film adaption of The Lord of the Rings, people are still watching the trilogy, usually in 9-hour marathon-fashion (or 12-hours—don’t forget those extended editions!) The films have brought further attention to the already popular and widely praised series of books. With Amazon Studios soon to launch its own TV series based on the classic fantasy, the Lord of the Rings fever shows no signs of subsiding.
What Sort of World is This?
Why is The Lord of the Rings so popular? Perhaps because it is a story that is remarkably like our own. Of course, we don’t do battle with orcs and dark wizards, but we daily contend with the forces of evil in our world. The Scriptures teach that our battle is very much a spiritual one (Ephesians 6:12). In other words, it is not merely the outward signs of evil that we must confront—murder, sexual exploitation, slavery, pornography, terrorism, or abuse—but also the inner manifestations of evil—pride, hatred, prejudice, selfishness, and lust—and behind it all, the spiritual forces of evil who are always working to twist and contort any good thing.
Since the Fall of humans in Genesis 3, our hearts are bent toward evil, and Satan has been doing his level best to destroy us and all of God’s good creation. This is important to remember, because it is all too easy to look at the outward moral decay in our own age and declare in our discouragement that this is the worst time in history, that there has never been a period of such moral perversion, and that there really isn’t any hope for our culture.
However, we need only take a look at ancient Rome to know that this is probably not the worst age in human history. In ancient Rome, slavery, infanticide, adultery, and sexual exploitation of children and slaves were widely practiced, and sometimes even celebrated. Yet, there were still many positive contributions that ancient Roman culture made to our modern world.
In the famous opening of the novel A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens offered a profound insight about the eighteenth century world of England and France. He says, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . .in short, the period was so far like the present period . . .”¹ It was, in other words, a time like all other times. There was beauty, there was brokenness—always together.
In this view, there are no “good ol’ days,” not since Eden, anyway. There have certainly been times when the manifestation of evil has been greater than at other times, but this should not obscure the fact the human heart has long been corrupted and distorted by sin. This is not a very encouraging thought.
Pessimist or Optimist?
However, Christianity offers us a realistic view of the world. This is important because the forces of evil are strong in the world and often cause us to turn to despair. Like Frodo, we wish “none of this had happened.” We wish that our loved ones had not died. We wish that our relationship with our sibling was not broken. We wish that our marriage hadn’t fallen apart. We wish that our children hadn’t abandoned the faith. And beyond all this, we wish that abortion and slavery weren’t rampant, that there had been no wars, and that people could just live in peace.
Surprisingly, Gandalf doesn’t tell Frodo to “buck up” or “look at the bright side.” Nor does he console Frodo with the comfort of knowing that he won’t have any more problems in Heaven. Instead Gandalf, acknowledges the sadness and discouragement that Frodo feels. We should all feel this deep sadness about the world. Furthermore, we often feel that, with the level of darkness in the world, we have been given an impossible task of being the light.
We are not alone in this. Jesus himself felt this way. The Scriptures tell us that he wept at Lazarus’ grave and that he was angry with death. He may have felt that dying for the sins of the world was an impossible task. He even prayed that God might allow some other way. Jesus did not shy away from the brokenness of the world and neither should we.
However, acknowledging the brokenness of the world should not lead us to pessimism—nor to undue optimism. In his book, Orthodoxy, Christian journalist G. K. Chesterton says, “The point is not that the world is too sad to love or too glad not to love; the point is that when you do love a thing, its gladness is a reason for loving it, and its sadness a reason for loving it more.”² Our position towards the world should not be one of despair or starry-eyed optimism, but one of love and allegiance—an allegiance to the good world that God has made, and to the human beings who inhabit it.
“Is everything sad going to come untrue?”
Gandalf’s response to Frodo, not unlike Jesus’ response to our discouragement (John 16:33), is much deeper than the answers of pessimism and optimism. Rather than telling Frodo that he is wrong to be sad, Gandalf tells him that he has not yet grasped the full story. “There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of evil.”
Indeed, there are other forces at work in Middle Earth and in our own world that are much stronger than evil. There is a Person who was stronger than death, who heals our brokenness, and who will one day make all things new. God is going to remake this place and finish off the forces of evil once and for all. As Sam remarks to Gandalf near the end of The Lord of the Rings, “Is everything sad going to come untrue?”³ Yes, for “the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach”4
In The Lord of the Rings, hope springs from the most unlikely places, heroes emerge from insignificant little hobbits. Even so in our world. God wants to use us to be a part of his restoration mission for the world; and it is those who are weak, those who know the reality of their brokenness and the reality of God’s love for them who can truly make a difference in this world. Where we are weak is exactly the place where God can be strong.
We are left only with a decision—“what to do with the time that is given to us.” What to do, indeed. Will we turn to despair? Will we close our doors and shut out the world, or will we accept the part that God has given us to play in this great drama of life? The Christian worldview is realistic and we can be sure that this is neither the best of times nor the worst of times. Ultimately, that does not matter as much as what we choose to do with the time that is given to us.
Finally, we can rest assured that the weight of the world is not on our shoulders. We are not called to do this alone. Those who have trusted Christ have an incredible gift—the ever-present Holy Spirit, who empowers us to love and to serve. We are weak, frail, and incredibly broken; but our allegiance lies with a King who is stronger than death and all the forces of darkness. We are not left alone to face the darkness—and that is an encouraging thought.
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