About the Book
“Show me a hero and I’ll show you a tragedy.” --F. Scott Fitzgerald
For my birthday one year my wife gave me a book about Sir Ernest Shackleton, the legendary explorer who in 1914 attempted to be the first to circumnavigate Antarctica from sea to sea, only to endure epic hardships after his ship (prophetically named the Endurance) got stuck in pack ice. For most of the ensuing year the Endurance slowly morphed from a seagoing icebreaker to a ghostly frozen outpost, with its rigging sheathed in ice and its desperate crew counting on the spring thaw to set them free again. But instead the thaw sent hulking blocks of bluish ice crashing into the ship’s thick hull. And after a month spent bracing themselves against the pummeling, the twenty-seven men of the Endurance abandoned ship, camping on the pack ice as the sea’s frozen incisors slowly chewed and swallowed its timbers. The last to slip below the surface was the mast, a barren tree on the frozen expanse. And in the eerie aftermath Shackleton’s men knew that catastrophe was about to accelerate into tragedy. They were almost a thousand miles from help, with dwindling provisions, subzero weather, no means of communication, grinding ice behind them, and treacherous waters in front of them. And no Endurance.
One thing they had going for them—some historians would say the only thing they had going for them—was the remarkable will of Ernest Shackleton, a man whose capacity for hope seems borrowed from heroic fiction. By the following summer he had willed the entire party—every last man who’d been on that ship—safely home. They had to eat their beloved sled dogs to survive. They had to fit up salvaged lifeboats for a harrowing five-day journey over open water to the temporary safety of Elephant Island. They had to fashion a makeshift sail for Shackleton and five of his men, then point the largest of their lifeboats toward a distant whaling station on South Georgia Island, across the widow-making southern ocean. Along the way they had to survive twenty-foot swells that often engulfed their twenty-two-foot boat, a kind of sleepless dementia that reduced some of the men to a catatonic fetal position, frostbitten fingers encased in ice and frozen to the oars, and navigational challenges akin to sinking a basket from the upper deck (historians call it the single greatest feat of open-boat navigating ever). Once in sight of South Georgia’s craggy shores, hurricane-force winds threatened to smash the boat on outlying rock formations. Finally, the half-dead men hauled their little boat onto the shore of a tiny rock cove. And then Shackleton and two of his men had to cross the width of the island’s forbidding, unmapped, mountainous interior in one thirty-six-hour all-or-nothing death march to the whaling station on the leeward side of the island.
The men, determined apparitions, stumbled out of the frozen mist of the mountains and shuffled into the Stromness station, where the shocked workers at first insisted their story couldn’t be true. From that moment, Shackleton’s name was legend.
Apsley Cherry-Garrar, writing about his experiences with the great Antarctic explorer Robert Scott in his book, The Worst Journey In the World, says: “For a joint scientific and geographical piece of organization, give me Scott; for a Winter Journey, Wilson; for a dash to the Pole and nothing else, Amundsen: and if I am in the devil of a hole and want to get out of it, give me Shackleton every time.”
Now, that’s some kind of a man.
It’s an understatement to say Shackleton’s story captured me— the effect was more like addiction. I took the book with me on a four-day vacation, and every morning I’d get up at 5:00 or 6:00 a.m. and eat through its pages like a starving man. Shackleton’s courage romanced me—his capacity for swallowing pain and then persevering mesmerized me. It was hard to resist the lure to worship him as if he were a kind of god.
But the final scenes in Shackleton’s life are unbearably and heartbreakingly human.
Away from the heroic challenges of his Antarctic explorations, he was ill-equipped for the normal life of a husband and father. He grew restless for the financial security that had eluded him all his life, so he launched many wrongheaded and failed business ventures, ultimately descending into alcoholism and dying of a heart attack more than one million dollars in debt.
The story’s end bashes hard against the soul.
How is it possible that the same kind of everyday frustrations and failures common to you and me should cut the legs out from under a man of this magnitude? How could he survive the harshest conditions on earth but crumple under the weight of his mortgage? The thought of a transcendent figure like Shackleton disintegrating because of the assaults of his day-to-day disillusionments fueled a kind of outrage in me. I turned the last page then snapped the book shut to punctuate my frustration and dissonance. If the drip- drip-drip of our everyday pains, those familiar discouragements and imploded hopes, can eat away the soul of a giant, then what chance do we relative midgets have? Titanic resolve compressed Shackleton’s soul into granite; then a thousand tiny pains consumed it, like rock- eating termites.
Later that same year I read about a similar dismantling at work in the story of Meriwether Lewis, the incomparable leader of the greatest expedition in North American history.3 He, like Shackleton, led a handpicked group of brave men in one of the most improbable feats of survival ever recorded, returning from his explorations of the western frontier with every last man (save for one who died of an unknown illness) safely home. But forced to merge back into the flow of normal life, Lewis tried and failed to handle its challenges, slowly disintegrating into a shell of his former self and ultimately committing suicide.
In my soul something dark and dreadful grows. How am I to beat back the rock-eating termites when they swarm? In A Long Obedience In the Same Direction Eugene Peterson writes: “Unpleasant things happen to us. We lose what we think we cannot live without. Pain comes to those we love, and we conclude that there is no justice. Why does God permit this? Anxiety seeps into our hearts. We have the precarious feeling of living under a Damoclean sword. When will the ax fall on me? If such a terrible thing could happen to my friend who is good, how long until I get
The Damoclean sword (“the threat of imminent harm”) that is Shackleton’s story reminds me that it’s so often not the big things that bring us down; even we midgets somehow summon the courage to face obvious life-threatening challenges. Rather, it’s the everyday holocausts that carry the leverage to take us out—the sucker punches that buffet us when all we’re trying to do is raise our kids, work our job, and make sure we have perpetual access to a good four dollar cup of coffee.
The Attack of the Termites
In an email response to a close friend who’d written to encourage us, my wife chronicled our own infestation of termites after a church leader blindsided us with a painful accusation, leaving us feeling pummeled and crushed:
Life has simply been overwhelming for me. I received your emails after a very trying and exhaust- ing time. I haven’t had the energy to respond. Your words were nourishing for my soul. Actually, it was hard to really take them in. I wanted to dismiss them in light of what recently happened to Rick and me. On top of [the accusation], in the last ten days:
• Both of our cars have needed expensive repairs—Rick’s just suddenly stopped on the street and could have led to a catastrophic accident if it had been on the highway where he does most of his driving; We have mounting financial pressures from my extraordinary medical care, and we’re scrambling to find ways to address them;
• Emma broke two bones in her wrist the night before we were to leave for Seattle for a friend’s wedding—we spent the night in the emergency room with her, wondering if we should simply cancel the trip;
• A copper water pipe broke in our crawl space, pouring water into our basement area an hour before we were to leave for the airport;
• I reached a tipping point in my parenting challenges, and we went to meet with a family therapist this week to deal with our issues;
• Our garage door broke, leaving us stranded in our house an hour before Rick was to go and teach a new class at church;
• and I started on an antidepressant drug because things just became too overwhelming for me.
No, there are no capital-T tragedies on this list--they are simply the vanguard of the army of rock-eating termites. And, as you might suspect from your own termite infestations, a little over a month after my wife wrote this note we’d already fumigated most of them....
• We’d met face-to-face with the person who’d accused us and had started down the path toward reconciliation;
• we’d somehow found a way to fix both cars;
• we’d refinanced our house to put ourselves in a better financial situation;
• my six-year-old daughter, Emma, was out of her cast and somersaulting around the house again;
• we’d met twice with a family counselor, and our home environment was much more peaceful and kind;
• a plumber fixed our water pipe while we were away in Seattle;
• the garage door is as good as new; and
• the mild antidepressant Bev took helped stabilize a downward spiral of emotions.
No one died. No one was abducted by aliens or Richard Simmons. No one gave up or gave in. But for a long while we wondered how much we could handle before the walls crumbled around us, like Aragorn and his warrior companions must have felt defending the gates of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers. So we survived the swarm ... again. And the wizard Gandalf thunders down the mountain with his army of horsemen to save the fighters at Helm’s Deep—--a day-late rescue that smells a lot like most of our own rescues. But what’s left of our ramparts after the assault? Smashed walls. The dead. The traumatized survivors. I’ve always heard that “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”--well, it might also be true that “whatever doesn’t kill you maims you.” We walk with limps, but we hide them well behind our stiff upper lips.
Max Lucado writes: “Many live their lives in the shadows. Many never return. Some dismiss.... ‘Well, everybody has a little slip now and then.’ Some deny.... ‘These aren’t bruises. These aren’t cuts. I’m as healthy as I’ve ever been. Me and Jesus? We are tight.’ Some distort.... ‘I’m not to blame. It’s his fault. It’s society’s responsibility.... Don’t point the finger at me.’ When we fall, we can dismiss it. We can deny it. We can distort it. Or we can deal with it.”
We know this truth about following Christ: Pain abounds, but grace abounds more. But is this alchemy mutually dependent? Has God decreed that we gorge on one to taste the other? And why is it such a certainty that pain abounds?
One of my favorite songs is Tonio K.’s “You Will Go Free”—--the first stanza perfectly sums up what C. S. Lewis called “the problem of pain”:
You’ve been a prisoner ...
Been a prisoner all your life
Held captive in an alien world
Where they hold your need for love to your throat like a knife
And they make you jump
And they make you do tricks
They take what started off such an innocent heart
And they break it and break it and break it
Until it almost can’t be fixed
Pain breaks and breaks and breaks.
It’s as if we stumbled into the middle of the gods at batting practice, our heads repeatedly mistaken for the ball. And in the devastated emotional landscape that remains after our breaking, these questions sit in the rubble:
• “Who are the ‘they’ that are ‘breaking and breaking and breaking’ my heart?”
• “Why are ‘they’ doing this to me?”
• “Why does God feel like such a fickle ally--if He’s supposed to be for me, why does it so often seem that He’s against me?”
• “Where can I find relief, and what will it cost me to get it?”
• “What can I do to stop this from happening again, and who will show me the secret formula?”
• “How will I go on, now that I know this can and will happen to me?”
Our False GPS
Our questions about the pummeling we experience seem scandal- ous—we know we’re not supposed to ask them out loud in polite company. Our job is to be good soldiers, keeping our noses to life’s grindstone even when God seems terribly unconcerned about the rock-eating termites chewing away at us. So we stumble our way around in the dark, trusting a kind of false GPS for our souls— the fundamental belief that the universe rewards good people with a good life and punishes bad people with their just deserts. When bad things happen to good people our first reaction is disbelief and amazement--it’s a sucker punch--because “it doesn’t make sense.” Right? Our GPS is no help here. And even though we wouldn’t phrase it just this way, we treat the universe of non-good people as if it were as tiny as a mustard seed--Hitler, for sure, and Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden and Pol Pot and child sexual abusers and the DMV in general. But pretty much all the people we know consider themselves “good” and therefore fundamentally undeserving of the beating they’re taking from the pain actually meant for the tiny secret society of “bad people.”
Peterson writes: We have been told the lie ever since we can remember: human beings are basically nice and good. Everyone is born equal and innocent and self-sufficient. The world is a pleasant, harmless place. We are born free. If we are in chains now, it is someone’s fault, and we can correct it with just a little more intelligence or effort or time. How we can keep on believing this after so many centuries of evidence to the contrary is difficult to comprehend, but nothing we do and nothing anyone else does to us seems to disenchant us from the spell of the lie. We keep expecting things to get better somehow. And when they don’t, we whine like spoiled children who don’t get their way.
Several years ago I surveyed almost ten thousand Christian teenagers and adults serving together in a summer outreach program and asked them this question: “Can a good person earn eternal salvation through good deeds?” One out of five Christian adults answered yes, and twice that percentage of teenagers agreed. And, I have to say, I think these were just the honest ones. After decades spent asking Christian people questions like this one and comparing their answers to how they—and I—actually live, I’m positive that most of those who answered with the theologically-correct no are functionally living their lives in contradiction of their beliefs. I mean, we say it’s God’s goodness, not ours, that saves us. But you’ll understand your own “functional theology” when you realize how quickly you get defensive when someone hints that all is not “well with your soul” or how quickly you think ill of someone who’s going through repeated hardships.
As an elder at my church I’m on the list to receive a weekly report of all the prayer requests that have been formally submitted to us. I’ve noticed that there are a handful of people who always show up on the list, and I’ve also noticed that I must fight the temptation to agree with a subtle-but-brazen judgment that whispers in my head: “That person must be messed up.” Can you relate? If you can, we’re both in the company of Job’s friends, who were pretty sure the great man was hiding his festering sins under a legendary veneer of goodness. And they were even more sure that God had pointed a sewer pipe of catastrophic circumstances at their friend and opened wide the valve, essentially blasting away at him with the brown stuff until he admitted what had to be true—that he deserved what he was getting. In the functional theology of Job’s friends—and, as it turns out, our own--God is well qualified to work as an interrogator at Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib. He will surface what we’re hiding by torturing it out of us....
This is exactly why the book of Job is known by most but studied by few—its premise frightens and confuses us. Good thing the outcome is a fairy-tale ending, or the whole thing would be unendurable--an even less likely choice for the midweek women’s Bible study. Job’s friends, later discredited and lambasted by God, believe exactly what we believe: that no matter what we tell ourselves to the contrary, good people are rewarded in life and bad people are punished. The certainty of this equation means that Job, because of his kitchen sink full of tragedies, must assuredly be hiding some secret (and whopper) sins. His friends’ approach to counseling makes logical sense--reveal what you’ve done wrong, repent of it, and maybe God will turn off the spigot.
So some of us, following the advice of Job’s friends, respond by repeatedly begging for God’s blanket forgiveness for the vaguest of sins or by finding someone or something to blame for our catastrophes. Many more of us respond by determining to work ever harder to be good, or by keeping our bad carefully camouflaged, or by vowing to trudge on under an ever-increasing burden of doubt and guilt--or by metaphorically jabbing our finger at God and threatening to outwit and outlast Him, as if we were the last two competitors on Survivor. In the seasons of our lives when we feel like we can relate to Job, we often struggle with shame. It’s the shame of our failure to measure up to God’s exacting standards of goodness, the same unreasonable shame that Job’s friends “gifted” their friend with.
We Still Haven’t Found What We’re Looking For
One Saturday afternoon I was running errands in my car and listening to National Public Radio’s award-winning show This American Life. Host Ira Glass is the midwife for the life stories of average people who’ve experienced extraordinary moments in their lives. On this day I was captured by the story of a young woman whose best friend had died suddenly. Over and over she repeated to Glass that her friend was “the best person I ever knew” and it simply made “no sense” that death had hunted her down. In fact, she said, she would have gladly taken her friend’s place in death because, she admitted, she was no angel. She could not bear to live in a world that punished the good people while turning a blind eye to the bad people. She’d rather be dead than live in a world ruled by such a capricious god.
So, at her friend’s funeral, she cornered a pastor and asked him to explain why God would torture to death such a shining example of goodness. The pastor, unfortunately, was not up to the challenge. Instead of directly addressing her fears and confusion, he tried to evangelize her. And that left the desperate woman full of angst and unanswered questions. So Glass offered to join her on a follow-up conference call (recorded live for his radio show) to the pastor, to pursue again her questions and help her squeeze out the answers she was looking for. I listened to the whole interchange and could feel my own tension mount as the pastor tried to answer this woman’s grief, confusion, and terror with a flannel-board description of Original Sin and another rote-sounding attempt to entice her into the kingdom of God.
Finally, the exasperated woman responded, “So you’re saying that because Adam and Eve sinned an incredibly long time ago that my friend had to die? I just don’t get that.”10 No, we don’t get it. Even though we’ve prayed and read books and listened to sermons and talked to wise friends, we agree with Bono’s wail--“I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”
Ultimately, the “Why this pain?” question haunts us because we’re profoundly unsatisfied with the answers we get. I’m inexorably drawn to Shackleton’s story at the same time I’m haunted by it, like a moth circling a bug light at night. It’s a mystery, and the solutions our theological Sherlocks offer us don’t seem to solve it for us. They explain it, it makes sense, and it does nothing to calm our souls. That’s because the Job story hints at something that is simply unacceptable--that not only does God Himself not intervene in all of our tragedies, He’s actually a coconspirator in some of them. If our good God, like a double agent, can unpredictably join in the destructive schemes of our enemy, “how great is the darkness” (Matt. 6:23)?
In the wake of his twenty-five-year-old son’s death in a climb- ing accident, philosopher and Yale University professor Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote:
I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth and resurrecter of Jesus Christ. I also believe that my son’s life was cut off in its prime. I cannot fit these pieces together. I am at a loss. I have read the theodices produced to justify
the ways of God to man. I find them unconvincing. To the most agonized question I have ever asked I do not know the answer. I do not know why God would watch him fall. I do not know why God would watch me wounded. I cannot even guess.
These are not entertaining mysteries--they are mysteries that wound and pummel and empty us. We can’t help ourselves; we’re driven to extremes just as King David was in the Psalms: “Why do You stand afar off, O LORD? Why do You hide Yourself in times of trouble?” (Ps. 10:1). This is why the conspiracy embedded in Job’s story is so unnerving to us, and it would be even more so if it wasn’t relegated to the Old Testament where, we tell ourselves, the stories seem so distant and over-the-top that they’re really more like moralistic fairy tales than actual accounts of actual people and their actual dealings with God. So we put stories like this not on the back burner of our lives but hidden under the stove where we don’t have to really look at them ... ever.
But these stories, like cockroaches, keep creeping out from under the stove—especially at night, when the lights go out. We’re reading along in the comfortable environment of the Jesus-loves-me New Testament and we ram right into a story about Him that, finally, makes it nearly impossible to avoid the scary truth. It happens at the end of the Last Supper, right before Jesus is betrayed, stripped, scourged, paraded through the streets, and nailed to a cross:
In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you. But the hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table. The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed, but woe to that man who betrays him.” They began to question among themselves which of them it might be who would do this.
Also a dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. You are those who have stood by me in my trials. And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”
But he replied, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.”
Jesus answered, “I tell you, Peter, before the
Here we are at the Last Supper, with the cross shading every interaction, and Jesus turns to Peter and reveals something that’s most certainly happening behind the scenes, right then at history’s crossroads. He confides in Peter, like a friend who whispers in your ear what the neighbors really think of you, that Satan has asked to “sift [him] like wheat.” And, even more disturbing than this revela- tion, Jesus doesn’t reassure Peter that He will not allow this terrible thing to happen—instead, He tells him that He has prayed that his “faith may not fail” and “when you have turned back, [that you would] strengthen your brothers.” This “sifting” is going to happen, it’s going to happen with Jesus’ permission, and it’s going to happen for a reason.
You Will Go Free
Is it possible that God is a coconspirator in our own stories of sifting? And if so, what is He really after in us? And however I answer this question, can anything be worth the price of the pain I’ve experienced, or will soon? In this story—in these three sentences uttered by Jesus to Peter—He pulls back the curtain on what’s happening, all the time, in an unseen spiritual world where the forces of darkness demand entree into our lives. He also bares His goodness. I know this makes no sense on the face of it—our realities are too cruel and the pain too central for the shallow and offensive formulas that are pandered to us. But this is no formula—it’s a journey into the deeper recesses of the heart of God, a path well stumbled by the saints of God through- out history and in the lives of those who’ve had the biggest impact for good in our own lives.
All of the people and books and music and films you and I love the most are encrusted, like priceless jewels, with pain. Name something that captures your heart that was not formed by pain. It’s ironic, of course, that pain repels us more fundamentally than anything else in our life but it produces things that are magnetic to us. Why do we live in fear of pain while, at the same time, we find ourselves drawn to its “produce” in the people and stories of our life? And why does all great art, and why do all truly great people, seem positively marinated in pain?
The mystery of our sifting is a trek into the kind of raw intimacy God once shared with His beloved Adam and Eve—it is the brutal outworking of redemption, hope, and joy in our lives. But the jour- ney is no stroll--it’s an epic and terrible adventure. A treasure hunt.
And that treasure is our freedom.
Paul reminds us of the fundamentals: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1 NIV). And, it turns out, the “epic and terrible adventure” that is the story of our journey from bondage to freedom is fraught with danger and heartbreak. Danger is an essential aspect of any adventure; without danger, it’s not really an adventure. Stopping to buy a cup of coffee does not qualify as an adventure, but it might if you’re in Baghdad. Landing an airplane on a runway is usually no adventure, but it is if your runway is the Hudson River. The danger we must face down in our own adventures is the threat of the rock-eating termites--it’s the pain that eats away at us and the terrible offense of our sifting. But the point of our life is not the pain—we are not pawns of a capricious deity or the collateral damage of an ancient metaphysical feud. We are prisoners--freedom is our only hope and sifting is its currency.
While the first stanza in Tonio K.’s song “You Will Go Free” describes the “breaking and breaking and breaking” we experience in life, his refrain is the counterpoint--it exactly describes the promise that carries us through the tunnel of our darkness:
Well, I don’t know when
And I don’t know how
I don’t know how long it’s gonna take
I don’t know how hard it will be
But I know You will go free.