The Futility of Fighting Sin with Sin

Ring PendantI think I may have started to find narrative more persuasive and more compelling than propositions (that’s quite a step for me). Again I have been thinking about Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, this time I have been thinking about sin through Tolkien’s spectacular metaphor of the ring. After Shelob’s lair – potentially the most exhilarating episode in the book – Sam believes Frodo to be dead and, after some deliberation, comes to the realisation that the responsibility of bearing the ring has fallen to him. This means that Sam carried it briefly and, for a short time, even wore it. My interest is the battle of wills that ensues as Sam puts on the ring.

The objective of the fellowship has always been the defeat of Sauron. The objective is a good one. It is the means of that objective being fulfilled that shifts and it is in the shift that Sauron would triumph. Sam barely wears the ring but simply having it hanging around his neck gives him courage and makes him fearsome in the eyes of orc enemies.

Already the Ring tempted him, gnawing at his will and reason. Wild fantasies arose in his mind; and he saw Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age, striding with a flaming sword across the darkened land, and armies flocking to his call as he marched to the overthrow of Barad-dûr. And then all the clouds rolled away, and the white sun shone, and at his command the vale of Gorgoroth became a garden of flowers and trees and brought forth fruit. He had only to put on the Ring and claim it for his own, and all this could be.

Were he to wear it and try to wield it, it would certainly destroy him. His will would be engulfed in the will of Sauron and his good desire to defeat Sauron would turn into the evil desire for the power; the power for which Sauron himself longed (this is the vice of the ring; into it was poured all of Sauron’s evil will such that it will corrupt the will of whoever wears it).

While Sam’s desire to defeat Sauron remains and is still good, conflicting desires flare up that are evil and as Tolkien allows us briefly to peak into Sam’s ring-induced imaginings, we are exposed to the subtle yet perilous shift in means. Sauron’s defeat need not come at the expense of the ring; Sam is tempted by the idea that in his own power (with the help of the ring), he could overthrow Sauron. The seductive but errant notion that the defeat of evil need not come at the expense of evil.

Figurine: Gollum with The RingThe concept is illuminating. How often I now find myself using a sinful means to try to defeat sin. Allow me to illustrate, a man beats his wife. He knows it’s wrong but he constantly finds he succumbs to the temptation. He realises, however, that should this be discovered he would lose his reputation – a reputation that has become an idol to him. He therefore puts a stop to beating his wife in order to maintain his reputation. Of course, he would still beat his wife if no one could discover him. What’s more, the sinful passion that was fed as he found satisfaction in his sin will only find another outlet. Worst of all, in my opinion, he willfully feeds a sinful desire.

On the contrary, Sauron will not be defeated by the use of the ring, only by its destruction. Sin will not be defeated by the use of sin. This is why we are urged time and again to “put to death” “the deeds of the body” (Romans 8:13) and “what is earthly in you” (Colossians 3:5). Sin cannot be wielded for good, it can only corrupt. It began in Eden with a desire to be like God – a good desire (which will be accomplished by Christ in us) – but a sinful means in the serpent’s whisperings to Eve, “You need only eat the fruit and claim it for your own, and all this could be.” How often I take the bait.

Evil can only be overthrown by direct assault, only the pursuit of righteousness will defeat evil. So my exhortation is, “put to death whatever is earthly in you” and “clothe yourselves with compassionate hearts.”

A Light that Shines in the Darkness

Shelob, Frodo and SamI’ve been reading Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and have loved his narrative. One of the remarkable capacities of story is its emotive power and I’ve been thinking about how to utilise this in preaching. In the second book of the trilogy (The Two Towers), Sam and Frodo come to Cirith Ungol – home of Shelob, the mother of all spiders (literally and  idiomatically). In trying to make their way through her lair, the hobbits inevitably encounter this terrible creature. There is no escape for them, Shelob is at home in the darkness and her webs line the caverns which are stiflingly dark to the hobbits’ eyes. Frodo then remembers the gift he received which is essentially a bottled star; “a light when all other lights go out”. This he produces from his cloak and they see their dreadful foe and her mountainous eyes. As the light strengthens in Frodo’s hand and flares out to all the crevices of the cave Tolkein writes the following observing Shelob’s eyes:

They wavered. Doubt came into them as the light approached. One by one they dimmed, and slowly they drew back. No brightness so deadly had ever afflicted them before. From sun and moon and star they had been safe underground, but now a star had descended into the very earth. Still it approached, and the eyes began to quail. One by one they all went dark; they turned away, and a great bulk, beyond the light’s reach, heaved its huge shadow in between. They were gone.

It’s been difficult to read Tolkien and not think of the Bible. As I read this all I could hear was:

4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. … 9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.

Imagine hearing a sermon on John 1:1-13 that brings its audience into the kind of story that Frodo and Sam find themselves in at Cirith Ungol. In which the audience realises that the spiritual darkness they live in is not unlike Frodo and Sam’s:

the air was still, stagnant, heavy, and sound fell dead. They walked as it were in a black vapour wrought of veritable darkness itself that, as it was breathed, brought blindness not only to the eyes but to the mind, so that even the memory of colours and of forms and of any light faded out of thought. Night always had been, and always would be, and night was all.

The darkness in which we find ourselves is not passive in it’s lightlessness; it increases the depth of darkness in our minds and our hearts. And living in that darkness which is itself our enemy, is the mother darkness who wishes to devour us. We must flee but we are blind and trapped. We must see but it is impossible. We are in desperate need of light or not only will we never find the way but we will be consumed.

But what light can be hoped for in this deep shadow?
What brightness could ever penetrate the place we find ourselves?

Well there is a light of all mankind that shines in the darkness. A light that even the deep darkness cannot overcome. The true light that gives light to everyone, a light that descended from the heavens into the very earth and at its approach, the darkness quails.

It is not mere narrative: darkness quails!

Admittedly, this is poor exegetical work on John. Nevertheless, given due exegetical time, I would find such delivery compelling. I wish preaching were more like this.