Ever since Adam told his kids stories, we’ve known that no story is worth hearing unless it involves struggle. The word “protagonist” means primary or first struggler and the Old English word from which we get our word “drama” means “to strive.” The first struggler must overcome some great obstacle, so I’ve spent much of my life imagining that I’m the center of my story because I feel there is so much that I must overcome outside of myself. But…
What if I am not the first struggler and the obstacle to overcome is not outside myself?
What if I’m not the center of my own story, as we often assume, but Christ is? What if he is the protagonist, the first struggler, who overcame not only sin, but who is overcoming me. What if all of me, my heart and intentions and imagination and identity, is the great obstacle? And what if my life is NOT the story of ME overcoming my myself (which is impossible), but of Christ doing so?
I’m reminded of that astonishing story of Jacob we find in Genesis 32. It says, “The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had…And Jacob was left alone” (v. 22-24). And then, through the fog strode a strong man. Jacob wrestled with that stranger all night until the dawn when the man “touched his hip socket and Jacob’s hip was put out of join as he wrestled with him” (v. 25).
Like Jacob, I have felt alone. In that aloneness, I have felt the strong arm of God touch me and force vulnerability.
Jacob thought the stranger was an opponent until he was defeated by his opponent. Only then did he discover that the divine stranger was his fiercest ally, the great protagonist of Jacob’s story. It was never about what Jacob was doing for God. It was about what God was doing to him and the story of which he was a part.
The picture of Christ as the first struggler, the protagonist, forces an imaginative shift for us as it did for Jacob. This whole complex narrative called “Life” is not about us. We are busy, busy, busy, but busy building our own kingdoms, staying ahead of the curve, keeping up with the Joneses. We’re not often busy serving God, even in ministry, but we’re often busy serving ourselves. And there it is again, my friends: the ego which Christ, the great protagonist, is in the business of overcoming.
For this reason, G.K. Chesterton wrote, “How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it; if you could really look at other men with common curiosity and pleasure…You would begin to be interested in them, because they were not interested in you. You would break out of this tiny and tawdry theater in which your own little plot is always being played, and you would find yourself under a freer sky, in a street full of splendid strangers…How much happier you would be, how much more of you there would be, if the hammer of a higher God could smash your small cosmos, scattering the stars like spangles, and leave you open, free like other men to look up as well as down” (Orthodoxy).
Perhaps, then, our search for joy should embrace defeat. All those humbling, ego-crushing, events of life might be a secret key to joy. Perhaps this too is proof that the old paradoxes are also the best and wisest paths to joy: we live by dying, we win by losing, the way up is down, and those who are lost are found.
My life story is about God, the main character, and my life purpose is to welcome his intrusive, insistent love.
[painting by Caravaggio, “The Conversion of Paul”]