Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Beware of Getting Everything You Wanted

Being offered exactly what you want sounds like a perfect day. What more could you ask for? Well, in some cases, being satisfied with less. Getting everything you wanted is sometimes the worst thing that could happen to you, because when you want something that badly, you don't look for the strings attached to it.

In the 2005 film Kingdom of Heaven, Orlando Bloom portrayed a knight and noble named Balian of Ibelin (loosely based on a real historical figure who led the defense of Jerusalem against Saladin in the 12th century, eventually surrendering the city peacefully). Balian is not a heroic or admirable figure in the beginning. He murders a priest in anger because the man ordered the burial of Balian's wife, who had committed suicide, to be done as if she was a lost soul condemned to hell. Balian is then taken under the protection of a crusader and noble who reveals that he fathered Balian on his way through the town many years ago.

On the way to the Holy Land, Balian's father is mortally wounded trying to resist a group hunting down Balian for the murder. He dies on the way to the Holy Land, leaving Balian as the new Baron of Ibelin. Balian arrives in Jerusalem bearing a lot of grief, a past he would rather forget, and essentially friendless. His father's favor with Baldwin IV, king of Jerusalem, and his Marshal, Tiberias, bring Balian into close company with the royal court, and he meets Baldwin's sister Sibylla, who is married to Guy de Lusignan. Sibylla is beautiful and charming, and her husband is a brute and a vicious warmonger, setting up the romantic fascination between Balian and Sibylla.

Balian compounds his moral failures by committing adultery with Sibylla. (So, viewer discretion advised.) But at the same time, he is gaining a sense of purpose and meaning in his life from taking over his father's legacy in caring for the land of Ibelin and in seeking peace and justice in Jerusalem. Balian has a stained past, but he wants to be a good man. He has found something to live for and admire in the teachings of his friend, a priest who accompanied his father, and the ideals of Baldwin IV and Jerusalem. Balian becomes more heroic and noble as the story progresses, growing into his role as a benevolent noble and leader.

At the same time, Guy de Lusignan has made himself a massive danger to Jerusalem, because he and his knights won't stop raiding and murdering Muslims under the protection of Saladin. Guy wants war with Saladin, whereas Baldwin has maintained an unsteady peace. Guy defies the king and commits repeated war crimes. One night, Balian is summoned to meet with Baldwin and Tiberias. They ask him bluntly, "Would you marry Sibylla, if she were free?" Balian hesitates and then asks what would have happened to her husband, Guy, to make her free to marry. They tell him that Guy would be tried for his atrocities and crimes, and executed. There is little question that he deserves it. It seems to be a perfect solution for all of them: Balian gets the woman he desires, Sibylla gets a happy marriage and the man she loves, Guy is justly punished and no longer a threat, and Baldwin gets peace and protection for Jerusalem.

Balian's response is the most noble moment in the entire film. He realizes that what he is being asked to join in is approving the execution of a man so that he can have the man's wife. Although Guy deserves execution, it is clear that Baldwin will not have him executed unless he has Balian's assurance that Balian will take his place and pledge his knights to defend Jerusalem. Without that, Baldwin won't risk the loss of Guy's knights. Guy is not being judged for his crimes alone; Baldwin wants the support of Guy unless he can have the support of someone to replace him. It is clear that unless Balian agrees, Guy will not be executed. Which means that Balian agreeing to marry Sibylla will be the act that brings about Guy's death.

Balian quietly replies, "Jerusalem is a kingdom of conscience, or it is nothing," and he refuses.

If you cannot receive what you want without compromising your convictions or integrity to get it, there is only one right answer: no. The tragedy for most people who compromise is that they did not set out to do evil in order to get something. They were faced with choices that offered them something they desperately wanted, and only implied a little breaking of the rules.

Temptation almost always promises just a tiny budge in order to get what you want. And many people give in without admitting to themselves that they are compromising. Unfortunately, when you look back after several small steps, you realize just how far across the line you have come. And it is often very hard to go back. In The Pilgrim's Progress, it was very easy for Christian to leave the path and take a shortcut; it was extremely hard and miserable for him to try to get back to the path again. The devil will always make the way into sin easy.

This is exactly what C.S. Lewis predicts about the path to temptation, shame, and dishonor in The Inner Ring:

To nine out of ten of you the choice which could lead to scoundrelism will come, when it does come, in no very dramatic colours. Obviously bad men, obviously threatening or bribing, will almost certainly not appear. Over a drink, or a cup of coffee, disguised as triviality and sandwiched between two jokes, from the lips of a man, or woman, whom you have recently been getting to know rather better and whom you hope to know better still—just at the moment when you are most anxious not to appear crude, or naïf or a prig—the hint will come. It will be the hint of something which the public, the ignorant, romantic public, would never understand: something which even the outsiders in your own profession are apt to make a fuss about: but something, says your new friend, which “we”—and at the word “we” you try not to blush for mere pleasure—something “we always do.”

And you will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world. It would be so terrible to see the other man’s face—that genial, confidential, delightfully sophisticated face—turn suddenly cold and contemptuous, to know that you had been tried for the Inner Ring and rejected. And then, if you are drawn in, next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still, but all in the jolliest, friendliest spirit. It may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude; it may end in millions, a peerage and giving the prizes at your old school. But you will be a scoundrel.

This slow fade is just what Scripture warns about: "But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death." (James 1:14-15). Don't make a habit of asking yourself whether the choice you're making today will make you a bad man or woman. Ask yourself what the choice you're making today is giving birth to. What are you feeding by making this choice, and what are you neglecting? Or, what are you planting and watering? "For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life." (Galatians 6:8). There is clear warning in Scripture that little choices make sins grow.

The antidote for all of this is certainly caution: "Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life." (Proverbs 4:23). But it is also trust. James 1:14-15 is followed by James 1:17, which reminds us that every good gift and every perfect gift comes from above, from God. If something is worth having, we can trust God to give it to us. We don't need to make compromises to go after it ourselves. If it's good for us, it will come from the Father's hand in time. Trusting God to meet your needs is the way to resist the temptation to take things for yourself. And it wouldn't hurt to take Alice Henderson's advice in Catherine Marshall's Christy: "They were training their wills in the only way a will can be trained: by practicing giving up what we happen to want at the moment." We give it up in order to wait for something better from God: a satisfaction without regret.

No comments: