When I was pregnant with our first kiddo, Michael and I were invited to a missions conference at my home church in NC. In the kickoff event, we missionaries were invited up on stage under the glare of a dozen bright spotlights and introduced. I remember standing there a little dazzled, feeling the hot lights beating down, dizzier by the minute. “I don’t feel so good,” I whispered to Michael and then, boom. Man down. Fifteen hundred people got to see me carted off the stage by men in suits.
Missions conferences are thrilling (saying so kinda pegs me as a nerd, I admit) — stories from jungle tribes and secret gatherings in former Soviet states, inner city high schools and Indian reservations. The missionaries, in all of our thrift store glory, are paraded around like heroes, and for me, growing up, they were. But all of that attention began to feel a little awkward when I was on the receiving end, because I knew a secret. I am no hero.
As Robert Murray M’Cheyne once said, “Madame, if you could see in my heart, you would spit in my face.”
We love to celebrate our heroes for the same reason we vilify our enemies, and for the same reason we mourn when one of the mighty is fallen: we believe deeply in the hype of great and terrible men. It’s why we are so quick to categorize politicians (hero or villain?) and why a public fall from grace or even a small snub from one of our celebrities feels so devastating.
That guy was amazing, we think. He was one of us. How could this happen?
All of our flaws, under glare of spotlight, look pretty ugly. One by one we take the pictures off the wall— another hero toppled. What Nietzsche said with a sneer we know to be true: “In truth there was only one Christian, and he died upon the cross.”
This week, we remember with awe and fondness a guy who, for better or worse, had a lion-sized personality and no small amount of cheek. It’s been exactly 500 years since a passionate, conflicted, and daring intellectual nailed his 95 theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg, disrupting forever the Catholic status quo and kicking off the Protestant Reformation with flair.
But let’s be clear — when we celebrate Martin Luther this week, it is not because he was a perfect man. Luther, like you and me, was a living bundle of contradictions. He was gifted. He was called. He produced a lot of Christ-like qualities under immense pressure.
He was also a terrible sinner. He was deeply broken. And he lived under the curse of a fallen world. No, what we are really celebrating on “Reformation Day” is the great and terrible foreknowledge of God.
Was Luther extraordinary? Sure. Was it because of Luther the world was never the same? Sort of.
There are at least two competing theories of how history works. The “Great Man Theory” was the brain child of a Scottish philosopher named Thomas Carlyle, who said, “No great man lives in vain. The history of the world is but the biography of great men.” One reason this view so enchants us is simple: if we work very hard, we, too, might become great. We, too, might change history, and so change the world. Carlyle himself said, “Have a purpose in life, and having it, throw into your work such strength of mind and muscle as God has given you.”
On the other hand, social scientists are more calmly pragmatic, and posit less romantic cause and effect. David Bell, a historian from Princeton, explains, “Fernand Braudel… taught his followers to pay attention to the deep, slow, geological, and climactic forces that, in determining the shape of the continents and patterns of global warming and cooling, ultimately shape human societies as well. After that, Braudel directed us to study centuries-long patterns of economic and social change. He compared all these subjects to the deep currents moving through oceans. Mere ‘event history,’ by contrast, including decisions taken by powerful individuals, he likened to the insignificant foam tossed up on the ocean’s surface.”
The truth, I think, is somewhere in between. Let’s play with that ocean analogy, and spice it up, Keanu Reeves style.
Take surfing. Did you know that the energy required to build one perfect wave escalates slowly from winds sweeping halfway around Earth? These winds coalesce and converge to create that one wave only after traveling a thousand miles.
What is a surfer without a wave? The greatest and most daring would be nothing but a wader standing aimless in a still pond, albeit with a colorful vocabulary and a nice tan. It’s only because of tropical storms brewing on the other side of the planet, the invisible pull of sun and moon upon the ocean, the constant spinning of Earth around the solar system, and the mighty force of gravity that a surfer can exist at all. Furthermore, twenty seconds too slow or twenty feet too far out, and even the best surfer might miss a perfect wave. The seconds cost by a red light or a clumsy spill on the beach might make the difference. Interference by a passing boat might ruin a good wave. Shark fins could definitely drive a sane person to shore for the afternoon. As surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku quipped, “Out of water, I am nothing.” Adds daredevil Laird Hamilton, “The biggest sin in the world would be if I lost my love for the ocean.”
On the other hand, what’s a wave without a surfer? You could give me the world’s most advanced surf board, tow me out on a jet ski, position me perfectly to catch the most pristine, curling arc of glassy blue water ever seen, and minutes later you would be picking up the pieces of me that washed ashore. It isn’t dumb luck that makes a surfer, but endless hours of carefully honed skill.
Martin Luther, sinner and saint, was in a sense a world-class surfer. Along came that perfect wave of Renaissance thinkers, papal corruption, and printing press, forces all beyond the salty monk’s control, and Luther, Biblical knowledge in hand, took his carefully honed skills and hopped on a surf board. Like Paul, or Jacob, or Moses, here was a man chosen by God, in the right place at the exact right time, who despite his personal failures, saw God work wonders.
There’s no such thing as a perfect Christian, and the higher we fly, the further to fall. The fact that an expert carpenter can build such a cathedral of crooked nails and warped wood is in itself a miracle.
Francis Schaeffer said, “Among religious writings the Bible is unique in its attitude to its great men. Even many Christian biographies puff up the men they describe. But the Bible exhibits the whole man, so much so that it is almost embarrassing at times. If we would teach our children to read the Bible truly, it would be a good vaccination against cynical realism from the non-Christian side, because the Bible portrays its characters as honestly as any debunker or modern cynic ever could.”
This week when you hear the names of Reformers bandied about, it should come as no surprise to hear of their cantankerous ways, their blindness to sin, their astonishing, ugly failures. You might make a case that they are great and terrible men, but a glance in the mirror should drive home the truth: we are all more than a little crooked.
Who can work wonders? “He is your praise. He is your God, who has done for you these great and terrifying things that your eyes have seen.” (Deut. 10:21)