In my Bible reading, I’ve been working through the Old Testament. There are many prominent stories that stand out from the histories of the Bible, but one of the big ones is that of King David’s rise to prominence and with it his struggles with and against Saul. It reads like an epic clash. The scrappy young shepherd, the king with a twisted, bent mind, the battles, the escapes, and the rises and falls from glory.
I’ve read this story so many times, but what struck me in this most recent read-through, was just how similar David and Saul are in the beginnings of their stories. They are remembered most for how wildly different they are as their narrative continues, making it easy to forget, but their circumstances come from very similar places when they’re first introduced.
Both men arrive on the scene when everything is going just terribly for Israel. Both men come from humble backgrounds and aren’t looking for their own personal glory when they enter the story. Both are specifically marked out by God for great and glorious purposes in kingship. Both are then immediately called to rise up in extraordinary battles.
And then something goes wrong. The stories begin to split around the same time these two men meet. Where David begins to rise to the occasion despite his shortcomings (and he certainly has some gross shortcomings), Saul turns to madness and mayhem. He loses all sight and contact with God and descends into a dark and twisted place. He becomes wildly paranoid and tries to protect his crown before anything else. All his decisions become centered around keeping himself in power and it twists his mind against even those closest and dearest to him. Before long, Saul is unrecognizable from the young man who ascended the throne and all that’s left is a darkened husk of a man whose greatest role in the story is that of antagonist. Such similar stories. Such vastly different endings.
I’m reminded of C.S. Lewis's thoughts on this very subject. “For you will certainly carry out God's purpose, however you act, but it makes a difference to you whether you serve like Judas or like John.” The idea being that, yes, some things are entirely unalterable and inescapable. We are not so powerful in our limited human capacity to change the plans God has laid out. That would seem to suggest free will is a myth, except for the abundance of freedom we are given within those plans.
Saul could have just as easily played David’s part and David played Saul’s. Both men had the freedom to choose, and choose they did. We simply have the record of those choices. Make no mistake, we are all included in that realm of choice within previously laid plans. Like Lewis said, we certainly will carry out God’s purpose. It’s not the if that I’m driving at here but the how. The how is everything. The how determines just about everything about you. I’ve seen people from almost identical circumstances who were polar opposites because they chose differently how they would live with those circumstances.
Your circumstances do not define the choices you make. You do.
You always have the choice and our choices matter to God. We are not so passively living in God’s plan that we make no difference to it. It’s just more a matter of him caring about how we participate in it than that of us stopping him. He hopes for David but is prepared for Saul. He longs for John, but he’s not stymied by Judas.
The pairings will keep continuing throughout all history. Saul and David weren’t the first and Judas and John won’t be the last. We all come up against the same choices and paths all the time and are ultimately faced with that same age-old question: Which will you choose? For you will certainly have to choose just as much as anyone else throughout history has and within that is reflected the weight of our own free will. It’s not rejecting the story that we have to keep a watchful eye on, but our own participation in it.
Who you are in the story matters.
It may be that passivity is the greater threat to the modern Christian than misstep. Far too many of us are asleep to the idea that we have an active role to play, and in that, we slip to the sides of the Judases and the Sauls and all those others who seemed destined for so much greatness until something just went irrevocably wrong. We can’t afford to let life just happen to us if we want to play a role we can be proud of. We have a responsibility and a charge to be active and aware of the role we play in God’s story. You are participating no matter what and I promise you that showing up with intention and clear-minded purpose for God will never lead you to a permanently tragic end.
No one is doomed to a disfavorable role from the start. In this grand spectacle that we call life, may we all be keenly aware of our active part in it and the opportunities for greatness that follows.
Let’s find some joy,