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  • Writer's pictureKaren Travis

On Inkling Day: How Tolkien's Two Towers Mirrors Paul's Letter of Joy

Every year as Cornerstone’s Inkling Day Celebration approaches, I always pick up one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous fantasy works, such as The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. This year, I have decided to journey through The Two Towers, the second book in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I have been enjoying my journey through Middle Earth once again. Though I’ve read these pages countless times, I still delight in the perils of adventure, the courage of the characters, and the satisfaction of a story well told. Truthfully, I have found reading it a welcome escape. Lately, I have been wondering if anyone else is experiencing the same feelings as I am right now. I feel as though I am covered by a blanket of frustration, anxiety, and unfulfillment. I am surrounded by a fog of feelings that dulls my delights, stagnates my relationships, and steals my joy. Even on my most successful days, I have this looming, foreboding sense that all good things will soon end. I am unable to find joy.

This sense of fear and frustration is all the more dismaying because I work in a Christian school within my calling, around Christian people, and supported by many Christian encouragers. I know these feelings I have are not congruent to the reality of my life in Christ. In my spirit, I know that as Christians, we are supposed to be light, living freely and with joy. In fact, I also know that joy is our birthright because Christ has defeated darkness. The Word of God tells us that joy is available to us through our relationship with Him, yet I am still struggling to find it.

It is possible that you have read articles on joy before. Each time, the writer will remind you that joy and happiness are not the same thing. There are many reasons why we must be consistently reminded of this truth. The “feelings” that go along with joy and happiness are very similar. Both experiences feel light and freeing, seemingly making every trouble fade and the world look brighter and more favorable. Deep within our physical bodies, something causes us to respond similarly to both joy and happiness. But happiness is circumstantial. Joy is eternal. Happiness comes when you win the game, or you get the job, or you buy the new car. But when your team loses, or you get fired, or the car gets broken, happiness leaves you. Happiness is, at its best, temporary moments of pleasurable feelings based on the “happenstance” that events have gone the way we wanted. This is not to diminish the importance of happiness. Human beings are meant to experience happiness, and hopefully, we will experience it often. But happiness was never meant to sustain us. Alongside occasional happiness, our souls crave joy.

Joy is . . . a steadfast bulwark against despair and depression.

At the beginning of his letter to the Philippians, the Apostle Paul writes that he is experiencing joy. This should grab our attention because Paul writes this letter not while he is ministering freely, but while he is in prison which is not exactly the place you’d expect someone to be joyful. Yet here Paul is, not only feeling joy, but encouraging those who love him to live within that same joy. Paul says in Philippians 1:3: “I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine making requests for you all with joy.” As he sits in prison, Paul prays for the Philippians with joy. Throughout the remainder of the letter, Paul essentially says that his circumstances are dire and that he knows there is sickness, separation, and failures among all of them, but joy is still present with him. Further, Paul wants the church at Philippi to experience the very same joy that he himself is experiencing.

In his sermons on the book of Philippians, John MacArthur defines joy as, “a gift from God to those who believe the gospel, being produced in them by the Holy Spirit as they receive and obey the scripture, being mixed with trials, and set their hope and their heart on future glory.” This definition of joy helps us to not only understand what it is, but how it can be renewed within us. First, we must understand that joy is a gift from God to believers. If you have not yet believed on Jesus Christ to the saving of your soul, joy is not yet available to you. I would strongly encourage you to seek this salvation, not only for the joy that becomes yours, but for the hope of eternal life. Secondly, joy is produced in us by the Holy Spirit when we receive and obey scripture. So today, as you read this blog, or next Sunday when you go to church, or tonight as you read your Bible, if you both receive and obey the Word of God you have heard, then joy is available to you. We can receive and obey scripture every single day, through both good and bad.

Ultimately, joy is produced and maintained within us when we set our hope and our heart on future glory. In other words, we remember who God is, who we are in Him, what He is doing in our lives, and the glory that He has promised us. It is when we understand the reality of this future glory that we experience a bubbling up of joy in our spirit. It causes the same physical reaction as happiness. But better than happiness, this joy can be experienced in the middle of tribulation. It can be experienced mingled with grief, as a steadfast bulwark against despair and depression. It can be experienced in the moment when anxiety threatens to destroy our peace. It is in fact, the presence of the Holy Spirit, as Comforter, that is available to all Christians.

While I initially enjoyed reading The Two Towers as an escape, after reading Philippians and listening to sermons about joy, I began to find that this book for my down time was teaching me the very same lesson. One thing in particular stood out to me, Gandalf’s encouragement to Theoden, King of Rohan.

If you have not watched the movies or read the book, or if it’s been a few days since you have, you might need a little refresher on the story. J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy is primarily about good vs. evil. A dark lord, Sauron, has gained power in the east and is spreading his darkness throughout Middle Earth. Evil creatures roam free, destroying all good, true, and beautiful things. Men’s hearts are being corrupted by this darkness, many of whom have already succumbed to this evil. However, some still resist. The kingdom of Rohan is one of the last outposts of good men who resist this evil. Nevertheless, there is a spy in the king’s court, Grima Wormtongue. Wormtongue’s purpose from the dark lord is to keep Theoden from fighting. If Theoden can remain neutral as the darkness is spreading, the kingdom will fall.

So Wormtongue disparages the king. He tells Theoden that he isn’t as good a king as his fathers before him. He tells him that his kingdom is suffering, and he isn’t strong enough to do anything about it. He reminds him that, since his son is dead, there is no hope for the future. Wormtongue sows so many seeds of discord in the king’s mind that Theoden is literally paralyzed by depression, anxiety, and fear. He is unable to distinguish truth, and he is unable to respond to the evil around him.

But then Gandalf shows up. In Tolkein’s Middle Earth, Gandalf is a messenger from God. He comes to Theoden to release him from this paralysis and help him stand against evil. Gandalf’s job is to remind Theoden of his joy and to enable him to survive the trials he faces. He does three things to bring Theoden back to a place of joy. Had I not been experiencing my own struggle with joy, I might have not seen the beauty in Gandalf’s actions. However, when I read this earlier this week, I realized these three steps lined up with what I was reading in Philippians. I experienced that “bubbling up” of joy when I realized that the Holy Spirit was showing me a glimpse of the glory of God and the hope of His perfect plan. As I read of Theoden’s transformation and return to the light and truth, I felt the hope of a similar return from my own dullness and fog to the joy and freedom of knowing God is in control.

Gandalf’s first action was to bring Theoden into the light. For weeks, Theoden had not left his castle. His only movement was from his bedchamber to his throne in the mornings and back again when it was time to sleep. Wormtongue had worked it so that he had no contact with any of his other advisors. He was completely under the spell of Wormtongue’s destructive rhetoric. So, once Gandalf had worked his way between Theoden and Wormtongue, his first act was to simply get Theoden outside on the porch. Gandalf encourages Theoden, “I bid you come out before your doors and look abroad. Too long have you sat in shadows and listened to twisted tales and crooked promptings. Now, look upon your land, and breathe the free air again.” Once Theoden stepped into the light, he almost immediately felt better. “It is not so dark here,” said Theoden, and he dropped his cane and stood straight and looked Gandalf in the eye.

We must gain the knowledge necessary to approve excellent things, to discern truth and wisdom, and to develop within our souls a sincerity to know Christ.

Similar to Theoden, if we recognize that we have believed the twisted tales whispered in our ears (in our case by Satan), the first thing we must do is to step into the light and look at our inheritance. Philippians 1:9-10 says “And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment, that you may approve the things that are excellent, that you may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ.” The most important word in this verse within this context is “knowledge.” This is truly what it means to step into the light. We must gain the knowledge necessary to approve excellent things, to discern truth and wisdom, and to develop within our souls a sincerity to know Christ. We do this, according to Paul, by our love for God and His word. Like King Theoden, we have all listened to whispers that bring us to a place of darkness. If we step into the light -- if we open the word of God, abound in our love of it, and grow in the knowledge of who God is and what He is doing -- then we will be able to defend against Satan’s harmful words.

The next thing Gandalf does for Theoden is to remind him of the bigger picture. Gandalf tells the king what the forces of good are doing in the battle against Sauron. He tells Theoden how the story will end and gives him a vision of the victory and glory that is to come. The Holy Spirit does the same thing for us. Philippians 3:13-14 says, “Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended, but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Fellow believers, please hear this, Christ has already won. Christ is victorious over death, hell, and the grave. He has redeemed us, and we will dwell with him in peace in eternity.

In II Corinthians 4:16-18, Paul reminds us that the things we face in this world are merely temporal. He writes, “Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” The reason why we must not be overcome by these temporary circumstances is that we are eternal creatures. If we have believed in Christ as our Savior, we look forward to an eternity filled with praising our Creator. As C.S. Lewis says “When all the suns and nebulae have passed away, each of you will still be alive.”

Not only do we have an eternity in which we have hope, we may also have joy, understanding that our present circumstances are molding us and making us more like Christ. Our experiences now -- the struggles, the triumphs, the boring days, and the glad days -- are all creating in us the ability to live with Christ. We will put on an “eternal weight of glory” and share in the victory, splendor, and riches of the work of Jesus Christ. I encourage you today to meditate on that truth for just a moment. I am confident that you will be renewed by the joy that these eternal thoughts will bring.

The final reminder that Gandalf provides in order to restore Theoden’s joy is of his calling. Although the king had experienced renewed hope through his momentary glimpse of eternity, the darkness still is there. Theoden, though now freed of his evil advisor, is still inflicted by Wormtongue’s words. The book says, “Slowly Theoden sat down again, as if weariness still struggled to master him against the will of Gandalf. ‘Alas, that these evil days should be mine, and should come in my old age, instead of that peace which I have earned.”

Do you hear the enemy here? Now Theoden is repeating the very words to himself that he has likely heard before. We can imagine his thoughts: “Other people got to live in a peaceful time. I’m just unlucky. It’s not my fault that evil times have come in my lifetime, and it’s not fair. I should be able to live in peace like the people who came before me. Why couldn’t the hard times have come when I was younger? I could have defeated the darkness twenty years ago. . . but now? I have worked hard all my life. I deserve some peace. Let somebody else fight these battles.” I’ll be honest. Those are not words that only evil characters speak to the “good guys” in fantasy books. Those words run through the minds of every modern person I know, including myself: “It’s not fair”; “Let someone else fight it”; “I deserve an easy life.”

Gandalf, however, doesn’t allow Theoden to slink back to his dark throne. He challenges him:“Your hands would remember their old strength better if they grasped your sword,” Gandalf prompts. Interestingly, it is only at this moment that Theoden realizes he doesn’t even have his sword anymore. He relinquished it to Wormtongue. But he accepts the challenge, his sword is found, and as soon as Theoden raises the sword over his head, he remembers his strength and his purpose, and he breaks into a song of joy and exultation!

We must go into the world and live lives that are sacrificial in order that our enemies or those who have been taken by the enemy can see light and be drawn to it.

We must do this very thing. We must also remember what we have been called to. In Philippians 2, Paul tells the church to “work out your own salvation.” What he means is to live your life as if you know you have been saved. This is a hard task. Sometimes we forget the fact of our own salvation. We become bogged down with the things of this world. But we must not lose sight of our calling. Paul reminds us of our calling in Romans: “ I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”

Just as Theoden grasps his sword, his weapon he has been called to use against the enemy, we as believers must grab hold of the “good and acceptable and perfect will of God” and pursue it. We are called to stand against the darkness. We are called to be a light. It is not enough for us to just remember that Christ is going to win. We must show the world our joy in that promise. We must go into the world and live lives that are sacrificial, in order that our enemies or those who have been taken by the enemy, can see light and be drawn to it. In the end, we must live in hope.

Gandalf does his job well. Theoden grasps the sword, remembers his purpose, and calls his men to stand in battle against the coming darkness. They face evil and destroy it at Helms Deep, then go on to face an even stronger array in Gondor. In the end, Theoden stays faithful to the joy of his calling to the very end. He dies with his sword in his hand, facing his enemies and destroying them. The final enemy he faces does kill him, but Theoden’s followers, his niece and nephew, continue the battle. Theoden’s final words, “I go to the hall of my fathers. In whose company I shall not now be ashamed,” remind me of Paul’s: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished my course. Henceforth is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing.”

In the end, of course, it isn’t Theoden who defeats the evil. It is the sacrificial love of a savior. Theoden is not meant to be a picture of Christ, but a picture of us. We will not be the ones who defeat evil. Christ has already done that; but we are called to stand against the darkness until Christ removes it from the world. That day is coming. The day of Jesus Christ. The one eternal day of joy unbounded! So as Paul tells the church at Philippi, “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, Rejoice!”

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