Recently, in Jude, I ran across a verse entirely unrelated to Advent that nonetheless brought into focus for me the theme of this year’s Advent season:
“But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not himself dare to condemn him for slander but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you!'” (1:9).
The verse itself is fascinating, and there is a lot of scholarship and analysis related to the author’s source for the story about the devil and Michael as well as the details of the story itself. However, the principal point is that even Michael knew his limits: in this telling he does not speak from his own authority, but rather invoke’s the Lord.
Michael knows his limits. Do we?
A word I have been thinking about over and over this year, and not only this Advent, is entitlement. I believe entitlement is a curse of our age and in particular a curse of our Western and American culture; I believe that, among Christians, it has started to take root as a manifestation of the soft prosperity gospel.
Entitlement says, “I deserve.”
Entitlement says, “I decide.”
Entitlement says, “I am the best and only authority on me and on my life and I choose what is best and most suitable for me.”
This year has been disappointing and even heartbreaking for many, and that’s understandable. People are struggling with real loss and real pain, and even those who haven’t dealt with a personal or financial tragedy are surely feeling a particular strain of pandemic weariness. But for me, at least, it helps to remember what I’m entitled to…and what I’m not.
I’m not entitled to a perfect Christmas with my whole family exactly the way I like it every year.
I’m not entitled to holidays exempt from struggle, pain, or suffering.
I’m not entitled to run my life as I see fit.
Even in the face of darkness, I am not entitled to fly off the handle and invoke my own authority.
What strikes me about the verse in Jude is that Michael, to many of us, would have had the right of it if he had rebuked Satan. Satan is Satan! Whatever he was saying, it was a lie, or malicious, or wrong. In the face of abject evil, many of us would have recognized Michael as entitled to hold up his hand and say, “Stop, evil one. I rebuke you.”
But Michael doesn’t. He sidesteps the opportunity to give voice to himself. He reasserts God’s right to rebuke.
In Scripture, God and Christ have made believers many promises. They have assured us we are entitled to many wonderful joys, and I believe them all. When those opportunities come, I hope to always assert my entitlement to such blessings in the name of Jesus Christ with great confidence. What God has promised, God will do. But there is a lot we are not promised, and a lot we believe we are entitled to that we actually aren’t.
And so, one of my practices this Advent season has been reasserting God’s right to me. And to my life.
If you had told me even a year ago that in Christmas 2020 my mother would have a cancer diagnosis, that a global pandemic and associated circumstances would have all of us unable to travel and see each other, that I would be unable to so much as do real Christmas shopping, I’d not have believed you. I would have said something like, that’s so unfair or why Christmas of all times or even what the heck happened in 2020?
But I am here now. And Advent is teaching me that it’s not unfair. I am entitled to the portion that the Lord has for me. He gets to choose what I have or do not have not only because He knows best but because I have offered Him ownership and right over my life. Because in that portion is either what is good for my soul or what will be overcome in Him. In that portion is bread, and not a stone (Matt. 7:9). The same is true for my mother, for my father, for all believers.
And there is an ease in that.
I live in a culture where it is easy for people to conflate the promises of Scripture with the American Constitution and the Bill of Rights. But the rights accorded to Americans are not necessarily the rights of believers in Scripture. In fact, more often than not, Scripture asks us to give up what we think we deserve. What we want. Our material pleasures. Our earthly comforts. All the little gods we hold close.
That sounds stark and austere, but it really isn’t. In fact, it can be deeply satisfying. When you give up your sense of entitlement, you lose a lot of bitterness, resentment, anger, and confusion. You say to yourself, whatever I’m got right now is enough. You stop a whole lot of worrying and wondering. You content yourself with what is.
I’ll close with a quote from Lord of the Rings that’s been going around lately. Perhaps one day I’ll write a series of posts inspired by the Silmarillion (rereading again!), but for now it’s worth considering the story of the hobbit Frodo.
Frodo, who has come into possession of the One Ring, hears from the wizard Gandalf its dark and dangerous history. He also learns that its owner, Sauron, has returned and that darkness threatens to spread over the land once again. Clearly overwhelmed by his circumstances, Frodo says, “I wish it need not have happened in my time.”
Gandalf replies: “So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
It is not for me to decide. I am not entitled to my life: I have given that away to Christ. Therefore, I will do what I may with the portion offered to me because it is good. And I trust that it is good because I trust that God is good.
As Michael did, I cede my rights back to the One who has sole right over all.