“How did I get so far off-track? Where did things go wrong?”
All of us have asked these stomach-turning questions before. Sometimes they strike at once, like a volley of arrows raining down from above. That job you interviewed for and desperately wanted rejected you. You were unexpectedly diagnosed with a serious illness. Maybe a relationship suddenly ended and now you’re hurt and confused. Maybe one you hoped for never even started.
Other times these questions and feelings press down on us slowly for many years. As we get older, we look back and wonder if we really took advantage of our youth or if we chose the right path. Perhaps you're seeing your friends and families’ lives unfold and, as you witness their happy moments, you wonder if you missed your opportunity to have what they have. Maybe a long term personal struggle or sinful tendency has caused you to fixate on what could have been if only you were free.
“If only I would have done this...if I just stopped acting this way…”
What we are talking about here is regret, despair, and worry, and it's all part of being human. The truth is that things here on earth aren’t as they should be, and frankly, neither are you and neither am I. As Christians, we live in a strange state and look towards the end with hope. We hear the good news that everything is going to be ok and, yes, we believe it. And yet we can’t help but look at the messes and the missed opportunities and wonder...Am I really doing God’s will?
Following The Signs
In the fourth installment of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia Series, The Silver Chair, we find a hopeful image of the Christian life and an answer to this question. At the very beginning of the story, Eustace and Jill are tasked with remembering four important signs given by Aslan in their quest to find Prince Rilian. He tells the children that while they are on the mountaintop, the air is clear and the signs are easily remembered. But when they go down into Narnia, he warns that things will be obscure and much harder to understand:
“…remember, remember, remember the signs. Say them to yourself when you wake in the morning and when you lie down at night, and when you wake in the middle of the night. And whatever strange things may happen to you, let nothing turn your mind from following the signs.”
Throughout the story, Eustace and Jill seem to muff their job and miss all of the signs. The pressures and strange events along the journey cause them to doubt themselves, the signs, and Aslan. Lost and hopeless, they eventually neglect and forget the signs altogether.
By the end, the main characters are in a precarious position. Eustace and Jill, despite their apparent failures, successfully find Prince Rilian where he is held captive in the Underland. Just as they are making their escape, the wicked Green Lady of the Underworld returns and attempts to bewitch them. Spellbound, they forget who they are and begin to doubt reality itself.
These tortuous questions of despair descend upon and nearly destroy all of them when at last their travel companion, Puddleglum, breaks the spell and with Eustaces’ help destroys the wicked witch.
Task Failed Successfully
There is a moment at the end of the book when Eustace and Jill are brought face-to-face with Aslan for a final time. As they watch Aslan approach, the two immediately feel a sense of guilt and remorse for the way things worked out. To be sure, Prince Rilian was saved and declared King of Narnia. But perhaps it could have been done a bit more gracefully. After all, they made so many mistakes and missed so many opportunities. And they all but rejected the four simple signs Aslan had given them!
...But the lion sees only the good.
After Aslan greets them, he comforts them with a big lion kiss and says, “Think of that no more...You have done the work for which I sent you into Narnia.” With eternal love and compassion, akin to the merciful father we find in the parable of the prodigal son, Aslan smiles with approval and congratulates them on accomplishing the task he set before them. We hear him echo those famous words every Christian will hear one day, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” (Matt 25:23).
When you’re afflicted by feelings of regret and questions that lead you to despair or uncertainty, consider this: You can and likely will make a lot of mistakes, miss a lot of opportunities, and make a mess of things in your life, much like Jill and Eustace did, and still end up accomplishing what God had in mind for you.
What is that, exactly? In our own individual lives, this is worth spending some time thinking about. But for all mankind, the answer is terrifically simple and remains the same: God wants to turn us towards the cross and then turn us back to our neighbors.
When we ask ourselves, “Am I doing God’s will for my life?” or, “Am I doing enough?” or even, “Did I blow my chance, God?” recognize that these are questions of agency. When the active agent is “I” we are always going to be tempted to find our assurance in our own subjective experience. In other words, we’ll look to the things we do or don’t do for comfort.