By Anthony Casperson
Quite a few of us have wondered, “What would life be like if ______ happened?” We dream of alternate life paths. Different reality versions of ourselves, or of the people—whether real or fictional—that we’re thinking about. And then consider whether that world would be better or worse than what we have before us.
The concept of alternate reality versions of characters has found vast amounts of page space and screen time in the realm of speculative fiction. Whether it comes through time travel, dimension hopping, or some sort of strange magical ritual, many among us can’t help but question, “What if…?”
As I’ve been researching the sermons that’ll be coming up in the series for the website, “A Song of Failures and Hope,” this pondering of the untaken path has struck me. (And remember, I’m about 3-4 sermons further along than what’s been uploaded to the site.)
Specifically, in 1 Samuel 13-14, we see Saul and his son Jonathan take center stage. These couple of battle reports contrast father and son. It’s in these chapters that Saul’s failure, which leads to the forfeiture of his kingly dynasty, is recorded.
But over and over again, the reader witnesses Jonathan’s incredible leadership skills. In both physical and spiritual battle. The princely general leads a contingent of warriors in a raid that rallies the Israelite troops, while it looks like his father just sits there doing nothing. And even when the people rally to the tune of “Yay, Saul,” Jonathan remains faithful to his father.
Then, after Saul’s failure has been recorded—and this would mean that Jonathan knows he’s never going to be king because God rejected his father’s line—the prince leads his armor-bearer on what anyone watching would call a suicide mission. Armed with faith in the ways of God, the pair ready themselves to fight those hordes of “uncircumcised Philistines” without any backup. And Jonathan’s charge is, “Maybe God will be with us.”
He’s not sure it’ll work, but he knows it’s right and godly. So he goes regardless. And this alpha strike rallies the troops once again, even causing defectors and the fearful AWOL troops to bolster the ranks of the Israelite army. The two-man mission becomes a full on routing of the enemy.
Then, after Jonathan learns that he’d accidentally gone against Saul’s charge of not eating until the enemy had been thwarted—you know, because the prince was out slaying the enemy instead of being with his father when the curse was set—the guilt is found out. And Saul stands ready to kill Jonathan for this ridiculous infraction. Yet Jonathan doesn’t beg or plead for his life. He doesn’t even roll his eyes at his father’s stupid curse. No, he stands ready to die because he’s faithful to both his God and his father.
(Spoilers, the people plead Jonathan’s case. They redeem the life of their warrior savior.)
Throughout all of these events, I kept shaking my head wondering, “What if Jonathan had been allowed the chance to rule?” How godly of a king would Jonathan have been, if only Saul hadn’t performed his spectacular failure, bred by impatience?
It sounds unfair to me—and possibly many of you—that such a faithful man as Jonathan had his kingly potential squandered by his father’s idiocy.
And that faithfulness continues to be proven as the book of 1 Samuel goes beyond where I am in researching for the sermon series. Like when we’ll talk about Jonathan’s faithfulness to David throughout Saul’s madness. And also his continued faithfulness to his father, right up to the end, when both are slain in battle on the same day.
It all makes me consider the tragedy of Jonathan’s life. A man left to die as he faithfully served in unfulfilled potential.
I know I’m not the only one who sees this as unfair, because one of the commentaries I’m reading for my research brought up the point—long after I’d felt it. But the commentator (Dale Ralph Davis) added one statement that left me worshiping as I soaked in the truthfulness of his words.
“Maybe a tragic life isn’t tragic if it’s lived in fidelity of what Christ asks of us in the circumstances he gives us.”
I had to read those words a few times—mostly because the tears of understanding are difficult to see through. They remind us that “unfulfilled potential” doesn’t mean that the life was left to waste, if the person faithfully served the purpose of God, no matter what life threw at them.
What we human beings might see as a tragedy of circumstance, God frames as faithful example.
It’s not only when everything goes right that we followers of Jesus act in holiness. And quite often, it’s in those tragedies of life that God’s light shines through our actions the brightest.
No life that’s given out of devotion to the grandest purpose is really tragic. It’s a heroic ballad that calls others to step up and follow that example.
That’s good news for those of us who contemplate our own lives and see only—or mostly—a tragedy. It’s not failure or loss. Not unfulfilled potential. But a holy calling to a faith-filled life devoted to God. A life that could’ve been different. But would we want it to, given the God-glorifying results?
A faithful tragedy never needs to ask, “What if…?”