“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life,” Proverbs 13:12. As I felt bored around midnight, I decided to watch the movie Amazing Grace. I’ve seen it plenty of times before; it’s about the story of William Wilberforce, but – more importantly – the abolition of the slave trade in Great Britain. When I was done, I opened my Bible to continue my reading through the book of Proverbs. The very first verse I read was the one I’ve just quoted and I do not believe this was mere coincidence.
If you have never seen the movie, it is a story that I think was derived from this very verse. The struggle of the abolitionists rested entirely on the shoulders of William Wilberforce. His failure was theirs and their failures were his. It took him nearly two entire decades to finally pass the bill of abolition, which means that time and time again he met failure, defeat, and hopelessness. I nearly cry every time I hear the final count of votes at the end of the movie. “A desire fulfilled is a tree of life,” is all I can think of at that moment.
When I read this verse last night I was thinking of my own personal dreams. I want to marry, I want to have kids, and I want to be a well-known writer, possibly even a best-seller. But after watching a movie about a man who took what God gave to him and turned right around to give it out to others, I do not think I have the correct application of this verse.
It’s an American tendency, practically an instinct, to think of the individual self before the collective whole. We usually watch movies that depict some character who overcomes conflict to be a success story. “Be all you can be” is a common slogan for the United States Army National Guard. But what does it really do? I mean, our individual successes – what do they do? Who do they serve?
William Wilberforce is known for his selfless sacrifice in regards to the slave trade. Sure, there are some blotches in his life, he wasn’t perfect, but that’s not the point. Though he had once been a heavy gambler, he was still the man who had brought about a major shift in the way the world works. At the end of the movie, he is pictured crying in the House of Commons moments after the victory was handed to him. His heart, as the hearts of his many close friends and allies, received a “tree of life” because his (their) desire was fulfilled.
The life he spent in the effort of stopping the slave trade from within the British Empire was worth all the pain he went through because his desire was fulfilled. He was instilled with a great passion for justice, equality and global transformation. His work all those years ago spawned a chain of events that is, in some ways, still continuing today. But that’s not what I want to highlight. What I want to highlight is where Wilberforce’s desire rested. He wanted to pass his bill, yes, but he wanted even more for those slave ships to stop moving. He wanted even more for the slaves within those ships to receive the chance to live a free life as he did. He wanted, more than anything, something great for his neighbor.
That kind of selfless love is something we are all called to express. Jesus tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves and that when we do so unto the lowliest within our society, we’re also doing so unto Him. I’ve been reading Tony Campolo’s book Red Letter Christians and it’s making me a little more political. Since I’ve been reading this book, I’ve been compelled to picture myself taking a stance against injustice either in a court room or amongst my friends. Such fire has even made me consider the (slim) possibility of law school.
I’ve never wanted to become a lawyer before, but that was because I didn’t have much of a reason. I was looking only at the personal benefits of doing so rather than any kind of benefits others may receive because of my pursuits. I still don’t know if law school is the answer, but I do know that not a single one of us has to go to law school to begin a change in the world. If it’s a passion that drives you to change the world, then pursue that passion. For those of us whose passions reside elsewhere, we can still do our own parts. I really don’t know specifically what we could all do to help change the world, but one thing I have been learning as I read Tony’s book is that all it really takes is simply an awareness of who our neighbor is.
Jesus defines “neighbor” as basically whoever is in dire need and is unable to help their own selves (Luke 10:29-37). In this parable the error of the Levite and the priest was quite a simple error; they walked by the beaten man blindly. They were so wrapped up with their own concerns and their own private matters that they went out of their way to avoid this needy man. What they didn’t see was the opportunity to actually live out the life God had called them to live. They were more concerned with their religious traditions that they disobeyed the commandments of God.
Jesus says that if the eye is bad, then the whole body is bad. I’m not sure what He meant by that, but I do picture someone whose eyes are clouded over towards injustice, poverty, disease, malnutrition and hunger. We in America are encouraged by our own society to pursue our own selves, to make the person in the mirror a better person and that can be all well and good. But the problem is that it helps no one else. I’ve heard this phrase many times, “In order to change the world, we must first change ourselves.” I agree, but to a certain point. We can tell ourselves this little phrase all we want to, but there will come a point where we must ask if this phrase is actually being lived out. We focus so much on changing ourselves that we forget why we change ourselves; in order to change the world!
There are some in this country who are called to other countries to sacrifice their time, energy, health and all that for the sake of someone else. And I’m sure each story is but another example of how we are really supposed to be living our lives. But I do not believe every story has to be exactly the same. I’m not sure if William Wilberforce ever set foot on an American plantation, but he did what he could from where he was so that those plantations would not be filled with slaves. He, almost single-handedly, stirred the boiling pot of the world so severely that the currents are still moving today. Just think of what the world might look like if we decided to do something similar. The hungry might be fed, the orphaned might find homes, the blind might see, the lame might walk, and the dead might rise (?).
I don’t mean to rally a bunch of people to one specific cause or even multiple causes. All I really want to ask is for all of us to open our eyes. We sing the song “Open the eyes of my heart, Lord” all the time in church, but how many of us really, truly, genuinely make that request to God? The very next line in that song is “I want to see You,” but how does that work? Does Jesus appear to us in a dream in the middle of the night? No, He said that when we love our neighbor as ourselves, we will do so unto Him. Meaning, when we feed the poor or adopt the orphans or care for the sick, we’re doing this to Jesus. We’re serving Jesus in those actions. So then, if Jesus is within the poor, orphaned, sick, etc, and if we want to see Him, then maybe we should look to those in need?
At Cross Training’s men’s group tonight, I was informed of a terrible, despicable situation. I caught swine flu two weeks ago and know that it was not an enjoyable experience. But one of the guys at this group told us how he read an article regarding a homeless family whose four children were all sick with swine flu and were forced to sleep in their car. The homeless shelters only have day-long programs so this family with their four sick children was not able to rest in the shelter. When I was sick, I had a very nice warm bed with many blankets, and a space heater that all helped me stay warm and fight the illness. These four homeless children have none of the things I have. Isn’t there something slightly out of balance in that? Proverbs 11:1 says this, “A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but a just weight is His delight.” Justice, fairness, equality are not reserved for the social elite; they are free for everyone. And those of us who want to follow Jesus; we’re entrusted with the duty to make sure everyone receives it.
Another famous William bears the last name Wallace. In the movie Braveheart, there is an awesome quote from his character; “There’s a difference between you and I (he says to the nobles).You think the people of this country exist to provide you with possession; I think your possession exists to provide those people with freedom. And I go to make sure they have it.” There is something we are charged with by Jesus Himself when we declare Him king; that we love our neighbors as ourselves. “Who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asked Jesus. Jesus replied with a story that called for His followers to do one simple thing: open their eyes. Maybe it’s time we do the same.