The Third Vow

January 8, 2005

Do you resolve and promise, in humble reliance upon the grace of the Holy Spirit, that you will endeavor to live as becomes a follower of Christ?

There’s a scene towards the end of Peter S. Beagle’s lovely fantasy novel, The Last Unicorn, that comes to mind when I think about that phrase, “to live as becomes a follower of Christ.”

Schmendrick the magician, having come to the end of the adventure and, in the process, broken the curse that had held him trapped in a self which never aged or grew wiser, has a dream in which the unicorn appears to him. “You are a true and mortal wizard now,” she says, “as you always wished. Does it make you happy?”

“Yes…” he says, “But there are wizards and wizards; there is black magic and white magic, and the infinite shades of gray in between – and I see now that it is all the same. Whether I decide to be what men would call a wise and good magician – aiding heroes, thwarting witches, wicked lords and unreasonable parents; making rain, curing woolsorter’s disease and the mad staggers, getting cats down from trees – or whether I choose the retorts full of elixirs and essences, the powders and herbs and banes, the padlocked books of gramarye bound in skins better left unnamed, the muddy mist darkening in the chamber and the sweet voice lisping therein – why, life is short, and how many can I help or harm? I have my power at last, but the world is too heavy for me to move…”

“That is true,” she says. “You are a man, and men can do nothing that makes any difference.” But nonetheless she asks him, “Which will you choose?”

Schmendrick laughs. “Oh, it will be the kind magic, undoubtedly, because you would like it more. I do not think I will ever see you again, but I will try to do what would please you if you knew.”

In theory, Xianity stands foursquare against everything Schmendrick says. For one thing, there are no shades of gray at the final judgment, only embrace or exile. Whether one does good works or evil works is not a matter of indifference. For all we know, all the company of heaven waits on the edge of their seats to see what we will do next. A single individual, if God so wills it, can change the world. Life on earth may be short, but the choices we make during this blink of an eye have eternal implications.

On further reflection, however, Schmedrick’s words resonate with a lot of biblical truth. God is sovereign, and we’re not. So it won’t do to think of the moral arena as a place where we can heap laurels on ourselves with a good performance. There is no room for self-congratulation – not for the good, not for the wicked. Even the evil that people do, they do only at the sufferance of the Lord. As for the good works that we do, seen from God’s perspective they might prove to have as many ill consequences as good ones, and they might come from selfish motives, leaving our hearts (where the crossroads of the cosmos actually meet) untouched. I spent years thinking that I was a terribly important person, in the worst way. Sometimes it’s necessary to tear down that kind of thinking to the ground before you can come back to understand your true worth. It doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t matter.

But it matters to the unicorn. The unicorn can’t quite say it – there’s no rational explanation why it should be thus – but it’s true: the unicorn cares. Why do good? Not because you’re such an important person. Not because you’ll get some kind of cosmic brownie points. Not because it will turn the world into a good place before your eyes. There’s only one sane reason: the unicorn would like it.

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