Happy are Those Who Struggle

If Sauron were leader of the Fellowship, setting out from Rivendell in possession of the Ring, what would he do? Gandalf knows that it is a question that Sauron has asked himself. Sauron knows that the Fellowship left Rivendell and that they possessed the Ring. He knows something of each member of the Fellowship and that there are hobbits among them. And Gandalf knows that he fears that the Fellowship will go to Minas Tirith and there one of them will wield the Ring, assail Mordor with war, cast him down and take his place. Boromir counselled  that they should go to Minas Tirith but not that one of them should wield the Ring. He hid this desire even from himself.  And Gandalf and Galadriel were tempted to wield the Ring as well. Remember the occasions when Frodo offered the Ring to them, first to Gandalf at Bag End in the Shire and later to Galadriel in Lothlorien. Remember that both were tempted to the very limits of their strength to take it and seek to use it to cast Sauron down. Sauron knows that both have the capacity to do this and so he is afraid. He will unleash war against Minas Tirith as swiftly as he can before his enemies are strong enough to use the Ring to destroy him.


What if Sauron is wrong? What if, as Gandalf says, “we should wish to cast him down and have no one in his place?” This not is a thought that “occurs to his mind”. And Gandalf continues: “that we should try to destroy the Ring itself has not entered into his darkest dream.” Indeed Sauron is incapable of dreaming such things. Our dreams, whether waking or sleeping, are the fruit of our spiritual practice. By this I do not mean our religious practices although they can be of help to us in the shaping of our spiritual practice. What I mean is how we cultivate our desire. For Gandalf and Galadriel desire is a deeply complex thing. On the one hand they long to heal the world, to right wrongs and set things right. On the other hand the thought that the power to do this might fall into their hands and that they might be the heroic saviours of the world with all flocking to their banner is deeply attractive. You will note that Boromir desired the same thing. But Sauron does not suffer this agony. He has a different agony because for him only one thing has meaning and that is power over others for it is only power that can free him from the fear that haunts him, his agony that never leaves him, the fear that one day someone will have the power to destroy him and take his place.

Happy are those who know spiritual struggle. Happy are those who wrestle against their own weakness and who begin to learn their own limitations. Happy are those who learn to laugh at themselves, who know that they are not the centre of everything and that it is just as well for everyone that this should be so. Happy are those who know that they have a contribution to make and who make it with a proper self respect but who know that others have a contribution to make too and it may be that the others will receive more praise than they will. And happy are those who just sometimes wish that they could be praised too and allow a wry smile as they recognise the lingering potency of that desire!

Unhappy is Sauron and all like him who do not know this struggle, whose spiritual lives are simple, having been reduced to the pursuit of one desire. Kierkegaard once said that simplicity is to will one thing and he is right. Perhaps it is possible to achieve such simplicity in pursuit of the good. There are signs in The Lord of the Rings that Gandalf and Galadriel have achieved such simplicity. Jesus finally achieves it at the moment when he says, “Father into your hands I commend my spirit.” But if it is achieved then it is a victory won as the fruit of a renunciation that is a profound struggle that tests them and everyone who pursue such simplicity to their limit and beyond.

The Temptation of St Anthony

This has to be a word of hope to all of us who struggle. Our struggle should not be a cause of pity in others. Rather others should pity us only if we give up fighting. But more of that next week. 

14 thoughts on “Happy are Those Who Struggle

  1. Some really wonderful thoughts here, Stephen. I particularly love your ‘beatitudes’ section!
    Matt and Luke’s ‘lead us not into peirasmos (temptation/testing)’ – what does that mean?? and, in the light of that, is Paul being overly optimistic in I Cor 10:13?

  2. I think the reason I was drawn to Hieronimus Bosch’s “Temptation of St Anthony”, a painting I have known since thinking of it as psychedelia in my late teens, is that you know why you pray to be kept from testing when the time of test really comes! It has something of Bosch’s vision about it. My guess is that Sauron would consider St Anthony to be worthy only of his contempt & also his enemies too if he could catch a glimpse of their struggles. I rather hope that Paul is not being overly optimistic but his idea of not being more than we can bear may be based on his experience rather than that of lesser mortals like me!

  3. Hi Stephen (& Richard),

    I am particularly struck by ‘the fruit of a renunciation that is a profound struggle’. It makes me wish there was a Feast of the Renunciation in the Church Calendar (perhaps the first Sunday in Lent, commemorating Jesus refusal of Satan’s temptations?). It would be a great discipline to have emphasised.

    What I have been noticing (in writing my book) is that nearly all of the characters in Middle-earth fall into evil do so because they are tempted to see themselves as The Solution, lack the humility to laugh at themselves, and thus fall by seeking to impose their will. The Ring is the short-cut to such domination, obviously, and acts as the most obvious test, but the principle is the same in the First Age too.

    Tolkien hated all forms of domination, but he was never explicit about how one avoids (or overcomes) it. That’s why the struggle of renunciation is such a good concept to me.

  4. Thanks for dropping by, David. When I preach on the 1st Sunday of Lent this year I would like to reflect on the discipline of renunciation. Thanks for that thought.

    I really like your thought on the temptation to be The Solution & I am sure that you are right. In what way do you see this temptation being different in the First Age for Feanor and for Morgoth? Certainly Saruman does not have the ability to laugh at himself. I really like that.

    Do tell me about your book. I really like the thoughts you have shared in this comment & hope we can talk again.

  5. Stephen and David – yes I really like the idea of ‘The Solution’ being the temptation – and particularly the short cut to it. It does fit nicely in the LOTR.
    On reflection, I think that part of the problem with peirasomos is that I suspect that what Jesus is talking about and what is talking about are two different things. This prayer to avoid these times runs too much through the Gospels (it even occurs in Mark) for it not to refer to something calamitous (rather than ‘character building’). Paul seems to be talking about times of purifying (character building). The key thing there is that what is being tested (assayed) is not destroyed by the fire even though it might feel like it. We are better for it… in the end! Jesus’ prayers seems to be that it is better for us if – through God’s mercy – we avoid it; in other words, something of a different nature to Paul’s time of testing.

  6. Hmmm, Feanor and Morgoth – I’m not sure. It may be that to fall in full knowledge of the Powers (ie. of true authority) may be different. Sauron, however, fell twice: once by leaving Aule to follow Melkor, and later, after repenting, when (according to Unfinished Tales) he sought to re-order Middle-earth in the Second Age. His temptation was due to his own masterful ability, in the midst of simple and rustic peoples: it was quicker and easier to get them to do what he wanted than to train, equip, and empower them to function independently. He became convinced that he was the Solution, and all other considerations became secondary. If he had learned to laugh at himself – as Gandalf did – he may have been able to renounce the desire for power.

    My book (since you asked) is on the Proverbs of Middle-earth, and is effectively an anthropology of the wisdom traditions and philosophies of each people, using the proverbs as entry point. The proverbs reflect the histories of their cultures, and the philosophical worldviews therein (eg. Ents are stoic, Rohirrim are deontological ethicists, and Saruman aspires to be a Nietzschean Ubermensch). I am having a great time writing it, learning tonnes along the way.

  7. I really appreciate your comment on Sauron and the Second Age and agree with you entirely. Time and again history is littered with the damage done by those who become impatient with the slowness of humankind and feel that we all need “shaking up”. Revolutionaries used to be my heroes when I was young. Now I think I would be content to live in the Shire though I am glad that they find the energy to throw Saruman and his ruffians out with a little help from Frodo and friends. I think you describe Sauron’s motivation really well.

    I look forward to your book and if I can offer any encouragement along the way do let me know. Do you by the way Tweet as Tolkien Proverbs? I have often appreciated them & ReTweeted them.

  8. Hi Stephen, yes I’m @TolkienProverbs, and I have always appreciated your comments etc.

    I am just editing my Istari chapter at the moment (which has turned into Saruman vs Gandalf, Cleverness vs Wisdom), and came across this bit which I htought you might like since it touches on our discussion of renunciation, and particularly your beatitudes:

    “The great temptation of cleverness is to trust itself. Michael Stanton emphasises that, in Middle-earth, ‘it is wisdom to recognize one’s fallibility’ since, as Peter Kreeft explains, ‘We can control the world but we cannot control our own control’. The truly wise are therefore those who are aware of, and wary of, their own limits. Hence the repeated test of the Ring: those who desire it are foolish, regardless of motive, while those who overcome that temptation are wise. And it is the self-trusting clever who are most easily tempted: trusting their own motives and capabilities, they see no reason not to seek power. The wise, in contrast, fear even themselves.”

  9. Reblogged this on jubilare and commented:
    A thoughtful and beautiful post on spiritual struggle couched in an examination of The Lord of the Rings. Stephencwinter’s blog has many great posts like this. You should go check them out!

    • Thanks for sharing this, Jubilare, and for writing it, Stephen :). It’s something I’ve been learning myself this year — about the poison of self-absorption and the imperative need to be small in your own eyes (for no matter how great you are, you are small in the scheme of things).

      Also, I would add on the issue of simplicity that I’m pretty sure it is OK to be absorbed in one thing if the one thing is Jesus. 🙂 And as long as it is the Master himself and not your own love of your own love for Him.

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