Fighting the Long Defeat
When I was growing up, from as early as I can remember, my daddy would read to me every night before I went to sleep. And I don’t mean just when I was little and was learning to read. No — my daddy read to me every night well into middle school. And not just children’s books. Yes, he read me all the classics of children’s literature like Peter Rabbit and Chronicles of Narnia, but he also read me many of the classics of English literature like Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice. I have no doubt that my love for learning and for reading comes from my father’s dedication to read to me night after night year after year.
While I’m incredibly grateful now, I wasn’t always so grateful when I was in middle school. When he read me The Hobbit and the three books of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, I remember complaining about the books’ being “boring boy books”; all the battle scenes and encounters with evil creatures bored me to death.
But then the other day, my daddy sent me an article about Tolkien and Christianity. That article — one of the most beautiful things I have ever read — made me consider that maybe the Lord of the Rings books aren’t just “boring boy books”, maybe there’s more to them than just battles and disgusting evil creatures. Having read that article, I want to re-read the Lord of the Rings — I think that there must be more to the books than I recognized as a middle-schooler.
This was the most beautiful part of the article — at the end when the author gives us Tolkien’s riff on what it means to “fight the long defeat” as Galadrial, the Lady of Light, claimed that folks had been doing “together through the ages of the world”.
“I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic,” [Tolkien] writes in one of his letters, “so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’—though it contains . . . some samples or glimpses of final victory.”
Despite the years of faithful work, J.R.R. and Edith Tolkien have their names on two tombstones, side by side. But one can’t help but wonder that the moments they shared together in life, their wedding day and their first child, their mercy to others, or maybe simply the daily comfort of tea, were glimpses of that final victory. That when Jesus comes to usher in the next age and New Jerusalem descends to earth, we will find them both there, together, faithful to the last, experiencing the fruit of the one hope that was always guaranteed: God’s reign on earth.
We fight the long defeat because results are not as important as our Father’s delight. We fight the long defeat because we are not the authorities over “success.”
We fight the long defeat because the final victory is coming.
Isn’t that last line breathtakingly beautiful? “We fight the long defeat because the final victory is coming.” I honestly tear up every time I read that line.
And the thing about life being full of “some samples or glimpses of the final victory” — that’s great stuff, too.
All too often, I think we focus on the big picture — on the long defeat — so much so that we don’t even notice the glimpses of final victory that surround us every day.
The beauty of a newborn baby
The glory of a sunrise
The sound of birds tweeting in the early morning
The laughter of friends enjoying each other’s company
The simple joy of talking to your parents on the phone
The smile on your grandmother’s face when you come to visit
All these things are samples or glimpses of the final victory. But I fear all too often we get caught up in the bad things in our life that we ignore these beautiful, wonderful glimpses of our final victory and of God’s glory.
All this reminds me of a card I bought at the Yale Bookstore one day last year. The card, a simple white card with black writing, said simply, “Don’t overlook life’s small joys while searching for the big ones.”
Senior year is so full of trying to figure out what our “big joys” are and how to find them. In many ways, senior year — as great as it is to spend a few last months with your college friends — seems like a “long defeat” kind of time. How freeing to be reminded that “we fight the long defeat because we are not the authorities over “success”!
In the midst of this big-joy-searching, long-defeat-facing senior year, I want to resolve constantly to look for life’s small joys, for those glimpses of final victory that are present in the mundanity of everyday life but which I so often overlook.
My daddy once told me he wants “Certa bonum certamen” written on his gravestone. I used to think he was kind of silly, but now I really think he’s onto something.
Certa bonum certamen — That’s the Latin version of the first four words of 1 Timothy 6:12 — “Fight the good fight”.
But that’s not where the verse ends. It goes on like this: “Fight the good fight of faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called.”
Sounds really similar to “fight the long defeat because the final victory is coming”, huh?