“Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess,” said Oscar Wilde prophetically of 21st century Western youth. Well, he didn’t exactly say this regarding youth in the West, but his words remain true just the same. We live in a time when our heroes are created by media recognition, their outstanding characteristics being such things as success, power, wealth, charisma, all doused with excessive arrogance for good measure. We’ve traveled so far down this gilded highway that we now idolize people who are famous for being famous.
I prefer the road less traveled when it comes to choosing my heroes, the one less slippery, less pitted with potholes, where the streets and avenues are well marked and the destination clearly mapped (Psalm 73). I suppose it was serendipity, but I found myself wandering along that road Saturday, revisiting the memory of an old hero of mine.
For Robertson and Muriel McQuilkin, a major life change came unannounced and uninvited in 1981 when Muriel was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. McQuilkin would continue his day job as President of Columbia Bible College and Seminary for nine more years and then surprise the evangelical world with his resignation. Some advised him to put Muriel in an adult-care facility; others encouraged him to continue his ministry. But McQuilkin believed there was a third and better way—to keep his wedding vows “for better or for worse” by caring for his wife. The “worse” translated into 25 years of slow disease progression with McQuilkin faithfully by Muriel’s side.
How does one explain God’s sovereign economy in our lives when at best we only see through a glass darkly? During an interview, McQuilkin, in his steady, contemplative manner, reflected back on a time in his youth when he prayed for a mellow spirit. “Perhaps the Lord has been answering the prayer,” he mused.
I was struck by several things he disclosed in a later interview following his wife’s death. He had interacted with a few support groups during his caregiving years and noticed they all had one thing in common—the attendees were angry. He identified three objects of their anger: God, the person they were caring for, and/or themselves. They all believed that caregiving had robbed them of what they really wanted to do with their lives. Like a skilled surgeon, McQuilkin cut to the heart of the matter—we love ourselves more than we love other people.
Suffering, especially the variety that demands self-sacrifice, can serve as a great democratizer, exposing our collective penchant for self-pity. No small sin, I must say, since I know it well. I have found self-pity to be a strangely subtle and seductive sin, dressed to the nines in victimhood as a cover for pride, self-justification, and an entitlement mentality. Behind every self-pitying thought there is an inner voice screaming, ‘It’s not fair!”
In C. S. Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy, a runaway orphan named Shasta begins to think about all the hardships and difficulties he has encountered in his young life.
I do think,” said Shasta, “that I must be the most unfortunate boy that ever lived in the whole world. Everything goes right for everyone except me. Those Narnian lords and ladies got safe away from Tashbaan; I was left behind. Aravis and Bree and Hwin are all as snug as anything with that old Hermit: of course I was the one who was sent on. King Lune and his people must have got safely into the castle and shut the gates long before Rabadash arrived, but I get left out.
Exhausted by his travels and feeling sorry for himself, Shasta begins to cry. As he wipes away his tears, he suddenly senses something near him, something breathing “on a very large scale.”
“Who are you,” he said, scarcely above a whisper.
“One who has waited long for you to speak,” said the Thing.
Shasta questions the Thing and discovers he’s talking with a lion. At the lion’s request, Shasta unburdens all his sorrows. Next he learns that the lion—who we all know as Aslan—has been with him the entire journey in a behind-the-scenes kind of way.
I was the lion who forced you to join with Aravis. I was the the cat who comforted you among the houses of the dead. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you while you slept. I was the lion who gave the Horses the new strength of fear for the last mile so that you should reach King Lune in time. And I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful at midnight, to receive you.
As the clouds are rolled back, Shasta now sees that the frowning providence of events that he had considered unlucky and misfortunate were actually the smiling face of Aslan, who was breathing grace and mercy all around him.
“Better is the end of a thing than its beginning” (Eccl. 7:8) The story of the McQuilkins came to an end in 2016 as Robertson stepped into eternity, but his act of faithfulness in caring for his wife remains with us, like a word from behind, saying, “This is the way, walk in it, when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left” (Isaiah 30:21).
And when we do, although we may not see, feel, or sense it, we discover the amazing truth that the great Lion of Judah’s presence was with us all along—comforting, driving, forcing, strengthening, pushing—bringing us safely to His desired destination.
As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.