‘Whatever gods might be’

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“I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.”

So ends Scotsman William Ernest Henley’s poem “Invictus,” a couplet seen a thousand times on a thousand motivational posters. I saw one recently.

“Invictus” is Latin for “unconquerable.”  Henley’s lines bespeak heroic will, stoic self-sufficiency and uncomplaining fortitude. His words invite responsibility, imply courage and place no blame – all virtues.

Our human souls are buoyed by the “master and captain” language of control: I control my fate, make things happen and do what I want. It’s up to me. My conscience is the only consequence.

It is precisely here where aspiring virtues start devolving into self-absorbed vices; where “whatever gods might be” (in the poem’s first verse) subordinate Almighty God.

Few would envy Henley’s life (1859-1903). Persistent childhood infections required the painful amputation of a lower leg at age 17, and Henley was told he would soon lose the other. Dr. Joseph Lister (the founder of antiseptic medicine; ever heard of Listerine?) arrived and saved the remaining leg. Near the end of that ordeal (1873-1875) at the Royal Edinburgh Infirmary in Scotland, Henley wrote “Invictus.” If Henley could spit at discouragement even then, who wouldn’t admire him?

And yet, as a Christian believer, I see Henley’s famously defiant, courageous, poetic truism as profoundly misleading and destructively untrue. His “master and captain” imagery conjures secular humanism, mocks reliance on God and eschews relationship with the only proper master and captain of every human life, Jesus Christ.

Perhaps you’re thinking, “Picky, picky, picky. What’s wrong with a person taking command and being responsible for his or her own life?” Well, this is what’s wrong with it: it separates that person from God. There is only ever one “master” in our life and if that master is me, then it is not God.

“I can do all things through him (Christ) who strengthens me,” says Paul (Philippians 4:13). Our Christian goal is not to master and command our limited “light and momentary” lives, but to love and worship the unlimited and eternal living God.

Death, you see, conquers all, except for Jesus Christ, who conquered death.

“Invictus?” ‘Tis wiser and more profitable, methinks, to serve a master and trust a captain who truly is unconquerable.

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