Imagine a kingdom. This kingdom is the rightful land of a good and wise king; a king who rules perfectly, with absolute justice and righteousness. The king, full of goodness and wisdom, has built this kingdom to be a paradise for its people — to fulfill their every need and to be a place where they can live with the king in peace and contentment.
The king tells his subjects that they are to oversee the ruling of this kingdom alongside him, and he gives them the freedom to do this as they see fit. His people, understanding that he is a gracious and loving king, are happy to rule under him, as stewards of this beautiful realm. There is much to do and, at first, they gladly watch over the land and administer it according to the king’s will and the rules that the king has set. They speak with him regularly and know him deeply, and long for the things that he longs for, so their administration of this kingdom is good and just — a reflection of the way he would administer. It is the King’s plan to adopt his subjects into his family — to make them the very real heirs to all his world and might.
But the king has an Enemy, one of his footsoldiers who has rebelled, and the Enemy and his rebel army hate the king with all of their beings. They resent the king and his goodness, they resent His rule, and they lust for control over all he has built. They know they king is too strong to face him directly — he has a mighty host that they could never defeat. And so, instead of direct confrontation, and in secret, these enemies begin to whisper in the ears of some of the king’s subjects. They begin to spread word that the king’s rule is not good, that the king is not faithful, and that his rules are not for the benefit of his people. The enemies of the king offer an alternative to each subject of the kingdom: “Throw off the shackles of the King’s rule and become a king yourself!”.
The people of the Kingdom hear these words and are taken in by the lie; for they do not realize that the Enemy’s choice is even more pernicious. Underneath his words, the Enemy is really proffering the choice between two faiths: to hold faith in the King’s goodness, by following his ways… or to hold faith in the words of the Enemy, and to follow his. In their folly and pride, the subjects of the kingdom believe that they are raising themselves up to kingly stature, when in reality they are shackling themselves to be simply the puppet-rulers of the Enemy.
And so, in the fullness of time, the king’s subjects listen to the lies of the Enemy, and break faith with their King. They decide to call their king a liar, and to follow the Enemy’s guidance, and to live as though they know better than their rightful King. They break his rules, and hide their lies from him, but he is not fooled. He sees the change in them and, heartbroken, he gives them what they chose — he lets them become puppet-rulers for the Enemy. He sends them out into the world to build their own kingdoms as they see fit, with the warning that their choice will cause them much pain and suffering. The King knows that any kingdom they build and rule will, ultimately, belong to the Enemy, who will fill each city with plague and war, murder and theft, greed and hatred. The King knows that much of their lives will be waking nightmares of anguish and despair, for generation upon generation. And yet the king abides by the choice that they made.
And we may pause here and wonder at such a thing. How could a king — a good, and just, and wise king — let his subjects make such a decision? How could he allow them to depart from his goodness and mercy, and to leave them to struggle and weep and bleed and die, when he could simply sweep in with his Armies, chase out the Enemy, and restore justice and joy to the world? The answer is that the King is a king of Love. His goodness and justice all flow out of his very nature, and his nature is Love. And the King knows that forcing his subjects to choose him and his rule, by the violent erasure of any alternative, would not be an act of Love. He will have no unwilling subjects in his kingdom, no forced adoration, no puppets to rule; he leaves his subjects free to choose him. Or to walk away. And for this, the king allows the Enemy to spread his lies — because his people must have an alternative to choose from, if there is to be any choice made.
“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” — The Great Divorce
So the King lets his subjects see His world, and His goodness, and His law, and His desires, and compare it to their own law, and desires, and might. He lets them make their choice on who should be in charge, in spite of the pain that this causes them, and himself.
They choose poorly.
Time passes, and the subjects of the King spread out over his land, building their own little cities and kingdoms. They set themselves up as rulers and generals, as emperors and chiefs, and try to rule in the ways that seem best to them. Most of these kingdoms are small — just a little house in a sleepy village, where the would-be king believes himself to be lord and master. He decides the rules of right and wrong. He determines what is just (usually what is good for him) and unjust (usually what is bad for him). He rules with strength, or with kindness, or with fear, or with competence. He is brave, or cowardly, or kind, or diligent, or manipulative, or any of a thousand traits that he believes are best, and he accomplishes much… or little, as his station and ability determine. Some few kingdoms are vast, and their rulers are powerful and call down great armies of other would-be-kings to fight for them, or hoard vast treasures of gold and fame upon the earth, during their lifetimes.
But, great or small, all of these kings share the same fate — they have all chosen to follow the Enemy and his lies. They all believe that they have the right to rule over their kingdoms. All these puppet kings believe that everything which is — the land they live in; the air they breathe; the beating of their hearts; the sun and rain which falls on them; the resources of the earth; their labours; their intelligence; their personalities; their lineage — that all of this is theirs by default, an entitlement to rule over as they see fit. They fail to understand that all of this — every last molecule and mote of dust and firing synapse — rightfully belongs to the King. That this is HIS land. We are HIS subjects. This is HIS air, and HIS heartbeat, and HIS sunlight that we use every day.
And so, every little would-be-king in the land is, in reality, a rebellious Enemy agent. Every would-be-king is actually fighting for the occupying army, which has taken over the King’s country. Every tiny emperor, when he fails to pay fealty to and to follow after the King, is actively following after the Enemy of the King. We are breaking the King’s rule of law, disregarding his justice, shattering his peace. Every day that we choose to live as puppet kings and queens is a day where we place faith in the Enemy and are traitors to the rightful King.
There is not one of the King’s subjects who has not been a traitorous wretch for a good portion of his life. Not one of us who can say that we have been loyal to the King, and ignored the Enemy’s lies, and given the King his full and good and proper due. Every single one of is has broken his law, ignored his goodness, and followed after the Enemy’s lies. Every single one of us is guilty of treason.
We deserve to be executed or exiled. Every last one of us.
The King knows us. He knows the trouble we are in. He knows that each one of us has chosen — and willingly so — the headsman’s block. And the King is a king of Love, and a part of Love is justice. There is no love without justice, and justice demands that we pay for our treason, that we pay for every owed breath, and smile, and mouthful of food, and moment of gladness and life gifted to us by the King. The King cannot force us to make different decisions than we have, nor can he simply ignore the fact that we have chosen ourselves above him, that we have aggregated a massive debt to Him while pretending that the wealth is our own. That we have — in and of ourselves — a complete and utter inability to repay that debt with anything that is not already His.
And so. The subjects of the King find (if they even think about the King at all) that they are in extreme debt to the rightful ruler, with no ability to pay back that debt. And, at the same time, we are traitors and liars, thieves and destroyers. Even the best of us — and there are precious few of those — have oftentimes set themselves up as the rulers of their little kingdoms, and flouted His laws, turned our backs on His rule. We are little despots and beggars, strutting about in filthy robes and bent crowns, acting like petulant children more often than not. We berate our spouses. We shirk our responsibilities. We make idols of career and fame and money and power. We ignore the poor and the outcast. We waste ourselves on mindless hours of consumption and entertainment. We abuse the resources of this earth on frivolities. We lash out at those who differ from us. We pretend to know everything so we can lord it over others. We clutch at control over our little kingdoms until our dying breaths. We pretend to be gods.
“For the trouble is that one part of you is on His side and really agrees with His disapproval of human greed and trickery and exploitation. You may want Him to make an exception in your own case, to let you off this one time; but you know at bottom that unless the power behind the world really and unalterably detests that sort of behaviour, then He cannot be good. On the other hand, we know that if there does exist an absolute goodness it must hate most of what we do.” — Mere Christianity
We are heading for the gallows. The guillotine. The firing squad.
And here is the crux: we deserve it. If you do not believe this, then you are simply demanding that the King’s justice doesn’t really apply, but only in your case. You want the King’s justice for all those other, really bad people. But you are not like them. The King should make allowances, in your case.
Do you see the ago? The pride? The expectation that you deserve special consideration? Like a French Nobleman in the 1700s, who considered himself above the rest of the rabble, who believed that justice must — MUST — favour him, we all let this pride blind us to the truth. We are, in the end, nothing special. We are just as fallen and broken as the history’s greatest wretches. The distinction between them and us is — if it is anything — simply in quantity, not in kind. But insurmountable debt is still owed, and treason is still treason. While we sit in a 10,000-foot hole, we see those 6 feet below us and pretend that we are righteous. We have never been.
Justice says that we have earned death. That our debt, and our pride, and our constant spitting in the face of the rightful King, can and must lead to only one outcome. Because the King is good, and goodness requires justice. Goodness requires that the debt and treason be paid for.
There is no other way.
And yet, God.
And yet, Mercy.
And yet, Love.
There is one who can pay my debt. There is one who can forgive my treason. There is one who can conquer all those stubborn little kingdoms. Not with a violent upheaval — not yet.
And so the King sent his one true Son, the Prince, to come and visit some of these kingdoms for a while. To stop in and tell everyone about the King, and about the real Kingdom, and to invite all those rebels to leave their pretend thrones behind, and to return to following the one true and good and faithful King.
And the Prince was harsh, and reminded all those who would listen that their little kingdoms were broken and wretched and messed up. And the Prince showed the mightiest pretenders that their thrones were no better than the poor and pathetic. And the Prince reminded the puppet-kings that the REAL kingdom was a place of healing, and life, and unspeakable comfort. And the Prince taught others how to begin building the real kingdom here, and now — how to restore these lands to the rightful rulership of the King. And this mighty Prince gave us the unfathomable hope that we could be made His siblings — his adopted sisters and brothers, welcomed into the Royal Family with rejoicing and open arms. And the Prince helped them to see that building the real Kingdom, that being welcomed to the Family, first — and foremost — requires each of us to step down from our own thrones and to release our own desires and wants from our clutching, grasping hearts, and to return to the goodness and faithfulness of the one, true King.
But this teaching was not enough, on its own. There is still Justice wanting. There are still myriad debts to be paid. The headsman’s axe is still poised over each of our necks for our traitorous, treasonous ways. And so, after the Son of the King, this good and faithful Prince, taught many pretenders these joyous things, he went to pay for all.
The Son, the Prince, marched to the gallows. The guillotine. The firing squad. The Prince, who owed no debt, and had committed no treason, went to pay for your debts and mine.
And so Justice was satisfied, at the hands of Mercy, and Love.
Now we sit in a liminal space. We are still treasonous, and still racking up debts every day, every hour, every breath. And, at the same time, there is the offer of repayment that stands before us.
In this space, we are brought back to the beginning. We have the opportunity, because of the King’s mercy, and the Son’s sacrifice, to make the same choice that our forebears did: do we follow the King, and build His kingdom, or do we follow ourselves, and build our own? Do we trust that His ways are good, and faithful, and right? Or do we decide that we know better: would make better kings?
“It is something much harder than merely eating humble pie. It means unlearning all the self-conceit and self-will that we have been training ourselves into for thousands of years. It means killing part of yourself, undergoing a kind of death. In fact, it needs a good man to repent. And here comes the catch. Only a bad person needs to repent: only a good person can repent perfectly. The worse you are the more you need it and the less you can do it. The only person who could do it perfectly would be a perfect person — and he would not need it.
Remember, this repentance, this willing submission to humiliation and a kind of death, is not something God demands of you before He will take you back and which He could let you off if He chose: it is simply a description of what going back to Him is like. If you ask God to take you back without it, you are really asking Him to let you go back without going back. It cannot happen. Very well, then, we must go through with it.” — Mere Christianity
This is the decision. Each day. Every day. Do we — do I? — accept that the King is good and faithful and true, or do I place faith in myself? Do I accept that I am a traitor, and a wretch, and in need of a saviour to pay my debts, or do I believe I am “good enough”? Do I spend my (His) time and energy and resources building His Kingdom, or do I decide that these things are my own, and use them to my own glory?
The King has conquered, and all debts are paid — but this is not a violent overthrow. Not yet. In this space, the King is offering us all the chance to return. He has offered us a way out, while still allowing us the freedom to choose it.
There will be a day when the King returns, in force. There will be a day where final Justice is meted out, and we all face the consequences of our own choosing. But in the meantime, Mercy prevails, and Justice is forestalled, and the King’s goodness and glory shines over all.
In the meantime, today, in this moment. I chose His way. His life. His truth. I ask for His mercy. I turn away, in stumbling and faltering steps, from my own weakness and pride. I endeavour to build His kingdom, to be a slave in His army.
Because He is King.