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Are You Being Duped?

by Kent Philpott


You have been duped, if...

Chapter 1:

You have been duped if you think you are "the master of your fate and the captain of your soul"

An article in the San Francisco Chronicle (June of 2001) about the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, started me on a series of sermons upon which this book is based. McVeigh had quoted William Ernest Henley‘s poem, Invictus. He had singled out the last two lines of that famous poem, "I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul."

   A cherished possession of mine is a book of poetry my grandmother gave me on August 2, 1984. She knew I treasured this book of poetry when I was a teenager. It was from this book that I first encountered Invictus.  

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate;
I am the captain of my soul.

My emphasis on those last two stanzas is appropriate since it was Henley's main point--he imagined he was in charge and in control of his life.

He apparently was convinced there was nothing in all the creation that determined anything for him, even if circumstances were beyond his control. In the face of whatever might come, still it was he and he alone who mastered or captained how he would respond to the world around him. That is perhaps the best light that could be put on it, but it is fanciful at best, and unrealistic. It is a false bravado, a whistling in the dark. Ultimately neither Henley, McVeigh, nor anyone else is in control of anything that has to do with fate and soul. And by this, I do not deny free will, which we have plenty of. But it is limited, it is securely bounded on all sides; we have only enough free will to get ourselves into trouble, not enough to save us.

What Invictus meant to me

I read Invictus three or four dozen times in my life. I thrilled to the idea of it and memorized those last two lines like McVeigh might have, and I have been able to bring them to mind at key moments. And I exulted when I thought of the words. “Yes, the human spirit, how incomparable we are, 'bloody, but unbowed'." In my mind would be some event that happened at school, a challenge to a fight from some gang member, the fear I had of failing at sports, the dread of being in a new school with no friends. Then I would remember those words and take comfort from them.

   The poem's last two lines are what Timothy McVeigh quoted in the press release that he gave out and then read just moments before his execution. But he was strapped to a gurney in the execution chamber. He was powerless with the leather straps holding him firmly on his back. Then the lethal venom was injected into his vein. He turned out not to be the captain of his soul nor the master of his fate. In reality, he was the victim of his ignorance. He was the victim of his fears. He was the victim of his lusts. He was the victim of his anger.

The escorted convict

Once in awhile I will refer to the “great prophet,” Clint Eastwood. In the first Dirty Harry movie, do you remember one of Eastwood’s famous lines? “A man must know his limitations.” Now, I am not putting Eastwood in the class of the biblical prophets, and maybe I ought to delete the adjective “great”, but there is truth to the statement. Yet, most of us don’t know our limitations until we are like one convict I saw being escorted across the lower yard of San Quentin Prison.

It was before a baseball practice. I was at the prison earlier than usual hoping to get the equipment cage out and the gear set up. I was with one of the guys on our team, an old time convict. He is white, shaved bald, with tattoos seemingly covering his body--some of them X-rated. I have come to find out he is a very wise and cunning convict. Anyway, we were trying to get a guard to open the equipment room when we heard the shout, “Escort.” A convict was being escorted right by where we were standing. What this means is that anyone within earshot is to go to the nearest wall. I always go to the wall, turn around, and watch. My convict companion went to the wall but faced it. He said, “The reason I face the wall is that I don’t want anybody to think I have a plan in my mind that I might carry out while a man is coming by.”

The escorted man had a chain around his mid-section, which was attached to a chain that bound his wrists, while another chain secured his ankles leaving him just enough slack to shuffle along. Officers on each side wore clear plastic facemasks, metal helmets, and flack jackets. There was an officer right behind him holding a canister of pepper spray inches from the back of his head.

I asked, “What’s going on?” My player said, “This man just got here and he is going up to the Adjustment Center before he is put on Condemned Row. Every convict who goes to the row is housed in the A.C. for two to four years, so they learn how to live knowing they are going to die. It is not an easy adjustment. I know because I have had to listen to the screaming that comes out of there for 15 years.”

I noticed the escorted convict was glancing all around, and I commented on it. My player explained, “This is the last clear view of blue sky he’ll likely ever see, and he knows it.”

He was a white man about 25 or 26 years of age. He had what I would call a computer science, rocket science look to him--an intelligent looking man. He was rather short and stocky, with glasses, black hair, and a clean-shaven face. He was dressed in an orange jumpsuit. Furtively, it seemed to me, he was looking at the grass of the ball field, the last grass he might ever see. His eyes roved up and down, side to side. There were sea gulls flying around and he intently followed their flight. He was looking everywhere, desperately. You could see that he was trying to capture as many glimpses as he could of the outside world before entering the Adjustment Center. He was certainly not the master of his fate; he was not the captain of his soul. But, neither am I.

In the 21st chapter of John is the record of a very unusual statement, one that reminds me of the condemned man at San Quentin, McVeigh, myself, and, if you can be honest about it, will remind you of yourself. Jesus said to Peter, “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go” (John 21:18). Jesus basically told Peter how he would die and that when that moment came, he would be powerless to do anything about it. 

Do we need other illustrations of the fact that we are not the master of our fate, nor the captain of our soul? We do, because there are powerful motivations tempting us to think otherwise.

Jeremiah’s analysis of the human condition 

Consider Jeremiah 17:19. The prophet wrote, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt.” The King James Version has “wicked” instead of "corrupt,” but modern translations have the better rendering, “corrupt.” Jeremiah meant that we are deceived and corrupt, and the deceitfulness is within us. It is not external but internal. That this is so is known to most of us, especially those of us who by God’s grace have seen through some of our delusions. But this powerful, mysterious, baffling spiritual and emotional condition is why we are vulnerable to being duped. Can you prove otherwise?

Jeremiah understood how harsh his analysis would sound to his listeners so he added, “Who can understand it?” In other words, who will believe what I say? Who is ever going to acknowledge that this is true?

“Corrupt” is not a word we readily apply to ourselves. It means there is something rotten at our core, something about us that is wicked and depraved. Certainly we humans are capable of truly loving acts, thoughts, and feelings--this I understand and appreciate. But there is another dimension to us, a dark side, and to ignore it is a mistake.

Do you read a daily newspaper or watch television news broadcasts? It is not difficult to see that there is something wrong. Maybe it is time we give up on the theory that we are, in terms of evolutionary processes, continually improving. We may want to adjust that theory since we see it is not the case. But, who can understand it?

And more than that, who can admit it personally? How does it come across when I say you are corrupt, that you have been deceived, that you have been duped? And if you have believed that you are the master of your fate and the captain of your soul, you have been duped. It is better to know it now than discover it later, because one day, you will know it.

This is not to say you are a “bad person.” But denying what is true does not enhance how we feel about ourselves. And I know that those who struggle with security or self-esteem issues will perhaps wince at this. Yet, it is the truth, and we must face it.

Isaiah’s analysis of the human condition 

Consider another of the Hebrew prophets, this time Isaiah. If I have not convinced you from the prophet Jeremiah, if I have not convinced you from knowledge of yourself, if you are still unconvinced, though you look around at a chaotic and desperate world, if you still fail to see the corruption and the deception that is in the human race, perhaps the prophet Isaiah will convince you

A voice says, “Cry!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All flesh is grass,
and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people is grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand for ever.  
         Isaiah 40:6-8  

In typical biblical fashion, first there is the bad news then the good. God reminded Isaiah that the grass withers and the flower fades, and so do we, don’t we? How many birthdays do you have left? Maybe not another one. Compare photos of yourself, one taken ten years ago, and a recent snapshot. What do you see?

You are withering and fading. Try as you might, you cannot do one thing about it. And one day you will stand before the One who made you and give an account. Yes, you will do this and you are deceived if you think you will not.

Though the grass withers and the flower fades, “the word of our God will stand for ever.”

“But wait”  

Someone will protest, “Wait a minute, we can freeze the body now.” “Cryonics” is the term used for this false hope. You have your body frozen and then later on, when medical science has advanced far enough, some technician will unfreeze you and administer the appropriate miraculous cure. Or, tissue will be taken from your frozen body and you will be cloned. Do we really think that all we are is in our DNA? Maybe duped people do.

I am not sure we can all count on cryonics. I am not sure there will be sufficient energy, space, and good will to accommodate everyone. I am not sure there will be technicians around caring enough to handle it all. A flimsy hope indeed!

Then someone will bring up stem cell research. Medical science is advancing so very rapidly after all. I am not confident that there is going to be a cure for all the deadly diseases. And what about the news of cancer cures? We have good news coming and additionally we have advanced knowledge on how to care for ourselves through nutrition, exercise, so forth, and so on. I am not sure however that you can count on it that medical science will make it possible for you to live forever. Failing all this, some suggest that aliens are will arrive with knowledge that will put us beyond the grip of death. I am not sure that is all going to happen.

Do the words of Jeremiah apply to you? “The heart is deceitful above all things.”

Probably you haven’t fallen for the fanciful solutions to death currently being paraded about the popular landscape like those mentioned above. But perhaps your heart is deceiving you with the hope that you are the master of your fate and the captain of your soul. If you still think so, maybe this last point will be of some value to you.

A third analysis of the human condition

Examine Hebrews 9:27. The writer of Hebrews, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit said, “It is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment.” The writer means there is no second chance, no coming around again, and no putting off death and judgment.

How we dread the thought of death!

A woman in her mid-sixties, whose husband had died several years earlier, visited me on the advice of her daughter. She was struggling to get over her loss. One of the reasons she was in distress was that she had been gripped by the fear of her own dying.

During the course of our conversation I said to her, "This fear is a very real one." I wasn’t going to say, “Oh, its okay, you’re young, you’re healthy. You haven’t even reached the average age of mortality for women in America. You are about ten years from that.” I wasn’t going to give her some cheap comfort to make her feel okay for an hour or two. I wanted her to understand that her fear was a very real one.

She became uncomfortable. Beads of sweat popped out on her forehead. She had difficulty, emotional difficulty, handling the reality that she would die and could not do anything about it. And we are duped if we think we are somehow going to avoid our own death. In our youth and our strength, we feel we will never die. But we will.

The Creator appointed us to die "once.” “Once,” and there is no coming back. Some say, “Well, there is reincarnation. I will come back.” You’ve been duped if you think that you will. Reincarnation is a false hope. You will die and you will not come back. Here’s what will happen after you die: “and after that comes judgment.”

   Judgment! The next thing you know you will be standing before the judgment of God, naked and alone with nothing in your hands but your own sin and guilt. If this bothers you, then you are not far from the kingdom of God. The worst thing is if this truth should not impact you at all. You are in the greatest danger if you are easily able to shrug it off. Judgment--this is the bad news, but the passage is not yet complete.

   The 28th verse gives us the good news. “So Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” The corruptness that leads us into all manner of strange behavior, and into the confused, twisted thinking that moves us to rebellion and law breaking, Jesus took upon Himself at the cross. “Bear the sins of many” means also that He took our death, that eternal death, upon Himself. He took the punishment, the condemnation, even the hell we would have to endure upon Himself so that we would not have to. Why? Because He loves us and not for anything we ever did or ever will do. This is the greatest and most wonderful truth.

Hopelessness or hope?  

The Scripture does not give us the hopelessness that we will die then face judgment without giving us the hope that is in the Gospel. And short of the Gospel there is no hope except for some vague wish in something that is farther away than Disneyland’s Fantasy Land.

Here is the true and solid hope of the Gospel—Jesus Christ has been offered once to bear the sins of many. All our sin was placed upon Jesus, every one. Every sin, mystically, spiritually, and actually placed upon Jesus and forever buried with Him. That means gone. And He rose from the dead. He is the living savior who will return, and take those who have been born again to be with Him.

Hebrews says He will appear a second time. Remember now, not to deal with sin the second time, but “to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” I love those words! “who are eagerly waiting for him.”

One of the ways you can spot a Christian is he or she is eagerly waiting for the return of Jesus. There is no fear of it. Many people are rattled, even angered by the idea of the return of Jesus. It just makes them mad. Do you know why? Because of the fear of judgment. That was so very true of me. I would hear talk of the return of Jesus. It didn’t thrill me at all. I tried to laugh it off as so much pious talk and churchy garbage. Then I would lie to myself, thinking that if it actually happened I’d be okay.  

If you are not looking forward to the return of Jesus, a most horrible dread will fill you when He does return—or you die before that great event. And then you will know that you have been deceived. And you will know, entirely too late and beyond any question, that you are neither the master of your fate nor the captain of your soul.

What do we control? 

There is yet one other major area we do not have control over and that is conversion itself. By conversion I mean becoming a Christian. Conversion is perhaps most popularly known by the term “born again.” Here is perhaps the biggest issue of all. We cannot convert ourselves--conversion belongs strictly to God.

One of the central doctrines of the Bible is the sovereignty and grace of God. By this is meant that God freely initiates and completes conversion. It is His work alone and is not based on anything on the human side of things. I do not mean that God controls each and every act, word, thought, no, but He must call us, choose us, or elect us. We cannot simply decide if we will become Christians. This runs counter to what most people think, however. Being unclear on the subject most imagine, “If I am baptized then I will become a Christian and go to heaven when I die.” Or, they think “If I join the church, or if I do good deeds, or if I stop sinning, or if I pray the "sinner's prayer"--then this will do it.” It will not, and you are duped if you think so.

Consider the term "born again.” This metaphor indicates that conversion is not something we achieve on our own. We had nothing to do with our physical birth and the same is true for spiritual birth. It is the work of God. First, the Holy Spirit must show us we have sinned against God and give us the desire to turn away from it. Jesus said that the Holy Spirit would convict us of sin (see John 16:8). And then God even gives us the faith to trust in Jesus (see Romans 10:17 and Ephesians 2: 8-9).

So then, no one can come to Jesus unless the Father draws him or her (see John 6: 37, 44, 65). What a mistake it is to think conversion, the new birth, is within our control.

Some Christians who are unclear on this point will often say (just as I did for 29 years of ministry), "It is your decision, you choose, the responsibility is yours." It implies we can control salvation, the forgiveness of sins, and conversion itself. We do not control it, and the deception on this point usually results in a spurious or false conversion. So many have been deluded into thinking that something they can do, a baptism or praying some prayer, for example, is enough to convert them. God births, God converts. And this is why we present the good news of Jesus that the Holy Spirit may bring people to Jesus. As Paul wrote to the Roman Church, "So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ" (Romans 10:17).

   It is of supreme importance that you reject the concept that you are in control of your fate.

Chapter 2 will appear in our next issue, or click HERE to buy now.


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