The anxieties and unanswered questions brought on by these uncertain days remind me of my high school days when, through no fault of our own, we were forced to read Shakespeare. It was an especially abusive procedure for us, especially in the beginning, since even if “modern English” versions existed, we were not blessed with access to one and Elizabethan English was torturous. (These were the early days, before, as some of you may recall, I became the lone student who eventually, and secretly, grew to love Shakespeare–but please don’t tell anyone!) If we’d had a bunch of “cancel culture” radicals back in those days to declare Shakespeare’s works “offensive” and snatch them off the library shelves, most of us guys would have hyper-ventilated with inexpressible relief.
Nothing Personal ~
It’s not that we had any personal animosity toward him or any other ancient English poet. After all, those poor guys had enough problems with not being able to talk like normal people, and having to remember to add “eth” to all those words. It wasn’t personal. We would have had the same response to anything we were forced to read and then write papers about, no matter who wrote it. Our criteria for a great literary work was that it could be read in less than 20 minutes, had lots of humor, good pictures, and that it addressed the basic foundational issues of life; i.e., huntin’, fishin’, baseball, cars, and food. Thus, as a general rule, reading material that didn’t warrant a cover story or at least a lead article in Field & Stream, Popular Mechanics, or Baseball World was summarily rejected.
Unfortunately, our deeply held literary convictions were as totally ignored by the autocratic and tyrannical “school people” running our lives then as common sense is by the ruling class running the country today. The academic gestapo at our school seemed to derive some kind of fiendish delight in making us read Shakespeare out loud in class. They’d stand up front and wait to see if any of us would collapse in an unconscious stupor from exposure to more concentrated boredom than our brains were designed to handle. Then they’d follow up with their other favorite torture device, asking questions they knew we couldn’t possibly answer. They’d read some incomprehensible bunch of words that no normal person would ever actually say and ask “What do you think the author meant by that?”
Another Confusing Question ~
When hit with questions like that, normal guys like my friends and me could only sweat and squirm in hopeless confusion, praying for an appendicitis attack, or maybe an earthquake. Questions like that reminded me of what that cute blonde-haired girl with the captivating ponytail did to me that day when we approached each other in the hallway. Out of the blue, with no provocation, no warning and no explanation, she looked right at me, smiled brightly, and said, “Hi” as she walked by. A few steps later, my buddy, Dinks, said, “What do you think she meant by that?” I wheeled around, understandably shocked, and blurted out, “What’s wrong with you, Dinks? How on earth am I supposed to know the answer to a question like that?!”
Well…, we eventually managed to survive Shakespeare in spite of hormones, acne, blonde ponytails, and other endlessly distracting obstacles. And now, though his words may be the product of a bygone era, some of them might be worth revisiting as we wrestle with the challenges of these troubling days. Shakespeare’s, Hamlet, offers an intriguing example with one of the most widely recognized and oft quoted lines from any of his works. The most famous soliloquy of all time begins with Hamlet asking himself a probing question as he contemplates suicide. To be, or not to be? He muses, “That is the question.” In other words, “With all the awful stuff going on, and all the things I’ll have to face, is continuing to live in this world really worth it?” Hamlet was neither the first nor the last to ask that question, and there’s no doubt he has lots of company in our country right now.
A Memorable Conclusion ~
Eventually Hamlet winds down and decides against ending it all. He realized that even though more hard times would be coming in this world, the judgment waiting for him on the other side could be a lot worse than anything he might face here. That realization put the brakes on his lethal intentions. The fear of facing unavoidable judgment and the consequences of a life full of failures and regrets were enough to change his mind. As Hamlet backed away from his plan, he dismissed his decision by injecting another memorable comment worth our consideration. He said, “Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all.”
The specter of his past sins and failures paralyzed him. Fear of impending judgment stripped Hamlet of the courage it would take to die, and an inability to escape them robbed him of any joy in continuing to live. Again, it occurs to me that Hamlet was not, and is not, alone. Multitudes share his miserable quandary today.
The Requirement of Courage ~
Like Shakespeare’s despondent character, many in these awful times see ending it all as an appealing way out. Death can seem to be the great escape, but just as Hamlet feared, it may not be an escape at all. What follows death could be eternally and irredeemably disastrous. Thankfully, Jesus came to offer a better way out of our misery than the one Hamlet was planning. God saw death as the way out for us as well … , but not our own. Instead, He took that burden upon Himself and offered the death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ, on our behalf as the ultimate way out. God’s plan of redemption is gracious, loving, and universally available but Hamlet’s concluding comment confronts us as we consider laying hold of it. Following Jesus requires faith, but it also takes courage, because conscience, and the fears it generates can, indeed, “make cowards of us all.”
Jesus’ invitation to follow Him offers eternal life, freedom, and ultimate deliverance from the world’s burdens, but it involves a sobering commitment. One of the pictures Jesus used to illustrate what it meant to follow Him makes the need for courage clear in a way that in His day was downright shocking. He described it like this:
Then He [Jesus] said to them all, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it. (Luke 9:23–24 NKJV)
Free, but not Cheap ~
So here is the point. Jesus’ offer can create a quandary similar to Hamlet’s for those who hear it. Continuing to live in and with the sins and failures held in a conscience that haunts our past, invades our present, and threatens our future is one option. The other is appealing, but not easy. It requires abandoning the world and all it offers and committing everything to follow Jesus. The question is whether belief in Jesus brings with it the courage needed to respond. Salvation is free, but it is not cheap. Faith will confront the cowardice generated by our guilty, sin-laden conscience and demand a choice. Do we boldly abandon all and follow Him or remain condemned to misery in this world and an exponentially worse situation waiting in the next?
To be, or not to be is not the right question, and suicide is never the right answer, regardless of what kind of trouble we’re facing. As Hamlet finally realized, death does not mean we cease to be. It only means we continue to be somewhere else, and our conscience, like Hamlet’s, will be there to condemn us unless we bring it to Jesus and have it cleansed. Enduring these uncertain days is challenging, but they prompt us to ask a better question than the one Shakespeare came up with. How about this: To continue to be paralyzed by our fear, or to abandon everything and follow Jesus, that is the question.
All of us know what a burdened conscience feels like, but it can either make us doomed and defeated cowards — or courageously liberated disciples. Like the Apostle Paul, we can escape the corruption of this world, not through the pain of a suicidal stroke, but by the power of a sacrificial substitute.
For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, 6 knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. 7 For he who has died has been freed from sin. (Romans 6:5–7 NKJV)
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- “Following Jesus requires faith, but it also takes courage because conscience, and the fears it generates can, indeed, “make cowards of us all.” His freedom and ultimate deliverance from the world’s burdens involves a sobering commitment.” @GallaghersPen (Click here to Tweet)
- “Faith will confront the cowardice generated by our guilty, sin-laden conscience and demand a choice. Do we boldly abandon all and follow Him or remain condemned to misery in this world and an exponentially worse situation waiting in the next?” @GallaghersPen (Click here to Tweet)
- “As Hamlet finally realized, death does not mean we cease to be. It only means we continue to be somewhere else, and our conscience, like Hamlet’s, will be there to condemn us unless we bring it to Jesus and have it cleansed.” @GallaghersPen (Click here to Tweet)
- “A burdened conscience can either make us doomed and defeated cowards or courageously liberated disciples. Like Paul, we can escape the corruption of this world, not through the pain of a suicidal stroke, but the power of a sacrificial substitute.” @GallaghersPen (Click here to Tweet)
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