Willing to die?


Recently, I had the dubious pleasure of re-reading The Man Who was Thursday, by G. K. Chesterton. I call it a “dubious pleasure” because, while the story is staggering and profound, it is bewildering. I’m not even certain where the sense of profundity derives from, only that it’s there, somewhere, beneath layers of anarchists and undercover policemen, dreams and symbols, balloon rides and accusations and costumes. Driving the entire story is a man named Sunday who is accountable to no one but himself. Is he God? What the heck is Chesterton getting at?

I read this book years ago. I scratched my head and recommended it to people who asked for book recommendations. (They usually didn’t ask a second time.)

I re-read it again, struggling for comprehension. It’s still elusive.

But one scene stopped me. I read it, re-read it, and slowly nodded.

Gabriel Syme is a detective has been engaged as a “philosophical policeman” to thwart a group of anarchists. He’ll end up going undercover and being elected as “Thursday” to the Central Council of Anarchists, a group of seven–all named for days of the week–headed by the mysterious Sunday. As it turns out, every other man/day of the week is also an undercover police detective posing as an anarchist and all of them have been hired by an extremely large man in a darkened room. None of them see that man’s face until the end. It is Sunday.

(Y’all, it’s fiction. Suspend your disbelief.)

In a flashback, Chesterton tells of Syme’s recruitment by another police officer and then his “interview” with a man in Scotland Yard. He enters a dark room. Another man, who has his back to him, asks if he is the new recruit.

“Are you the new recruit?” said the invisible chief, who seemed to have heard all about it. “All right. You are engaged.”

Syme, quite swept off his feet, made a feeble fight against this irrevocable phrase.

“I really have no experience,” he began.

“No one has any experience,” said the other, “of the Battle of Armageddon.”

“But I am really unfit–”

“You are willing, that is enough,” said the unknown.

“Well, really,” said Syme, “I don’t know any profession of which mere willingness is the final test.” 

“I do,” said the other– “martyrs. I am condemning you to death. Good-day.” 

–G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who was Thursday, chapter 4

Those final two lines of dialogue stopped me. Martyrs require no other qualification than a willingness to die for what they believe. I’ve heard stories of martyrs (usually early Christians) all my life and never considered that they did not have to be perfect or especially saintly or knowledgeable or hard workers or whatever; they only had to be willing to die.

Then I wondered: Would I be willing to die for what I believe? 

Then I wondered more: What does a “willingness to die” look like?

It could mean actual death, of course. Beheading. Stake-burning. Crucifixion.

But could it also mean a willingness to set aside

  • my own agendas?
  • my obsession with my opinions?
  • my own inclination to talk too much and listen too little?

Could it also mean

  • loving my enemies?
  • forgiving the unforgivable?
  • curtailing my spiritual freedom if it causes others to stumble?

Those aren’t things that I can do on my own. I definitely wouldn’t do them if left to my own desires. I’d sit around taking selfies and making certain every item on my to-do list is checked off and sharing my opinions on everything, including things on which I know nothing, and interrupting others every time they speak. Yuck.

But I know that my fitness for any God-ordained task doesn’t derive from my own innate abilities but from God himself. So I also have to conclude that any willingness to die for God–whether that’s physical or not–comes from him. And any ability to live for God–whatever form it takes, whatever task he gives–also comes from him.

So I’m neither unwilling nor unfit for whatever work God calls me to do.

In the eyes of other people, I may look like a very unlikely candidate for that job, and I may believe that myself at times. 

In the eyes of God, unlikely-looking is no deterrent. Those same people end up doing unimaginable things. He equips. He grows. He does the impossible. He gives me himself so I can be used by him for his work.

Who should I listen to: other people or God?

Chesterton’s novel may leave me with other unanswered questions, but even I know the answer to that one.

If God’s called me to a task, He’s already given me everything I need to do it. He’s given me himself. And that is enough.





6 thoughts on “Willing to die?

  1. I remember reading The Man Who Was Thursday many years ago for our book club. I admit I forget a lot of the details — it was definitely a challenging novel.

    Your discussion of willingness to die also made me think of Harry Potter, who has a conversation with Dumbledore about whether he will go back and face Voldemort and risk losing his life. Dumbledore tells him, “By returning, you may ensure that fewer souls are maimed, fewer families are torn apart. If that seems to you a worthy goal, then we say good-bye for the present.” All that is required is Harry’s willingness; he isn’t forced or pressured, but given freedom to decide. And when he does, he discovers he has all he needs to accomplish the task. Maybe that’s why I find that final book in the series (and other stories about heroic deeds done by those whose availability outshines their ability) so inspiring!


    1. I’ll admit that I haven’t read Harry Potter, but that scene does resonate. Now that I think about it, there are so many stories about ordinary people (or other creatures!) whose only qualification is their willingness to do the task at hand. It is inspiring!


  2. I loved that book as I read it, even though it left completely confused. I finally got the plot when it went back and read the novel’s subtitle; the whole thing is structured like a dream.

    Great job with this line, Laura: “I know that my fitness for any God-ordained task doesn’t derive from my own innate abilities but from God himself.” Really good insight.


    1. It’s a book that would be fun for a book discussion group, I think.

      I seem to be reading a lot about talent, performance, and deliberate practice lately, so I’ve been thinking about innate abilities and how people learn to do things. It’s a relief to realize that God gives abilities and enables us to use them for his glory and to love other people; it all comes down to his power, not mine. (Thankfully!)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. For me, your post raises the challenge of what we mean by “being willing to die”. On the one hand there is the John 3 and Romans 6 sense of we must [die and] be reborn – but I liken that more to surrender.
    There is also a distinction to be made, I think, between those who are willing to face death in their testimony and witness to Christ (like Stephen) and those who have a willingness (or even desire) to see their life ended. Whereas the former get called martyrs by the church, when I use the word “martyr” I tend to describe the latter – and I don’t mean it as a compliment.


    1. You raise an interesting point, Chris. I’d never considered how the word “martyr” could be used in two different ways, though I’ve used both! I tend to use the church definition, but we used to refer to my late grandmother as “Mary Martyr” because of her attitude. I think she was aiming for a selfless, unselfish attitude; you know, the type that sees there are 6 piece of cake for 7 people and claims that she never cared for cake anyway. But it was over-the-top and cued more eye rolls than admiration from her kids.

      As for those who desire to see their lives ended, I’d say they’re more suicidal than anything else. They need help learning that God values them!

      Liked by 1 person

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