For various reasons, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about death and the purpose of life. (Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be depressing, just bear with me)
In the past few years, our nation has become obsessed with death. Doom is always a scroll away, reminding us how we walk on the knife edge of life.
And so we look away from the fire and into the shadows, fixated by death. When will it get us? How can we keep it from claiming others? And when life is so sad and ends so horribly, how is anything we do while we live significant?
I look around at the world and then down at my “silly, little fairy tales” and think, what’s the point? An inspiring Instagram caption, a funny story, a book club, they can all feel horrendously insignificant, even irreverent. The feeling that we are laughing at a funeral comes over us, and we shrink into grim silence as we remember that death is coming for all of us someday.
Then I read Beowulf.
Reading this classic piece stirred my faith up; turning ashes into sparks.
Sometimes, stories can reach us when our spirits have become cold to Scripture, and the story of Beowulf answered my twofold question: how do we deal with death, and how do we make our lives significant while we live?
BEOWULF ON DEATH.
Once in ancient Denmark, there was the rich Hall of a great man named Hrothgar. They were an affluent people, but they were also a pagan people
“The Lord God,
head of the Heavens and High King of the World,
was unknown to them.”
Times were good, and life had gone on without great incident for some time, making the people within feel a false security. And then, disaster suddenly struck.
A powerful demon, a prowler through the dark, nursed a hard grievance. It harrowed him to hear the din of the loud banquet every day in the hall, the harp being struck
Grendel, a terrible monster, falls upon the Hall and ravages it, killing many of the people and plunging the rest into terror. Again and again, he strikes, and the people despair.
They are on the verge of extinction, and yet they have no thought of how to defend themselves against the monster. Because they have no faith; they have no courage.
Hrothgar’s Hall bears a marked resemblance to our world today. They are paralyzed by fear, and have no way of freeing themselves from the fear that is as fierce as Grendel.
So that troubled time continued, woe
that never stopped, steady affliction
for Halfdane’s son, too hard an ordeal.
There was panic after dark, people endured
raids in the night, riven by the terror.
These were hard times, heart-breaking
Fortunately, there is a man named Beowulf who has heard of their plight, and he travels far from his homeland in order to present himself before Hrothgar. He literally crosses the ocean for the opportunity to fight Grendel.
A daunting man, dangerous in action,
and eager for it always.
Beowulf arrives at Hrothgar’s beleaguered Hall and asks for the honor of confronting and killing the creature. While others flee from battle and hardship, Beowulf runs towards them. Demonic powers are hateful to him. It is not fear that rises up in Beowulf when confronted by the enemy—it is an almost uncontrollable holy anger. He is the only one with the guts to seek out the creature, because he is the only one in the land with great faith.
Hrothgar’s people are eager to welcome Beowulf and, knowing of his past exploits, put their faith in a man instead of God, the very source from which springs Beowulf’s strength and tenacity!
Though all take up arms that night, there are plenty of fighters in Hrothgar’s Hall, but there is a key difference between them and Beowulf: surrender and trust.
The men of Hrothgar’s Hall trust only in the power of their own strength instead of God, so when a power emerges that is stronger than them, their hearts fail. They have not surrendered their fate to God, and so they fight death instead of fighting their adversaries.
Not so with Beowulf. Beowulf does not concern himself with the battle he can’t win (resisting death), he concerns himself only with the task at hand.
Ultimately, it makes no difference to Beowulf how or when he dies. When someone lives for duty, then all that they ask for comes to pass, because all that they want is to live, and die, with honor.
Beowulf has learned a truly philosophical approach to life: “Fate goes as ever as fate must.”
But death is not easily escaped from by anyone: all of us with souls, earth-dwellers and children of men, must make our way to a destination already ordained where the body, after the banqueting, sleeps on its deathbed.
Beowulf has stopped fighting God’s will. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t defend himself in combat—all it means is that he stops worrying about it. He simply does the work, knowing that no matter what happens, he will end up in the middle of God’s will.
The Hall celebrates one more night together, and then they bed down, with one man on guard, waiting for death. Everyone in that Hall has no idea who would be taken and who would remain. Only Beowulf sleeps peacefully. He knows the results of the night are out of their hands.
Beowulf knows the truth; we can’t do anything to avoid our own death or to stop the death of those we most care about.
Sadly, many Christians are tempted to buy into the lie that we have something to say about it. We do everything we can to preserve and extend our own lives and rush around trying to play God. But we never had that power.
Beowulf knows he only has one choice: how he will die. Or rather, what kind of attitude he will embody when grappling death. The only thing he can control is what kind of life he leads—it is the way a man lives that, in part, will determine how a man dies. As a soldier, and a brave one, Beowulf’s determination ensures that he will die a warrior’s death.
The Bible calls us soldiers of Christ. Because of this, we too should be like Beowulf. We shouldn’t be rushing around trying to play God and stop what we cannot stop. We shouldn’t be in a panic, fleeing from our duty. Instead, we should emulate the spirit of this doughty man who not only stands his ground against conflict, but hankers for it.
The secret to Beowulf’s grand certainty is quite simple: He trusts implicitly in the Lord and knows that his body and his days on earth rest in the hands of the Almighty, and so he has made the choice to be courageous.
And may the Divine Lord
in His wisdom grant the glory of victory
to whichever side He sees fit.
Beowulf is so confident of his strength, and in God’s will, that he will even cast aside the advantage of customary weapons and grapple with the beast hand to hand, so that he might heighten his master’s fame and gladden his Lord’s heart.
But Beowulf was mindful of his mighty strength,
the wondrous gifts God had showered on him:
He relied for help on the Lord of All,
on His care and favour.
Beowulf not only stands his ground against Grendel, he defeats him, mortally wounding the creature and driving it into the night where it succumbs to the wounds and finally dies.
The story of Beowulf deeply convicted me. I have struggled with so much fear this past year of how scary our future seems to be. I had been listening too much to the wailing of the Danes, people who turn to pagan reactions and “heathenish hope”—yesterday it was idols, today it may a pill—but it is all heathenish hope, a frail human heart placing its confidence in things of the Earth, in our own efforts, as if we could change the will of God, who has already written down our beginning and our end.
Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying we go and lie down in the middle of the street because we’re going to die anyway. Our bodies do not belong to us, they are gifts from God, so we should not be irresponsible with them, and our call to love and sacrifice sometimes demands that we put ourselves at risk to save others.
What I am saying is that we should try to stop worrying about our end. Jesus himself commands it. “Which of you by worrying can add one day to your life?”
It’s a fact that none of us want to die, and we certainly don’t want the ones we love to die. But the hard fact is . . . we can’t avoid either one of those fates.
Much as he wanted to there was no way
he could preserve his lord’s life on earth
or alter in the least the Almighty’s will
What God judged right would rule what happened
to every man.
It’s easy to look at the story of Beowulf and misunderstand its theme. “Oh, it’s the story of Beowulf saving the Danes!” But that’s not what Beowulf is about at all. Because he doesn’t really save anyone.
Bewoulf TEMPORARILY comes to the rescue. He does fight for the defenseless, but, in the grand scheme of life, he’s only delaying what will inevitably come.
What he REALLY accomplishes is testifying about God’s sovereignty. What he REALLY accomplishes is telling this pagan land about the One True God. What He REALLY does is tear down demonic strongholds. He doesn’t save lives, not really. But he does leave behind a legacy of courage.
Beowulf knows what so few of us know: his true place.
God alone saves, and not even God saves us from death. He offers eternal life beyond death, but we still have to go through it.
Beowulf not only fulfills God’s command that we fight in His name against everything that sets itself up against God’s authority, but he brings back much treasure and esteem for his king. His goal is to “win glory and prove his worth.” Beowulf’s entire purpose is bent on earning glory for his master, and this is what he does.
That should be our task. Not to save ourselves or others, but to be able to reach the end of our life and say that we left our people “well endowed”—leaving behind kind words, acts of obedience, and beautiful work. We were called to be glory winners; we were not called to be saviors.
Reading the story of Beowulf and being reminded again that I am a soldier, that a violent end was not to be avoided, and glory was my goal, helped me to gain perspective on the fearmongering I had been listening to.
There is only one way to live like Beowulf. To stop asking questions and to trust simply in the will of the one true God. Only in this surrender can lasting peace and courage be found. Only in this can God take away a heart of fearful flesh and give us a spirit of steady steel.
For every one of us, living in this world means waiting for our end. Let whoever can win glory before death.
– BEOWULF ON PURPOSE –
But how to win glory? With all this talk of death and inevitability of our end, it’s easy to get depressed. “What purpose does my short life have? The monsters are going to get me, so I might as well give up now. I’m powerless and because of that I’m purposeless. What could a kind word, a little story, a cooked meal possibly add to the grand scheme of things?”
But then I read this line in Beowulf, and I was convicted.
In this legendary hall, how it lies deserted,
Empty and useless
What a sad picture. Hrothgar’s Hall became obsessed with the death stalking them. This leads to the abandonment of life’s purpose, to the disintegration of their gifts and a home that was once legendary.
Looking around today, it’s easy to see that happening now. People neglect their families to be social justice warriors online. Artists are so overwhelmed by everything going on they stop creating. People stop doing what they’re supposed to be doing, and spiral down into despair and dissatisfaction.
While it is easy for the unsaved to fall into this demonic trap, it is imperative that Christians do not follow suit.
Yes, there are Grendels out there and they could attack at any time, but that doesn’t mean we stop singing. That doesn’t mean we cower in the dark. Death is coming, but that doesn’t mean we abandon living.
Threats surround us on every side—both physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. The weight of the world can be overwhelming, and it can be tempting to get distracted—to feel that we’re not doing enough or that the part we do play isn’t making a difference.
This is yet another lie in Satan’s arsenal. (“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Ephesians 6:12)
While most aren’t like Beowulf (physical fighters going into physical conflict), we still do battle every single day. This predominantly means prayer, praise, and fasting. This is where our real purpose, our real duty, the real “war work” lies.
But our daily lives are a part of that battle too. Singing a praise song, cooking a meal for your family, writing a clean story, laughing, playing a game, enjoying a good cup of tea and giving thanks for it, taking a walk in the sunshine and rejoicing in God’s creation—and doing it all in the face of misery and darkness—it’s all part of the fight.
I think we often forget how Satan HATES all goodness. When we are alive in Christ, everything we do has the power to be a weapon. Our mere existence, our most common daily life may as well be darts thrown at the enemy. Our mere existence as redeemed children of God torments Satan the way the sound of laughter in the Hall tormented Grendel.
Once we realize this, nothing we do feels insignificant anymore.
By obediently doing the work at hand with love and courage, we embody the spirit of Beowulf. So that’s why I will not listen to the growls of Grendel that try to drown out my singing. This is while I won’t belittle my fairy tales or my quiet life. This is the song I have been given to sing, this is the sword—as small as it is—I’ve been given to swing. This is life that I have is my bit of Hall; this is my post. My Instagram platform, my Patreon, my laptop, my home. This is my bit of Hall to serve, to protect, to love.
– SUMMARY –
When we were born again into Christ we, like Beowulf, were “born to distinction.” People are watching us. Social media makes our testimony more public than ever so—
Be on your mettle now,
keep in mind your fame
Let us be “inspired again by the thought of glory.” Let “our swords plunge until the ordeal is over” and let us not stop until our enemies “sleep the sleep of the sword.” Let the story of Beowulf remind us that death cannot be avoided, but life can be bravely lived. We are part of a warrior caste, the duty is clear, and our creed is faith, not fear.
One day, our fight will be over, and we will finally sit in the Lord’s great Hall. Then the songs of celebration will never end.
Take your place, then, with pride and pleasure
and move to the feast.
I wrestle with fear every day, and too often listen to the spirit of Hrothgar and a world that is devoted to worry. But it is my aim and my goal to become like Beowulf, as much as I possibly can.
I am not anywhere close to being like him yet but God, help me try!