Franz Kafka (1883–1924) once wrote a parable titled “An Imperial Message.” In it, an Emperor’s messenger faces surreal trials as he delivers an important message. This messenger is an “indefatigable man,” bearing the symbol of the Emperor and thus having “the way made easier for him than it would be for any other man,” But hear how his journey turns out:
The multitudes [of people] are so vast. . . . How vainly does he wear out his strength. . . . He must next fight his way down the stair . . . the courts would still have to be crossed . . . and once more stairs and courts . . . and once more another palace; and so on for thousands of years.
Although mandated, encouraged, and empowered by the Emperor, this quest seems like it will never be fulfilled. The key to this story—the thing that makes it Kafkaesque—is that the crowds, courts, and stairs seem to stretch (ad absurdum) due to the importance of the journey. The effect caused by this parable, then, is that the world is a labyrinth designed to weary us when we pursue our most important tasks.
Have you ever felt this way as you “walk in” the “good works, which God prepared beforehand” (Eph. 2:10)? I know I have. Perhaps you’re burdened by endless red tape as you try to better your community, you’re worn down by endless criticism as you lead a church, or you’ve seen endless disobedience regarding the simple lesson you’ve taught your son over and over again.
When you are overwhelmed by Sisyphean conflicts, I encourage you remember this sentence to remains faithful: this world causes despair, but God is sovereign, and I bear Jesus’s name.
1.) This world causes despair . . .
In response to such conflicts, Christians may wish to sweep any suggestion of hopelessness under the rug without engaging with it. But we need to face it directly, truthfully. While it is a true and perfect word that “for those who love God all things work together for good” (Rom. 8:28), it is uncompassionate (and naïve) to disengage from feelings of despair with a shrug, saying, “Well, there’s a reason for everything.”
The Bible does not distance itself from despair—in fact, Scripture demonstrates it. David, “a man after [God’s] heart” (Acts 17:22), expresses it:
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me? (Ps. 13:1–2)
Job, “a blameless and upright man” (Job 1:8), does too:
“Why did I not die at birth,
come out from the womb and expire?” (Job 3:11)
Jesus also expresses his righteous frustration in response to people’s lack of faith, lack of growth:
“O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” (Matt. 17:17)
And even if we aren’t feeling this way, the Bible calls us to enter into the pain of others’ we know: “Weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15). Perhaps it’s not wrong to suggest that, when they enter our lives and our churches, we are to empathize with the hopeless, with the absurdists—to scream with those who scream.
2.) . . . but God is sovereign . . .
Let’s go back to the Kafka parable. The parable captures a feeling, and it also teaches an idea. Readers glean that idea through the concept of a message that never gets delivered. There is truth to be known and knowledge to be revealed, but that word dissipated.
In parables, masters typically represent God, and so here too does Kafka’s Emperor. As such, this parable depicts God not as sovereign but as weak, ineffective, and impotent.
The Bible also captures the feeling of despair, but it teaches the opposite idea from Kafka’s parable. God says, “[My word] shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa. 55:11).
On the surface level, the Bible tells us that God’s word always achieves its purpose. Praise God! And when we dig deeper, we realize in reading this verse that the Bible is God’s word to us. It already reached us, the truth was made manifest, and the knowledge was revealed to us.
The next step after despair, then, is to believe God’s word has reached us and to know it tells us he is sovereign. To believe this, though, is not an easy escape from despair, since it does not eliminate evil but has us confront how God allowed evil to reach us.
But this, I think, is why John calls faith the “victory that has overcome the world” (1 John 5:4). It’s surely the victory that has overcome nihilism. When everything seems to point to how God is not strong enough or loving enough, faith is a paradigm-shifting recognition that our God is sovereign. Faith redirects our eyes from our real suffering to God’s real, and better, goodness.
3.) . . . and I bear Jesus’s name.
May [God] make you worthy of his calling and may [he] fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you. (2 Thess. 1:11–12)
As these verses indicate, following the call of God takes “resolve.” Taking that path may result in feeling the full weight of despair. Though we conclude through faith that God is sovereign, things don’t seem to get any easier.
Your community still ignores your cause, your church still bickers over music, and your child still draws on the wall. So what motivates us to keep going? “So that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you.”
When the messenger ran through the palace, people noticed that he wore the symbol of the Emperor. And when we act, people notice that Christians bear the name of Jesus Christ. What we do and how we act communicates to non-Christians who our Lord and Savior is.
When I was in graduate school, my officemate and I happened to both be Christians. We argued about theology (amicably), and about literature, music, and sports. We loved to joke, and we built relationships with others. One day, a friend of ours admitted he was surprised by us. He had the impression, since we were Christians, we would be stand-offish, boring, and authoritarian.
Where do you think he got that idea? That was his view of God. And our actions made him reconsider.
So even when the path before us seems to be stretching ad absurdum, even when everything would be so much easier if we just gave up on our pursuit, we must keep going because we have the chance to bring glory to the name of Jesus.