While he has often been criticized for oversimplifying, Joseph Campbell did us all a service by showing us a great deal about how stories work. Using the world’s great myths and tales as his raw material, Campbell distilled out a basic pattern that most, if not all, stories follow. (Not that they follow the pattern slavishly, as a formula — there are a variety of elaborations, variations and so on — but nonetheless the pattern holds.) Campbell published his work in his seminal Hero with a Thousand Faces, and the pattern is known as the Monomyth, or more popularly, the Hero’s Journey.
A number of people have elaborated and popularized Campbell’s work. If this kind of thing interests you, I commend the original to your attention, of course, but for simplicity and accessibility, I actually prefer Steven Barnes’ distillation of the Hero’s Journey. Barnes boils it down to a simple narrative containing ten stages. The hero is somehow presented with a call to adventure, which he first rejects, but then ultimately accepts. He then embarks on a road of trials, on which he encounters allies and gains powers, leading him to his initial confrontation with evil, where he is defeated. The defeat causes him to fall into a dark night of the soul, from which he escapes by a leap of faith (in himself, his friends, or a higher power). He re-confronts evil, and is victorious, and at the end of the adventure the student has become the teacher. So the ten stages break down like this:
1. Call to Adventure
2. Rejection of the Call
3. Acceptance of the Call
4. Road of Trials
5. Allies and Powers
6. Initial Confrontation & Defeat
7. Dark Night of the Soul
8. Leap of Faith
9. Re-confronting Evil — Victory
10. The Student Becomes the Teacher
This pattern covers most stories in one form or another. For some simple examples, think about how it applies to the original Star Wars film or The Wizard of Oz. For a more complex variation, look at Anikin’s downward spiral in the more recent Star Wars trilogy. (The difference here is that he doesn’t make the leap of faith, and therefore continues to be defeated. Rather than becoming a teacher, he becomes a slave. The pattern still applies, it just takes a different direction at #8.)
The thing I want to look at more closely today is #2. Why is it, in story after story after story, that the future hero rejects the call to adventure rather than enthusiastically leaping at it?
I think I have an answer, and I think we can see it best by looking at Simon Peter.
In Luke 5, Peter has his first really significant encounter with Jesus. Now, he has already been introduced to Jesus by his brother Andrew, down in Judea after Jesus was baptized. Some time later, the events of Luke 5 occur, and in the intervening time Peter has returned to fishing and Jesus has begun to travel around Galilee, preaching. Jesus is preaching by the sea, and the crowds are pressing in on Him so much that He gets into Peter’s boat and asks him to launch out a little ways, just so He can get some breathing space. Jesus continues preaching from the boat.
After He’s done preaching, Jesus tells Peter to launch out into deep water and let down his net. Peter gripes at this — after all, he’s just fished all night and caught absolutely nothing. He’s not happy about some carpenter telling him how to do his job as a professional fisherman, but he puts up with it, because it’s Jesus. The net fills with fish — with so many fish, in fact, that he has to call for his partners to bring the other boat to help him. Even with two boats, there are so many fish that both boats are in danger of sinking.
This is where it happens.
Peter has just seen what is going to happen to his life if he lets Jesus run it, and he can’t take it. He falls down on his knees before Jesus and says, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!”
Do you see that? Peter has just had the most successful day of his professional life, and he knows that he owes it all to Jesus’ presence. But he doesn’t ask Jesus to join his crew so he can make a killing every day. No, he asks Jesus to leave! Why?
Because he suddenly understands that life with Jesus is so much bigger than anything he had ever imagined doing with his life, and it terrifies him. More than that, he feels completely unworthy. That kind of life can’t be for me, he thinks. It could only be for really holy people, and I am a sinful man. So all he can do is ask Jesus to go away.
Every human being is conscious of God, every human being is made in the image of God, and every human being is fallen. We know in our bones that we are unworthy of the destiny we’re called to, so when we get a glimpse of the thing we were really born to do, we always balk. And in every culture, all over the world, the tales of our heroes reflect this human reality. A hero that didn’t balk at the call to adventure would be so unlike us that we wouldn’t sympathize with him, and wouldn’t be interested in a story about him.
Notice how Jesus responds to Peter — to all humanity, really. The first thing He says is “Don’t be afraid.” Contained in those few simple words is so much more subtext — “Yes, I know that you’re sinful. Yes, I know that you never imagined a life like this. Yes, I know that you feel entirely unworthy. But trust Me.” He knows it’s terrifying. He gets it, and it would be enough if that was all He said, but He doesn’t stop there. In another simple sentence, He gives Peter a completely new destiny: “From now on, you will catch men.”
When they got back to shore, they left everything and followed Jesus. Of course they did. But right at that pivotal moment, when Peter is on his knees in the fishing boat begging Jesus to leave — what happens if Jesus gives him what he wants?
If Jesus gives him what he’s asking for, then he’s got an incredible story to tell around campfires. Picture him, sitting surrounded by gawking children, the firelight dancing on his face. “The boats were so full of fish I was afraid we weren’t going to make it back to shore!” He shakes his head. “Most amazing thing I ever saw.”
Would’t it have been terrible if the most amazing thing Simon Peter ever saw was two boats full of fish? Think of all that was ahead of him — feeding the 5000, healing the sick, casting out demons, seeing the resurrected Christ, Pentecost, the Samaritans coming into the church, Cornelius, and so much more that we don’t even know about.
What is God doing in your life that you feel unworthy of, afraid of? Don’t be afraid. He knows everything about you, every strength, every weakness, every secret shame. He called you anyway. Embrace the call to adventure. Leave it all and follow Him.
We already know what destiny Jesus had in store for Peter. What destiny, I wonder, does He have in store for you?