Behold the gallant hero, off on a quest for treasure and honor! It’s a familiar formula. But what of the reluctant hero, the one who almost stumbles out his front door? Bilbo Baggins, the diminutive protagonist of The Hobbit, is that kind of hero. As a lifelong lover of JRR Tolkien’s fiction, I manage to return to his books about once a year, noodling around in my favorite chapters or scenes. One of the reasons I keep coming back is how much Bilbo’s unlikely adventure reminds me of my own walk with Christ.
The Reluctant Disciple
When Gandalf appears at Bilbo’s gate, he finds a friendly greeting. “Good morning!” he says and makes pleasant conversation. By the end of the visit, however, Gandalf notices that Bilbo’s friendly greeting has become a chilly dismissal, saying, “I don’t want any adventures, thank you. Not today. Good morning!” It’s clear that Gandalf is perfectly welcome so long as he doesn’t disturb Bilbo’s comfortable life. The hobbit’s assessment of “adventures” is remarkably accurate. He has no illusions; by the end of his adventure to the Lonely Mountain, being late for dinner is the least of his worries.
From the comfort of our own hobbit holes, it may be easy to forget the disturbing nature of Jesus’ call to “follow Me” (Mark 1:17). When the Teacher appeared before the first disciples, Simon, Andrew, James, and John “immediately” left their livelihood—a family business—to follow this wandering preacher who promised not acclaim but infamy (Mark 1:18). The mother of James and John later asks Jesus if her boys would get a place of honor, and Jesus makes it clear that the price for honor is very high.
The call of Christ still costs more than we can imagine. The extraordinary comfort of modern life with all its conveniences blinds us to the real nature of following Jesus. After all, the greatest challenger to God in our lives is not Satan, or some external demon, but our own selves. “There is a war in me,” the apostle Paul writes in Romans 7:22-23. The same war rages in us as we consider God’s call. When confronted by what Jesus really asks of us, “Good morning!” might be a kinder dismissal than most of us can muster.
The call of Christ still costs more than we can imagine.
Gandalf turns out to be a hard person to dismiss. The next day, when dwarves start to appear at his door, one after another, Bilbo starts to see that resisting this adventure will be more difficult than he expected. In all, 13 dwarves push their way into his home and then his life, bringing their appetites, hopes, and fears. Gandalf, too, returns, and by the end of the evening, the unwelcome guests have cleaned out his larder and made an astonishing proposal (one he plans to decline). But at the end of his journey, he finds these unlikely traveling companions have become lifelong friends, sharing in the danger and loss and triumph of their adventure.
Jesus surrounded himself with an unlikely band: fishermen, a tax collector, a freedom fighter, a traitor. He chose them all, and they traveled through Judea, sometimes sleeping in the open and sometimes descending on friends. They learned much about Jesus and about each other. When their journey with Jesus ended, watching Him disappear into the clouds, their friendships were firm. It would help them endure the tough road that lay ahead, after Pentecost.
We too find ourselves traveling with unlikely companions. While we pick some of the people in our traveling band—our spouse, for instance, or our friends—others pick us. Some companions seem to simply appear at our door: family, in-laws, church members, the friends of our children. As a result, the follower of Jesus may find himself in surprising company along the Way. Our challenge is to stick with them, to resist the temptation to flee the unexpected for more comfortable friendships. If we stand firm, we may find with Bilbo that those friends are with us through thick and thin.
The Tremendous Cost of Non-discipleship
What is most exciting about these parallels is that they resonate with us not because The Hobbit is a kind of canonical fantasy, made from the stuff of Scripture, but that it mirrors the truth. God knows us because he made us, and he can see through the distortions of the fall to our true and best selves. It is not Bilbo who makes himself better, but what he faces on his journey. Had he remained in his comfortable hole, worried only about what to have for lunch or dinner, he would have led a safer life for certain. Bilbo would have faced no goblins, flattered no dragons, and lost no great friends in the Battle of Five Armies.
The better question, then, is what would un-heroism—cowardice— have cost him? If he had refused the call to adventure, the greatest catastrophe would have been unseen and unknown: the One Ring. As Gandalf tells Bilbo’s nephew Frodo in “The Fellowship of the Ring,” Bilbo was “meant” to find the Ring, meant to bring it home, meant to pass it on to his nephew. The defeat of the ultimate enemy, Sauron, then resulted from the decision of a plump hobbit with an inordinate love for food to run out his door without a pocket handkerchief.
Saul could have ignored his miraculous call, chalking it up to heat stroke, or temporary insanity. Even after Ananias prayed for his healing, he could have decided to end his persecution and do no more. Had he done so, God’s cause would not have been defeated, but Saul would have lost the opportunity to become Paul, and would have forfeited his role in God’s grand plans for the Gentiles.
Dallas Willard’s quote about non-discipleship is instructive. “Non-discipleship costs abiding peace, a life penetrated by love, faith that sees everything in the light of God’s overriding governance for good, hopefulness that stands firm in the most discouraging of circumstances, power to do what is right and withstand evil. In short, it costs exactly that abundance of life Jesus said he came to bring—life lived on its highest plane.” Though hypothetical, Bilbo’s refusal would have cost some people dearly, even if everything ultimately came out all right in the end.
Jesus calls us to follow Him, and the adventure he promises is a kind of fairy tale: fishermen become apostles, uneducated men shine in the eyes of the learned, common men preach to kings. “I’ll make you fishers of men” is no more fantastic than a traveling wizard telling a fearful hobbit, “I’ll make a burglar out of you.” And even more importantly, it’s no less fantastic. For the gospel promises a life of adventure, but adventure of a kind you never expected.