The opening scenes of the Ben-Hur movie showed the racing horse trip and fall violently throwing its young rider from its back. It made me want to turn from the screen and curl into a little ball or simply leave the theater all together. I stayed though because I’m not a quitter. I don’t believe in leaving before the end. I believe in sticking it out and continue hoping for a happy ending.
And there is a happy ending in every movie I see – now.
It hasn’t always been this way. I didn’t always choose uplifting movies, movies with a message, or movies where I was sure I’d leave the theater either laughing, renewed, or with a fresh perspective. I didn’t always choose people who did that either.
I’ve certainly made bad decisions and hung out with those who didn’t help bring me to the me I’d hoped to be one day. Over the years though, I’ve more clearly identified my purpose, who I am, who I want to be, and where I want to go. I even have a path to get there that I am sure works because, although my scenery is different, it’s a path others have been taking successfully for centuries. I am no longer shooting blindly in the dark when it comes to friendship, life plans, or who I want to be.
Do I fail often in being the kind of person I hope to become? Yep! Every day. Many times each day. Over and over. Often repeating THE. SAME. FAILURE. FOR. THE. SAME. FOOLISH. REASON.
But, while I admit my constant failures, I see that those failures are fewer and less severe than they once were. I don’t attribute this growth to any greatness within myself (although I do have a great (meaning HUGE) stubbornness about me that refuses to quit and keeps me pushing ahead to achieve more!). I attribute it to God’s Wisdom teaching me many lessons, not the least of which is that I am too weak to be the strongest among those I associate with.
Today, I talk to people who crave the Love we were all meant to enjoy. These people often begin relationships born of that craving for Love rather than a desire to hang out with someone who brings them closer to who they want to become. These are two very different perspectives on relationships, two very different foundations on which to begin a dwelling. Building on craving is building on sand. Building on desire to be near one who makes you a better person, who brings you closer to the Lord, is building on stone. Huge difference!
Proverbs tell us we become like those we associate with. Lately I’ve been seeing a lot about being the average of the five people you spend the most time with. If you hang out with people who drink, cheat on their spouses, or are divorced, you will most likely become just like them. If you hang out with people who pray actively and often, who love the Lord, albeit imperfectly, and who honor their families and commitments, you will most likely become just like them.
It’s not rocket science. It’s logic. It’s also part of what makes divorce contagious.
Back to the Ben-Hur Movie
Right at the beginning of the movie a quote jumped out at me. It went something like this,
They enjoy the suffering of others so they forget what they lost.
and again I applied this to the life of the divorced.
At first I thought of the abandoner. I thought of how he or she encourages others to “Join the Club,” how they so often engage in destructive behaviors, encouraging others to leave their homes when life gets difficult – and life always gets temporarily difficult at some point or another. That desire to not be the only one in sin is strong enough to even encourage an end to the Sacred Marriages of family and friends.
Then I thought of the abandoned. I thought of how strong the urge to gossip about the ex and all the hateful things he or she does can be, how easy it is to fall into tireless complaints, and to get dragged down by the never ending struggle forced upon one by altered finances, too quickly passing time especially with children, and diminished belief in self-worth.
Finally, I thought about those in intact but struggling marriages. I thought of how when two people are struggling to stay married it can be so easy to not really see, SEE, the other person. I thought of how easy it is to avoid eye contact, gentle touches, soft caresses, and reassuring gestures. I thought of how easy it is to turn to another.
Same sex friends meet and innocently ask how you are doing. You let out a sigh and the story comes out tentatively at first but with more force as you continue. The friend interjects comments and adds her own experiences, “I understand! Listen to what my spouse did…!” She empathizes and poison is injected into the conversation and, although neither of you realize it, into your friendship as well.
Opposite sex friends meet and innocently ask how you are doing. You let out a sigh and the story comes out innocently at first but with more justification as you continue. The friend interjects comments and adds his own experiences, “I understand! One time this happened to me…!” He offers sympathy, eye contact, a gentle touch, softly spoken condolences, reassurance, and an offer of more of his time. Perhaps he is struggling in his relationship too. Perhaps he is just lonely; either way, although neither of you realize it, the poison is injected sickening many of your relationships.
Misery Loves Company, but Only Light Extinguishes Darkness:
Immediately after being thrown from his horse, Judah Ben-Hur’s his half-brother, Messala, picks him up, bloody and broken, and carries him to his home where he can receive treatment and care and a nursing back to health, but before he arrives at the family home, we see Messala staggering through the streets of Jerusalem. An unconscious and bleeding Judah is hung like a yoke across his shoulders.
Even having studied a bit about this bloodthirsty world of the Roman empire, my eyes were torn from the two brothers to the folks in the background, those who went about their daily lives as if nothing unusual was happening.
Perhaps it wasn’t unusual in those days. Perhaps it was normal to see one man staggering under the weight of an unconscious other through city streets. Perhaps people were too caught up in their own lives to notice. Perhaps they weren’t sure how this tragedy had occurred and rightly feared the wrath of the Roman empire. Perhaps they kept their eyes averted to avoiding calling attention to themselves. Perhaps they were thinking, “I understand! One time, this happened to me…” Perhaps they recalled being left bruised and battered, staggering under the weight of a burden with no help offered. Perhaps help wouldn’t have made a noticeable difference anyway.
But perhaps it would have.
The thing is, when you fail to offer a kind, uplifting word, when you keep your eyes down and refuse to acknowledge the suffering around you, and when you engage in gossip that destroys another human being’s mind, spirit, reputation, and soul, you bear a weight around your neck. It is your yoke to carry, invisible though it may be. It is a violation of the 5th Commandment that we take too limitedly, Thou Shall Not Kill.
I watched the Ben-Hur movie with a mix of horror, disgust, and helplessness. I wanted to turn my back on so many scenes of violence, of pain, of suffering. My mind couldn’t make sense of it. I identified with Judah’s justifiable anger, his desire for revenge, his longing to find others to join his cause.
I faced the fact that I am often more like Judah than like Esther, Judah’s dear wife.
Esther escaped the enslavement Judah endured and the capture and painful suffering his mother and sister experienced. It is true that she escaped much the others went through, but it doesn’t mean she escaped without wounds and scars. Her mind must have been overcome with unanswerable questions,
Where was her husband?
Who was he with?
What was he doing right now?
What was happening to him?
Esther escaped physical suffering but not mental, emotional, or spiritual cruelty, cruelty not caused by the Roman empire but by what her mind, her logical sense of what might be happening, would have caused. She would have experienced an extreme sense of powerlessness, of life spinning out of control, of having nowhere to go, no home she’d counted on to return to, of abandonment.
Yet, Esther does not fall prey to enslaved thought.
We see Judah shown into the bowels of a slave ship where he, a wealthy Jewish prince, a man of privilege and a desirer of Peace, is forced to row, where he is whipped and beaten in a place where the stench of human functions pales in comparison to the stench of human darkness, fear, and hopelessness.
What’s the Point of Suffering?
Five years later, in the final boat scene, the Roman leaders prepare for battle by telling the slaves, to chain themselves together and row faster. Judah Ben-Hur sees part of the insane battle through his oar window, his only connection with sunshine. Fear grips the slaves who, despite unimaginable conditions, realize they have a will to live.
Those men do not want to die chained to this Roman ship in the middle of the ocean, yet panic takes over and many begin to scatter as burning tar falls through holes in the ceiling burning crew chiefs and slaves alike. Scattering does not work however. They are chained, unable to flee, unable to pick up their pieces and start over, unable to return home, unable to return to families, to past lives, to dreams they once anticipated.
Judah realizes that scattering is not going to work. The only chance they have of making it is to row together. He picks up the chant that gets them started.
ROW. ROW. ROW.
And then the ship is battle rammed. Romans and slaves alike are thrown to the sea. Death, as in eternal judgment, takes no notice of one’s stature, of one’s position in society, or of one’s place in the boat.
I bit back tears incapable of forming complete sentences. What’s the point? Those men. Suffering. Chained. Years. What was the point of their lives God? To end in such a way. Why not kill them quickly Lord? Why this cruel and interminable suffering? Just to end? Like this?
I had no answers – no satisfying answers.
The only thing I knew is that, while the movie scene ended, that was not the end of the story for those men. Judgment and ruling, like death awaited every one of those men. Their stories continued beyond their drowning. Chains would be reversed. Souls would look forward to freedom that day. Souls would be chained for eternal enslavement that day. There was hope beyond what I saw and a possible happy ending for good slaves.
Forms of Enslavement:
The slave scenes were incredibly hard to watch. Partly because my mind kept screaming:
THIS STILL GOES ON TODAY!
While Ben-Hur is a movie, in real life slavery exists. Children are taken from their homes to work in chocolate fields so Hershey can make a profit. Young ones are captured and sold as sex slaves, some forced to marry their abusers, others forced to endure repeated attacks by throngs of selfish, unaccountable low lives. Men and women are removed from their families, doomed to wonder relentlessly about what became of loved ones left behind, real people forced to work, to become breeding facilities, and to endure conditions I cannot imagine.
And I sit in my nicely cushioned seat with the a/c keeping me cool squirming at fictional scenes coming too close to someone else’s reality on a screen 20 yards away and far too close to me. I flashbacked to the Romans who didn’t even notice Messala carrying Judah on his back, and I realized…
I am a Roman.
We tell ourselves we are different, we are better than those bloodthirsty Romans. We wouldn’t sit idly by watching a man struggle under the weight of an unconscious and bleeding individual, but we do. Every time we turn off the news because we just can’t take it, every time we spend money foolishly because we “deserve” it while others go without, and every time we allow ourselves to focus on us rather than on the God we say we Glorify we fall to a form of enslavement.
Esther and Judah had very different experiences. There is no doubt Judah’s experience was far worse than his fair wife’s. I’m guessing this amazing man would have had it no other way. He would have endured any amount of suffering to spare his wife hardship, and yet, when he returns to her, he is changed.
The chains of the ship are gone. He has made friends with the wealthy African tradesman, Sheik Ilderim, and earned the respect of his clan, but Judah remains imprisoned by chains of anger, thoughts of revenge, and a desire to destroy.
Esther loves her husband, but she has found ways to occupy her time that allow her to be free. She does not have the respect of a powerful and wealthy tradesman, but she has the ability to serve others. She does with humility and Grace. It is that service, humility, and Grace that render Esther free in all circumstances.
Hard as it may be, Esther even uses that freedom to turn her back on the husband she loves so dearly. Esther does not succumb to the conversation, “I understand! One time this happened to me…!”
Esther knows that to be free, she must surround herself with people who will take her closer to who she wants to be one day. She refuses to be poisoned by her husband’s negative words and thoughts. She knows she is strong enough to walk away no matter how hard that walking away is while she is too weak to stay and absorb his vengeful attitude.
It takes time, but it is this very walking away that helps leads Judah to his antidote and his Come-to-Jesus moment simply by drawing boundaries and maintaining distance.
Judah chooses to remain enslaved in prisons of his own making. He lacks the knowledge and the desire and therefore the power to free himself. He sees only one path, a path of darkness. He cannot forgive because he does not understand forgiveness. Esther shows him he cannot be loved completely because he cannot love completely.
Parallels to Ben-Hur & the Life of the Divorced:
The African, Sheik Ilderim, was filled with wisdom and while Judah continues to lash out the sheik narrows his eyes and pointedly demands,
You think after five years of pain and 20 years of privilege you know suffering.
How many of the divorced might have that same question asked of us? We have had love and perhaps children representing that love. We have had homes and lives filled with love and laughter. We have had marriages, gifts many are not blessed with even for a short time.
And then suddenly we are left alone, and we cry out at the unfairness of it all. Don’t get me wrong. Divorce is unfair. Divorce is wrong. Divorce is evil.
But we can choose to be thankful for our times of privilege or become embittered by our times of suffering.
When we succumb to negativity we need no chains. We enslave ourselves.
Slavery comes in all shapes and forms. The devil is crafty and the urge to sink into his chains is strong. As Saint Ignatius of Loyola explains, Satan can use feelings of good to draw us to evil as surely as God can use feelings of bad to draw us to Grace. The fire of revenge that burns and keeps many going is often quicker to pick up and easier to carry than the slow, humbling and stumbling steps required to offer forgiveness.
In the moment, revenge just feels better. That feeling of better increases when we surround ourselves with those who we can insight. It is a feeling of false power. It is part of why those conversations both with same sex and opposite sex friends are so dangerous when your marriage is struggling.
Misery loves company. Enslavement comes in many forms. One form is misery. Divorce is contagious. Divorce is misery. Divorce is enslavement.
Enslavement blinds you from focus on others. It keeps you focused on yourself. Enslavement allows you to turn off the tv thinking you cannot bear to see more. Enslavement allows you to think you just cannot handle it. Enslavement keeps you weak and keeps others enslaved. Enslavement is contagious.
And we must handle it.
We must not turn off the TV. We must not turn away from the enslavement that of others. We are our brother’s keeper. We have a responsibility to reach out and offer prayers and Hope to one another whether it is to one across our kitchen tables or halfway around the world. We think we must turn off the tv but those suffering have no choice about turning off their lives. What we think we cannot watch for 30 minutes, they live for their one lifetime. They are people as you and I are people, children of God us all.
The only way to freedom is through following the example of Jesus Christ, standing strong while turning the other cheek. They are not opposite concepts. It means turning your back, as Esther did, on those you love when they try to draw you in to their hate. It’s remaining open and forgiving, accepting, vulnerable, and loving, holding nothing back when they want finally decide they want to break free.
It is work. It is not easy. It is sawing away at one link in your chain at a time. It is doable.
Ben-Hur, the Conclusion & Life Choices:
Rioting breaks out at the finish of the chariot race. Ben-Hur breaks the odds and wins earning monetary compensation that is nothing compared to winning his freedom from the Roman empire. The stadium goes mad in celebration. People jump from their seats and dive into the arena to celebrate on the same ground where men and horses died only seconds before.
Sheik Ilderim approaches Pontius Pilot and offers condolences, not on life lost, but on wagers lost. Pilot smirks and tells the African he did not lose. He waves his hands toward the bloodthirsty, out of control crowd and says, “They’re all Roman now.”
The African cannot argue the point.
The people have become enslaved by their bloodlust, their desire to win, and their need to see devastation. They fail to notice a man struggling to lift another and carry him through the streets, but they celebrate death and a warped sense of honor.
Just as Judah had become what he despised by embracing revenge and anger and hate, the Jewish people had become Roman by embracing those same principles. They had enslaved themselves. Pilot had won the battle after all.
Becoming what you despise…It too often happens in divorce and in life as well.
But there is Hope.
Judah separates himself from the crowd and takes a different path. He comes across Jesus walking the same path he had once walked, a yoke that becomes His cross around His neck, stripes across His back, stumbling in pain and thirsting for water as Judah had once done. Judah remembers Jesus’ small act of kindness, the water He brought to him when Judah had stumbled, and Judah now returns the favor clutching a rock, ready to hurl it at the Roman soldiers and seek Jesus’ freedom through senseless, illogical revenge.
Jesus, in His moments of tortured suffering, stills Judah’s hand and accepts His own fate. He offers soft words of gentle strength and forgiveness rather than hate and insightful words of commiseration, thinly disguised as understanding, and Judah’s life is changed forever.
It would have been changed either way.
Judah had a choice, to throw the stone or to drop it, to hate or to question hate, to be chained or to be free.
Judah chose to drop the stone and be free even though everything in him cried out for him to do otherwise.
The final scenes show Judah and Sheik Ilderim walking side by side. Judah turns to see what is behind him, and the wise African comments,
Don’t look back Judah. Your life is ahead of you.
You too can drop your stone. You can choose to not hurl the next nasty word. You can choose to turn your back when others tear life apart. You can do the hard thing, even when everything inside you cries out to do otherwise.
Put down the stone and Keep rowing.
Do not abandon your ship.
Do not leave before your time is done.
Do not become enslaved by your choices.
You can choose to be free & never turn back.
Your life is ahead of you. Choose your path.
Thanks for sticking with me through what I believe is my longest post ever. To read Ben-Hur: Real Life Theaters & Happy Endings, please go here.
And if you’re looking for family friendly, faith-based movies you can watch any time, check out PureFlix, a Christian alternative to what mainstream media shoots into our homes. Purchasing PureFlix through SingleMomSmiling also pays me a small commission. 🙂
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