Black Sails

May we shout for joy over your victory and lift up our banners in the name of our God!

Psalm 20:5

Even among the legendary Greek heroes, Theseus had a career that stood out. By virtue of his great strength, he was able to shut down gangs of roving bandits and bring peace to the countryside. His wit and diplomacy was credited in uniting the tribes around Athens and establishing the city’s grand acropolis. The guy even has his name attached to one of the best-known philosophical paradoxes of all time. Theseus was one the all-time greats.

But Theseus’s career was marred by one major mistake. Ironically, it happened at the end of his greatest victory.

According to the myths, Theseus was the man responsible for finally defeating the horrible minotaur of Crete. Half-man, half-bull, this beast raged deep within a complex labyrinth in the heart of the island. The odds were long against Theseus, but aided by a lovestruck local princess, he was able to navigate the maze with a ball of yarn and overpower the minotaur in his lair. References to this great mythological conquest live on in modern video games, stories and illusions.

But Theseus left one critical task undone.

It seems that prior to departing Athens for the battle on Crete, Theseus had made a promise to his father, King Aegeus, that the King would know whether Theseus had prevailed in his battle by observing the sails of Theseus’ homebound ships. Were the son able to slay the monster, he would switch out the black sails that sped him to Crete for bright white victory flags.  But after the battle, perhaps himself staggered by love for the princess, Theseus forgot to swap the sails. And when his anxious father, scanning the horizon for his son’s fleet, saw the dark flags flying at the masts, he jumped from a high cliff to his death in the foaming sea.

All because, despite winning the battle, Theseus forgot how to celebrate.

I wonder if Christians in worship don’t spend too much time living beneath black sails. Faith feels like an unending, grudging journey to Crete. Tension, uncertainty, and weariness mark their Christian walk. Though they read the scriptures, attend worship, and have the basic mechanics of Christian living down, they are bereft of joy.

The Psalmist above knew better. He was adamant that those who know about God’s victory shout it from the mountaintops and fly great flags of their own. Look at what God has done, he sings. Celebrate with me, everybody!

Perhaps the reason that we never switch our black flags for white comes down to misunderstanding of the gospel. If we believe that the gospel tells us how we can achieve victory in life, then we’re forever like Theseus, sailing toward the island, hoping that we’ll be able to take down the minotaurs of sin, guilt, and brokenness in our own strength. It’s all up in the air, and that makes us edgy and self-conscious.

But the gospel actually says something radically different. It’s not ultimately about how to win the victory, it is a declaration and celebration of the accomplishment of victory. Psalm 20 continues:

The Lord gives victory to his anointed.
He answers him from his heavenly sanctuary
    with the victorious power of his right hand.

Richard Foster puts it well: “Joynot grit, is the hallmark of holy obedience” (Freedom of Simplicity, p.120). Living faithfully to the gospel doesn’t mean doggedly trying to win life’s battles, it means streamers and balloons and those noisemakers that unfurl when you blow into the end of them. 

Victory is God’s. He’s already won! The dragon is slain and the battle is over! Friends, raise your voice and fly those white sails!


Follow Telos on Facebook

Recent Posts

Timothy Breen Written by: