Gandalf is beloved by many, and for good reason. J.R.R. Tolkien’s wizard is a noble picture of wisdom and strength in the face of great evil. It’s hard not to like him. In Gandalf, Tolkien sets forth the wizard in his most positive and righteous light.
This positive light has been captured recently in a wonderful book called Tolkien Dogmatics, a systematic theology of Middle-earth by Austin Freeman. Freeman ponders the wizard-orb, writing in one place,
The Wizards’ central function . . . is to encourage and bring out the inherent powers of God’s creation against the diabolical encroachments of Sauron, inspiring [Elves and Men] to use their own inborn gifts to come together and overcome this evil. . . . [Wizards] are not to do their job for them, but to advise and instruct, and so they take the form of old sages. (148–49)
For me, these words bring to mind the nature of the pastoral ministry, in which I am privileged to serve. Fixing this text as a light upon our staffs, let us search for jewels of heavenly wisdom by considering the pastor as such a wizard.
Wizards Versus Sorcerers
But hold on just a spell-casting minute. Wizards are bad, aren’t they? Surely the necromancer communing with spirits or the dark magician peering into his crystal ball is the furthest thing from the biblical picture of God’s men. Doesn’t the Bible forbid us to “seek after wizards” (Leviticus 19:31 KJV)?
The unquestionably elegant King James Bible does say that; however, the word wizard is probably not the clearest rendering for modern readers. Newer versions read otherwise. The ESV has necromancers, while the NIV says spiritists. Here and elsewhere the meaning becomes plain in context: God forbids his people from procuring the services of mediums and from finding out the future through fortune telling.
But let us return to Freeman’s description, for there we see a much different picture. The wizard, according to Tolkien, is to “bring out the inherent powers of God’s creation.” In other words, he serves God within the natural order of time and space (those very bounds that necromancers and spiritists seek to break). The good wizard doesn’t tell the future through magic arts (though, through wisdom, he tries to discern its likely motions), and he doesn’t bend the powers of nature (though he seeks to summon them into their full strength). His life and deeds are characterized by a wisdom in submission to God’s law.
In the Scriptures, sorcerers and evil magicians often find themselves up against God’s holy wise men. Joseph is endowed with insight more than all the wise men of Egypt (Genesis 41:8, 38–39). The staff of Moses dominates Pharaoh’s magicians (Exodus 8:16–19). The witch of Endor is baffled by Samuel’s appearance (1 Samuel 28:11–12). Daniel outshines the luminaries of Babylon and is pronounced the “master of the magicians” by Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 4:9 KJV). Simon the magician is confounded by the apostles (Acts 8:18–20). God’s holy men stand against the powers of darkness. And that is very Gandalf of them.
According to Freeman, the work of a wizard is not to do the work — at least, not to do the jobs of others. So, what does Gandalf do? We find him on the move. He goes about Middle-earth observing what passes and offering his counsel freely. He aids Thorin and Aragorn on their paths to the crown, even as his archetype Merlin aided King Arthur. The wizard’s destiny is to help others find theirs. In the same way, pastors come alongside the children of God, aiding them with counsel and encouragement on their way to their heavenly thrones. We do not walk the path for our people; we walk it with them.
Pastors are tools in the hand of the Father as he goes about his holy art of forming his children into the image of his Son. “Reprove, rebuke, and exhort” are the sacred chisels of our work, removing what does not belong, and strengthening what should remain (2 Timothy 4:2).
What Spurgeon says of sermons may be said of the work of shepherding: “A sculptor believes, whenever he sees a rough block of marble, that there is a noble statue concealed within it, and that he has only to chip away the superfluities and reveal it” (Lectures to My Students, 75). He knows his masterpiece ahead of time. As we spend time with our people, we spy glories taking shape in their souls, glimpses of the good things to come. Heavenly destiny unfolds in the souls and lives of the saints. How this gladdens our hearts in our work! Our labor is patient work, but it is sure work — because it is his work.
Gandalf goes about his work at a whisper. He cloaks his power in the unassuming guise of an old man with his signature hat and staff, hanging out at Bag End and puffing a pipe with Bilbo. All the while, the wheels are turning behind those bushy brows, but he rarely shows himself openly. Rather, he wishes that his presence might go unnoticed. For example, after using considerable firepower to save Frodo and company from the Ringwraiths on Weathertop, he says with regret, “I have written Gandalf is here in signs that all can read from Rivendell to the mouths of Anduin” (Fellowship of the Ring, 290).
We meet with something like this mentality in the apostle Paul. Even though he was endowed with the full authority of apostleship, he preferred not to flex that authority except at the utmost end of need. He goes so far as to say to the Corinthians, “I beg of you that when I am present I may not have to show boldness” (2 Corinthians 10:2). He preferred to lead with quiet godliness.
In fact, it was so quiet that some people didn’t notice at all. To them, Paul was downright unimpressive in person. They said of him, “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account” (2 Corinthians 10:10). They were like most hobbits, who could see only an old meddler (with pretty good fireworks) in Gandalf. They did not realize the heavenly power at work right under their noses.
Just so, being a pastor is not about being impressive enough to get people to listen to us when we tell them the truth. Being a pastor is about being used by God to form them into the kinds of people who obey the truth on their own. This picture differs significantly from the corporatized pastor of American Christianity, who is modeled after the powerful CEO rather than the humble shepherd. We are taught to ask for powerful leaders who can get things done — more like Saruman than Gandalf — and we often have received what we wished for, when we hear about another high-profile pastor dismissed from his ministry for getting things done by any means necessary. In other words, for lording it over the flock.
Perhaps we are also tempted to take matters into our own hands. So what if we slightly manipulate the saints into doing what is best for themselves or the church? It’s for a good cause, isn’t it? But Gandalf knew better. As Philip Ryken comments, “Gandalf is careful to obey the rules of his calling, and one of the rules for us is not to make decisions for other people or manipulate them to make the decisions we think they ought to make. . . . Tolkien rightly understood that evil and the Enemy are the ones who want to dictate and dominate” (The Messiah Comes to Middle-Earth, 32). Brothers, let us not borrow from the enemy’s playbook.
Make no mistake, there are times to give struggling saints a little nudge out of the door, as it were. There are times to rebuke them plainly (“Bilbo Baggins!”). When wolves prowl about us, we confront them with fiery truth, as Gandalf does when the Fellowship is nearly taken by Wargs: “Gandalf is here. Fly, if you value your foul skin! I will shrivel you from tail to snout, if you come within this ring” (Fellowship, 298). But if Paul is to be believed, the best thing we can show our people is not impressive authority that coerces obedience, but a living example of the truth, sometimes cloaked in human weakness. What we preach, let us live.
Fellowship of the Cross
In the end, the wizard is clearly not the complete picture of the pastor. However, I dare say we have discovered a live kernel of truth under that pointy hat. Gandalf was wise enough to know that even the wise do not see all ends. He knew that it wasn’t his plan unfolding in the world; it was God’s. He intentionally postured himself in humble submission to that plan, refusing to take matters into his own hands, and yet owning that he had a real and vital part to play.
Dear brothers, in the great work of shepherding God’s little lambs, let us be wise enough to take a backseat to his sovereign plans for them. Let the Maker shape them as he sees fit under the means of grace we minister and the fellowship of the cross we enjoy together.