It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
- From Invictus by William Henley (1849-1903)
The above words, which conclude a poem penned by a man who knew suffering early in his life (a rare disease requiring, at age 12, the amputation of a leg below the knee), have become the rallying cry of the self-assured individualist. I’m in charge of my destiny. I captain my life!
The words echo in every corner of modern culture from the defiant youth insisting, “It’s my life!” to the pro-abortion protester chanting, “My body, my choice!,” to the erudite pupil in academia penning papers on “self-sovereignty in gender identity,” to the boasting “self-made man,” to the Supreme Court asserting the individual’s, “right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life…”
We are drunk on Henley’s idea.
In the full poem (titled Invictus, Latin for unconquerable or undefeated) William Henley boasts of his unconquerable soul, his unbowed head, and his unafraid spirit. There’s bravado in his words, audacity, even swagger. And, on the one hand, we can appreciate a gritty, doggedly determined, can-do spirit. There’s something similar (although the heart differs dramatically!) in Paul’s words to the Corinthians:
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed… (2 Corinthians 4:8-9).
Paul can make this boast because he knows that
We who live are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh (2 Corinthians 4:11).
Paul finds purpose in suffering through his connection to and confession of Jesus. And he has confidence in the living Jesus and in the coming resurrection which will undo and evict suffering, which he goes on to write about, but Henley seems to be suggesting something different because he writes of a coming “Horror of the shade” that waits “Beyond this place of wrath and tears.”
Henley intimates that we are alone. Utterly alone. As he writes in the full poem, we must face “the night that covers” us alone. We must endure “the bludgeonings of chance” alone. It is this we do unafraid, with unbowed head and unconquerable soul.
How should we regard Henley’s words? Is he right? Has he captured the way to wisdom?
In a word, no. While stumbling upon a few nuggets of truth, Henley is hopelessly lost in a sea of confusion and deception. We may rightly speak of choosing our response to life circumstances (this is where telling ourselves the truth – especially out loud – is so important!). This is why it’s so important to hear and to confess God’s Word out loud so that we can speak it into our lives!
And we might rightly boast, as does St. Paul, that suffering will not destroy us because it deepens our opportunities to confess Christ and will one day be banished forever in the glory of the resurrection, but it is foolish to claim that we master our fate.
Not only is such a claim inherently contradictory, for fate is something that, by definition, happens regardless of human action, but Christians are not fatalists! We confess God’s foreknowledge – that God knows what will be in advance – but His knowing is not equivalent to His causing.
We are not fatalistic puppets; we retain agency. In other words, we make meaningful choices every day.
God has not created a fatalistic world, but a cause-and-effect world where real choices have real consequences. And while we are responsible for our choices, we are not masters. We are not the lord of our lives. Far from being the path to freedom and wisdom, this belief is the original sin. Satan suggested, “You will be like God. You will be the master of your fate. You will be the captain of your soul.” It is the foundational lie, the original seduction. And Henley has lionized it in verse. Christians cannot echo it while retaining the confession that Christ is Lord. The two cannot be simultaneously confessed. If we confess ourselves as lord of our lives, we reject Christ. In order to confess Christ, we must die to our own lordship. There is only one Lord and we are not He.
We can, like Henley, recognize that life is often characterized by chance, that we may endure, “the bludgeonings of chance.” The book of Ecclesiastes says as much:
I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all (9:11).
This is the nature, as Ecclesiastes puts it, of “life under the sun.” Time and chance happen to us all. ALL. And, sometimes, they can feel like blunt weapons pounding mercilessly on our souls. Age beats on our bones and bangs on our bodies. Chance punches us in the gut and lies in wait to do it again. This is where the laments recorded in Scripture give us voice:
Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD (Psalm 130:1)!
I am weary with my moaning;
every night I flood my bed with tears… (Psalm 6:6)
I am weary with my crying out;
my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim
with waiting for my God (Psalm 69:3).
Further, we recognize (though we might not understand why!) that God may choose to bring intense suffering and hardship into our lives. Scripture minces no words here:
“Who has made man's mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord (Exodus 4:11)?
I form light and create darkness;
I make well-being and create calamity;
I am the Lord, who does all these things (Isaiah 45:7)?
Does disaster come to a city,
unless the Lord has done it (Amos 3:6)?
Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
that good and bad come (Lamentations 3:38)?
While Scripture speaks of what God may accomplish in our lives through such suffering (Jesus, in Luke 13, speaks of suffering driving us to repentance; Paul writes in Romans 5 of suffering producing endurance, character, and hope in the promises of God; and Peter writes in 1 Peter 1 of “the tested genuineness of your faith” bringing “praise and glory and honor” to Jesus), the true Lord and Master of our lives doesn’t owe us an explanation. The Potter retains sovereignty over the clay (Romans 9:21). God remains Lord. Always.
This doesn’t mean God has left us alone. Far from it. Scripture asserts, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me… (Psalm 23:4). Further, unlike Henley who had nothing but the “Horror of the shade” awaiting him, we have the certainty of the glory of the light. Paul celebrates:
For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:17-18).
The way to wisdom, then, isn’t in Invictus; the way to wisdom is in invocation, in invoking the saving name of the true Master and Captain of our lives: Jesus Christ. Scripture repeatedly and emphatically makes this point:
Call upon me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me (Psalm 50:15).
I call to God,
and the LORD will save me (Psalm 55:16).
For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:13).
Wisdom is found not in pounding one’s chest in feigned self-confidence, but in asking, “Who will lead me? Who will be my Master? Who will captain my life?” These questions make a way for wisdom and lead us to realize that it is the man who confesses his contingency, his smallness, his vulnerability, his weakness, his creatureliness who is wise. It is the man who confesses the Lord of Lords who is wise. It is the man who stands in the strength, not of himself, but of the Lord who is wise. It is the man not who claims not to fear “the Horror of the shade,” but the man who fears the Lord and who finds hope in His eternal light who is wise.
Invictus is a lie. Wisdom is found in invocation, in invoking the name of the God who created us and redeemed us. May we walk the way of wisdom daily. – Pastor Conner
 Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, penned these astonishingly unlivable words in the 1992 case, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, that upheld Roe v. Wade.
 It’s important to distinguish this from predestination. Predestination is the cause of our salvation. We are not free to predestine ourselves to salvation. God accomplished this in Christ before the foundation of the world. We’re not discussing freedom in this sense, but the meaningful cause-and-effect choices that we make every day.