Most of us have heard of Cervantes’ story of Don Quixote and the windmill. Quixote wanted to joust with a “giant”—actually a spinning windmill—so he galloped ahead with his lance taking aim. Of course he lost the joust: the windmill shattered the lance and knocked him off his horse.
So what do we make of Quixote’s famous exercise in futility? For one, it sets up a biting commentary about people who make bad choices! “He’s out chasing windmills again!” And it’s also a reminder that spearing giants calls for a measure of good judgment!
But let’s shift our focus. As Christians we need to ask about Jesus. Was he living like Don Quixote as he battled the powers of his day? As in calling regional religious leaders “hypocrites” and “blind guides”? His efforts, after all, led to his crucifixion. Even the apostle Paul later acknowledged that Christ’s short career came off as “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23). Is that a pattern we’re invited to follow?
Yes! The truth of the matter, as Paul added in his letter to the Corinthians, was that the Son’s crucifixion actually displayed God’s power and wisdom. His life wasn’t at all “Quixotic.” Instead it was God’s plan to overturn the world’s upside-down values. God’s ways aren’t aligned with human common sense. We see this again when Peter faced a sharp rebuke from Jesus for missing this exact lesson. Peter had tried to redirect Jesus away from his coming crucifixion and Jesus responded: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Mt. 16:23).
I’m pressing this tension because I often feel like I’m jousting with windmills! Here’s some context. Last year I spent three weeks teaching a lovely group of Christians about God’s free grace as the solution to sin. Yet when I read their end-of-course reports I found that almost all of them insisted that sin must be solved by our human efforts to obey God.
Sin, they said, is “law breaking” so the obvious solution to sin is “law keeping.” Case closed. And my heart was grieved—they had ignored virtually everything I offered from the Bible.
Was I just a bad teacher? Maybe. But I think there was a bigger issue in play. Because their shared answer echoed themes Paul confronted when he wrote to the Galatians. It’s the error Pelagius promoted. And the folly John Cassian taught. And the misdirection Martin Luther and John Calvin both confronted as they tried to reform the church of their day. It’s the default human impulse from Adam onward: an instinct that solving sin depends on “the things of man.”
The missed lesson is that sin always starts in the heart. It comes from misguided desires. From a false affection. It embraces the Serpent’s claim that we can “be like God.” And that apart from Jesus we can do something on our own—we can work hard at being good and then operate as God’s partners in achieving his kingdom on our terms. It’s absolute, blinding hubris.
Instead, Paul reminds us, we only change when God does the changing from within by the coming of Christ’s Spirit. So, as he chastened the foolish Galatians, “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” Paul later listed the fruit of the flesh (in 5:19-21) and it’s not a pretty picture—and it’s too common among Christians today. While the fruit of the Spirit is what we all enjoy: “Love, joy, peace” and more. It’s Christ’s life changing our hearts.
So what went wrong as I tried to teach the students? They must have thought I was talking nonsense rather than offering God’s wisdom. I was a Don Quixote being foolish.
But by their focus on law-keeping they missed the Bible axiom not to presume on our human moral skills. The Bible, I insisted, instead teaches us that a faith that pleases God only comes as we are “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.” Only he can divert our self-focused version of faith to a Christ-focused love. And then we will start to live like Christ.
But among the “law-abiding” Christians—both in the past and today, the Bible’s call to the free grace in Jesus always seems Quixotic. “What,” they ask, “can a crucifixion ever accomplish? We’ve got real moral work to do so we can be more Godly!”
Let’s listen to Paul, instead: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” This sounds foolish to many but it’s an amazing grace in all who love him. Who sit at his feet enjoying him as others are staying busy elsewhere trying to be good.