There aren’t a lot of people who read and enjoy Shakespeare these days. At least, that’s been my experience. Of course, it was (I hope still is) required reading for high school students, but usually, after that initial taste, not many return to the feast. Whenever I break out the Bard in general conversation or for sermon illustrations, eyes begin to roll before I’ve even fully expressed my enthusiasm. Part of me has made peace with it; part of me wants to shout, “You don’t know what you’re missing, you Philistine!” The former part has won out… mostly.
Of the few people I know who still enjoy reading and watching Shakespeare’s plays, most know the great speech from “Henry V”: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…” (Act IV, Scene III). King Henry delivers this stirring speech before the Battle of Agincourt to encourage his fearful army; his words are beautiful and encouraging, putting fire into the fearful hearts of his army and inspiring them to take the field and defeat the French.
But even among we happy few, even fewer have read or watched the three great plays that precede “Henry V”, plays that narrate the fall of Richard II and the rise and reign of Henry Bolingbroke (later, King Henry IV). Interestingly, though King Henry IV is a main player in his titular plays, much of the drama surrounds the king’s son, Prince Hal (later King Henry V). In “Henry IV, Part One”, we find the young prince being, essentially, a disappointment to his royal father. Hal spends all his time drinking and carousing at the Boar’s Head Inn with a group of misfits, chief among whom is Sir John Falstaff.
Falstaff is vain. Falstaff is fat. Falstaff is vulgar. And, for wayward Prince Hal, Falstaff is a terrible influence leading him into more and more trouble. The king laments that his son has soiled his honor with such unsuitable living; after all, Hal is to be the new king after his father passes. Hal is aware of his father’s displeasure, but though he knows he must leave Falstaff and friends and his riotous life behind, though he promises to become the prince he should be, he doesn’t do it right away. Like Augustine before his conversion, it’s not hard to imagine Hal praying, “Grant me chastity and continence… but please, not yet.” (Augustine, Confessions, 8.7.17).
We see this in the young prince and think, “Why don’t you just grow up and be a man? Your father needs you, your brothers need you, your people need you, and all you do is goof off with Falstaff and Poins and others of Sir John’s band of miscreants. Don’t you know you’re meant to be more than this?” But in thinking this we often betray ourselves. How many princes and princesses of heaven wallow in some lingering sin saying, “I know I should give this up… but not yet”? How often do we turn the looking glass on ourselves and say, “I’m meant to be more than this. It’s time for me to grow up!”?
There are no Peter Pans in the Kingdom of God. Those who are content to remain what they once were reveal a serious lack of maturity. Indeed, it’s likely that those who feel no conviction for their sin whatsoever and are content to wallow in the filth of the flesh are not Christians at all! If you truly are a believer, though, the Spirit will continually remind you through His convicting work that you need to grow up, you need to be moving forward in sanctification, becoming more and more like Jesus every day. The Spirit primarily performs this maturing work through the Word – preached, taught, studied, read, meditated upon, and ultimately believed and lived! The goal is that we would reach “mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” (Ephesians 4:13-14).
But sin is not the only hindrance to our walk with Christ. Oftentimes there are other things, even good things, that are holding us back and weighing us down. The author of Hebrews exhorts us, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses (the “Hall of Faith” of ch.11), let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” (Hebrews 12:1). The faithful saints who have gone on before us witness to us that if we are going to finish this race well, we’re going to have leave our sin behind, to put to death what we were and to become the new creation that we are in Christ (Romans 8:13; 2 Corinthians 5:17), to put off the old self and to “put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:22-24). Note, though, that the author of Hebrews doesn’t say that we should just lay aside every sin, but also every weight; if there’s anything that is holding us back from growing in Christ, from running our race, from seeking God’s glory, then we are to cut it off. Practically, this means the binge-watching needs to go; the hours on social media wasting time that could be better spent in service, prayer, study, etc. needs to bite the dust; the “friendship” that always seems to lead you away from God needs to be reevaluated and perhaps ended or distanced. This reality plays out in many practical ways that even a brief self-examination would probably clarify for you.
Growing up and moving forward in the Christian life means that we must leave behind those sins and weights that hold us back, that keep us children; it means that we must become the new people we are in Christ, people who are and are being remade after His image.
Returning to my illustration, throughout the events of “Henry IV, Parts One and Two” we see multiple points in which Hal is forced to face the reality that he must cease living as he is, and become what he really is, what he was born to be. There is, of course, the battle with the rebel, Hotspur, and his forces, in which Hal has to step up and be a leader of men, defeating his enemy and winning the day. But the place where we see what could be called the tipping point is found at the death of Hal’s father, King Henry IV. In their final dialogue together, the rift between them is healed as Prince Hal promises to “rightfully maintain” the throne “‘gainst all the world”. (“Part Two”, Act IV, Scene IV).
After Hal is crowned King Henry V, it seems that the change from boy to man, from the riotous way of life in which he had indulged to the royal purpose to which he had been born, has been completed. As he royally processes near Westminster Abbey, the new king is approached by his old companion, Falstaff; rather than the warm reply he had expected, though, Falstaff receives a rebuke and banishment from King Henry V:
Presume not that I am the thing I was;
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turn’d away my former self;
So will I those that kept me company. (“Henry IV, Part Two”, Act V, Scene V)
In other words, King Henry V had become what he was meant to be, and would no longer live as he once did, nor carouse with Falstaff and his ilk. It would do us well, as Christians, to remember likewise that we are not the things we were, that the old man must die, and that whatever hinders us from growing up and being what we are meant to be in Christ must be banished from us. We, like Henry, must bid farewell to our Falstaffs.