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  • Writer's pictureThe Well Community Church

Cortez Never Burned His Ships

My little brother and I used to joke with our father about "Ole Cortez and his ships". It started when my older brother was married and my father gave a toast invoking the image of Cortez burning his ships upon reaching the New World in the 16th Century. It is intended to illustrate that Cortez wanted to tell his men there was "no turning back" and that they must be committed to their mission. Just as Cortez was committed, we have to also be committed in our relationships. There is only one problem... two if you want to be pedantic.

The first, and more pedantic problem, is that Cortez never burnt his boats upon reaching the New World for exploration in the year 1519; he scuttled them. The second problem is that Cortez didn't perform this act as a way to signal moral fiber and bravery; he did it to trap his sailors and force them (against their will) into become foot-soldiers. In fact, a historical look at famed Spanish Conquistador Hernan Cortez shows that he was, to put it politely, "not a nice person". In fact, most of what we read today comes directly from his own accounts with the intention of endearing himself to the Spanish crown. What Cortez did with the ships may appear bold and somewhat romantic through a certain lens, but his motivations and character didn't match the actions he was trying to project.

A lot of Christians live their spiritual lives similar to Cortez. They do things which may have the appearance of boldness and righteousness, but they do it with self-serving or compromised motives. They use their holy-appearing actions to condescend and judge others while failing to see the sin in their own hearts. In Matthew 23, we see Christ lecturing the crowds on the Pharisees who did exactly this...

Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples: “The scribes and the Pharisees are seated in the chair of Moses. Therefore do whatever they tell you, and observe it. But don’t do what they do, because they don’t practice what they teach. They tie up heavy loads that are hard to carry and put them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves aren’t willing to lift a finger to move them. They do everything to be seen by others: They enlarge their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. They love the place of honor at banquets, the front seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by people. (Matthew 23:1-7)

In these verses, we see condemnation of those who do righteousness for the purpose of being seen rather than out of devotion to God. If we translate this to our modern era, you could say this is like those Christians who can quote the Bible forward-and-backward, attend church, have maybe gone on a mission trip or two, yet when their faith is tested by life's trials or inconveniences they retreat. They do the things which merely appear to be Christ-like without having the heart that Christ sought to mature. In doing this, they may fool their peers but God sees into the depths of our hearts.

I have struggled with this, myself. A couple years ago, after a successful church event, I recall reminiscing about a confrontation during a church meeting many years ago. I was in a church meeting disagreeing about some matter of a church's administration. My position was that church administration should be driven by our spiritual obligations, not on culture or tradition. Someone looked at me, dismissed my input, and said something along the lines of, "Joseph, what do you actually know about running a church? You aren't from here and don't really understand how this impacts anyone. You should let those of us who have experience with this handle things." I've always had a weakness for responding to condescension, so this moment has been difficult to recollect without invoking strong feelings of resentment. In the midst of seeing what amazing things God was doing in our church, it was so tempting to fall back into that moment with some sort of cheeky pride.

...but then I'd be no better than the Pharisee, doing Christ-appearing things instead of having a heart like Christ. Christ, himself, was accused of misleading others, worshiping the devil, and commanding demons and yet he was not provoked to anger or self-serving responses. His focus, and actions, were singularly focused on the glory of the Father. It's an impossibly high standard of selflessness that I fail to meet on a daily basis, but "Thanks Be To God" that where I am weak, Christ's grace and magnified!

We must always be prepared to guard our hearts. During the weak times, Satan will attempt to attack us and make us doubt everything we know to be true. During times of strength, Satan will attempt to make us feel like we can become complacent against the temptations of this world or prideful in what God has done. We must never forget what life is all about: reflecting the glory of God. We can't do that if we're too consumed by trying to radiate a cheaper glory of our own making.

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