We are not permitted to choose the frame of our destiny. But what we put into it is ours.

Dag Hammarskjöld

This quote, from one of my “cloud of witnesses,” reminds me of a fundamental truth: that there is much in life that is out of our control – where we are born, for example, or our genetic traits; subsequent illnesses and accidents; unanticipated losses. As we age, we come to learn that there is even more outside of our control than we ever realized (although perhaps this pandemic has reminded people of all ages of the truth behind this quote). 

None of us are permitted to choose the frame of our destiny. That is true. But it is also true that each and every one of us can choose what we put into this frame. We have great freedom within the frame of our destiny. “What we put into it is ours.” So, the question becomes: what are we going to put into it?  

More than ten years after writing these words, Hammarskjöld recorded in his journal what he chose to put into his frame of destiny, in these equally memorable words:

I don’t know Who – or what – put the question, I don’t know when it was put. I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone – or Something – and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal. 

From that moment I have known what it means “not to look back,” and “to take no thought for the morrow.”

Led by the Ariadne’s thread of my answer through the labyrinth of Life, I came to a time and place where I realized that the Way leads to a triumph which is a catastrophe, and to a catastrophe which is a triumph, that the price for committing one’s life would be reproach, and that the only elevation possible to man lies in the depths of humiliation. After that, the word “courage” lost its meaning, since nothing could be taken from me. 

As I continued along the way, I learned, step by step, word by word, that behind every saying in the Gospels stands one man and one man’s experience. Also behind the prayer that the cup might pass from him and his promise to drink it. Also behind each of the words from the Cross.

It is clear from these words that what Dag Hammarskjöld put in his “frame of destiny” was a life-changing decision to follow Jesus on the Way, even if that Way should lead to suffering, sacrifice, or humiliation. Why? Because following Jesus gave his existence a meaning, a purpose, and a goal, that nothing else could. And so, he learned, step by step, to “take no thought for the morrow” and to trust Jesus with his life. He took up his cross and followed. He learned the truth behind Jesus’s words that “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25).

As Hammarskjöld continued to find his life by losing it in Jesus, he also continued to share his spiritual reflections in a private journal, Markings, which would eventually be published and shared with the world (after his tragic death in 1961). Little could he have known that the “frame of his destiny” would include serving as the second Secretary-General of the United Nations, dying in a mysterious plane crash, and being the only posthumous recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Nor could he have known that his private journal would become one of the spiritual classics of the twentieth century, and a source of inspiration to many (including me). All he really knew was that when he said Yes to the call to follow Jesus, this call served as the thread which led him through the labyrinth of his life, until that blessed day when his life on earth ended, and his eternal life began. 

Dag Hammarskjöld could not choose the frame of his destiny, and neither can we. But he could choose to say Yes to following Jesus. And so can we. We can choose, like Hammarskjöld, to lose our lives in Jesus, and thereby to find true life. We can choose, like Hammarskjöld, to put “follower of Jesus” into our frame of destiny. And when we do, the frame might not change, but everything else will become new. Thanks be to God.

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

2 Corinthians 5:17

One thought on “The Frame of Our Destiny

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