Archives For Forgiveness

When do you feel closest to God? When you’ve been about holy business all day and are now praying at your bedside? Or, when everything in your life seems to have imploded, and you look about you helplessly, with nowhere else to turn than your heavenly Father?

In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis provides a brilliant insight into the nature of our souls.

Man approaches God most nearly when he is in one sense least like God. For what can be more unlike than fullness and need, sovereignty and humility, righteousness and penitence, limitless power and cry for help?

This rings true as I ponder my own spiritual pilgrimage. Tribulation and suffering clear my vision of material distractions in a way that allows me to recognize more vividly my need for God’s grace. And, in relying more consciously on his mercy and compassion, I draw closer to my Lord.

It’s no accident, in my opinion, that among the Psalms of David most treasured by God’s people, are those in which he cries out to the Lord for deliverance and salvation. Verses where David places no trust in his own strength or even in God’s previous beneficence. Poetry where this anointed king acknowledges that even the drawing of his next breath depends wholly on the providence of his Creator.

Seven of David’s songs are traditionally identified as the Penitential Psalms.* The great Saint Augustine’s regard for these Psalms is revealed in the manner in which he spent his final days.

As Augustine lay dying . . . he ordered those psalms of David which are especially penitential to be copied out [for example, “Have mercy on me according to thy steadfast love . . . For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me,” Psalm 51], and when he was very weak, he used to lie in bed facing the wall where the sheets of paper were put up, gazing at them and reading, and copiously and continually weeping as he read (Robert Wilken, The First Thousand Years).

Like this ancient saint, C.S. Lewis knew the Psalms – and the English language – intimately. This led to his appointment to a distinguished “Committee to Revise the Psalter” for the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Joint service on this committee facilitated the healing of a previously strained relationship with the poet T.S. Eliot.

Lewis had largely taken on this task in order to discourage revisions, since he thought the Miles Coverdale version that had been in use for four hundred years more than adequate.

His opinion was shared by another member of the committee, T.S. Eliot, whom Lewis finally got to know. (They had met only once, very briefly, in the forties, though they had corresponded for a while about Charles Williams after their mutual friend’s death.)

The two men got along very well indeed; bygones could at last be bygones, it seems. (The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis)

One of C.S. Lewis’ books is devoted to his thoughts about various themes in the Psalms. One such theme is judgment.

The “just” judge, then, is primarily he who rights a wrong in a civil case. He would, no doubt, also try a criminal case justly, but that is hardly ever what the Psalmists are thinking of. Christians cry to God for mercy instead of justice;’ they cried to God for justice instead of injustice. The Divine Judge is the defender, the rescuer. (Reflections on the Psalms)

In the introduction to this work, Lewis explains, “This is not a work of scholarship. I am no Hebraist, no higher critic, no ancient historian, no archaeologist. I write for the unlearned about things in which I am unlearned myself.” This, readers, is not false humility. It’s the real thing.

One of his most valuable observations comes in the following passage:

What must be said, however, is that the Psalms are poems, and poems intended to be sung: not doctrinal treatises, nor even sermons. Those who talk of reading the Bible “as literature” sometimes mean, I think, reading it without attending to the main thing it is about; like reading Burke with no interest in politics, or reading the Aeneid with no interest in Rome. That seems to me to be nonsense.

But there is a saner sense in which the Bible, since it is after all literature, cannot properly be read except as literature; and the different parts of it as the different sorts of literature they are. Most emphatically the Psalms must be read as poems; as lyrics, with all the licences and all the formalities, the hyperboles, the emotional rather than logical connections, which are proper to lyric poetry.

They must be read as poems if they are to be understood; no less than French must be read as French or English as English. Otherwise we shall miss what is in them and think we see what is not (Reflections on the Psalms).

In C.S. Lewis’ monumental study of English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Excluding Drama), Lewis does not discuss the Psalms per se. He does, however, refer to them as the occasional subjects of Renaissance writers.

The most interesting such discussion involves John Fisher (1469-1535), a Roman Catholic bishop who was executed by Henry VIII. Fisher was a scholar, whose works included Commentary on the Seven Penitential Hymns.⁑

His vernacular works include devotional treatises – a Consolation to his sister and The Ways to Perfect Religion – and sermons, a series on the Penitential Psalms, funeral orations for Henry VII, and for the Countess of Richmond, and the famous sermon against [Martin] Luther in 1521.

Fisher’s style is grave and a little diffuse, never comic (though the pulpit then admitted that excellence), mildly rhetorical, and at times really eloquent. . . . His chief weakness is that he is too leisurely he is in no hurry to end a sentence or to let an idea go. . . .

Some of the medieval sweetness and richness still hangs about the prose of Fisher . . . but for our present purpose he matters less as a literary figure than as a convenient representative of the religion in possession at the very beginning of the English Reformation. He was a bishop and died for his faith. In him we ought to find what men like Tyndale were attacking. It was not in all respects what they imagined it to be. The Pelagianism of which they implicitly accused the Roman Church is, like the antinomianism of which the Papists accused them, a figment of controversy.

Some of Fisher’s statements seem, at least to a layman, to be very close to Tyndale’s own, as when Fisher writes: ‘From the eyen of almyghty God whiche may be called his grace shyneth forth a meruaylous bryghtnes lyke as the beme that cometh from the sonne. And that lyght of grace stereth and setteth forthwarde the soules to brynge forth the fruyte of good werkes.’ (Sermon on Psalm xxxii)

And again, on Psalm li, ‘no creature of himself hath power to do good werkes without the grace and help of God’ What Tyndale would have regarded as the cloven hoof appears chiefly when Fisher is talking of penance By penance, on his view, sinners can ‘make due satysfacion’ so as to be ‘clene out of dette’ (Sermon on Psalm xxxii), and so ‘mstyfyed by the sacrament of penaunce’ that ‘God can ask no more of them’ (ibid). . . .

One merit, very unusual in that age, Fisher can claim he is hardly at all scurrilous. His attack on Luther is not, indeed, masked under those forms of politeness which are usual between theological (though not between political) opponents today. But there is hardly any real abuse, compared with More, or even with Tyndale, Fisher is almost courteous.

Many readers of Mere Inkling already possess a high regard for the Psalms. In light of the affection felt for them by saints (including C.S. Lewis) for millennia, perhaps those who do not yet appreciate them, will reconsider their appraisals.


* They are Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143. The opening of the first expresses a theme common to all: “O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger, nor discipline me in your wrath” (ESV).

Likewise, the beginning of Psalm 130: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord! O Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy!” (ESV).

⁑ You can download John Fisher’s Commentary in two volumes at no cost, from Internet Archive (1 and 2).

Renaissance Fashions

Although it does not relate to the topic of this post directly, the following information from the “Medieval Manuscripts Blog” of the British Library is quite interesting. It describes “Girdle Books,” which frequently included selections from the Psalms.

In the 16th century, it became fashionable for aristocratic women to wear miniature prayer books bound in elaborate metalwork covers hanging from their girdles (i.e. belts). These girdle books provided them with handy reading material as well as fashionable dress accessories, allowing them to display their literacy and piety to the world.

The images on the page are fascinating. Of special historical interest is one that once belonged to Anne Boleyn (shown above), a gift from her murderous husband.

A particularly luxurious example is a girdle book with covers of gold filigree . . . It contains selected Psalms in English verse, translated and apparently written out by John Croke, one of Henry VIII’s clerks in Chancery, with a portrait of Henry VIII at the beginning.

The volume is traditionally thought to have belonged to Anne Boleyn, who is said to have handed it to one of her maids of honour when she was standing on the scaffold before her execution in 1536.

Good & Bad Memories

April 6, 2022 — 12 Comments

We humans are fascinating creatures. Our capacity to remember both the good and the ill from our past, exerts a powerful influence on the course of our future.

I’ve been reflecting on this contrast since our lectionary readings from worship this past Sunday. (I’ll note the particular passage that triggered my thoughts in a moment.)

The question I’ve pondered is whether good memories are more powerful than bad memories. By bad, I’m not referring to horrific experiences which our minds sometimes actively suppress or bury.

I’m thinking of unpleasant, disappointing memories. Things that we regret having happened, either to us, or because of us.

When I use the word “powerful” in my question, I’m referring to the ability of a given memory to continue actively impacting our lives.

In too many lives, it seems the joy and light emanating from positive recollections is often shaded or eclipsed by the clouds of painful memories.

Perhaps our lives would be happier if we consciously spent time recalling good experiences, and taught ourselves to reject – rather than dwell upon – negative thoughts when they force their way onto the stage?

C.S. Lewis provides a curious insight into the nature of memories. Their overarching essence often seem to magnify as time passes. Listen to his words, penned after a vacation in 1921, in which he describes how the joyful memories will grow ever sharper as they are recalled in the future.

I still feel that the real value of such a holiday is still to come, in the images and ideas which we have put down to mature in the cellarage of our brains, thence to come up with a continually improving bouquet.

Already the hills are getting higher, the grass greener, and the sea bluer than they really were; and thanks to the deceptive working of happy memory our poorest stopping places will become haunts of impossible pleasure and Epicurean repast.

Sadly, though, even glorious memories can sometimes fade away. This is the grimmest tragedy of many forms of dementia.

Memory in the Chronicles

C.S. Lewis does some curious things with memory in his Chronicles of Narnia. While the Pevensie children grow to adulthood reigning over Narnia, they end up forgetting about their earlier lives. Only when they stumble upon the Lamp-post, do they recall the land of their birth.

“By the Lion’s Mane, a strange device,” said King Peter, “to set a lantern here where the trees cluster so thick about it and so high above it that if it were lit it should give light to no man!”

So these Kings and Queens entered the thicket, and before they had gone a score of paces they all remembered that the thing they had seen was called a lamp-post, and before they had gone twenty more they noticed that they were making their way not through branches but through coats.

And next moment they all came tumbling out of a wardrobe door into the empty room, and they were no longer Kings and Queens in their hunting array but just Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy in their old clothes.

It was the same day and the same hour of the day on which they had all gone into the wardrobe to hide. Mrs. Macready and the visitors were still talking . . . (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe).

In Prince Caspian, a wise advisor, Doctor Cornelius, secretly informs the heir to the Narnian throne that the old stories were not simply myths. The evil Telmarines had actively labored to erase all memory of Narnia’s true nature.

“Listen,” said the Doctor. “All you have heard about Old Narnia is true. It is not the land of Men. It is the country of Aslan, the country of the Waking Trees and Visible Naiads, of Fauns and Satyrs, of Dwarfs and Giants, of the gods and the Centaurs, of Talking Beasts. It was against these that the first Caspian fought.

It is you Telmarines who silenced the beasts and the trees and the fountains, and who killed and drove away the Dwarfs and Fauns, and are now trying to cover up even the memory of them. The King does not allow them to be spoken of.”

I find the following description of a renewed memory particularly picturesque. It takes place after the Pevensie children return to Narnia years after their initial visit.

Everyone except Lucy went to sleep at once. Lucy, being far less tired, found it hard to get comfortable. Also, she had forgotten till now that all Dwarfs snore. She knew that one of the best ways of getting to sleep is to stop trying, so she opened her eyes.

Through a gap in the bracken and branches she could just see a patch of water in the Creek and the sky above it. Then, with a thrill of memory, she saw again, after all those years, the bright Narnian stars. She had once known them better than the stars of our own world, because as a Queen in Narnia she had gone to bed much later than as a child in England.

And there they were – at least, three of the summer constellations could be seen from where she lay: the Ship, the Hammer, and the Leopard. “Dear old Leopard,” she murmured happily to herself (Prince Caspian)

Forgetting the Past

Every one of us has made mistakes. And far too often we allow those poor decisions and choices to haunt us the rest of our lives. That delights the Devil, one of whose titles is Accuser.

He wants us mired in the past, thinking there is no way we could ever earn God’s love.

The simple fact is that we don’t earn our Creator’s love. It’s a free gift. It is pure grace, and utterly unmerited.

Once we have confessed our sins, God washes them away and cleanses us from all unrighteousness.

To emphasize how God no longer holds our past sins against us, consider some of the ways he expresses his capacity to permanently forgive our confessed sins.

He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities… so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us (Psalm 103).

Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression..? You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. (Micah 7:18-19).

And now, for the verse which inspired my thoughts. It struck me as particularly helpful for our Christian lives, given the fact that God does not keep a permanent record of our sins. Wouldn’t our lives be better if we followed the Lord’s example?

Not that I… am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own… one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:12-14).

“Forgetting what lies behind,” our past failings which have been forgiven, liberates us to live the life to which God calls us.

That’s seldom easy to do, but knowing how “far [God] removes our transgressions from us,” makes that possibility much more likely. Let us press on.

Have you severed ties with a friend or relative because you view the question of vaccination policies differently?

Apparently this tragedy is growing in frequency. Just last week, a person very, very dear to me declared that we had “come to a parting of the ways.” I pray for a restoration of the relationship when emotions cool, but for the moment, it seems I am “dead” to my sister.

She is one of the people who find themselves at one end of the vaccination spectrum. There are, of course, some who believe those who receive vaccinations are dupes, endangering their health with possibly unnecessary medicine that may have lasting side effects. At the opposite end, stand those who consider anyone unwilling to be vaccinated as tantamount to being a heartless murderer.

Sadly, those of us who lie midway along said spectrum—who understand precisely how others might arrive at those extreme positions, and call for reasonable, respectful conversation—are typically regarded with contempt by each extreme.

Ironically, my wife and I eagerly received our injections at the first possible opportunity. Yet, because our adult children (intelligent and mature, one and all) have made a different decision, we have suffered this separation from some of our extended family.

A report published this week revealed 14% of vaccinated respondents said “they ended things with friends who refused to get vaccinated.” That suggests that approximately one out of seven people are unwilling to place friendships on pause; they apparently prefer to terminate them.

“Stress from the Pandemic Can Destroy Relationships with Friends—Even Families” describes the tragedy in the following way.

The pandemic’s toll on friendships goes deeper than mere political polarization — the confusion of a mask with support for “big government.” It’s more about discovering personality differences between you and your relatives and friends, including different levels of risk-tolerance and what might seem like irrational optimism on one side vs. hysterical alarmism on the other.

At a time when many of us are losing sleep, picturing ourselves or someone we love gasping for air in a crowded emergency room, these differences are painfully relevant.

Taking these words to heart should help us all be more tolerant of our varying responses to the strain of living during this pandemic.

I hope that you have not experienced the pain of ruined relationships. And, I beg you, if you are inclined to write off friends who disagree with you on this controversial subject, please reconsider. After all, as C.S. Lewis wisely said to those who claim to be followers of Jesus, “to be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you” (The Weight of Glory).

You Should Read This

I just finished the best article I’ve read on this subject, and commend it to you. Pastor Peter Leithart authored the provocatively titled “Why I Didn’t Get the Covid Vaccine.”

The title is a little misleading, since Leithart’s rationale is that as a covid survivor he currently has the resulting “natural immunity.”

The article is quite enlightening, however, because it is not an argument for or against the treatment per se. Rather, it is a very brief historical reminder of a perhaps more perilous ailment. He approaches the subject through the work of an Italian philosopher.

As Roberto Esposito put it in Biopolitics, political authority was traditionally the authority to kill. Under the reign of biopolitics, rulers care for and manage life. Once upon a time, the ruler bore a sword; now, a syringe.

“Body politic” is an ancient metaphor, but in biopolitical regimes the body becomes the real place “where the exercise of power [is] concentrated.” Public health takes center stage in a “limitless process of medicalization” as health care is “superimposed” on politics. It’s now the government’s job—its primary job—to keep us safe and healthy.

“Life becomes government business,” Esposito writes, and “government becomes first and foremost the governance of life.” To manage life, governments have to exercise social control, keep populations under surveillance, maintain constantly-updated databases, and, as necessary, isolate and separate sectors deemed dangerous to the corporate body.

In an article written more than a year ago, entitled “Biopolitics in the Time of Coronavirus,” the writer describes the evolution of the concept of biopolitics since the 1970s. He warned then, “Instead of worrying about the increase of surveillance mechanisms and indiscriminate control under a new state of exception, I therefore tend to worry about the fact that we already are docile, obedient biopolitical subjects.” One can only imagine what he might say today.

Back to Relationships

I am no philosopher, and it is not the purpose of this post to answer the big questions. What I believe is simple. The vaccine is good for some, but not all. And disease is terrifying, especially when it can be terminal.

Oh, and I believe one other thing. We should discuss such matters civilly. Graciously, even. Because differences of honest opinion about debatable matters are insufficient grounds for destroying lifelong relationships. After all, true friendships are precious . . . and rare.

C.S. Lewis discerned a little-known truth about the importance of friendships. One that reminds us they should not be discarded in the passion of a moment. Lewis describes here how there are eternal repercussions related to our actions. Refer to salvation, the resurrection and heaven as the “glory” God desires for all people, Lewis writes:

It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. . . .

All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations [heaven or hell].

It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.

There are no ordinary people. You have never met a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.

But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours (The Weight of Glory).

I have a problem forgiving others. You see, I don’t think it’s quite as simple as some people make it out to be.

I’m especially stunned when I hear people say they have forgiven people who have done them grievous injury, such as murdering their loved one, or molesting them when they were a child. How, I wonder, can they do that? Of course, I know the answer. It is a miracle. It is a gift of God. Not primarily to the sinner, but to the victims themselves.

It’s not that I don’t want to forgive. I truly believe life is healthier when we forgive. Add to that the fact that God in essence commands me to forgive – read the story of the unforgiving servant – and I am doubly challenged to learn to be a better forgiver.It is simply a fact that I am too sinful, too human, to simply press a button for a one-time decision and forgive.

I’m afraid I personally need to continue to pray daily for the ability to forgive and the grace to let go of disappointment and hurt, over and over again. This prayerful act may need to be repeated – as many times as necessary – up until I take my final breath.

But there is a place I can take some comfort despite my struggle. There is a refuge in which a wiser Christian than I, reminds me that I am not alone in experiencing forgiveness as a process. C.S. Lewis described this very predicament in his Reflections on the Psalms. I share the following in the hope that it may offer similar comfort to you.

There is no use in talking as if forgiveness were easy. We all know the old joke, “You’ve given up smoking once; I’ve given it up a dozen times.” In the same way I could say of a certain man, “Have I forgiven him for what he did that day? I’ve forgiven him more times than I can count.”

For we find that the work of forgiveness has to be done over and over again. We forgive, we mortify our resentment; a week later some chain of thought carries us back to the original offence and we discover the old resentment blazing away as if nothing had been done about it at all.

We need to forgive our brother seventy times seven not only for 490 offences but for one offence.

Thus the man I am thinking of has introduced a new and difficult temptation into a soul which had the devil’s plenty of them already. And what he has done to me, doubtless I have done to others; I, who am exceptionally blessed in having been allowed a way of life in which, having little power, I have had little opportunity of oppressing and embittering others. Let all of us who have never been school prefects, N.C.O.s, schoolmasters, matrons of hospitals, prison warders, or even magistrates, give hearty thanks for it.

Recipients of Forgiveness and Mercy

C.S. Lewis is speaking for me in this passage. And his admission that even we who possess “little power” have still too often abused that minor opportunity. What a profound insight, encouraging us to thank God for not affording us greater opportunity to misuse our authority!

In Paul’s letter to the Christians in Ephesus, the Lord puts the principle of forgiveness in terms all of us should be able to comprehend. “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4).

It almost sounds as though my forgiveness of others shouldn’t be dependant on their remorse. Nor should its measure be determined by the vagaries of my own moods.

I suppose that my very awareness of my own struggle in forgiving others is a good thing. If I mistakenly thought I was capable of simply saying the words and it would be done, I would be dangerously mistaken. That is merely one small step in the process.

Far better that I recognize I’m just like C.S. Lewis in this aspect of my life. Like him, I’m better off recognizing I need to forgive others seventy times seven not only for 490 offences but for a single offence. In truth, that may simply be the beginning, since I’m called to forgive others just as God in our Lord Jesus forgives me.

C.S. Lewis’ Hypocrisy

August 2, 2018 — 6 Comments

hypocrite

If you think the title of this column indicates what follows will be an attack on C.S. Lewis, you are wrong.

On the contrary, the incident described below actually emphasizes the integrity which guided Lewis’ life.

Hypocrisy afflicts us all. It’s hold is strongest, it seems to me, on those who claim they are completely free of the flaw. To paraphrase Jesus’ words recorded in John’s Gospel, “Let he who is without hypocrisy among you cast the first stone.”

It’s quite possible for our own flaws to be invisible to us. However, one of the requirements of being a moral individual is self-examination. The more honestly we can explore and assess our own actions and nature, the healthier we will be.

Some hypocrisy seems rather innocuous. For example in All My Road Before Me, Lewis describes a day in 1922 spent canoeing with his close friend Arthur, and Veronica FitzGerald Hinckley. Veronica was a recent graduate of Oxford.

In light of Lewis’ eventual life’s work, this diary entry is rather ironic:

[Veronica] made one good remark—that an educational career is a school of hypocrisy in which you spend your life teaching others observances which you have rejected yourself.

While academia does host its share of hypocrites, this vice also flourishes elsewhere. Tragically, of all the myriad contexts for hypocrisy, religious hypocrisy is the most ill-begotten.

Naturally, we would assume that basically “good” people are relatively free of hypocrisy. This is true. However, the key to uprooting these sinful influences begins with recognizing them.

In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, Lewis acknowledges one of his most shameful acts. That it happened before his conversion to Christianity doesn’t lessen for him the wrongness of what he did.

And what was this great crime? It was on the occasion of his confirmation in the Anglican Church. Confirmation is a religious rite in which young people (particularly those in denominations which practice infant baptism) publicly profess, or confirm, their Christian faith. The problem arose because Lewis’ childhood faith had already been extinguished.

My [strained] relations to my father help to explain (I am not suggesting that they excuse) one of the worst acts of my life.

I allowed myself to be prepared for confirmation, and confirmed, and to make my first Communion, in total disbelief, acting a part, eating and drinking my own condemnation.

As Johnson points out, where courage is not, no other virtue can survive except by accident. Cowardice drove me into hypocrisy and hypocrisy into blasphemy.*

It is true that I did not and could not then know the real nature of the thing I was doing: but I knew very well that I was acting a lie with the greatest possible solemnity.

It seemed to me impossible to tell my father my real views. Not that he would have stormed and thundered like the traditional orthodox parent. On the contrary, he would (at first) have responded with the greatest kindness. “Let’s talk the whole thing over,” he would have said. But it would have been quite impossible to drive into his head my real position.

Lewis is sharing with us a sad episode of his life, to encourage us to confess our own transgressions and find forgiveness. After all, the last thing that God desires is people who just go through the motions—hypocrites who are “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power.” (1 Timothy 3:4-5)

A Final Warning

In The Screwtape Letters, we find the mature (and Christian) C.S. Lewis describing the sort of religious hypocrisy to which we fallen creatures are prone. Screwtape, the devil, is here advising his understudy on fostering hypocrisy in his “patient.” He has been telling Wormwood that he should nurture a sense of superiority in the person he has been assigned to tempt.

I have been writing hitherto on the assumption that the people in the next pew afford no rational ground for disappointment. Of course if they do—if the patient knows that the woman with the absurd hat is a fanatical bridge-player or the man with squeaky boots a miser and an extortioner—then your task is so much the easier.

All you then have to do is to keep out of his mind the question ‘If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention?’

You may ask whether it is possible to keep such an obvious thought from occurring even to a human mind. It is, Wormwood, it is! Handle him properly and it simply won’t come into his head.

He has not been anything like long enough with the Enemy [i.e. God] to have any real humility yet. What he says, even on his knees, about his own sinfulness is all parrot talk. At bottom, he still believes he has run up a very favourable credit-balance in the Enemy’s ledger by allowing himself to be converted, and thinks that he is showing great humility and condescension in going to church with these ‘smug,’ commonplace neighbours at all. Keep him in that state of mind as long as you can . . .

Hypocrisy is a powerful foe. But once it is recognized as the damning lie it is, hypocrisy loses its control over us. We are freed to rebuke it, repent of it, and be healed.

—-

* “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged.” (1 Corinthians 11:23-31)

shakespearean-suicideAre all who commit suicide damned? Some would claim this is true. I, however, agree with Martin Luther and C.S. Lewis that God’s mercy is capable of rescuing even these. Suicide invariably leaves in its wake more sorrow than it heals.

Even the irreligious Mark Twain recognized this. In 1889 he wrote to a friend: “I do see that there is an argument against suicide: the grief of the worshipers left behind, the awful famine in their hearts, these are too costly terms for the release.”

I share with Lewis and Luther the belief that suicide can be forgiven. Our position is based on our personal understanding of the counsel in God’s word, as viewed through the lens of the Incarnate Word himself. As a personal conviction, not based on clear biblical guidance yea or nay, it is not a concept that should be formally taught.

There a second reason why this interpretation should not be actively promoted. It may encourage the premature ending of human life. The fact is that many, perhaps most, people contemplate suicide at some point in their life. But nearly all choose instead to live—some because of their fear of damnation. Prevented from killing themselves due to this fear, the critical moment passes, and they learn suicidal impulses are a transitory curse. Some seek help from others, which is even better.

In other words, when people are especially vulnerable to such thoughts, the last thing they need to hear is that suicide offers a ticket from the trials of this life to the bliss of heaven. On the contrary, if they can be discouraged from choosing the irreversible course during these moments of deep confusion and suffering, they can survive to experience restoration and renewed hope.

Many potential suicides press on and end up living lives filled with joy, contentment and meaning.

Martin Luther put it this way.

I don’t share the opinion that suicides are certainly to be damned. My reason is that they do not wish to kill themselves but are overcome by the power of the devil.

They are like a man who is murdered in the woods by a robber.

However, this ought not be taught to the common people, lest Satan be given an opportunity to cause slaughter, and I recommend that the popular custom be strictly adhered to according to which it [the suicide’s corpse] is not carried over the threshold, etc.

Such persons do not die by free choice or by law, but our Lord God will dispatch them as he executes a person through a robber. Magistrates should treat them quite strictly, although it is not plain that their souls are damned.

However, they are examples by which our Lord God wishes to show that the devil is powerful and also that we should be diligent in prayer. But for these examples, we would not fear God. Hence he must teach us in this way.

C.S. Lewis understood this dilemma as well. In a 1955 letter to Sheldon Vanauken, who had lost his wife and was drowning in grief, Lewis even appealed to the church’s traditional teaching on the subject to quash in advance any contemplation of suicide.

[Jean] was further on [more spiritually mature] than you, and she can help you more where she now is than she could have done on earth. You must go on.

That is one of the many reasons why suicide is out of the question. (Another is the absence of any ground for believing that death by that route would reunite you with her. Why should it? You might be digging an eternally unbridgeable chasm. Disobedience is not the way to get nearer to the obedient.)

There’s no other man, in such affliction as yours, to whom I’d dare write so plainly. And that, if you can believe me, is the strongest proof of my belief in you and love for you. To fools and weaklings one writes soft things.

In our world, which appears to value life less each day, Lewis proclaimed the mere Christian commitment to the value of every life. Historian Richard Weikart addresses this in “C.S. Lewis and the Death of Humanity, or Heeding C.S. Lewis’s Warnings against Dehumanizing Ideologies.”

Many Christians recognize that we are living in a “culture of death,” where—especially in intellectual circles—there is easy acceptance of abortion and increasing support for physician-assisted suicide, infanticide, and euthanasia. While many Christians make cogent arguments against such practices—as they should—we seem to be losing ground.

This is because our society is embracing secular philosophies and ideologies, many of which deny that the cosmos has any purpose, meaning, or significance. Once the cosmos is stripped of value, humanity is not far behind, especially since most secularists have also rejected any objective morality.

When C.S. Lewis cautioned about the dangers of dehumanizing secular ideologies in The Abolition of Man and his science fiction novel That Hideous Strength, many Christians took notice. But, on the whole, the intellectual world paid little heed, careening further down the fateful road against which Lewis warned. Lewis’s critique is still a powerful antidote to the degrading vision of humanity being foisted on us by intellectuals in many institutions of higher learning.

We Christians are not immune to the genuine power of some of these arguments. For example, as a military chaplain I determined many years ago to one day write an article about the complexity of “Euthanasia on the Battlefield.” We do not serve Christ well by ignoring complex subjects or dismissing the reasoning of our “adversaries” without giving their points genuine consideration.

The ultimate barrier comes in the fact that our worldviews ultimately collide. Secularism and other religious philosophies are irreconcilable with the teachings of the One who said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis notes that suicide has been regarded in some philosophies as a virtuous path. Not so, in Christianity.

If pain sometimes shatters the creature’s false self-sufficiency, yet in supreme ‘Trial’ or ‘Sacrifice’ it teaches him the self-sufficiency which really ought to be his—the ‘strength, which, if Heaven gave it, may be called his own:’ for then, in the absence of all merely natural motives and supports, he acts in that strength, and that alone, which God confers upon him through his subjected will.

Human will becomes truly creative and truly our own when it is wholly God’s, and this is one of the many senses in which he that loses his soul shall find it. . . . When we act from ourselves alone—that is, from God in ourselves—we are collaborators in, or live instruments of, creation: and that is why such an act undoes with ‘backward mutters of dissevering power’ the uncreative spell which Adam laid upon his species.

Hence as suicide is the typical expression of the stoic spirit, and battle of the warrior spirit, martyrdom always remains the supreme enacting and perfection of Christianity.

This great action has been initiated for us, done on our behalf, exemplified for our imitation, and inconceivably communicated to all believers, by Christ on Calvary. There the degree of accepted Death reaches the utmost bounds of the imaginable and perhaps goes beyond them; not only all natural supports, but the presence of the very Father to whom the sacrifice is made deserts the victim, and surrender to God does not falter though God ‘forsakes’ it.

Whenever you encounter someone overshadowed by the dark cloud of despair and death, speak to them life. Dispel the lies of suicide. Confront the Enemy, so that Satan would not be “given an opportunity to cause slaughter.” As Luther also said in the context quoted above:

It is very certain that, as to all persons who have hanged themselves, or killed themselves in any other way, ’tis the devil who has put the cord round their necks, or the knife to their throats.

Graphic and true. I choose not to participate in Satan’s murderous purposes by promoting suicide, and I encourage you to join me.

_____

The photo above comes from one of the many renditions of Romeo and Juliet.

repentanceC.S. Lewis foresaw one of the greatest plagues of the post-modern world. He knew that humanity’s insistence on its own “goodness” would undermine our love for God

Believing the lie that we do not require forgiveness causes us to rely on a deception that will ultimately disappoint. As Lewis wrote, “a man who admits no guilt can accept no forgiveness” (The Problem of Pain).

In the United States we have a sad propensity to worship celebrity. Famous people possess an allure that many find irresistible.

I am amazed so many people who lived for American Idol never recognized the irony of the program’s name.*

I suspect most famous people recognize fame’s fickle and fleeting nature. Some avoid the dangers of fame’s flames, but many rush headlong into the furnace.

Some allow the illusory nature of celebrity to deceive them into thinking they rise above the concerns of normal human beings. Why, you might even find one of them professing to be a Christian while denying the very core of the faith.

One of our presidential candidates (unnamed here, because this post is not about politics) went so far as to profess his love for God and when asked if he has ever asked God for forgiveness responded, “I am not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don’t think so. . . . I don’t bring God into that picture.”**

It is vitally important for all of us to understand that (1) we need forgiveness and (2) God is eager to extend it to us.

Most Christians understand this.

It is second nature, for example, to orthodox Lutherans. Lutheran preaching is based on the Law/Gospel dialectic. While it’s often short on the “How Then Shall We Live?” counsel, it goes to great lengths to avoid any intermingling of the Law and the Gospel.

This sharp divide between the two is proclaimed throughout the Scriptures, but clearly seen in the following passage: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 7:23).

A proper understanding of the Law, and our sinfulness, lays the solid foundation for understanding the Gospel. It declares we cannot—under any circumstances—rescue ourselves.

“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. . . . But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. (Romans 3:10-12, 21-25).

Or, as the Apostle John cautions us: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:8-10).

I need not belabor here our need for God’s mercy. God help those who choose to rely on their own corrupt “holiness!”

C.S. Lewis’ Take on Rejecting Mercy

In one of Lewis’ most amazing books, The Great Divorce, he addresses a common excuse for atheism. How could a loving God allow Hell to exist? He illustrates with a number of fascinating vignettes the sad truth.

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek, find. Those who knock, it is opened.

My favorite encounter in the book involves a liberal, atonement-denying theologian, but there is another that perfectly illustrates the point of this column.

We all require mercy.

One of the lost souls has been approached by a redeemed saint who attempts to persuade him to continue journeying towards the presence of God. It so happens that the “ghost” (as the insubstantial disbelievers are called, knew the forgiven man while both were alive. And the redeemed person had committed murder. The perceived “injustice” of the forgiveness of that sin only reinforces the intransigence of the ghost towards God’s mercy.

‘Look at me, now,’ said the Ghost, slapping its chest (but the slap made no noise). ‘I gone straight all my life. I don’t say I was a religious man and I don’t say I had no faults, far from it. But I done my best all my life, see? I done my best by everyone, that’s the sort of chap I was. I never asked for anything that wasn’t mine by rights. If I wanted a drink I paid for it and if I took my wages I done my job, see? That’s the sort I was and I don’t care who knows it.’

‘It would be much better not to go on about that now.’

‘Who’s going on? I’m not arguing. I’m just telling you the sort of chap I was, see? I’m asking for nothing but my rights. . . . But I got to have my rights same as you, see?’

‘Oh no. It’s not so bad as that. I haven’t got my rights, or I should not be here. You will not get yours either. You’ll get something far better. Never fear.’

‘That’s just what I say. I haven’t got my rights. I always done my best and I never done nothing wrong. . . . I’m only telling you the sort of chap I am. I only want my rights. I’m not asking for anybody’s bleeding charity.’

‘Then do. At once. Ask for the Bleeding Charity. Everything is here for the asking and nothing can be bought.’

‘That may do very well for you, I daresay. If they choose to let in a bloody murderer all because he makes a poor mouth at the last moment, that’s their look out. But I don’t see myself going in the same boat as you, see? Why should I? I don’t want charity. I’m a decent man and if I had my rights I’d have been here long ago and you can tell them I said so.’

Every time I read those words I am reminded of the truth that I am not a perfect man . . . I don’t want to pay the price the Law demands . . . I want, and need, to receive the bloody Charity of God that flowed from the wounds of my Lord on Golgotha.

It is my hope and prayer that you share this joy with me.

_____

* Yes, I realize it was based on a British show with a similar title; that may suggest that some other Western nations succumbed even more dangerously to secularism than America. Talent competitions make fine entertainment, but a little more thought should have gone into naming the two series.

** Ironically, this individual professes to be Presbyterian, and I am confident that if Calvin were still alive, he would have a few facts he would like to teach him.

Tolerating Blasphemy

June 30, 2015 — 9 Comments

There is a high price to be paid for the privilege of freely proclaiming our personal faith.

It is not simply respectfully allowing every competing worldview the same freedom.

It requires far more than that.

Free speech—as understood in the Western tradition—means allowing even objectionable messages to be expressed.

A British author recently spoke to students graduating from an American college about this conundrum.

The British novelist called on students to remember that “religion and atheism, and all thought systems, all grand claims to truth, must be open to criticism, satire, even, sometimes, mockery,” and that “being offended is not to be confused with a state of grace; it’s the occasional price we all pay for living in an open society.”

Mockery of what we consider holy . . . that certainly is a steep price.

Some are unwilling to pay this price for the freedom of speech. The bloody atrocities committed by some followers of Muhammad attest to that.

Christians, on the other hand, no longer take the lives of blasphemers. They follow the leading of the Prince of Peace in praying for those who despise them and their Lord.

No one likes blasphemy—not even, I believe—those who spew it. And yet, the very existence of such “hate speech” proves at least two things.

First, that Christians are willing to endure hearing painful speech in appreciation for their own right to speak honestly about matters of eternal significance.

Second, that we recognize our Creator is great enough—and, more importantly, compassionate enough—to offer grace, mercy and healing to the wounded souls who are so desperate they can only express their anguish with a curse.

May God have mercy on those guilty of blasphemy.

We are Blasphemers All

Forgiveness and mercy flow naturally from the hearts of the redeemed when they reflect on the magnitude of their own sins.

Who among us can cast the first stone when it comes to dishonoring the name of our Creator? Not I.

And, as an imperfect man I am in good company.

C.S. Lewis describes an example of his own blasphemies in his autobiographical Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. The situation revolved, ironically, around his “confirmation” within the Anglican communion.

His father was eager to see his son publically confirm his faith and assume a fuller membership in the church. The problem was, Lewis was no longer a Christian. He was already apostate. Yet, out of deference to his father, he willingly made a mockery of the “sacrament.”

My relations to my father help to explain (I am not suggesting that they excuse) one of the worst acts of my life. I allowed myself to be prepared for confirmation, and confirmed, and to make my first Communion, in total disbelief, acting a part, eating and drinking my own condemnation.

As Johnson points out, where courage is not, no other virtue can survive except by accident. Cowardice drove me into hypocrisy and hypocrisy into blasphemy. It is true that I did not and could not then know the real nature of the thing I was doing: but I knew very well that I was acting a lie with the greatest possible solemnity.

It seemed to me impossible to tell my father my real views. Not that he would have stormed and thundered like the traditional orthodox parent. On the contrary, he would (at first) have responded with the greatest kindness. “Let’s talk the whole thing over,” he would have said. But it would have been quite impossible to drive into his head my real position.

The thread would have been lost almost at once, and the answer implicit in all the quotations, anecdotes, and reminiscences which would have poured over me would have been one I then valued not a straw— the beauty of the Authorized Version, the beauty of the Christian tradition and sentiment and character. And later, when this failed, when I still tried to make my exact points clear, there would have been anger between us, thunder from him and a thin, peevish rattle from me. Nor could the subject, once raised, ever have been dropped again.

All this, of course, ought to have been dared rather than the thing I did. But at the time it seemed to me impossible. The Syrian captain was forgiven for bowing in the house of Rimmon. I am one of many who have bowed in the house of the real God when I believed Him to be no more than Rimmon (2 Kings 5).

Like Lewis, I have much for which to be forgiven. I am willing to suffer the abuse of my beliefs precisely because my Lord Jesus was willing to endure the thorns, whip and nails that should have been mine.

And, because of God’s love for all sinners, I can sincerely pray, “Lord, have mercy on those who blaspheme.”

Bill Cosby Redux

November 24, 2014 — 12 Comments

Bill & CamilleIn light of recent revelations, my daughter urged me to delete my recent post about Bill Cosby.

As the extensive evidence of a sordid past have been coming to light, albeit accusations rather than substantiated facts, the propriety of that original post falls into question.

For the time being, I am disposed to leaving it up. For several reasons. I could say one is the notion of “innocent until proven guilty,” but that’s not true. Despite statutes of limitations, the accumulating evidence, quite sadly, appears indisputable.

On the subject of innocence, I admit to confused sentiments. As a Christian, who accepts the historic doctrine of “original sin,” I confess at every worship service that I too am a hopeless sinner, in dire need of God’s grace and mercy. What’s more, as a Christian who believes we cannot earn forgiveness, I point not to my own ragged good works, but rely wholly on the grace—the undeserved love—of God.

C.S. Lewis recognized that mercy is the only solution for our guilt. In “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment,” he wrote these words:

The essential act of mercy was to pardon; and pardon in its very essence involves the recognition of guilt and ill-desert in the recipient. If crime is only a disease which needs cure, not sin which deserves punishment, it cannot be pardoned.

I am quite conscious of my own deep need for pardon. Thus, I am ever wary of condemning those whose heart I cannot know.

The second reason for my reticence in removing this post, is that much of it remains true. The Bill Cosby who offered our family genuine laughter and wholesome entertainment, was apparently not identical with the real man.

But then I pause to wonder how many celebrities are truly consistent with their public persona? And, in light of the fact that we all have our failures and sometimes grievous sins, why should we expect them to be transparent and vulnerable to greater emotional violence than they all already receive?

My comments below were written with the understanding I possessed two short months ago. They were heartfelt at that time, and they illustrate in a clear way how perception is not always reality. Perhaps they can serve as a sort of a caution to others who are prone to investing too much trust in people they do not genuinely know.

Another reason I am inclined to leave the post up for the time being, is that there may be a value in preserving the quality of the artist’s work, even when we have been disappointed by the artist himself.

As an example of this, during a sketch on the last episode of Saturday Night Live, Michael Che criticized the actor’s vile behavior, but ended his scripted “newscast” with a thought that I believe represents the view of many.

“I don’t know how to feel about [networks cancelling The Cosby Show] because I don’t know Bill Cosby, but Cliff Huxtable practically raised me. I love that dude, and the only thing he ever tried to sneak while people were asleep is a hoagie. So while I may never forgive Bill Cosby, hopefully someday I can forgive Dr. Huxtable.”

It’s that Bill Cosby, the idealized, honorable, ever-witty, and doting father, that I remind my wife of. And I remain flattered by that.

Meanwhile, I pray for Bill and Camille Cosby. I pray for the victims of his offenses. I pray for the victims of some of those very women who, in likely turn, have wounded others because of their own emotional and spiritual injuries.

Sin is powerful. It’s effects cascade from life to life. But sin and evil do not have the final word. That is left to the Word incarnate, who has redeemed this fallen world. The Lord who heals our wounds and offers the glorious promise that one day . . .

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. (Revelation 21.4).

Death by Crocodile

September 26, 2014 — 8 Comments

200350761-001Suicide is always a tragedy. Many families have been touched by its pain.

The moral implications of this are vast, of course, and not the topic of this column. Today I am more intrigued by the modes that people select as they act on their suicidal impulses (or long-deliberated decisions).

As a pastor and military chaplain, I have worked with families in the aftermath of suicide. As a volunteer law enforcement chaplain, I have responded to the actual event.

Life is precious. It should never be squandered. Contrary to the notions of reincarnationists, “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). That judgment need not be feared, for those sheltered in the mercy of God. Still, I doubt the Lord desires to see us ushered into his presence for that judgment by our own hand.

Even the darkest of lives can be rescued and recreated with new hope. That’s the testimony of many people, like Joni Eareckson Tada, who became a quadriplegic at only seventeen.

There are diverse ways people choose to end their days on earth.

Some European countries have made the passing a gentle, numbing for the most part, painless transition. In their euthanasia clinics, powerful drugs can be used to simply suppress one’s breathing until they “fall asleep” permanently.

Others make drug concoctions of their own, and some die in agony because of miscalculation, or are “rescued” to live debilitated by their failed attempt.

Some, for twisted macho reasons perhaps, decide to go out with a literal bang. Here too the attempt can fail and leave the individual in a horrific condition. And, even when it is “successful,” it leaves a sickening aftermath.

Perhaps the worst of all are those who desire to leave a “mark” on this “cruel world” as they depart. They may lash out at people they know—or even strangers—seeking to leave a lasting scar as a memory. Most of these people are likely insane. Not so the fanatic “suicide bombers.” Those disciples of evil comprehend what they are doing. The magnitude of their vile acts do not escape them.

Not the Why, but the How

As I said above, I’m not thinking today about the reasons a person would end their life. I am wondering about the means they choose to do so.

I was shocked by the recent suicide by a sixty-five year old Thai woman who calmly removed her shoes and then leapt into a ten-foot-deep pond which is home to more than a thousand crocodiles. A dozen were on her immediately.

I cannot stand to watch nature shows that portray crocodiles viciously dragging antelopes or zebras to their grim deaths. Just thinking of this woman’s final moments leaves me in emotional disbelief.

C.S. Lewis hinted at humanity’s archetypal antipathy to crocodiles. In a 1949 letter he wrote:

I don’t think the idea that evil is an illusion helps. Because surely it is a (real) evil that the illusion of evil should exist. When I am pursued in a nightmare by a crocodile the pursuit and the crocodile are illusions: but it is a real nightmare, and that seems a real evil.

Just as shocking as this poor woman’s death itself, is the fact that a decade ago another woman committed suicide at the Samutprakarn Crocodile Farm and Zoo in the same way.

The only reason I can conceive of for a person choosing such a terrible manner of death, is that they believed they deserved to suffer. Aside from that, only insanity can provide an answer.

For those who believe their guilt for real or imagined sins demands such a path, I have a life-saving alternative. There is One who can forgive those crimes and failings, and offer us a new beginning.

In the same passage from Hebrews cited above, we read the following good news.

[Jesus] has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

Share this hope with your friends and family—especially with those you know who may be contemplating the untimely end of their lives.

_____

I have written on the subject of suicide in the past. If you are interested in considering the subject from a different perspective, please read “The Anguish of Suicide.”