Resisting the Prowling Lion – 40 Days with Screwtape
Day 37 – Wednesday in Holy Week
From The Screwtape Letters:
Screwtape, a senior demon, is offering advice to Wormwood his nephew, an apprentice demon. The language he uses is ‘upside down’ referring to God as ‘the Enemy’ and the devil as ‘Our Father Below’.
MY DEAR WORMWOOD
Later on you can venture on what may be called the Generous Conflict Illusion. This game is best played with more than two players, in a family with grown-up children for example. Something quite trivial, like having tea in the garden, is proposed. One member takes care to make it quite clear (though not in so many words) that he would rather not but is, of course, prepared to do so out of ‘Unselfishness’. The others instantly withdraw their proposal, ostensibly through their ‘Unselfishness’, but really because they don’t want to be used as a sort of clay figure on which the first speaker practices petty altruisms. But he is not going to be done out of his debauch of Unselfishness either. He insists on doing ‘what the others want’. They insist on doing what he wants. Passions are roused. Soon someone is saying ‘Very well then, I won’t have any tea at all!’, and a real quarrel ensues with bitter resentment on both sides. You see how it is done? If each side had been frankly contending for its own real wish, they would all have kept within the bounds of reason and courtesy; but just because the contention is reversed and each side is fighting the other side’s battle, all the bitterness which really flows from thwarted self-righteousness and obstinacy and the accumulated grudges of the last ten years is concealed from them by the nominal or official ‘Unselfishness’ of what they are doing or, at least, held to be excused by it. Each side is, indeed, quite alive to the cheap quality of the adversary’s Unselfishness and of the false position into which he is trying to force them; but each manages to feel blameless and ill-used itself, with no more dishonesty than comes natural to a human.
A sensible human once said, ‘If people knew how much ill-feeling Unselfishness occasions, it would not be so often recommended from the pulpit’; and again, ‘She’s the sort of woman who lives for others – you can always tell the others by their hunted expression’.
Your affectionate uncle
One of the great challenges of growing in a community of faith, and indeed in any community or family, is to come to a place where people can tell the truth. This is especially so amongst those who are in love with each other.
Let me explain. When I meet with couples before their weddings we discuss that one of the challenges to ‘future proofing’ their marriage is that, because they are in love, they will choose to tell lies to each other. After all every loving partner knows that there is only one answer to the fashion advice question ‘Does my bum look big in this?’ The answer, if you are smart, is always ‘Of course not darling!’.
Because we love, and love demands ‘unselfishness’ (or better still charity – please re-visit yesterday’s comment about the philological department from hell) we easily get into the habit of telling white lies. This is not a real problem in the world of skinny jeans and fashionable denim but, if it becomes a habit, it rapidly breeds resentment and prevents the blossoming of love.
Worse still is the response of ‘unselfish silence’. Found especially in churches, this happens when someone is so upset with the actions of another that they would rather say nothing at all! Of course this is accompanied by quiet whispers to others that they are unhappy. This is perhaps best expressed in the phrase ‘I am so angry with your inability to understand that what you are doing angers me and steps on everything I cherish that I won’t even tell you what it is I am upset about so that you can’t begin to fix what is wrong!’ Not quite what is meant by Christian charity…
In meetings in our church we have a strategy to counter this. When an idea or thought in a meeting receives no response someone will prick our balloon of self-importance by asking ‘Does this silence presume consent or conceal dissent?’ A useful question to ask when you suspect unselfishness has the upper hand over charity – or perhaps that the meeting has just gone on for too long!
Herein lies the rub.
Unselfishness or charity; which one is to be our watchword?
Unselfishness says ‘Have it your way!’; charity offers ‘what would you like?’
A subtle difference, but a difference that transforms the world.
Sometime this Passiontide you may well hear the majestic hymn to self-emptying – which is not the same as being unselfish – from Philippians
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2.5-11)
These words always remind me of the motto of a colleague in Johannesburg with whom I spent much time discussing and learning together the craft of Preaching. ‘True greatness consists in serving’. So very true; but for this to happen we must first learn to transform the devilish ‘unselfishness’ into the self-denying free will offering of ‘charity’.
On Good Friday the One Who Loves us Best chooses charity over unselfishness.
What will our choice be?
That one preference / principle /prejudice / practice / peccadillo that you cherish above all other things – let it go.
A Psalm To Ponder:
Psalm 26 – INNOCENT OR GUILTY?
Refrain for Part One: We give you thanks, O God, for you make your people righteous
Give judgment for me, O God,
for I have walked in my integrity,
I have trusted you without wavering. Refrain:
Put me to the test and try me,
examine my mind and my heart.
For your steadfast love is before my eyes,
and I have walked in your truth. Refrain:
I have not sat with deceivers,
nor consorted with hypocrites;
I hate the company of evildoers,
and I will not sit with the wicked. Refrain:
I wash my hands in innocence, O God,
that I may approach your altar,
lifting up the voice of thanksgiving,
and telling of all your marvellous deeds. Refrain:
Dear God, I love the house of your dwelling,
the place where your glory shines.
Do not sweep me away with sinners,
nor my life with people of blood,
who murder with their evil weapons,
and whose hands are full of bribes. Refrain:
As for me I walk in my integrity:
redeem me and be gracious to me.
My foot stands on firm ground:
I will bless you in the great congregation.
Refrain for Part Two: Kyrie eleison
WHO in this world of ours now
dare take that prayer as their own?
Perhaps the ones imprisoned for conscience,
persecuted and tortured for faith,
tempted to renounce their beliefs,
holding firm to the most sacred of vows.
Yet even the greatest of saints
knows no boast in the presence of God. Refrain:
Forgive the boast of your people, O God,
self-righteous and blind in our mouthings.
We have not done a tenth of these things,
nor dare we plead any innocence.
We project the evil of our hearts on to others,
and destroy our enemies in your cause.
The drumbeat of the psalmist has sounded
through years of inquisitions and wars. Refrain:
We pray for the enemy, in others and in ourselves, the one who whispers the lie and imprisons the tellers of truth. O God, forgive our laziness, our fear, our stupidity, and shed on us the painful healing beams of the light of Jesus Christ the living Truth. AMEN. (Jim Cotter)
Please Note: These reflections are also published on my blog: suffolkvicarhomes.com on Twitter as @SuffolkVicar, and on my public Facebook page Rev Andrew Dotchin
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Quotes from The Screwtape Letters are copyright © 1942 C.S. Lewis Pte
Prayers from Psalms for a Pilgrim People are copyright © 1989, 1991, 1993 Jim Cotter
Scripture quotations are copyright © New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright 1989, 1995, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
These Reflections, ‘Resisting the Prowling Lion’ are copyright © Andrew Dotchin 2023