No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good. – C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity[i]
C.S. Lewis was a master at getting people to dream bigger, to think larger and more expansively. One thing he did for me was take the negative view of my spiritual struggles and flip them into a positive. Lewis wrote, “Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find out the strength of the German army by fighting against it, not by giving in.”[ii] Lewis would ask me, “Why am I so aware of the darkness inside of me?” “Why am I so aware of the sin that remains and there is such a large gulf between where I am and where I want to be?” The answer is because I am in the business of wanting to clean myself up. It is people like myself who generally want to do good, and generally want to follow Christ that are constantly reminded how depraved and dirty we really are. We know the strength of the German army because we have fought against it. We may have been completely steam rolled by the German army, but the attempt was made to stand our ground. We were in the resistance. When a Christian stumbles, he or she should be comforted by the fact that they can recognize a stumble in the first place. That’s a healthy platform to fight back from next time.
We know our ability to fall into temptation because we want to stay out of it.
“That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness – they have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it,”[iii]
It would be a scary place indeed to never fight against the rebel that lies within us. Bad people do not realize they are bad people, because they are not in the business of standing up against their badness. Those who generally delight in pleasing God will constantly be exposed to the darkness they carry around with them. This is some beautiful sliver lining in the fight against our natural selves.
I think this is why Christ’s teachings like The Sermon on the Mount[iv] are so important. Jesus hits His listeners with a pretty tall order. His commands sometimes seem nearly impossible to keep, and just in case he does not snag his listeners with “do not lust,” “do not hate,” and “turn the other cheek,” He commands us to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”[v] Christ commands perfection? While it is important to strive to keep His commands, as the Christian’s walk with Christ will be so much more substantial and fulfilling if one does, I believe these commands are not meant to be a checklist for God-pleasing spirituality. I believe they are meant to be a mirror that exposes our need for a savior. That is the only usefulness of this temporary monkey on our backs called shame. That is the usefulness of realizing how depraved we really are. It points us to Christ – the only one who can do anything about it.
My grandma used to have a magnifying mirror in her bathroom while I was growing up. I remember flipping the mirror back and forth as a kid. One side was a normal mirror; the other would magnify ten times the normal reflection. The normal side would reveal a cute, freckle faced, sun-kissed kid of 8 or 9. The magnified side would reveal a greasy, dirty faced boy who needed to rid his nose of a multitude of black-heads. It was not a pretty sight. I shutter to think what that reflection would show if I looked at it today. The reason those mirrors are not more popular I imagine, is that they reveal too much. We’re uncomfortable looking that deeply into our flaws. The Gospel does just that. It reveals the deepest, perhaps previously unseen flaws, and reveals our need for a savior.
Paul wrote, “Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.”[vi] He wants to do good, like any follower of Christ who delights in God’s law. Yet, the awareness of sinfulness is constantly there. Why? To be a constant reminder to submit to Christ; a constant realization that we need a Savior, after all, “Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”[vii]
Being able to see the deplorable in my life means I am still in the resistance. My surrender is not to the sin that would overtake me and remove my ability to detect it. My surrender is still to God, no matter how tough the opposing forces seem to be. A solid remedy to apply to my Low-Spiritual-Self-Esteem that Lewis and Paul both helped me understand, is to see the awareness of my sinful humanity as a positive, a sheer sign that God is nearer than I ever dare dream. After all, as Lewis reminds,
“It is when we notice the dirt that God is most present in us: it is the very sign of His presence.”[viii]
[i] Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. HarperCollins Publishers. New York, NY: 1980.
[ii] ibid, pg. 142
[iii] ibid, pg. 142
[iv] Matthew 5-7
[v] Matthew 5:48
[vi] Romans 7:21-23
[vii] Romans 7:24-25
[viii] Lewis, C.S. The Business of Heaven – Daily Readings. Edited by Walter Hooper. Harvest Books. New York, NY: 1984. January 1st.