Saturday, March 12, 2016

An invitation to peace

Through the invaluable Screwtape, telling his nephew demon how to tempt, we get the following words of wisdom from C.S. Lewis:

Your patient will, of course, have picked up the notion that he must submit with patience to the Enemy's will. What the Enemy means by this is primarily that he should accept with patience the tribulation which has actually been dealt out to him--the present anxiety and suspense. It is about this that he is to say "Thy will be done," and for the daily task of bearing this that the daily bread will be provided. It is your business to see that the patient never thinks of the present fear as his appointed cross, but only of the things he is afraid of. Let him regard them as his crosses: let him forget that, since they are incompatible, they cannot all happen to him, and let him try to practise fortitude and patience to them all in advance. For real resignation, at the same moment, to a dozen different and hypothetical fates, is almost impossible, and the Enemy does not greatly assist those who are trying to attain it: resignation to present and actual suffering, even where that suffering consists of fear, is far easier, and is usually helped by this direct action. The Screwtape Letters, p. 29
Every person who is naturally a worrier, as I am, needs to read this passage so often as nearly to have it memorized. The only part with which I might quibble is the assumption that the worrying human will always work out a set of future fears about which he can reassure himself that they can't all happen to him. Those of us who are really good at anxiety are also good at developing a list of highly varied things to fear in the future, all of which actually can happen to us.

Aside from that, however, Screwtape is completely right. (Very insightful, those demons have to be sometimes.)

When I was younger, I used to hear a lot of talk in the churches about "surrendering to God's will." That's good, and I don't want to tear it down. Anti-piety is much more corrosive than slightly over-enthusiastic piety. But unfortunately, some of us devout young ones got the idea that surrendering to the will of God meant something like this: Think of something that you really, really don't want to happen to you, or think of something's not happening to you, that you really, really don't want not to happen to you. For example, imagine that it's God's will that you never get married. (I don't know if the young men worried about this. But we girls did.) Or imagine having to give up some activity you really enjoy. Or having to move to some unpleasant location, or just having to move somewhere you don't want to move to. Or getting a terrible disease. Then ask yourself, "Would I be willing to accept that, if it were God's will?" If you feel hesitant about your spiritual ability to submit to this fate, especially if you feel inclined to grumble or chafe at the prospect, then you have failed the test of submissiveness to God's will, and you should start wondering if whatever-it-is has become an idol to you. In fact, you should maybe start wrestling in prayer over this hypothetical loss until you have reached the proper mindset of acceptance and submission.

That is precisely what Screwtape is talking about. It is not actual submission to the will of God. It's psychological gymnastics. It's a kind of emotional self-test, and there's no reason to think that it is reliable, either. For one thing, you don't know what spiritual resources will be given to you if that feared outcome really presents itself to you. Nor can you predict those resources from your own present feelings, including your present feeling of your own submissiveness to God. There is a reason why Jesus said "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof," and that applies to things you think you need to submit to in prospect.

Don't misunderstand me. I'm not advocating sitting around in an attitude of defiance toward God. "God, I'm just serving you notice that if you let me fail that class, or lose my job, or if I ever come down with a terrible, painful disease, or if you don't bring me a good husband within a reasonable time frame, then it's sayonara. I'm outta here. My submission to you and faithfulness to you is only on the condition that you not let any of these things I'm worried about happen to me. I'm getting geared up to fight this out with you, Lord." Of course not. But the person trying to submit to a host of hypotheticals is, in practice if not in intent, trying to call up such internal defiant feelings by imagining an event that hasn't happened and that may not happen, and then chiding himself for the fact that he now feels somewhat angry at God because of the hypothetical prospect he has deliberately, mentally entertained! This is folly. It's a waste of emotional strength.

It is also an attempt to gain spiritual strength in the wrong way. As Lewis/Screwtape says, there isn't really a reason to think that God will grant you today the strength to "face" a prospect that you don't really need to face, a prospect that is merely possible. Instead, if for some reason you are filled with fear about some particular future possibility, then pray about that. Pray to be delivered from that present feeling of fear or, if the fear is the will of God for you to bear as your present cross, to be given the grace to bear it well and not to be a burden to others. Then, after thus praying, resolutely attempt, with God's help, to turn your mind to something else about which you can actually do something positive.

Digression: The chronic worrier always thinks that maybe he actually can do something about the future thing feared by worrying about it now. The Internet encourages this. Maybe I can look up something that I can "bear in mind" if such-and-such ever happens. Maybe I can think of an idea that I can do now that will fend off such-and-such. And so forth. This is also a snare, by and large.

Maybe nobody nowadays goes around trying to "submit to God's will" in the way described above anymore. Nobody else, that is. But I still occasionally do it, and I need to learn not to. At the risk of sounding like a motivational poster, I will say that the chronic worrier needs to learn that it's okay to be happy right now. But I can do better than a motivational poster, simply by quoting more from Uncle Screwtape, who lets us into the aims of hell. "The Enemy," of course, as Screwtape uses the term, is God:

[The Enemy's] ideal is a man who, having worked all day for the good of posterity (if that is his vocation), washes his mind of the whole subject, commits the issue to Heaven, and returns at once to the patience or gratitude demanded by the moment that is passing over him. But we want a man hagridden by the Future--haunted by visions of an imminent heaven or hell upon earth--ready to break the Enemy's commands in the Present if by so doing we make him think he can attain the one or avert the other...We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow's end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel wherewith to heap the altar of the Future every real gift which is offered them in the Present. pp. 69-70
What Lewis seems chiefly to have in mind in this passage is a kind of utopianism rather than a tendency to fear for one's personal future happiness or for the personal happiness of those one loves. Nonetheless, the comments apply to the latter as well as the former. I note, too, that the technology we now live with has made it much harder to "wash one's mind of the whole thing" and to "commit the issue to heaven," much less to regard such "washing of one's mind" as returning to the reactions that are demanded of us at the moment. In a time of 24-hour Internet, we are likely to feel that at all waking moments of the day we are required to be beating our brains or harrowing our own emotions with whatever debates, stories, or concerns come across the screen. Lewis's whole picture of a division of life into different compartments and of taking one's mind off of one thing and putting it onto another is one we would do well to ponder and perhaps to try to recreate.

Beyond that, the point for the worrier is that the Devil wants a man to be hag-ridden by the future, and all the better (from the devil's perspective) if he is a Christian. If what the devil wants is that we should never be kind or happy now, then perhaps one of our first items of business should be to try to be both kind and happy (and honest) now, let the future bring what it will.

The idea of a duty to try to be happy is rather shocking in a way. Certainly it isn't, especially not to the worrier, an invitation to hedonism. Rather, it is an invitation to peace. I suggest that those of us tempted too much to "take thought for the morrow" accept that invitation wholeheartedly.


SharonT. said...

Thank you for this excellent reminder! I too try to "submit to God's will" in the way you described. Especially lately as am experiencing mysterious health problems. I keep trying to be thankful anyway. In fact I blog about it. But the worry and fear and "submission" to God's hypothetical will definitely wastes a lot of my energy too.

Kyle Hendricks said...

Thank you for the post, Lydia.

Your description of what you thought "submitting to the will of God" meant sounds an awful lot like Tim Keller's view of idolatry. If we want to know what our idols are, we need to "look at our fears." Perhaps I'm interpreting Keller uncharitably here, but I think your description and Keller's teaching sound very similar. My church back in Missouri (I'm in California now) adopted this view as well. I'm one of those guys who does worry that marriage will never happen, especially as I near my 30's, and that teaching has often made me feel guilty about the desire to marry because then it must be an "idol."

Anyway, I found your post helpful.

Lydia McGrew said...

Thanks for the comments. It's interesting to hear that these ideas are still out there and are in fact being taught rather explicitly.