C.S. Lewis on Pride and Humility

This is an excerpt from the Screwtape Letters written by C.S. Lewis. If you are not familiar with the book it is a fictional account of a demon named Screwtape who advises his nephew, Wormwood on how best to tempt a the man he has been assigned to into sin and, eventually, into hell. The book is comprised of Screwtape’s letters to Wormwood. This one captures the dynamic of humility and pride.

MY DEAR WORMWOOD,

The most alarming thing in your last account of the patient is that he is making none of those confident resolutions which marked his original conversion. No more lavish promises of perpetual virtue, I gather; not even the expectation of an endowment of “grace” for life, but only a hope for the daily and hourly pittance to meet the daily and hourly temptation! This is very bad.

I see only one thing to do at the moment. Your patient has become humble; have you drawn his attention to the fact? All virtues are less formidable to us once the man is aware that he has them, but this is especially true of humility. Catch him at the moment when he is really poor in spirit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, “By jove! I’m being humble”, and almost immediately pride—pride at his own humility—will appear. If he awakes to the danger and tries to smother this new form of pride, make him proud of his attempt—and so on, through as many stages as you please. But don’t try this too long, for fear you awake his sense of humor and proportion, in which case he will merely laugh at you and go to bed. 

But there are other profitable ways of fixing his attention on the virtue of Humility. By this virtue, as by all the others, our Enemy wants to turn the man’s attention away from self to Him, and to the man’s neighbors. All the abjection and self-hatred are designed, in the long run, solely for this end; unless they attain this end they do us little harm; and they may even do us good if they keep the man concerned with himself, and, above all, if self-contempt can be made the starting-point for contempt of other selves, and thus for gloom, cynicism, and cruelty.

You must therefore conceal from the patient the true end of Humility. Let him think of it not as self- forgetfulness but as a certain kind of opinion (namely, a low opinion) of his own talents and character. Some talents, I gather, he really has. Fix in his mind the idea that humility consists in trying to believe those talents to be less valuable than he believes them to be. No doubt they are in fact less valuable than he believes, but that is not the point. The great thing is to make him value an opinion for some quality other than truth, thus introducing an element of dishonesty and make-believe into the heart of what otherwise threatens to become a virtue. By this method thousands of humans have been brought to think that humility means pretty women trying to believe they are ugly and clever men trying to believe they are fools. And since what they are trying to believe may, in some cases, be manifest nonsense, they cannot succeed in believing it and we have the chance of keeping their minds endlessly revolving on themselves in an effort to achieve the impossible.

To anticipate the Enemy’s strategy, we must consider His aims. The Enemy wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the, fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another. The Enemy wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favor that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbor’s talents—or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall. He wants each man, in the long run, to be able to recognize all creatures (even himself) as glorious and excellent things. He wants to kill their animal self-love as soon as possible; but it is His long- term policy, I fear, to restore to them a new kind of self-love—a charity and gratitude for all selves, including their own; when they have really learned to love their neighbors as themselves, they will be allowed to love themselves as their neighbors. For we must never forget what is the most repellent and inexplicable trait in our Enemy; He really loves the hairless bipeds He has created and always gives back to them with His right hand what He has taken away with His left.

His whole effort, therefore, will be to get the man’s mind off the subject of his own value altogether. He would rather the man thought himself a great architect or a great poet and then forgot about it, than that he should spend much time and pains trying to think himself a bad one. Your efforts to instill either vainglory or false modesty into the patient will therefore be met from the Enemy’s side with the obvious reminder that a man is not usually called upon to have an opinion of his own talents at all, since he can very well go on improving them to the best of his ability without deciding on his own precise niche in the temple of Fame.

You must try to exclude this reminder from the patient’s consciousness at all costs. The Enemy will also try to render real in the patient’s mind a doctrine which they all profess but find it difficult to bring home to their feelings—the doctrine that they did not create themselves, that their talents were given them, and that they might as well be proud of the color of their hair. But always and by all methods the Enemy’s aim will be to get the patient’s mind off such questions, and yours will be to fix it on them. Even of his sins the Enemy does not want him to think too much: once they are repented, the sooner the man turns his attention outward, the better the Enemy is pleased,

 

Your affectionate uncle SCREWTAPE

The Contours of Hopelessness

Theology must find feet, it must bleed. We must always ask the ever-relevant question, so what? Why does any of this matter? How does this help us at all? How does an accurate biblical understanding of hopelessness change things for us. Jurgen Moltmann is correct, “as long as hope does not embrace and transform the thought and action of men, it remains topsy-turvy and ineffective.” [1] Consider a few things regarding the pertinence of a theology of hopelessness.

God is a surgeon and his Word is a scalpel.[2] With great precision and skill, He diagnoses our ailments and provides saving care. Hopelessness is the diagnosis. It puts words to the unrest in our souls. It pinpoints the aftermath of our sin. It captures the wreckage within us. It speaks to the pain around us.

We put our finger on a core problem when we speak about hopelessness. It is a deeper issue than we thought. It is more pervasive than we imagined. It is multi-faceted and shows up in ways we didn’t anticipate. Jurgen Moltmann makes this astute observation about hopelessness.

“Hopelessness can assume two forms: it can be presumption, and it can be despair. Both are forms of the sin against hope. Presumption is a premature, self-willed anticipation of the fulfillment of what we hope for from God. Despair is the premature, arbitrary anticipation of the non-fulfillment of what we hope for from God. Both forms of hopelessness, by anticipating the fulfillment or by giving up hope, cancel the wayfaring character of hope. They rebel against the patience in which hope trusts in the God of the promise.”[3]

In other words, hopelessness has multiple faces. It shows up in active rebellion as it strives to rip prerogative from the hands of God and fulfill his promises with human strength. We see this in the Abraham-Sarah story. The promise of a miracle baby to a century old spouse was more than a stretch, it was impossible. Instead of resting in the promise, Abraham took matters into his own hands. The root of his action was hopelessness, he lost hope in the promise of God. But this hopelessness took the form of active, prideful rebellion.[4]

Hopelessness also shows up in despair, this is its inactive face. It curls up into a ball, crawls into a hole, throws its hands up and simply quits. Like active hopelessness it gives up on the promise of God. The only difference, it lays down instead of rising up. We see this in the story of Elijah. God does mighty things through the prophet showing his power through fire and rain. Moments later, his life is threatened and Elijah despairs of the promises of God. He flees, hides, lays down and pleads with God to die.[5]

[1] Moltmann, Hope    Moltmann draws this observation from Joseph Pieper’s treatise Über die Hoffnung (1949)

[2] God is described as Physician a number of times (Exodus 15:26, Psalm 147:3, Hosea 6:1, Matthew 9:12, Mark 2:17, Luke 5:31). Hebrews 4:12 states that the Word of God is sharper than a two-edged sword and capable of “piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”

[3] Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 7. Moltmann states that this idea is drawn from Joseph Pieper’s treatise Über die Hoffnung (1949).

[4] In the Abraham-Hagar narrative (Genesis 16:1-15) we learn that Sarah and Abraham jointly despaired in God’s promises. Sarah explicitly says, “The Lord has kept me from having children” (16:2). In other words, God is the own barrier to his promises! He has kept me from the very thing He has promised. She then states, “Go sleep with my slave, perhaps I can build my family through her’” (16:2). The despair is potent. God is in the way. He won’t build the family he has promised, so I will. The remainder of the narrative points to an unsurprising tension between Sarah, Hagar and Abraham. The fruit of active hopelessness is always painful.

[5] 1 Kings 18-19. This side of hopelessness may also exist in the Abraham-Sarah story. In Genesis 18:1-15, the promise of a child is reaffirmed in spite of the successful attempt to defy God’s word and have a child through Hagar. Both Abraham and Sarah laugh in response to the promise. It is clear that Sarah’s laughter at this time is not one of joy-filled faith (18:12-15). The laughter of unbelief may be very close to the passivity of hopelessness—it is despair cloaked in a smile.

 

Theology of Beauty in Action: Faith and Repentance

Beauty and Faith 

The problem with the world’s standard of beauty is the absence of faith. If you were to ask someone in our culture what faith has to do with beauty they would likely say nothing. We have seen that faith has everything to do with beauty. Everything we have discussed must be taken by faith. The beauty of the unseen Triune God must be received by faith.

Only eyes of faith see the beauty of the incarnate and crucified Christ. The beauty of being restored image bearers in union with Christ is a matter of faith. The beauty of our coming glorification is something we await by faith. The fact that so much of beauty is unseen requires faith. As believers we are called to “walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7).

There is a battle going on and beauty is the arena. The weapon of the enemy is falsehood and deception. He is working overtime to get us to buy in to his lies. His lies are a web that entangle us and disable us from free, selfless obedience to Christ. As the ruler of this world and the designer of this present age beauty is just one more area where the Deceiver wields influence. Our greatest weapon is faith. At the heart of this conflict is one question: whom will you trust? Understanding the Word of God is not difficult, but trusting it can be. This is why we need our faith strengthened and refreshed over and over again in this area.

Beauty and Preoccupation with Self

The world and our sin beckon us to live a life devoted to self. Beauty in our culture is one aspect of this self-worship. We are sold the lie that attaining beauty means a tremendous amount of focus upon ourselves. If we buy into the cultural view of beauty we buy into the cult of self.

We are by nature “curved in on ourselves”[1] and the cultural pursuit of beauty only feeds this inward focus. We have learned that beauty by nature is selfless. Beauty forgets itself and is preoccupied with the good of neighbor. The gospel of the beauty of God frees us from ourselves in order that we might devote ourselves to him and to neighbor (2 Cor 5:14-15, Tit 3:4-8).

In our study we have also seen that beauty stands outside of us. The Trinity teaches us this, the image of God teaches us this, the person of Christ teaches us this, the restoration of the image teaches us this, union with Christ teaches us this, and glorification teaches us this. A true preoccupation with beauty would therefore be a preoccupation with God.

As we forget ourselves and center our hearts on The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit we encounter uncreated beauty. It is in this place that we receive the proper view of ourselves and an appropriate understanding of created beauty. Beauty is in the business of liberating. If our view and pursuit of beauty enslaves us to ourselves and to the opinions of others then we are deceived. Beauty is always connected to freedom, never to bondage. If we properly align our minds with the gospel of God in this area of beauty we will know this freedom.

Beauty and Repentance

We will fail often in this area of our thinking. Both men and women will be lured into believing false things about beauty. We will view things the wrong way. We will judge people with a bogus standard. We will strive with all our might to live up to the cultural yardstick. There will be days where you think of little else than the way you look or the way you think others view you. You and I will struggle with the idolatry of self until the return of Christ. This is a reality.[2] A reality, that must not drive us to despair but to repentance.

Luther said, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Matt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”[3] It is true, we stand in need of daily cleansing and repentance. Jesus taught us to pray for daily bread and daily forgiveness (Matt 6:11-12). As we stumble and fall let us own our sin, confess it, turn from it, and embrace the gospel afresh. The heart of repentance is a changed mind, which leads to transformation of behavior, action, and attitude.

This ongoing repentance requires learning the truth about beauty and confessing the lies we have believed about it. It requires being honest about the fact we have been idolaters in this area. In all of this we must keep before us the hope of the gospel. There is no condemnation for us as we struggle with our sinful thought patterns. No hint of judgment hangs over you as you fall and get up over and over again in this area.

Ironically, there is beauty in owning the fact that we have failed in the arena of beauty. Repentance is beautiful. Recall the link between God’s dwelling, presence and beauty. Now hear Isaiah 57:15.

For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.”

 


[1] Oswald Bayer, Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 182-183. Bayer expounds on Luther’s doctrine of the ‘inward curve.’ “The human being, who can live in any sense of the word only because the Spirit of the Creator has turned toward him beforehand (Gen 2:7, Job 33:4, Ps 104:27-30), turns himself away from God and turns exclusively to himself. In contrast to the nature that God has determined for him, as an ecstatic (i.e., outward-looking) being—through faith in God, through love for one’s fellow creatures—the sinner curves back in on himself. In being curved back in on himself (incurvatio in se ipsum) he cuts his ties with life, which consists in receiving from others and giving to others. The relationship with the self, which originally involved being in harmony in the relationship with God and the world, changes now so that the self is isolated and made into an absolute. The human being, who is made by nature to respond by looking outward, ends up entrapped now in the endless downward spiral of a circle, talking to himself ceaselessly and to those who are like him, and spends his time doing nothing but being completely absorbed in his own existence in an arrogant and hybrid way. At the same time, the sinner draws his fellow creatures in, so that they have to suffer (Rom 8:18-23).”

[2] Carolyn Mahaney, “True Beauty” in Biblical Womanhood in the Home, 35. “The temptation for women to be preoccupied with their physical appearance has always existed. However, it appears that contemporary women are more driven in their pursuit of physical beauty than ever. Blitzed by the media, we are presented continuously with voices and images that define what we are to look like. In previous centuries, women might have compared themselves with the other ten women in their village; today women compare themselves with pictures of the supermodels put on display by the worldwide fashion industry. That image of beauty is so narrow in its range that most women feel unattractive in comparison.”

[3] Martin Luther, The Basic Theological Writings (2nd Edition), ed. Timothy F. Lull (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 41.

 

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