Luke 18:9-14 (The Pharisee and the tax collector)

In preparation for yesterday’s sermon, I had to let what is below go to the threshing floor. But I thought this example was fitting with what I shared yesterday about not getting caught up in the game of faulty comparisons, so I decided to share it here. We often get tempted to treat discipleship as a competition of being better than everybody (or at least somebody) else.

Clive Staples (C.S.) Lewis. (Photo credit: wikipedia.org)

Clive Staples (C.S.) Lewis. (Photo credit: wikipedia.org)

C.S. Lewis wrote, in a way, about this sort of game of faulty comparisons that we as humans tend to play. In the chapter ‘Nice People or New Men’ in his classic work Mere Christianity, Lewis used a hypothetical example of two different sorts of people. One is a very “nice” or kind man who happens to also be an atheist. Lewis called him Dick Firkin. The other is a mean, nasty woman who never has a smile on her face or anything positive to say. He called her Miss Bates. (One wonders how much autobiographical content resides in his example as Lewis himself was an atheist prior to a series of conversations he had with J.R.R. Tolkein, well-known author of The Lord of the Rings series.) Here’s what C.S. Lewis said about their temperaments and who is to credit:

The niceness, in fact, is God’s gift to Dick, not Dick’s gift to God. In the same way, God has allowed natural causes, working in a world spoiled by centuries of sin to produce in Miss Bates the narrow mind and jangled nerves which account for most of her nastiness. God intends, in His own good time, to set that part of her right. But that is not, for God, the critical part of the business. It presents no difficulties. It is not what He is anxious about. What God is watching and waiting and working for is something that is not easy even for God, because, from the nature of the case, even He cannot produce it by a mere act of power. God is waiting and watching for it both in Miss Bates and in Dick Firkin. It is something they can freely give Him or freely refuse to Him. Will they, or will they not, turn to Him and thus fulfill the only purpose for which they were created? That is the question on which all hangs. Will Miss Bates and Dick offer their natures [themselves] to God?…

There is even, when you come to think it over, a reason why nasty people might be expected to turn to Christ in greater numbers than nice ones. That was what people objected to about Christ during His life on earth: He seemed to attract ‘such awful people.’ That is what people still object to and always will…

Often people who have all these natural kinds of goodness cannot be brought to recognize their need for Christ at all until, one day, the natural goodness lets them down and their self-satisfaction is shattered. In other words, it is hard for those who are ‘rich’ in this sense to enter the Kingdom

It is very different for the nasty people – the little, low, timid, warped, thin-blooded, lonely people, or the passionate, sensual, unbalanced people. If they make any attempt at goodness at all, they learn, in double quick time, that they need help

If you are a nice person – if virtue comes easily to you – beware! Much is expected from those to whom much is given. If you mistake for your own merits what are really God’s gifts to you through nature, and if you are contented with simply being nice, you are still a rebel: and all those gifts will only make your fall more terrible, your corruption more complicated, your bad example more disastrous…

But if you are a poor creature – poisoned by a wretched upbringing in some house full of vulgar jealousies and senseless quarrels – saddled, by no choice of your own, with some loathsome sexual perversion – nagged day in and day out by an inferiority complex that makes you snap at your best friends – do not despair. He knows all about it. You are one of the poor whom He blessed.

The question that hangs in the balance remains the same, church. Regardless of our temperaments; regardless of what sort of giftedness or tendencies we may have in terms of having a higher inclination for kindness than our neighbor across the street, here the questions that guide our intentions: “Will we praise our niceness, flout our rule-following selves with ‘lesser faults’ than those of our perceived competitors? Or will we turn to God, pleading, like the tax collector, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner?” If we do the former, that will be our undoing no less than it was for the Pharisees. Rather, may God have mercy on us and lead us to be better…not better than “them” but better than us: who we once were and who we would have been had it not been for the grace of God.

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