Being aware – looking inwards

Advent 3

Luke 3:7-18

Marian Free

In the name of God whose unconditional love challenges us to accept ourselves for who we are so that we may seek to be made whole. Amen.

 You will have gathered by now that I am a great fan of the writings of C.S. Lewis. Unfortunately, while his ideas are sometimes quite simple, his writing is complex and it is not always easy to re-frame his thoughts in a way that accurately captures what he is trying to say. Lewis was a late comer to Christianity and he used his great intellect to write not only books on theology, but also children’s books, as in the Narnia series, science fiction and imaginative theology. One of my favourites in the latter category is a light-hearted but deadly serious look at sin. The book is called The Screwtape Letters[1] and it takes the form of a number of letters written by a senior devil to a much younger devil who is just starting out. The ultimate goal of these devils is to weaken a believer’s connection to God while at the same time convincing them that their faith and their practice of that faith is just as strong as it ever was.

Among other things, one of the achievements of the book is to illustrate how difficult it can be for human beings to adequately identify sin. In particular it demonstrates how often and how easy it is for us to convince ourselves that what we are doing is selfless, humble and abstemious when in fact we are being selfish, proud and greedy. Screwtape (the senior devil) urges his nephew Wormwood to exploit these weaknesses – to encourage the believer to pursue those things that make him or her feel virtuous but which in fact increase the distance between themselves and God. He uses an example of a person who thinks that his or her modest diet is evidence of their economy and self-control when in reality their apparent virtue lapses easily into an obsession with food and into attention seeking behaviour. “No, no, I couldn’t eat all that, just bring me a dry biscuit.”

Screwtape also encourages Wormwood to make use of those supposed virtues which, if engaged in simply for the sake of being virtuous, tend to lead to bitterness and resentment – the exact opposite of their intention. For example, he suggests that Wormwood take advantage of what he calls the petty altruisms – the affected unselfishness which hides a person’s true needs and feelings and which creates, instead of satisfaction, feelings of resentment and a sense of being unappreciated.

In today’s gospel, those who come out to John the Baptist ask the direct question in response to his challenge that they repent. “What then shall we do?” they ask. His answer is very specific. True to the Lukan communitarian values John’s answer to the crowds is that they should share what they have with those who have nothing. Tax collectors and soldiers are singled out for even more specific advice which relates to their professions. That is well and good, but for twenty-first century listeners these suggestions are not entirely helpful and the very specific nature of the advice does not allow us to generalize it to our own situation. The advice only allows us to deal with a very narrow band of sinful actions and provides only a limited number of ideas as to how to behave well.

Jesus’ attacks on the Pharisees later in the gospel make it clear that simple, rule-bound behaviour is not sufficient for entry into the Kingdom of God. He is adamant that the state of a person’s heart is just as important – if not more so – than external behaviour. The behaviours and attitudes of the Pharisees as described by the Gospels demonstrate that it is relatively easy to deal with the surface sins, to paper over deeper issues such as insincerity and a need for recognition with an outward appearance of virtue, selflessness and goodness. An example of a conflict between external behaviour and internal insufficiency can be seen in the apparent selflessness of a parent or spouse which is in fact a way of feeding their own need to be needed. Instead of helping their partner or child, such a person may be fostering the other’s dependence on themselves and, as a result, making themselves feel useful and virtuous at the expense of the other. Their own low self-esteem and deeper need for affirmation is hidden beneath a veneer of self-sacrifice which in turn becomes a burden not a relief for the person whom they claim to be assisting. To quote C.S. Lewis: “She’s the sort of woman who lives for others – you can tell the others by their hunted expression.”

Again the Gospel description of the Pharisees is evidence that religion and its practice may be another way of hiding one’s inner faults and failings with a veneer of religiosity. Asceticism, fasting, and other spiritual practices may serve not to build holiness but to disguise a spiritual emptiness. Instead of modelling a deep and meaningful relationship with God, such people can seriously damage the vulnerable seekers who come to them for guidance.

Sometimes the obvious sin is not the real problem. The real sin is not what can be seen but an underlying condition which needs to be healed and addressed before the surface behaviour can properly go away. For example the outward sin of bullying may be driven by an inward urge to be recognized and valued by others. The outward sin of greed may cover up a feeling of emptiness and reveal a belief that possessions will fill the void. The outward sin of arrogance may compensate for a deep sense of unworthiness. A person who feels that they are of little value may go to a great deal of trouble to convince others and therefore themselves that they are of some importance. If only the outward expression of such sins is managed, then the inward issues may fester and grow and be expressed in some other equally damaging or unhealthy way.

All of this should go to show that sinning is a much more complex issue than simply breaking one of the Ten Commandments, or practicing any one of the seven deadly sins. The problem with simply following rules, is that it allows us to feel OK and doesn’t force us to examine our ulterior motives, to question whether or not our behaviour assists or damages others or to face our own inner demons, insecurities and needs.

During Advent we are challenged to be awake and alert, to prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus. In this time of reflection and preparation let us have the courage to be awake and alert to our inner selves, to have the nerve to examine not only our outward appearance but to look deep inside to see what drives us and our behaviour, to ask if our selflessness is really selfishness, if our abstemiousness covers up our greed and if our attempts to serve others lead to resentment rather than to satisfaction. To ask, in other words, what specific advice would John the Baptist offer us, were we to find ourselves in his presence.


[1] Lewis, C.S. The Screwtape Letters.

(There are a number of internet sites which offer a free PDF version of the book.)

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