“Hell is a state of mind – ye never said a truer word. And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind – is, in the end, Hell. But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is Heavenly. For all that can be shaken will be shaken and only the unshakeable remains.”― C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce is a classic (those unfamiliar with it may click here for a synopsis). Given its allegorical nature, it seems reasonable to consider life in Lewis’ “grey town” (hell or purgatory) to be analogous to the life of “the carnally minded” in “this world” [i.e. the life of the “separate self” or “ego” which imagines itself and its concerns to be of absolute importance; and which also considers (what we have elsewhere referred to as) the horizontal dimension to be the only reality]. And like the life of “the ghosts” in “the grey town”– however dismal (and mostly imaginary) it may be (considered in and of itself) –the life of those who are “carnally minded” (whose “conversation” and “citizenship” is in “this world”) is, nevertheless, not without a point of intersection with (what we have elsewhere referred to as) the “vertical” dimension (i.e. the Reality that IS the mind of Christ and the power of the Spirit).
In fact, our local churches can be understood as vehicles of sorts which, as in Lewis’ novel, offer a kind of transportation to heaven for whosoever will... Anyone who wishes may get on a bus that will take them to the outskirts of heaven and, arriving there, they really are free to stay if they wish. So far, so good…
It is worth noting, however, that life on the bus is also subject to a fair amount of deception and confusion for those who are carnally minded. In order to operate efficiently and effectively, the bus lines must follow certain protocols and may recommend, advocate for, and sometimes even require certain standards of behavior or ways of comporting oneself that all travelers are expected to follow.
This is all well and good– and apparently necessary –but it is not in and of itself sufficient to make our calling and election sure. In and of itself, such a religious subculture can quickly devolve into legalistic forms of personal piety (at best) and petty tribalism and hateful sectarianism (at worst). Following Christ means moving beyond such outward forms of religiosity towards the deeper realities to which these outward forms were originally intended to direct us.
To be sure, we are often exhorted to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) and to “make every effort” (II Peter 1:5), but in the end it must be acknowledged that “he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5); that, indeed, it is “God who works in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13); and that it is His divine power that “has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness” (II Peter 1:3).
So, with regard to the “ego” in Romans 7 (which was the focus of the first article in this series), it seems clear that however sincere and determined he may be, his life is characterized by an inordinate emphasis on “works” and “effort”. For however desperately he desires to measure up to the law of God, his efforts, nevertheless, continue to reflect his own strength and his own understanding rather than the mind of Christ and power of the Spirit. This is indicated, in part, by the numerous times that the word “I” is used in chapter 7 (in contrast to the many references to “the Spirit” in chapter 8) as illustrated here.
One of the lessons from all this is that people who attend church and contemplate giving their life to Christ are somewhat like the “ghosts” in The Great Divorce who– if they wished to stay in heaven –had to be willing forget their former lives, in “the grey town” (and their lives on earth, too, for that matter, which seem to have prefigured their afterlife in “the grey town”).
Moreover, those of us who commit our lives to Christ must also move beyond the outward forms of life in and around “the bus”, moving further up and further in— becoming more substantial (spiritually speaking) –as we explore the depths and the riches of the kingdom, leaning (initially) upon those who have gone before (the saints and fellow citizens with whom we travel) but also (and ultimately) on the grace of God and the power of the Spirit.
As such, to continue with The Great Divorce analogy, while our participation in the practical organization of the bus line (schedules, seating, drivers, protocols) are important, it is also the case that our personal ambition to excel in such activities– our zeal for God, in a sectarian or institutional sense –must not be confused with the abundant life that is possible in and through the power of the Spirit. Just as the law was our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ, so in many respects, the order of our services and many of the contours of our evangelical subculture– both theoretical and practical –are merely preliminary to the kind of deeper walk to which we are called.
And while the local church rightly spends a good deal of time on outward activities and basic teachings which serve as an on-ramp to the Way, these must not to be confused with the Way itself. Indeed, one of the local church’s primary functions is to facilitate an increasingly profound realization of the depth and riches of the wisdom and the knowledge of God among those who are already on the Way (vertically speaking). And this function would seem to be at least as important as its function as a bus stop which shares the gospel with the world at large (horizontally speaking).
Nevertheless (i.e. despite the undeniable importance of what we sometimes refer to as discipleship and sanctification), there seems to be a natural tendency (among professing Christians and non-Christians alike) to mistake the outward forms of worship and personal piety for the inward grace. As such, even the most sincere and determined seeker– one who, according to his or her lights, delights in the law of God after the inner man, per Romans 7:22 (συνήδομαι γὰρ τῷ νόμῳ τοῦ Θεοῦ κατὰ τὸν ἔσω ἄνθρωπον) —may not yet have been strengthened in [his or her] inner being with power through [God’s] Spirit, per Ephesians 3:16 (δυνάμει κραταιωθῆναι διὰ τοῦ Πνεύματος αὐτοῦ εἰς τὸν ἔσω ἄνθρωπον). So, the question remains, how to more clearly recognize (and more effectively share with others) the mind of Christ and the power of the Spirit so that Christ may dwell in our hearts by faith–not merely in a nominal way, but in the living and powerful way that Paul has in mind in Romans 8 and Ephesians 3.
With regard to that question, we discussed in some detail the following equation (or approximate equation) in the first article in this series, The Order of Being and the Life of Faith:
Two Men ≈ Two Minds ≈ Two Worlds or Two Kingdoms:
The Order of Appearances & The Order of Being
And apropos of that discussion, while there is plenty of room for disagreement about this or that detail (or the meaning and application of this or that verse of scripture), it is impossible to deny the general contours of the relationship between these two men, their two minds, and the two very different “worlds” in which they dwell. While an ego like the one portrayed in Romans 7 delights in the law of God as (s)he understands it– whether the law of Moses, per se, or the ideals articulated in our contemporary Christian communities —(s)he is still attempting to actualize those ideals in his (or her) own strength and merely with reference to the “horizontal” plane (i.e. the order of appearances). (S)he is making certain efforts, it seems, with a view to obtaining certain results– i.e. (s)he is hoping and expecting to conform to the law of God and, as a result, to appear a certain way in his (or her) own eyes and in the eyes of others –but (s)he perpetually falls short. Nevertheless, (s)he is sincere and determined and, by the grace of God, eventually finds deliverance through a living faith in the living Word of God:
“Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God [who will rescue me] through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin [until I am rescued through faith in Jesus Christ]” ~ Romans 7:24-25, [paraphrased].
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For [having been rescued through faith] the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death [so that you are no longer a slave to the law of sin]” ~ Romans 8:1-2, [paraphrased].
Note: For an explanation of this paraphrasing, see Flesh and Spirit in Conflict.
This hearkens back to Chapter 6:
“We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin” (Romans 6:6-7).
And while the word “faith” and “grace” (somewhat surprisingly) do not appear in Romans 7 and 8, clearly, those primary themes from the earlier chapters (especially 3 – 6) are implicit in the text:
Romans 5:1 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
In contrast to this statement of faith in Romans 5– and to the detailed description provided in Romans 8 –the ego in Romans 7 does not seem to be living an authentic life in and through the Spirit. Listen to Romans 8:
Romans 8:9 But if God’s Spirit lives in you, you are under the control of your spiritual nature, not your corrupt nature. Whoever doesn’t have the Spirit of Christ doesn’t belong to him. 10 However, if Christ lives in you, your bodies are dead because of sin, but your spirits are alive because you have God’s approval. 11 Does the Spirit of the one who brought Jesus back to life live in you? Then the one who brought Christ back to life will also make your mortal bodies alive by his Spirit who lives in you. 12 So, brothers and sisters, we have no obligation to live the way our corrupt nature wants us to live. 13 If you live by your corrupt nature, you are going to die. But if you use your spiritual nature to put to death the evil activities of the body, you will live. 14 Certainly, all who are guided by God’s Spirit are God’s children. 15 You haven’t received the spirit of slaves that leads you into fear again. Instead, you have received the spirit of God’s adopted children by which we call out, “Abba! Father!”
Unfortunately, when the person who is stuck in Romans 7 reads Romans 8, this description of our new life in the Spirit is usually misunderstood as an exhortation to work that much harder in an effort to appear a certain way and to achieve certain outward results on the horizontal plane. Here is the way the natural (wo)man (or the carnal Christian) conceives of himself or herself:
Note that this way of understanding ourselves is illustrated here in the form of a “thought bubble”. While this “idea” of ourselves seems plausible enough, at first glance, a closer look will reveal that it has little correspondence to Reality. Far from reflecting the order of Being and the Reality of Life, this is the order of appearances at its most superficial and deceptive. It portrays “me” as separate from God, from nature, and from other people–and attributes a measure of freedom to this imagined separate self for which there is little if any justification.
Imagine trying to prove to someone that the earth is round when they think that it is flat… One way to do this (assuming they are very obstinate and you both have the time and resources) is to take them, compass in hand, and follow some precise bearing along the surface of the earth (e.g. along the same latitudinal or longitudinal line) until, together, you reach the point you set out from (at which point, they will see the light).
In a similar way, the person in Romans 7 mistakenly thinks that it is up to them to live up to their ideal by the sheer force of their will, but if (s)he is both sincere and determined, chances are (s)he will eventually explore all the nooks and crannies of the carnal mind and will, eventually reach the place (s)he set out from and know it for the first time (at which point (s)he may be ready, by the grace of God, to relax into the easy yoke which is the mind of Christ and the power of the Spirit). But in the meantime, the struggle continues and (returning to The Great Divorce analogy) is even encouraged by many of his or her fellow passengers on the bus (and perhaps by the bus driver, too–and by much of the literature distributed by the bus line).
Perhaps this is a necessary stage that must be traversed. Perhaps we should even entertain the question as to whether (or to what extent) it is really wise to try to help others to circumvent this struggle (remembering the story that is sometimes told about caterpillars and how trying to “help” them out of their cocoon can have a deleterious effect, leaving without the necessary muscles to support their wings in flight). Nevertheless, it still seems a shame that so many people– rather than recognizing and trusting in the mind of Christ and the power of the Spirit –continue to live defeated, frustrated lives (often giving up completely), not realizing that there is, in fact, a way of seeing and a mode of Being that transcends the tug-of-war in Romans 7.
In the first article in this series, we referred to this way of seeing as “the order of Being” in contrast to “the order of appearances”. No doubt many people (by the grace of God) discover the order of Being without fully understanding how they happened onto it and without really being able to explain it to anyone else (and we must acknowledge that it ultimately defies our conceptual categories, in any event). But it is also the case that many others want nothing to do with this even after it has been pointed out to them (and explained to the extent that it can be). Nevertheless, for those who both recognize and honor it, this is the Way of Truth and Life.
No doubt many of us caught glimpses of the Way long before we saw it clearly (or were morally and emotionally prepared to follow it). This is especially true, perhaps, if we had no nominal “faith” and/or no living cultural context through which to understand those glimpses. In such circumstances– in such relatively barren, rocky soil –the significance of such glimpses may not be fully appreciated and the way of Life which they suggest may not be given the attention that it deserves.
Moreover, even when we are open to the idea of God and to the possibility of being led by the Spirit, we may still imagine ourselves as failures and may still be hoping to somehow set things right by virtue of our own efforts and intelligence (through sheer determination or force of will in conjunction with our native talents and abilities).
At some point, however– by the grace of God –we finally realize the futility of this way of living and abandon that strategy once and for all when the choice between these two ways of life finally becomes clear and we consciously surrender to the order of Being. Prior to that, however, we may feel that we have no choice but to lean upon our own understanding as we attempt to coerce ourselves into achieving certain goals– and sometimes attempt to manipulate others, as well –in our unceasing efforts to control the turn of events. All of this is, on balance, an effort to redeem the past and secure the future as we attempt to make the story of “me” end happily and successfully (both in our own eyes and the eyes of others). Such efforts, needless to say, are a fool’s errand…
If, during such struggles, we identify ourselves– and are identified by others –as Christians, we nevertheless do not (on balance) experience the joy of our (putative) salvation. Fear, guilt, and despair tend to dominate our lives as we persevere in our attempts to secure the objects of our desire and to cultivate habits and relationships that we imagine to be “good”–and to avoid those things and people that we imagine to be “evil” (or otherwise undesirable).
By and large, the present does not really exist for us when we are in this state–and the presence of God is by no means consistently recognized and honored. Instead, the Reality that is NOW is, for us, primarily a means to some imagined end (a paper-thin dimension in which we are both haunted by the past and alternatively teased and terrified by the future); and whether we are “saved” or not, in any technical sense, when it comes to the Way, the Truth, and the Life, we still haven’t found what we are looking for.
Of course, this is not to suggest that our concern with particular objects of desire and with our personal relationships are always illegitimate–not by any means… Our heavenly Father knows that we have need of such things… And, as indicated earlier, it is not as if our sincere and determined effort to honor God is not also good and necessary. But in both regards, the admonition of the Lord is to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness”, trusting God to supply our needs and to work in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure.
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