Day and night Your hand was heavy upon me . . .
In The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis imagines what it would be like for a busload of spirits consigned to hell to make a trip to the outskirts of heaven—each given the choice to have what kept them from glory purged from them, or to return to hell.
Lewis portrays the visitors to heaven as ethereal, insubstantial beings (labeling them “ghosts”), while heaven and its inhabitants are solid and vivid—in a word, real.
In one chapter, a ghost encounters one of heaven’s bright and burning angels. Upon the ghost’s wispy shoulder sits a small lizard, crimson in color, whispering in his ear. The ghost confides to the angel his disdain of the lizard; the slithering presence has been a constant source of frustration, but the ghost has never had the will to cast him off. Recognizing the lizard’s mendacious influence, the angel offers to quiet the lizard by killing him.
You’d think the ghost would leap at the chance for liberation; instead he offers up one hesitating excuse after another not to part with the lizard: Couldn’t he consider the angel’s offer and get back to him? Isn’t there some more gradual process to obtain the same result? Won’t it hurt to have the lizard removed—or worse, won’t he himself die in the process of extraction?
The angel counters each of the ghost’s concerns but will only fulfill his promise if the ghost gives permission. With great apprehension the ghost yields, but not before complaining of the pain of the angel’s work. To which the angel replies, “I never said it wouldn’t hurt you. I said it wouldn’t kill you.” Both ghost and lizard are sent careening to the turf, at last separated by the angel’s power.
And then, a double transformation: the ghost loses his insubstantiality to obtain a new, solid nature—at last, human in form and in reality; the lizard, now lifeless and abolished from his parasitic existence, revives and grows into a majestic stallion. Where lizard had once governed the life of his vaporous host, now whole man rode upon a transformed, trusted companion. Horse and rider gallop into the havens of heaven.
In this and other episodes, Lewis construes gospel transformation (we might call it spiritual formation) as the purifying of our natural loves into true loves. That is, only by making our loves for earthly things subservient to our love for God can those loves ever become true. Until such transformation occurs, what we love can end up lying to us about its preeminence.
The ghost couldn’t dream of life without the lizard, or at least it feared the pain of dispensing with him. Likewise, you and I let lesser loves creep upon our shoulders until we think them so part of us that they become more important—more vital—to us than God. Control, reputation, wealth, sex—they all can usurp God’s authority in our hearts. “Lust,” says the spiritual guide to the narrator of Lewis’s book, “is a poor, weak, whimpering, whispering thing compared with that richness and energy of desire which will arise when lust has been killed.” The only way to have such loves killed and then reborn is God’s mighty work in us, authorized, if you will, by our repentance: the acknowledgement of our folly, our helplessness, and His sufficiency.
For the ghost, repentance was painful. Why? He feared what submission to the angel entailed—fear of what was unknown, fear of the loss of something so entrenched in his heart and history. Yet both this imaginative episode and what we heard in Psalm 32 aver the same truth: though there is pain in repentance, there’s a greater pain and loss in concealing and cherishing a love for what is false: “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long” (Ps. 32:3).
Such pain, real as it is, is mitigated when seen in light of the Love that seeks to make the pain purposeful and productive. God’s hand “heavy upon” us (v. 4) demonstrates His love for us. Christ’s bearing the ultimate pain of separation from God on our behalf exposes the insubstantiality of what we think so important. Faith in His work inaugurates the often painful process of making us real and solid people.
So, is there a lizard on your shoulder? Is there anything that’s whispering to your soul that you can’t live without it—or that the pain of dispensing of it would be too great? If so, why are you interpreting God’s offer to kill it as anything but love?
“Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Ps. 139:23–24).
The path from an earthly hell to heaven starts with that prayer.