June 17, 2010
by Patrick Lafferty
Love does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth.
1 Corinthians 13:6
“The story has been called grotesque,” she admits, “but I prefer to call it literal.”1 A story that begins amusingly ends violently. But “violence is never an end in itself,” author Flannery O’Connor, explains, “Violence is a force which can be used for good or evil, and among other things taken by it is the kingdom of heaven.”
There’s plenty of violence in her short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Without divulging any plot spoilers I’ll tell you it’s set mainly in a forest in O’Connor’s sultry South. A backbiting family, shortly after embarking on vacation, has a car accident. Stranded but mostly unharmed, they’re met unfortunately by a small band of prison escapees.
Amid the humidly tense air, a discussion of spiritual matters arises between two of the characters—the grandmother of the clan and the de facto head of the escapee band, known as “the Misfit” (his punishment, he alleges, didn’t fit the crime). At one moment in their conversation, the Misfit waxes prophetic and philosophical:
“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead,” The Misfit continued, “and He shouldn't have done it. He thown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but thow away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness.”2
From the one least likely to notice comes the realization that Jesus changes everything. You can either rejoice with the truth—in His truth—or rejoice in unrighteousness and find your pleasure in meanness. Some might call that an oversimplification—a false dichotomy. But if it’s true that God became man to rescue those enslaved to the guilt and corruption of sin, then anything less than rejoicing in His truth is tantamount to a denial of reality. As Julian reminded us last Sunday, love does not rejoice in unrighteousness because love does rejoice with the truth. A demonstrated appreciation of His truth pushes back against a preference for what is unrighteous—or so The Misfit concludes for his captive audience.
What shall we glean from such an unnerving story? How might it address what Paul says about love and truth?
O’Connor explains her use of extremes in storytelling when she says, “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”3
You and I, like those in what O’Connor calls the “Christ-haunted” South, can become so familiar with the gospel that, in a paradoxical way, we are no longer moved by it. We assent to its truth, but its joy is far from our lips or our hearts. We may not be rejoicing in unrighteousness, but we’re certainly not rejoicing with the truth. Such joy doesn’t evaporate overnight. We drift from it over time. Once we have drifted from it, we not only love less—we let an appreciation for what is unrighteous creep in like scum on a backwater pond.
So the spirit of the Misfit insinuates a couple questions for us:
The first is this. What of the Truth has been marginalized in your practice? What truth of Jesus have you been giving assent to but have refused to follow in the way of? You may not have been tempted to terrorize like the Misfit and his gang, but casting an indifferent eye, withholding a necessary encouragement, or refusing a loving sacrifice all express something less than a rejoicing with the truth.
The second question is foundational to the first. What time do you give to ponder the truth you’re to find joy in? Are you so addicted to activity, to your e-mail, to the maintenance of certain perceptions of yourself, that you’ve no time left to feed on the truth that’s meant to enlarge and enliven you? Sometimes we may not know the joy of walking in truth until we obey, but far be it from Jesus to simply guilt you into loving obedience; He meant to set before us His joy as the basis for our willingness to endure hardship out of love (cf. John 15:11, Heb. 12:2). Are you setting before yourself what constitutes His joy so that you may walk in it?
“If He did what He said, then it's nothing for you to do but thow away everything and follow Him.” Sit with that. Then let it rouse you to your feet so that this world might find its good men.4
1. “Writing Short Stories,” Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (1969).
2. “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” Flannery O’Connor: Collected Works, Penguin, 151.
3. “The Fiction Writer and His Country,” Mystery and Manners.
4. With thanks to Peggy Skidmore who, while on vacation, happened unsuspectingly into a Sunday school class considering the works of Flannery O’Connor, and brought home a compilation of the quotes.