The Rev. Rob Courtney
Fr. Rob is the Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church & School
These reflections were part of a book study Fr. Rob led on C. S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters.
As we wrap up our study this week, one thing capturing my attention is that anything at all can be an opportunity for temptation. I believe that we tend to lump “sins” into a particular category—maybe “sins of the flesh” that in our imaginations revolve around things like substance abuse or promiscuous sex. The “drinkin’ and carousin’” type of sins. If I’m not someone who does such things (like those kinds of people do), and I perceive myself as a generally good person, and if I even go to church, well . . . I’ve got it all together.
Paul describes the “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5:19-21: “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Isn’t it curious that when we read through this list we tend to shorten it in our minds to something more like, “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these”? My point is that we tend to step over the things we ourselves do and note instead the things that we believe other people do. Never mind my own anger, quarreling, dissension, jealousy, greed and the like which are getting equal billing alongside the other sins. Those aren’t “real” sins, right? Maybe we tend to think so because they’re just so common and ordinary as opposed to more salacious sins. Screwtape makes it pretty clear that it’s the more subtle, more ordinary things that are just as much if not more of an occasion for temptation than the scandalous.
I also notice that each character in the story has his or her own “demons.” Each has their own Wormwood, Screwtape, Slumtrimptet, Toadpipe, or Slubgob. This is true: we all have our own demons, which means we all have our own sin. As a mentor of mine who was a recovering alcoholic used to say, “We all have something. My thing is booze. What’s yours?” Could it be anger? Jealousy? Greed? Gluttony? Sloth? Lust? As the first letter of John says, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). The truth is we all have temptations and sin to deal with in our lives. And, as the letter continues, “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). When we recognize our struggles and our failings we should never use this as an opportunity for self-shame. The Church, for far too long, has shamed people in acknowledging human sinfulness. The other side of the truth is that we are made in God’s image, beloved by God who is eager to forgive. All of our failings are an opportunity for new life, fresh starts through the experience of the grace and mercy of God. That is what the good news of Jesus Christ is all about—we may have our demons, but we have a Lord who is eager to save us from ourselves.
We will soon enter the season of Advent, and once again hear the invitation of John the Baptist to “Prepare the way for the Lord.” I find myself wondering what it means to prepare the way for the Lord. What does it mean to do that? To offer a sneak peak into what I’ll be preaching that first Sunday of Advent, I believe it means preparing a way for grace and mercy in a world that has little or none to offer. Screwtape and his nephew and their colleagues stand ready to accuse. This world is eager to condemn. We await and long for the savior who is coming into the world to share in our experience of being shamed and condemned by the world, but to lead us into new life, new beginnings, and a day of resurrection.
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