Based in New York, Spiritualundertones is a blog by Sarah Almengor. Her posts reflect spirituality, relationships, and everyday life through her personal musings, photography and acquired wisdom.

Devil's Advocate

One of my all time favorite quotes is, undoubtedly, from one of my favorite authors named C.S. Lewis; the quote is found in the book Mere Christianity, which I have read at least a dozen times. To give the favorite quote of mine some context, I included both the previous and post quote content, but hone in on the middle paragraph:

We begin to notice, besides our particular sinful acts, our sinfulness; begin to be alarmed not only about what we do, but about what we are. This may sound rather difficult, so I will try to make it clear from my own case. When I come to my evening prayers and try to reckon up the sins of the day, nine times out of ten the most obvious one is some sin against charity; I have sulked or snapped or sneered or snubbed or stormed. And the excuse that immediately springs to my mind is that the provocation was so sudden and unexpected: I was caught off my guard, I had not time to collect myself. Now that may be an extenuating circumstance as regards those particular acts: they would obviously be worse if they had been deliberate and premeditated.

On the other hand, surely what a man does when he is taken off his guard is the best evidence for what sort of a man he is? Surely what pops out before the man has time to put on a disguise is the truth? If there are rats in a cellar you are most likely to see them if you go in very suddenly. But the suddenness does not create the rats: it only prevents them from hiding. In the same way the suddenness of the provocation does not make me an ill-tempered man: it only shows me what an ill-tempered man I am. The rats are always there in the cellar, but if you go in shouting and noisily they will have taken cover before you switch on the light. Apparently the rats of resentment and vindictiveness are always there in the cellar of my soul.

Now that cellar is out of reach of my conscious will. I can to some extent control my acts: I have no direct control over my temperament. And if (as I said before) what we are matters even more than what we do – if, indeed, what we do matters chiefly as evidence of what we are – then it follows that the change which I most need to undergo is a change that my own direct, voluntary efforts cannot bring about. And this applies to my good actions too. How many of them were done for the right motive? How many for fear of public opinion, or a desire to show off? How many from a sort of obstinacy or sense of superiority which, in different circumstances, might equally have led to some very bad act? But I cannot, by direct moral effort, give myself new motives. After the first few steps in the Christian life we realize that everything which really needs to be done in our souls can be done only by God.

Remarkable, no? If not remarkable then certainly, at the very least, enlightening.

I’ve always been amused by the concept that if we “just do the right thing”, we’re good. “Just be a good person”. Two questions automatically arise in me, the first one being: what is “good”?, and the second question that begs an answer: what is “the right thing”? In order for there to be knowledge of good versus bad (or right versus wrong), there needs to be something that establishes that standard in the first place, wouldn’t you agree? If we create our own system of right and wrong, are we then not our own moral compass? And if I’m my own moral compass, I suppose I am my own god! I am my own master. I can’t say that thought is not enticing; if I’m my own god, that means I’m not accountable to anyone or anything. If what I consider to be right and wrong isn’t at the mercy of serious consequences anyway, well, hell — free reign! Because why not? Never mind what’s “obviously” evil, because what would make it obvious? If there are no set rules to follow, everything is permissible, no?

Another modus operandi our modern-day society likes to hold on to is: do what makes you happy. Now that we’ve established that all we need to practice in order to live a good life is to be a good person, do the right thing, and do what makes us happy…even more questions spring forth to the surface. What if in my own mind I believe I am a good person (morally), but I also take pleasure in abusing people? Abusing people makes me happy! Who’s to say I am wrong? How dare anyone question my morality if I don’t see the harm in lying to everyone within my reach for my own personal gain, and perhaps even protection? How dare anyone have the audacity to challenge my integrity when they find out I see nothing wrong in murdering people? It makes me happy, so it must be the right thing!

You say, “well Sarah, that’s obviously taking it to one extreme. Obviously murder is wrong”. But no it’s not because again, what makes something outright wrong? What makes something right? Why is it obvious? May I go as far as to ask, who decides what’s good and what’s evil? If there is no ultimate standard, none of us are in a place to play judge. “Yeah but Sarah obviously murder is like, really bad. The worst of the worst. Just be a good person, do the right thing; be honest and kind…”, here’s a plot twist: what if I don’t believe being honest and kind is the right thing? What if being “honest and kind” doesn’t make me happy? I thought we should do things that make us happy? What if being responsible and waking up early to go to work doesn’t make me happy? Suppose making a dishonest living is what makes me happy? Is that right? If it’s not right, why is it not?

“Just do the right thing” — except, hmm? How many times have we unintentionally hurt people we once loved (or still do love)? We as imperfect human beings have a nature within us that causes us to be exactly that: imperfect. How many promises have we broken? If I can hit a nerve for a minute, how many times have we been unfaithful to someone? In how many relationships have we been unfaithful, and with how many people did we cheat WITH?! How many times did we lie to cover up the infidelity (ahhh, good ol’ double offenses)? How many times have we lied, apologized, promised we would be better, and repeated that entire process? We can try to muster up all the determination in the world to no longer lie (or cheat, or steal, or fall back into a harmful habit) until we’re blue in the face…and we will still fall short. None of us have the power to defy our very nature.

Remember the rats in the cellar? They’re always there, they just happen to take cover when the light is switched on (in other words: when the rodents are exposed, they hide). Selfishness, arrogance, a lying tongue, unfaithful tendencies…all those things are there inside of us, perhaps at the core, regardless of whether or not we cover those traits up. The provocation didn’t create anger when I used to lash out at my husband…it only fueled it. It was a reaction to the provocation, but still. Yes of course people will escalate us, but that does not mean that a short fuse was mysteriously created in the moment of escalation. It’s a tough pill even for me to swallow. So many times our nature (!) wants to place the blame on others; “well if my spouse had appreciated me, maybe I wouldn’t have had an affair”. Some people even veil the reality of who they are with religion — doing good deeds in an unconscious attempt to mask what really lies beneath.

Suppose you prepare an egg omelette. The eggs you cracked were rotten, but you don’t want to throw them away. To save the rotten eggs, you added fresh eggs in an attempt to eliminate the rottenness. However, by doing so, did it really eliminate the rottenness of the eggs? No, the rotten eggs were not made good—they remain rotten; they even ruined the goodness of the fresh eggs! We can compare our “good deeds” to the fresh eggs. No amount of charity work (either giving financial support or volunteering), feeding the homeless, adopting destitute children, etcetera…will get rid of the condition of our souls.

Instead of spraying perfume on a casket, what those of us who desire a true change of character need to do is allow open-heart surgery to be performed on us. Would a good doctor simply put a bandaid on a bone that was sticking out of your flesh? Or would a good doctor say “look, I know this isn’t what you want…I know you’re fearful of the pain, but we have GOT to get in there and deal with this”. Would that not be a surgeon worthy of tremendous accolades? For if the doctor didn’t deal with your condition, it could end up not only worsening, but possibly lead to death. What I want is different from what the doctor needs to give me—surgery. If it was up to me I’d sacrifice having to deal with pain and just have him or her bandage me up…but that would not heal my condition. Not only that, but the doctor who really loves me (or at the very least cares about me), would not give me what I wanted, but what I needed. That’s what love does. Aren’t you grateful for the doctors who, when you’re at your yearly checkup, press on certain areas to see if that’s where it hurts? How are they supposed to know where the pain is, do something about that pain, prescribe you whatever you need…if you fight them off each time they apply pressure to the spot that hurts? Of course it’s uncomfortable (in the same way getting a cavity filled or a root canal is), but you can go in with hope that, if the job is done right, you will be better.

I’m happy to be at the pivotal point in my life where I can allow God to apply pressure on certain areas, no matter how much I may cringe and say “not there, God…ugh, do we HAVE to deal with that?” Why does God need to be the one to do that? Because I cannot. I can’t heal myself. I can’t be my own doctor, my nature by default makes it impossible. Sure, there are practical things I can do to live my life in ways that aren’t directly harmful either to me or other people, but in terms of healing deep-seated emotional wounds…that’s all God.

And the most humbling part in all of this is that he desires to do it in us. Let him.

My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I gotten this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it? A man feels wet when he falls into water, because man is not a water animal: a fish would not feel wet. Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too — for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist — in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless — I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality — namely my idea of justice — was full of sense. Consequently, atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be without meaning. — C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

A Sandcastle Called Happiness

Cleopatra in New York