How are we supposed to feel about the people we love, who are not interested in personally repenting and relying entirely on Jesus (like the woman in Mark 14:3ff)? How are we supposed to react to the people we care about, who say, “I don’t need to read the Bible or regularly examine myself as a member of the body of Christ, it’s enough for me to simply know that God loves me.”? What are we supposed to do when it seems like a person dear to us has been given over to the lusts of their hearts and the foolishness of following their own nose (Romans 1:24)?
It seems like Paul himself wrestled with this dilemma in Romans 9:1-3, “I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.”
Perhaps there are some ways in which we ought to consider and apply Abraham’s disposition to the promises of God in Romans 4:18, “In hope he believed against hope” (not that God has specifically promised to save all we are burdened for, but certainly the profound possibility of their redemption is a reality, and this may very well require us to believe [even the possibility of] something that strikes us as exceedingly implausible!).
We will invariably feel this tension, and it is inescapably part of faithful discipleship that we experience this suspense and engage it as part of our calling to fight the good fight of faith and hope!
As we faithfully proceed and make progress in our pilgrimage, God will provide the additional assistance of fellow travelers – who can catalyze our strivings to find firm footing and contribute to our convictions and comprehensions (including the tension of caring about our friends who choose to reject Christ and the written Word of God which He loved and fulfilled).
One person in particular who has helped me arrive at a more appropriate posture amidst conversations with opponents of grace is Clive Staples Lewis. Lewis imagines many scenarios – in a variety of stories – wherein hope-filled people are forced to interact with hopeless people (e.g. Till We Have Faces; Perelandra; The Chronicles of Narnia; etc.). I recently read the conversation between Sarah Smith and her husband in The Great Divorce (chapters 12 – 13a), and I was reminded of what the humble posture of a joy-filled, hope-filled, Christ-focused person looks like when conversing with a loved one who is resolved to cling to their pride and reject joy. I was specifically reminded that part of the process of hoping against hope includes addressing the truly human (image of God) part of the individual …no matter how much they might attempt to divert attention away from this precious part of themselves, and no matter how small it shrinks (as long as there is even a shred of true humanity present – I must aim my Christ-centered-hope sniper rifle at that target).
In case it’s been awhile, or if you’ve never read The Great Divorce, I have included a brief overview (summarized by Royce Lynn Johnson) of the scene from chapters 12 – 13a for you here:
Jack and his mentor come upon a Heavenly woman, whom at first Jack seems to mistakes for Mary, mother of Jesus. The mentor corrects him and says she was a woman known as Sarah Smith, and is now one of the great ones in Heaven.
As they watch, she is confronted by a dwarf, who pulls a tragedian — an old-school, melodramatic actor who projects the dwarf’s need to be pitied and apologized to — by a chain. The dwarf was her husband, on Earth. She died before he did, and now he has come from Hell to see her, and hopefully extract some misery from her.
I like to imagine the tragedian as played by Jonathan Harris, the actor who played Doctor Smith on “Lost in Space,” when he says, “And now! Now, you need me no more?”
Sway Over Joy
Which is, of course, the whole point of Heaven. It could not be so if pity held sway over joy, or payments were still due for past transgressions. Everything, then, would be held in check to some distant, irrelevant misery (i.e. personal pity-parties would be permitted to hold joy hostage).
The tragedian/dwarf needs his Earthly wife to feel bad so that his melodrama can have a stage. Otherwise, he’ll just look silly… which, he does, in the solidity and brightness of Heaven. So, he comes to the choice many Ghosts make in this story — to hold on to the misery that has defined them, or to let it go and start again.
Giving Up One’s Identity
It is easy to say, Of course! Give your old ways up and be renewed! But in real life, it is difficult to give up one’s identity — even if it’s a bad one. If, for example, I take on the identity of a person with some weakness, I may approach it with intelligence, prop up those areas where I’ve shown a weakness (for example, disorganization), and say, “Well, I just need to use this or that tool to stay on top of things,” and be done with it. Or, I could say, “I have such-and-such trait, therefore I should be pitied and forgiven for all my mistakes, and never expected to go through the difficulties of change. Also, I should be valued as much as a person without these weaknesses, because to do otherwise would be unfair — after all, they’re not perfect, either!”
Same can be said for every weakness from a bad temper to drug abuse.
This is the approach the dwarf/tragedian takes, and of course it will not work in Heaven on his former wife, Sarah, because she’s truly left all those things behind — including her own weaknesses.
Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. — Luke 15:7, English Standard Version
Sarah Smith is a former sinner who repented; the dwarf/tragedian is acting like a righteous person who needs no repentance. Determined to be joyless, he shrivels up until he can no longer be seen at the end of the chain, and is consumed by the tragedian, who vanishes in Sarah’s bright presence.