By Benjamin Potter
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 10:34-39
Jesus says difficult things. The apostles themselves admit to this. (John 6:60) And for me, these verses in Matthew 10 have always been some of the most difficult, next to what he says in his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:21-23 (the “I never knew you” passage). Like most of what Jesus says, loving God more than my family is easier said than done. For instance, I might decide not to serve a ministry in what I deem a dangerous part of the city out of a desire to protect my family. But rather than digressing into addressing the problem we have in the Western Church in protecting ourselves and our families from things that would do us good, perhaps to understand how to apply Jesus’s teaching here we should have a clear understanding of repentance in the Christian walk. Repentance is more than a verbal apology. Some have rightly said repentance is a 180 degree turn from the way of sin to the way of Jesus. I think C. S. Lewis might say that repentance is closer to a cutting, a separating, a divorce from that which defined you before the King claimed and gave you a new name. When Jesus called me, he made his first cut, and he hasn’t stopped and won’t stop until all of the decay is cut out and separated from me. But it hurts with a pain that I’ll actually strive to avoid much of the time.
So difficult is this repentance for me that I feel that it will take all my strength to repent, to divorce that sin or idolatry to which I cling. I say things or feel things like, “How could I live without __?” “How could I still be me without __?” “How much of it has to go? How much of me has to go? Can’t I keep a little of it? Where’s the line?” For some sins it feels that I would have to give up my entire life, identity, purpose, expectations, and desires in order to truly repent–to truly have those things be DEAD to me. Most of the time I feel that I can’t because those things are literally everything that I am clinging to for LIFE (or are they clinging to me?). My sins have become so dear to me that I cannot fathom my life without them. Yet hanging on to them and being unwilling to mortify them will destroy me and guarantees that I will remain a slave drinking poison packaged as water which will quench all my thirst. And then I’m reminded of those hard words, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis tells a story of a man who takes a bus from Hell to Heaven. But it is not primarily a story about Heaven and Hell. In fact, titling the book, The Great Divorce, if the story were primarily about Heaven and Hell, would be a little confusing and speculative. The book is plainly about divorce, divorce in a literal sense. Divorce is the dividing and splitting that which was once intimately bound together. And so the story is about souls who must willingly separate from their sins and idols to enter Heaven, and those who are unwilling to “divorce” their sin run back to Hell. The fact that the story takes place in Heaven and Hell makes it much more potent–the weight and imagery makes Lewis’s point clearer.
The story then, I believe, is more closely related to Matthew 10, especially when Jesus talks about bringing a sword which cuts, divides, and separates us to those people, places, or things that we consider most dear to us. The entry into Heaven then is seen through a marital lens wherein both God and man want to spend eternity together, and man must forsake all other loves for this One. And that is what makes this “the Great Divorce.” Those nouns which have become idols that have been attached to us, chained to us, engorged within us, to which we are married must be divorced and cut off from us to enjoy the Spouse for whom we were made to enjoy before the foundation of the world.
There is a story in the book about a man and a lizard. The lizard is engorged, attached to the man’s shoulder and whispers into his ear. The lizard represents the man’s lust. An angel comes to the man and asks him if he could kill the lizard for him. The man takes some convincing but then submits. What follows is an excruciatingly painful ripping the lizard off the man. During this removal, the man screams at the angel to stop or it might kill him. But the angel doesn’t stop. In the end the lizard is removed and thrown down onto the ground, yet both man and lizard are mortally wounded and lay motionless as if dead.
The divorce is indeed great. So great in fact that it is not through our own will power that we would overcome and divorce our sin. It is only by the Spirit’s slicing and separating us from that which has become so engorged in us that it has rooted into our identities. And the scalpel of the Spirit cuts deep and hurts like death. The state of man is full of cancer until the Spirit comes to kill it. If only we would let him and not protect ourselves so viciously. Might there be something or someone better than our sin, able to satisfy us completely where our sin cannot? Is there a way to be made into someone new, to have new desires and new goals? What might we become without our sin?
As they lay, both the man and the lizard begin to change. They both grow. The man becomes taller and more muscular. The lizard turns into a huge horse. They both stand, repaired and remade. The man mounts the horse and both speed toward the mountains to meet Jesus face to face.
What Jesus calls us to is a surrendered divorce. Because if it were up to me and my own power, I couldn’t and wouldn’t separate myself in such a way. It is unimaginable and impossible for me to be able to do such a thing. And so what is left for me to do but to ask the Spirit to keep cutting and separating that sin which is still attached until my humanity is restored to look like the second Adam who was there in the beginning and waits for me at the end. A common prayer of mine is that I’d want him more than my sweet disease. Praying that the Church would see clearly the sin that we hang on to (or is hanging on to us), seeking it’s demise through our warrior king who alone has healing hands wielding a sharp double edged sword. “No, there is no escape. There is no heaven with a little of hell in it – no place to retain this or that of the devil in our hearts or our pockets. Out Satan must go, every hair and feather.” This quote from George MacDonald, who, Lewis admits, is his spiritual and literary master, fills the entire story of The Great Divorce. Heaven promises to be a place that quenches every thirst until all that remains is unquenchable Joy that only exists in Jesus.
For me, this repentance ends up being almost a daily practice when I ask myself if I really want this divorce. How much is Jesus worth to me? Is he worth giving up everything, even the seemingly “righteous” things to which I cling for life and fulfillment? I encourage you to pray with me, asking God what it is that needs to go. What needs to be cut by the sword of Jesus out of my life? From what do I need to be divorced? Be careful praying that prayer though, especially if you love your life the way it is. Praying like this might cost you everything…on the other hand praying like this might also save your soul. “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?”Matthew 16:25-26