Habits to help your soul thrive part 6: Name those rats!
Photo by Oxana Kuznetsova on Unsplash
Can I let you into two secrets.
I have discovered rats in my cellar.
That’s the first secret.
The second secret is this: I suspect you have them too.
No, I haven’t gone mad. And you are right, the Vicarage does not have a cellar.
I’ve been reading C. S. Lewis’ excellent “Mere Christianity”.
In one of the chapters C.S.Lewis uses this illustration:
If there are rats in a cellar you are most likely to see them if you go in 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 in the cellar, but if you go in shouting and noisily they will have taken cover before you switch on the light.
(C.S.Lewis, Mere Christianity, (London: Fontana, 1960), p. 161)
Lock-down is exposing my rats.
C.S.Lewis uses the rat illustration to make a simple point:
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?
(ibid. p. 161)
Where am I most off guard? – at home, with my children, my family.
Where are many of us at the moment? At home!
You see, I am very good at putting on my work persona. It is quite a nice Vicarly one. If I am honest, I’ve got quite good at that persona. As I leave the house I put it on and then go to visit people, lead services, preach and look reasonably godly. All the while, I keep my less godly bits reasonably well hidden from the rest of the world.
And now, I get do the same thing on youtube each week. Which is even better, because I don’t even have to be anywhere near you and I have a whole load of time to get my persona ready.
But really I am at home all the time. Lots of my usual distractions and ways of coping are not there. And lots of things I was hoping for are not happening. Then one of my children walks into my office and I snap at them.
As C.S.Lewis, observes
the excuse that immediately springs to my mind is that the provocation was so unexpected: I was caught off guard
We might try to say that lock-down is extenuating circumstances.
But no! The rats were always in the cellar. They’ve just been exposed.
Lock-down is exposing that I have an infestation. I have such an infestation that some of them have got names. Impatience. Lack of love. Anger… They are pretty ugly to be honest.
And if you are honest, you may have some of their close relatives in your cellar too.
But here’s the thing, if you want to deal with your infestation, there is no point in spending more time preparing not to be caught off guard, or plotting a change of circumstances, or shouting a bit louder. There is no point keeping the rats hidden.
Actually, the first thing you need to do is name those rats.
But then what?
Despair? Give up?
C.S.Lewis goes on to allude to one of Jesus’ saying. You can tell a tree by its fruit. A good tree bears good fruit. A bad tree bears bad fruit. (See Matthew 12:33)
So, although I may, to some extent control what I do, I “have no direct control over my temperament.”
“What we are matters even more than what we do.”
So we do despair then? After all if I am a bad tree, how do I change?
C.S.Lewis then explains, in characteristically eloquent style (take time to read this slowly):
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 realise that everything which really needs to be done in our souls can be done only by God.
That is such a crucial last line.
...everything which really needs to be done in our souls can be done only by God.
I cannot get rid of the rats. You cannot get rid of the rats.
“It is not the healthy who need a doctor but those who are ill. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
If I am allowed to say this, Jesus is the great rat catcher.
And he doesn’t do it by showing us how to hide the rats, or tame them. And he definitely doesn’t do it by showing us how to kill them.
The Apostle Paul writes:
We all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
(2 Corinthians 3:18)
In short, you get rid of the rats by spending time with the Lord.
As C.S.Lewis goes on to say, God the Father relates to us as if we had no rats at all. He accepts us as if we were Jesus himself. We are loved and completely accepted, despite our infestation.
Which means, to misquote Steve Brown, we can name those rats and kiss them on the mouth.
But more than that, Jesus stands besides us to first of all blind those rats, and then at least tame them with his presence in us.
As the aforementioned Steve Brown (who, by the way, is one of my favourite Christian writers) says,
So the truth of the matter is, I’m better [than I was] because I’m closer to him;
The key is spending time with Jesus.
But there is a sting in the tale here, and it is so important. Steve says more:
So the truth of the matter is, I’m better [than I was] because I’m closer to him; but the closer I am to him, the less I feel I’m getting better. It may sound crazy, but it’s true. If I knew I was getting better, I would feel quite self-sufficient; and before I knew it, I would be offering to help God out a bit, then I would start helping others get better the way I did.
But in reality, making others better is God’s job, not mine.
(Steve Brown, A Scandalous Freedom (Howard Books, 2004), p. 72)
So I have rats. And without all the usual distractions that keep the rats at bay, I am discovering what I really needed to know all along:
I need a closer walk with the Lord.
Which brings us back to the habits that we need to be cultivating in lock-down, and the chief one – quality time with the Lord.
As part of that most important of habits I need to be naming those rats and bringing them into the light of the Lord's presence. Both at the beginning of the day and at the end of the day.
And perhaps, with the Lord, the rats will shrink to mice, and then voles, or... well, maybe, just perhaps be a whole lot less ugly.
William Cowper wrote:
O for a closer walk with God,
A calm and heavenly frame,
A light to shine upon the road
That leads me to the Lamb!