I once heard it said that the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to convince the world that he does not exist.
The fiftieth anniversary of C.S. Lewis's death (November 22, 2013) has sent me back to Lewis's classic work The Screwtape Letters. In this hellish drama, he alludes to this same devilish idea when the book's senior demon, Uncle Screwtape, informs his nephew Wormwood that demonic hiddenness is indisputable hell-policy (Chapter VI). "That question, at least for the present phase of the struggle, has been answered for us be the High Command. Our policy, for the moment, is to conceal ourselves."
While only a fool would contradict the patron saint of latter twentieth-century Protestantism, I think the devil has a much more devious trick than mere demonic disappearance.
Recently I sat in a circle of men who have been meeting together for over twenty years. It is a diverse group, as diverse as any I have ever witnessed. Looking around the circle, there are rich men and poor men. Young men and old men. Black men and white men and native men. Like I said … diverse.
I have been a member of this circle for about eight years. They have been my weekly, often daily, companions in the life of faith. These are passionate men. Honest men. They are wise men and fools … often at the same time. They are full of intuition and integrity … along with vanity and violence. It is as spiritually nurturing as any community I have ever sat amongst in my four-plus decades of life.
This group exists for many reasons. Ultimately it exists to live out the gospel of Jesus Christ. Essential to that work is the reconciling responsibility of God's people. This reconciling work requires that white men learn to live alongside black men (and vice versa, though the first is much more difficult because white men have often had little experience living in the black world, while the reverse is as commonplace as climbing out of bed in the morning). This reconciling work requires that poor men have a voice in confronting rich men (and vice versa, but again this typically goes in one direction).
On this particular day, we were sitting in our circle, already deep into the endurance work of personal (and interpersonal) transformation. In an unexpected act of group chronicling, we began a list of names on the whiteboard. The list began twenty years in the past and tracked up until the present. The list grew and grew. In the end there were maybe three dozen names on the board. What was the common denominator? These were all men who had once been among us and now were gone … often long gone.
This was not a list of those who had moved away from the area. No, they were still around the city. Most of them, we still encounter time and again in other contexts, but no longer in our struggling circle of reconciling faith.
"What led to their departure?" we asked. "Why have these men gone?"
The next hour was spent in storytelling. Those who still had contact with the "old" friends shared the stories of their loss. It was a time of remembering. It was a time of sadness. Most important, it was a time of confession.
"When we look at this list," one of our most outspoken brothers declared, "if we do not confess our participation in their leaving … if I don't confess my responsibility in causing them to leave, then I am lost."
As we told the stories of exit, several common themes surfaced. The most undeniable commonality was risk; these men had attempted deeper reconciling risk. Time and again, the men listed had chosen to risk with another member(s) of the group. Sometimes it was a business venture. Other times it was a deeper form of shared life. Whatever the reason, the members took what felt like deep personal risks to take the reconciling (shared life) message of the circle to a deeper level … often deeper than they ever had before.
The result? They discovered that deeper work was just too hard. It was simply too difficult to fight through to the redemptive ending, so each deeper partnership ended prematurely. The friendship was severed. And in time, both men's place in the circle was lost.
How is this possible? How is it possible that when a person, striving to be righteous, risks the deeper reconciling work of the gospel, their faith ends up being undermined and profound fellowship is lost?
How is it possible? It is possible because the actual gospel of Jesus is just too hard.
What is the greatest trick the devil ever pulled? It is not in an elaborate game of demonic hide and seek. The greatest trick is accomplished anytime he uses the gospel of Jesus to split God's people apart. It happens anytime he snickers that the gospel is wielded as a tool of spiritual destruction. When he celebrates that people of Jesus-faith would even attempt to actually practice the gospel in anything but a self-serving, periodic, casual, and consumptive way.
Maybe this is why Uncle Screwtape hardly flinches when his nephew's "patient" converts to Christianity (Chapter II). Screwtape also knows that the gospel is just too hard.
And that may be exactly the way it is supposed to be. The work of the kingdom of God is fragile, as fragile as a snow crystal. It is as fragile as it is powerful, necessary, and eternal.
It is fragile because no human can do it, no matter how sincere. It requires the actual work and presence of Christ to survive. It is finitely fragile because it relies upon God's eternal power to hold course. Isn't that exactly the way it is supposed to be?
"He (Christ) is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church … " Colossians 1:17-18a
Maybe we shouldn't be asking ourselves, "How is it possible that faith communities fall apart?" Maybe would should be asking, "What hope is there that these communities could ever hold together?" The hope is as simple as it is elusive. Our hope is in the abiding presence of Jesus.
Jesus plus nothing.
It was Uncle Screwtape who wisely instructed his nephew in Chapter XXV, "What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep them in a state of mind I call 'Christianity And.'" You know—Christianity and _____. Fill in the blank. Christianity and my particular slice of theological emphasis? Christianity and our influential pastor? Christianity and a particular political stance? Christianity and a financial philosophy? Christianity and a health/dietary program? Christianity and …
The gospel of the kingdom is so fragile that even two of our strongest examples of Christian faith had a hard time holding it together. Peter ran away from his "circle" after personally witnessing the Lord (John 21:1-3). Paul seemed unable to maintain fellowship with Barnabas and John Mark (Acts 15:36-39). And Paul and Peter even struggled to remain reconciled to one another (Gal. 2:11-14), as it seemed Peter believed in Christianity AND "the works of the Law" (Gal. 2:16).
The challenge of risking around the gospel of Jesus (like the steps of reconciling integration in my diverse circle of men) is as old as Christianity. In the end, maybe we should be less suspicious of communities that exist in perpetual fragility and shift our suspicion to those that appear indisputably secure.
Lord Jesus, forgive us. Guide us. Help us.
Tony "The Beat Poet" Kriz is author in residence at Warner Pacific in Portland, Oregon. His most recent book is Neighbors and Wise Men: Sacred Encounters in a Portland Pub and Other Unexpected Places (Thomas Nelson, 2012). You can find Tony at tonykriz.com or on Twitter.
Copyright © 2013 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
Click here for reprint information on Leadership Journal.