“What sat on his shoulder was a little red lizard, and it was twitching its tail like a whip and whispering things in his ear.”
– C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, 106.
“Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
– Matthew 10:39
Friends, we have reached the end of our five-part journey into Lewis land. Our final post is derived from a passage in one of the greatest “fantasy”, dream-induced stories ever written. This particular scene is one that means so much to me and captures an abundance of my own experience in dealing with what’s inside of me.
In The Great Divorce, Lewis travels on a bus from “purgatory” or “hell” (his language is vague) to the outer realms of the Kingdom of Heaven where he is privy to the conversations and interactions of various ghosts and phantoms of hell with citizens of the Kingdom of God. All of the citizens are trying to convince their transparent friends to join them in the heavenly city, and each exchange reveals another aspect of the human position; one, however, is more potent that the rest.
Near the end of his journey, Lewis sees a man walking towards him with a lizard on his shoulder. This particular ghost is pursued by a person “more or less human in shape but larger than a man, and so bright that I could hardly look at him. His presence smote on my eyes and on my body too (for there was heat coming from him as well as light) like the morning sun at the beginning of a tyrannous summer day,” (107). This heavenly being has one purpose: to rid the ghost of his special, little guest. After learning that the lizard has troubled him for some time, the “flaming spirit” asks the ghost if he would like to be rid of his red lizard . The man responds immediately: “Of course I would,” (107). So the angel offers to kill the obnoxious beast. The man is shocked and afraid of this proposition, but the Angel reassures him that the death of the lizard is the only way to be rid of him. What results is a back and forth exchange of dialogue between the ghost and the Angel in which the phantom refuses to part with his dear friend. As the urgency of the situation rises, the man becomes more and more hostile to the idea of losing the lizard but more and more desperate of ridding himself of it. Ironic desperation and refusal characterize his attitude: “Look! It’s gone to sleep of its own accord. I’m sure it’ll be all right now,” “I think the gradual process would be far better than killing it,” “You’re burning me. How can I tell you to kill it? You’d kill me if you did,” “Some other day, perhaps,” “Let me run back by to-night’s bus and get an option from my own doctor,” “I know it will kill me,” “It would be better to be dead than to live with this creature.” He desperately wants to be rid of the dark creature, but he fears fire, pain, and death.
The creature even speaks up in one instance, reassuring the man of his necessary presence: “It’s not natural. How could you live? You’d be only a sort of ghost, not a real man as you are now…I admit I’ve sometimes gone too far in the past, but I promise I won’t do it again,” (110).
Lewis is clearly describing an unbeliever, but even Christians have little red lizards still living with them as unwelcome house guests. Even though our “old man”, with all of its rebellious tendencies and desires, has been put to death because of our union with Christ (Romans 6:5-7; 1 Corinthians 5:17), there is a very real sense in which we must die this death daily (Romans 8:13; Colossians 3:5). This initial and daily death leads to a final death, when our sin will be eradicated from ourselves because of our glorified, resurrected state (1 Corinthians 15:35-57). Still, in the in-between time, where our old man is still, in a very real sense, on the prowl, we are tempted to believe that these creatures, these desires and sins, are essential to our existence, something that we can’t live without. The creatures reassure us of the pleasures they can bring and the life they can bestow. They argue that, without them, we would be nothing more than a shell, a ghost with no substance, and when they push us to far, they promise not to do so again. They always lie. How many times have we tried to manage and control our old man? How many times, after indulging in our wickedness, do we promise never to do so again? And how many times has that worked? The old man is incredibly powerful and utterly deceptive. Not a day goes by in which my little lizard is not whispering words into my ear: “You need me. You would be nothing with me. I define you. If I were to die, you would cease to exist.”
How many times do we allow our own failures, our own sins, and our own temptations and struggles to define us? They do define a non-believer, but they certainly do not define a believer. Still, the unbeliever and believer have common ground: sin attempts to define them and keep them from realizing the truths of Christ. So we desperately hold on to them. We are still scared of the infinite pleasures of Christ, even after tasting them, thinking that the fleeting tastes of sin are better and far more satisfying than the deeper waters of the Spirit. We are convinced that if we allowed Christ to do the surgery, we would end up with less than what we started with. We are convinced that the grass is not greener on the other side. But it is, and every experience of our own selfishness and idolatry reveals it: no amount of approval, no amount of lust, no amount of greed will satisfy the deepness of our need. We are all desperate to rid ourselves of what would destroy us, but we are all afraid to do so. Will the surgery annihilate us? Will it hurt?
“I never said it wouldn’t hurt you,” the Angel tells the man (109), and Jesus makes the same claim. The way to true life is to lose our shadow life. The way to deeper water is to leave the shallow pool. We must be born again. We must daily be put to death in order to be daily and finally raised to life. It will hurt and sting, but isn’t it better than wasting away?
And so, in a moment of utter helplessness and surrender, the man lets go: “‘Go on, can’t you? Get it over. Do what you like,’ bellowed the Ghost: but ended, whimpering, ‘God help me. God help me,'” (110). The Angel responds immediately to his plea: “The Burning One closed his crimson grip on the reptile: twisted it, while it bit and writhed, and then flung it, broken-backed, on the turf,” (111). I’ll save what comes next to your own reading.
Christian brothers and sisters, it is difficult to trust in the scalpel of the Surgeon when we feel as if we are defined and in need of our old, sinful selves. We live under the shadow of our individual lizards every day. They are the grey clouds that always linger in our skies and the visitors who never leave. We feel as if, without them, we would burst and fall to pieces. But it just isn’t so. The truth of Christ is a simple one: we are more safe under the scalpel of our Savior than under the presence of our sin. We are truly brought to life when we suffer the initial, daily, and final death of our old man. There is no other way.
The Angel is urgent and His message is clear: “There is no time. May I kill it?” (108). When we plead for another day to take counsel with ourselves, he answers us, “There is no other day. All days are present now,” (109). When we bargain for another moment to think things over, he assures us, “This moment contains all moments, ” (109). Christ pleads with all of us at this very moment: “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation,” (2 Corinthians 6:2). Our cry must be simple, and it must be desperate. All that He requires is to call out to Him, “for ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved,’ ” (Romans 10:13). Will we call? Will we yield?