Leah and I have been using The Screwtape Letters as something of a devotional. We disagree with Lewis’ notion that you can lose your salvation, but many of the points he makes are poignant and convicting.
In the second letter, Screwtape tells Wormwood of his displeasure in Wormwood’s patient becoming a Christian, but then tries to give him advice on correcting this using the church. Not the eternal church itself, but rather the brick building and the annoying habits of those in the pew next to him.
“At his present stage, you see, he has an idea of ‘Christians’ in his mind which he supposes to be spiritual, but which, in fact, is largely pictorial. His mind is full of togas and sandals and armor and bare legs and the mere fact that the other people in church wear modern clothes is a real – though of course an unconscious – difficulty to him. Never let it come to the surface; never let him ask what he expected them to look like.”
This quote is directly after an encouragement to point out to his patient that his neighbor in the pew sings loudly and out of tune or that someone else has squeaky boots. In annoying his patient with minor things that are not sinful or spiritual in any way, Wormwood may make him believe that the religion these annoying people have is ridiculous nonsense.
I’d like to say that I’m above this, but it’s fair only to say that I’ve improved. I’ve heard screamers in church, seen people dance in the aisles, and listened to the discord of a bad worship band. All of these things have distracted me from worshiping the God I love, the God who made and loves these people as well.
We should be aware of the standards we set on each other, standards for perfection in all the areas that matter to us. God doesn’t demand these things of us, but rather that we love Him with all of our heart and love our neighbor as ourselves. Are we loving when we’re judging them for how they sing? For how they dress or laugh or whether they raise their hand in front of our faces during praise and so block us from seeing the lyrics on the screen? What do we expect of others? If it’s anything other than that they’re as fallen as we are, we expect too much.
We also need to keep in mind the difference between sins and annoyances. Someone shrieking out the hymns may be annoying, but that person is worshiping God. God created their voice and what they’re doing is right, not wrong. It’s not about keeping others’ wants in mind at that point because the worship of God is more important than the happiness of your ears. And if you’re really worshiping Him yourself, you won’t care how others do it, so long as it is not in a sinful way.
Lastly, we should be aware that non-Christians are applying these standards of perfection to us, however unfairly. Many Christians do it to them as well. The church seems to have lost the belief, even if the teaching is still sometimes heard, that we are, of ourselves, worthless, depraved, and doomed. It is through Christ that we are valuable, through Him that we are righteous, and through Him that we have a new identity. Becoming a Christian won’t make you perfect; it will only start you down a road you’ll be walking until the day you die. You won’t get there in this life, and the people you see along the way are only your fellow travelers, all in need of more of Him.