While I was doing my Masters degree at Manchester there were some messages I heard that not only taught me something valuable, but contributed towards completely revamping my thinking. Amongst other things, these messages empowered me to start overcoming, with the Lord’s help, some of the old fears and griefs I struggled with in the face of matters social. The first one I’m going to expound here was something I learned from one of the weekly Student Bible Studies at my church. The second was a message from – surprise, surprise – my favourite preacher, John Piper.
I wasn’t far into primary school before I realised that the girls’ playground games were usually only won by certain individuals (who all happened to associate with each other closely), and that the rules governing who was allowed to participate in that arrangement, were something that I would never understand. It might have been after losing the contest for the girl with the brownest eyes (“Your eyes aren’t brown! They’re hazel!” one of my 6-year-old contemporaries snarled contemptuously), that I habitually resigned myself to hiding behind a playground bench to mope in tears of confusion and jealousy – to the point of wondering, sometimes, that if I was so bad at knowing whatever secret ‘game’ or series of ‘passwords’ it was that all these other girls seemed to be playing at and guessing to win each others’ confidential smiles and hugs and tokens of affection and rights to be told secrets and be treated with favouritism, then perhaps I didn’t deserve to be a girl. When I got older, passed my exams and found myself in a grammar school, the fight to win hearts and belong to inner circles didn’t get much easier.
The message at the Student Bible Study, I believe, came through a sermon delivered on some theological topic – I do not remember what. But what I do remember is that at the top of the handout there was a quotation by C.S. Lewis from The Inner Ring (a concept to which I have referred above, albeit vaguely, as the ‘inner circle’). Once this was explained and applied by the preacher, I was astonished. Not in the way people are astonished because they have heard something that they always knew, but astonished because I felt strangely liberated by this teaching. According to the preacher, you do not need to have gone very far in life before you will have discovered that there are exclusive social circles and cliques, and the feeling of either triumph or resentment because you have respectively either entered one, or failed to enter one. In God’s economy however, there is only one ‘Inner Ring’ in life that counts, and that is the ‘Inner Ring’ of Jesus Christ. To enter this ‘Inner Ring’, what is demanded of you is faith – the sort of faith that stands for an assurance of things hoped for and a conviction of things not seen, and produces a determination to live for Christ in thought, word and deed. God gives his grace freely, but belonging to Christ will not be uncostly; notwithstanding this his yoke is easy and his burden is light. You do not need to follow all the usual social rules to earn Jesus’ love: in fact, Jesus’ love is not a thing that you can earn at all. Now it seems from the Bible that Christ had more and less intimate friends: he had his Twelve Apostles after all. But he also had Martha, Mary and Lazarus, and they were far from Apostles. Nobody could have done the Apostles’ work in their place and they were appointed as twelve men out of prophetical necessity, and not eleven or ten: but he never made them jump through hoops to get where they were, and he did not love them to the exclusion of others. He did not sneer at outsiders. He took Peter, James and John up the mountain with him, and he loved John supremely and spoke with Peter much, but he did not promise any one of them a place at his right hand or at his left in the Kingdom of Heaven. Although he knew Judas Iscariot’s heart would be bent on corruption and on betraying him, he did not treat Judas as an outsider. The point is that your affections won’t be played off against someone else’s in Christ, because that was not how he worked. He didn’t demand that you be popular before he accepted you, or that you be rich, or that you satisfy any other requirement but to recognise the helplessness of your sin-dead state. He was happier for you to be the very thing that makes ‘Ring’ people run a mile: dependent and full of needs, like a little child. Once you’re ‘in’, you’re ‘in’ to work for him and alongside him, and to grow up in him like a branch grows out from a vine. Once Christ has claimed you, and the fruits you bear testify that you belong to him, then you can know that you are in him indeed. There is no other ‘Inner Ring’ that matters in life, but the ‘Inner Ring’ of Christ, and you belong to it, and belong to it irrevocably, by living by faith in the name of Jesus Christ until the end of your days. Jesus Christ is a friend indeed, and the only friend you need. He will not abandon those who diligently seek him and know him and work for him.
The passage from C.S. Lewis impressed me so much that I’ve included an abridged version of it here:
In the passage I have just read from Tolstoy, the young second lieutenant Boris Dubretskoi discovers that there exist in the army two different systems or hierarchies. The one is printed in some little red book and anyone can easily read it up. It also remains constant. (…) The other is not printed anywhere. Nor is it even a formally organised secret society with officers and rules which you would be told after you had been admitted. You are never formally and explicitly admitted by anyone. You discover gradually, in almost indefinable ways, that it exists and that you are outside it; and then later, perhaps, that you are inside it. (…)
There are no formal admissions or expulsions. People think they are in it after they have in fact been pushed out of it, or before they have been allowed in: this provides great amusement for those who are really inside. It has no fixed name. The only certain rule is that the insiders and outsiders call it by different names. From inside it may be designated, in simple cases, by mere enumeration: it may be called “You and Tony and me.” When it is very secure and comparatively stable in membership it calls itself “we.” When it has to be expanded to meet a particular emergency it calls itself “all the sensible people at this place.” From outside, if you have despaired of getting into it, you call it “That gang” or “they” or “So-and-so and his set” or “The Caucus” or “The Inner Ring.” If you are a candidate for admission you probably don’t call it anything. To discuss it with the other outsiders would make you feel outside yourself. And to mention talking to the man who is inside, and who may help you if this present conversation goes well, would be madness.
Badly as I may have described it, I hope you will all have recognised the thing I am describing. Not, of course, that you have been in the Russian Army, or perhaps in any army. But you have met the phenomenon of an Inner Ring. You discovered one in your house at school before the end of the first term. And when you had climbed up to somewhere near it by the end of your second year, perhaps you discovered that within the ring there was a Ring yet more inner, which in its turn was the fringe of the great school Ring to which the house Rings were only satellites. … And I can assure you that in whatever hospital, inn of court, diocese, school, business, or college you arrive … you will find the Rings—what Tolstoy calls the second or unwritten systems.
All this is rather obvious. I wonder whether you will say the same of my next step, which is this. I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside. (…)
Often the desire conceals itself so well that we hardly recognize the pleasures of fruition. Men tell not only their wives but themselves that it is a hardship to stay late at the office or the school on some bit of important extra work which they have been let in for because they and So-and-so and the two others are the only people left in the place who really know how things are run. But it is not quite true. It is a terrible bore, of course, when old Fatty Smithson draws you aside and whispers, “Look here, we’ve got to get you in on this examination somehow” or “Charles and I saw at once that you’ve got to be on this committee.” A terrible bore… ah, but how much more terrible if you were left out! It is tiring and unhealthy to lose your Saturday afternoons: but to have them free because you don’t matter, that is much worse.
I must now make a distinction. I am not going to say that the existence of Inner Rings is an Evil. It is certainly unavoidable. There must be confidential discussions: and it is not only a bad thing, it is (in itself) a good thing, that personal friendship should grow up between those who work together. And it is perhaps impossible that the official hierarchy of any organisation should coincide with its actual workings. But the desire which draws us into Inner Rings is another matter. A thing may be morally neutral and yet the desire for that thing may be dangerous. (…)
I have no right to make assumptions about the degree to which any of you may already be compromised. I must not assume that you have ever first neglected, and finally shaken off, friends whom you really loved and who might have lasted you a lifetime, in order to court the friendship of those who appeared to you more important, more esoteric. I must not ask whether you have derived actual pleasure from the loneliness and humiliation of the outsiders after you, yourself were in: whether you have talked to fellow members of the Ring in the presence of outsiders simply in order that the outsiders might envy; whether the means whereby, in your days of probation, you propitiated the Inner Ring, were always wholly admirable.
I will ask only one question—and it is, of course, a rhetorical question which expects no answer. In the whole of your life as you now remember it, has the desire to be on the right side of that invisible line ever prompted you to any act or word on which, in the cold small hours of a wakeful night, you can look back with satisfaction? If so, your case is more fortunate than most.
My main purpose in this address is simply to convince you that this desire is one of the great permanent mainsprings of human action. It is one of the factors which go to make up the world as we know it—this whole pell-mell of struggle, competition, confusion, graft, disappointment and advertisement, and if it is one of the permanent mainsprings then you may be quite sure of this. Unless you take measures to prevent it, this desire is going to be one of the chief motives of your life, from the first day on which you enter your profession until the day when you are too old to care. That will be the natural thing—the life that will come to you of its own accord. Any other kind of life, if you lead it, will be the result of conscious and continuous effort. If you do nothing about it, if you drift with the stream, you will in fact be an “inner ringer.” I don’t say you’ll be a successful one; that’s as may be. But whether by pining and moping outside Rings that you can never enter, or by passing triumphantly further and further in—one way or the other you will be that kind of man. (…)
The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it. But if you break it, a surprising result will follow. If in your working hours you make the work your end, you will presently find yourself all unawares inside the only circle in your profession that really matters. You will be one of the sound craftsmen, and other sound craftsmen will know it. This group of craftsmen will by no means coincide with the Inner Ring or the Important People or the People in the Know. It will not shape that professional policy or work up that professional influence which fights for the profession as a whole against the public: nor will it lead to those periodic scandals and crises which the Inner Ring produces. But it will do those things which that profession exists to do and will in the long run be responsible for all the respect which that profession in fact enjoys and which the speeches and advertisements cannot maintain.
Excerpts from Lewis, C.S. (1944) The Inner Ring, a memorial lecture delivered at King’s College, University of London. Copyright 2014, The C.S. Lewis Society of California. http://www.lewissociety.org/innerring.php [last accessed 15th July 2014]
C.S. Lewis testifies that working your way into to the ‘Inner Ring’ and staying there is hard, and almost invariably leads people into sinful dealings. Perhaps, in a sense, faith in Jesus Christ is hard: God may be the one converting your heart, but the humiliation of repentance to which this brings you is exhausting, if liberating. But it is not unforgiving. Similarly, working out our salvation with fear and trembling is hard work, even if it increases our joy and our zest for Christ. But it is not soul-numbing drudgery. There is nothing of the world in the business of being owned by Christ: it doesn’t waste you, except to make you less your worldly self, and more your Christ-like you. Moreover, to apply C.S. Lewis’ words a little more broadly, I am convinced that it is maximally those, like the craftsmen at their trades, who devote themselves to the work of God quietly and without competing for status in others’ ‘Inner Rings’, that end up being praised by the fruit of their works and bringing glory to God and life to his church. At twenty-four I still do not pretend to know what one must have to deserve to belong to a merely human Inner Ring. But those who came to Christ most prominently in the gospels came to him empty-handed and vile – as vile and as unimportant as a person can be, in fact. Christ came for the rejects. You don’t need to be in anyone’s inner circle to be Christ’s friend; you don’t need to have worked your way up any ranks of popularity to reach him. You don’t need to have sorted your life out, or done a long list of good works, before he will take you in. Those are things that he wants to do with you once you’re his. He takes the lowly – the dead – and brings them to life, restoring them in dignity through Christ’s blood on the cross, so that they can do the good works that God prepared in advance for them to do. Behold, the tenderness of Jesus here:
‘Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”’ (Matthew 19: 13-14 ESV)
‘Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.’ (John 5: 2-9 ESV)
‘When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”’ (Mark 2: 16-17 NIV)
‘One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to have dinner with him, so Jesus went to his home and sat down to eat.When a certain immoral woman from that city heard he was eating there, she brought a beautiful alabaster jar filled with expensive perfume. Then she knelt behind him at his feet, weeping. Her tears fell on his feet, and she wiped them off with her hair. Then she kept kissing his feet and putting perfume on them. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman is touching him. She’s a sinner!” Then Jesus answered his thoughts. “Simon,” he said to the Pharisee, “I have something to say to you.” […] Then he turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Look at this woman kneeling here. When I entered your home, you didn’t offer me water to wash the dust from my feet, but she has washed them with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You didn’t greet me with a kiss, but from the time I first came in, she has not stopped kissing my feet. You neglected the courtesy of olive oil to anoint my head, but she has anointed my feet with rare perfume. I tell you, her sins—and they are many—have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love. But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love.”’ (Luke 7: 36-40, 44-47 NLT)
‘One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”’ (Luke 23: 39-43 NIV)
The graciousness of Jesus to such people is a balm. I’ve felt it in my life as a balm. As I’ve gone from place to place being unpopular, there Jesus was, welcoming me, validating me, accepting me, dignifying me. He covers these peoples’ indignity, suffering some part of it with them just by associating with them in front of the ‘right thinking’ people, and he blesses them. Never will I forget the first time I saw it, long before my own conversion, in a classmate of mine. Again, I must’ve been five years old and in my first year at primary school. One fateful day, I was playing in a little alcove outside the classroom door with the water toys and the sandpit. Some other girls were playing at the other end of the sandpit, moulding ‘fairy cakes’ out of the golden sand. I can’t remember whether it was by accident or out of curiosity, but I ended up pouring the water from the water trough into the sandpit, without any idea what the consequences of doing it would be. To my shock, the deed had the effect of staining the sand at my end of the sandpit an ugly, muddy brown, and any chance of making a ‘sand fairy cake’ like the other girls was ruined. I didn’t realise at that age that the sand in the sandpit would eventually dry out again and return to its soft, golden state; as far as I knew I had damaged it permanently, and this filled me with horror. The cliquey girls gloated over me with unkind words, and chided that I was ‘naughty’ and that our teacher would be everso cross with me, and inside I wished I could die. I dreaded the thought of the teacher’s condemnation. Our class teacher was formidably strict, and although in hindsight she was probably fair, her wrath was terrifying. Now there was another girl at the sandpit who would not join them. She had kind, hazel eyes and her long, blonde hair reminded me of a golden cornfield. I shall not divulge her family name for reasons of confidentiality, but because I was only barely literate at five years old, I used to mispronounce it: “Corn-fawn”. She was indeed quiet, sweet-natured, curious and elusive, like a fawn. Because of liver problems that she had suffered as an infant, her skin had a slightly yellow tinge. Clad in the green school uniform that we all had to wear, she reminded me a bit of Tinkerbell from the Disney Peter Pan cartoon (I held fairies in great awe, and at that age I couldn’t pin down the difference between a fairy and an angel). As the other girls poured their taunts out on me I feverishly piled clump upon clump of wet sand, arguing that my fairy cake was better than theirs because the wetness stuck it together so that it wouldn’t fall down. But it was to no avail. I knew deep down that I was just making excuses to make my crime seem less bad than it was. Still, the Angel Tinkerbell would not join in with them. She smiled gently at me from the other side of the sandpit, which the water hadn’t touched, and where the sand was still golden and soft. She made no mention of my deed at all. “That’s not a fairy cake,” she said, looking over at my work. “Here, have some of this nice soft sand.” And smiling, she brought some over in her cupped hands, and sprinkled it on top of my creation. “There!” the Angel exclaimed delightedly, “That’s perfect! Now you have a perfect, beautiful fairy cake!” And at that moment nothing the other girls said could touch me. Words could not describe my gratitude. It was like being welcomed home after a long, cold, lonely night; like the moment of being found, after having been lost. It was like a long-deferred hug from a distant friend. My heart broke. I loved Angel Tinkerbell Corn-Fawn more than anything or anyone I knew at that moment. I was never close to her, and I could not call myself her friend: like a real angel, she was a magical, secretive person, and I did not dare imagine myself worthy of her, lest I corrupt her beautiful soul and make her worthless.
The story of Angel Tinkerbell is not one with a happy conclusion, however. A few years back, in my early twenties, I bumped into her at a supermarket. It was the first time I had seen her in many, many years. I hardly recognised her when I first saw her. She had dyed her hair a violent red colour and was wearing a black hoodie that needed a turn in a washing machine. Her eyes had very dark circles under them and she looked exhausted and demoralised. Her tone of voice, mannerisms and facial movements were muted and shame-filled. She spoke as someone who has had their dreams and their heart broken many times over; who has been burdened with heavy load of worry, grief, illness or regrets for far too long. She was a broken woman (I hesitate at the word ‘woman’: angels are sexless). I did not think to hide the shock and concern from my face at the sight of the wounded Corn Fawn – and as we exchanged niceties, the tone of retiring embarrassment in her voice told me that some unthinkable horror must have shot her down and destroyed her. I ached with pity and desperately wanted somehow to communicate her worth; what she was to me that day at school, and what she always represented. But as a kid I had thought myself too low, stupid and defiled to deserve to talk to her. I had never known what to say to her. Still, that day in the supermarket, something in me made me feel that I was encroaching on a right I did not possess, as I gazed in pity at the fallen Angel Tinkerbell. I wanted to hug her so tightly as to squeeze out all the sadness from her. In reality, I could hardly do or say anything. I didn’t want to destroy her any further.
I will never forget how ‘Angel Tinkerbell’ dignified me. Such does Christ do for me now; such did he do for me then, through her, but he invites his followers to get close, no matter how unworthy they feel. When others revile me, and that, over far more than children’s play, he’s there. “Here. Have some of this nice soft sand.” O, blessed first lesson in grace! And with that, he sprinkles me and covers my indignity. With sand, and with countless greater and costlier coverings. Like his own blood poured out on a cross (no doubt that blood stained the pristine, golden wood indelibly!). And when in lucid moments I realise what he’s covered and removed from me to dignify me and make me worthy at that great cost, it makes my heart break again, and it makes me adore him.
The second message, which spurred me to an attitude of radical, Ring-defying action, was the following sermon from John Piper, in his talk, ‘Boasting Only in the Cross’, of which I will only reproduce a small excerpt from the transcript and encourage you warmly to listen to the rest yourself.
You don’t have to know a lot of things in order to make a huge difference in the world for the Lord. But you do need to know a few things that are great, and be willing to live for them and die for them. People that make a difference in the world are not people who have mastered a lot of things, they are people who have been mastered by a few things that are very, very great. If you want your life to count, you don’t have to have a high IQ and you don’t have to have a high EQ; you don’t have to be smart, you don’t have to have good looks; you don’t have to be from a good family or from a good school. You have to know a few basic, simple, glorious, majestic, obvious, unchanging, eternal things, and be gripped by them, and be willing to lay down your life for them. Which is why anybody in this crowd can make a worldwide difference. Because it isn’t you. It’s what you’re gripped with.
But one of the really sad things about this moment right now is that there are hundreds of you in this crowd who do not want your life to make a difference. All you want is to be liked. Maybe – finish school, get a good job, find a husband or a wife, a nice house, a nice car, long weekends, good vacations, grow old healthy, have a fun retirement, die easy, no hell. And that’s all you want. And you don’t give a rip whether your life counts on this earth for eternity. And that’s a tragedy in the making. That is a tragedy in the making.
Transcribed from the audio of Piper, John (2000) ‘Boasting in the Cross’, a live message delivered at Passion Conference 2000, available for download on http://www.desiringgod.org on 20th May 2000.
http://www.desiringgod.org/conference-messages/boasting-only-in-the-cross [last accessed 15th July 2014]
What is life about? Is it about striving to be liked? Purposing to live the sorts of lives that ‘Ring’ people live? Pandering after their affections and following them around with flattery after flattery, in the hopes of ascending to the ranks of their ‘Inner Ring’ and finally laying hands on this pot of gold, namely ‘social acceptance’, at the foot of the rainbow – as if that were even possible? God taught me otherwise, and it liberated me. The hope of a ‘Ring’ person’s life is fragile and hollow, and the tragedy is that it reaps such paltry rewards, even for the relatively successful. What a tragedy, to be satisfied with so little, and so superficially at that, and to allow fear and addiction to box you in where you stand, when in Christ you can be satisfied so deeply and so wholesomely. Let the love of Christ abound, and the faith in him grow, that I might one day stand alone in Christ even if the church itself should fall into damnable heresies, and not look behind to see what the ‘Ring’ people are doing in their turn. The promises of Christ are far greater, and all he demands is an empty pair of hands, and the obedience and trust to use them, in faith and love, as only he knows best.