C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters has been an interesting and enlightening read. For those not familiar with it, it’s an epistolary novel (novel written through the form of letters, i.e. Bram Stoker’s Dracula) about an experienced veteran demon named Screwtape and his apprentice, Wormwood. Wormwood’s patient gradually goes from non-Christian to Christian and Screwtape advises Wormwood at every step of the way on how to lead his patient into a corrupted lifestyle. Teaching him to accept the fact that his patient won’t turn away from Christianity, he advises him in ways to abuse it by leading him to feed off of instinct and feeling and not Christ’s teachings.
One thing that stood out today was this idea of possession. In chapter 21, Screwtape advises Wormwood to encourage possessive thoughts within his patient’s mind. “Let him have the feeling that he starts each day as the lawful possessor of twenty-four hours.” Why would thinking of anything as our own be a bad thing? Lewis doesn’t say this, but it can be easily inferred that to regard anything as our own would be to dilute any reverence to God for giving us whatever it is we think we own. The less grateful we are, the more arrogant we become, which also means the more the enemy wins.
We as Americans are faced with a very difficult task. We’ve been raised to believe that we, as humans, have certain inalienable rights and this is a universal truth. To some degree, this is true. By our very nature we have the power of choice; whether we have certain laws enabling our ability to choose is another thing entirely. Here in America we have the right to free speech, which, if you think about it, points to the human ability to speak his/her mind about any number of things. However, in certain other countries, such freedom is barred from women, even if both countries felt the same way about human nature (that we have the ability to voice our opinions).
We cannot go so far as to describe this as a universal truth, though, for when we come before God, we are deprived of “rights” and “entitlements,” unless we are considering our debt to God. And yet even then, “debt” works differently in God’s economy. In our world, “debt” is something we can pay off if we earn enough money. “Debt” to God, however, can never be paid off by our own efforts – for every effort we are able to make is in itself a gift from God, which deepens the debt even as we attempt to pay it off. It’s like borrowing more money to pay off a previous loan.
How are we to define the things we think we have, then? Two images come to mind to best describe who we are in God’s narrative and how we’re to live out our days in a consumerist culture. In Matthew 25, Jesus tells a parable of a man who wanted to travel for some time, so he “called his servants and entrusted to them his property. To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability,” (vv. 14-15). As the story continues, we learn the first two servants immediately went about regenerating what was entrusted to them into more than what they started with. The third, however, hid away what was entrusted to him and apparently went about his own business.
There is the element of being proactive with what we’ve been given, but what I want to focus on is that nowhere in this story is it implied the servants owned what they were given. If anything, it’s implied that they’re required to give it back at some point. And as the focus narrows on the third servant who did nothing with what he was given, we realize also that we must do something. Knowing this, I look around at all the things in the room I sleep in and realize I haven’t been very good at this “doing something with what I’ve been given” thing. If anything, I’ve allowed all this stuff to collect dust.
It’s important that we rethink our roles as “possessors.” My second imagery comes from the movie, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. When Gandalf (the White Wizard) and Pippin (a hobbit from the Shire) arrive to Minas Tirith (Gondor’s capital city, a.k.a. the “White City”), they encounter Denethor, the “steward” of Gondor. After telling him war is at his doorstep and reminding him of his duties as steward of Gondor’s throne, Denethor rejects Gandalf’s counsel, thinking Gandalf means to supplant him with Aragorn, heir to the throne. Essentially, he not only rejects his duties, but refuses to surrender what he believes he owns: The throne of Gondor.
We are but stewards in this world, given various friends, relationships, and things to bring about news of our returning king while simultaneously supplanting the old kingdom with His. Whatever laws our government makes regarding possessions are rendered irrelevant; God’s laws governing His Kingdom overrule them. God has entrusted to us our incomes however large or small, our possessions however few or many, and our relationships however strong or weak to produce a spiritually rich and prosperous kingdom. As C.S. Lewis writes, it’s the intent of the enemy to mar our minds and encourage us to believe we are possessors – that we own our thrones, for which we were appointed as stewards.
Just the other night, on my way out of my apartment, I was asked by a couple if I had something that could unlock their car door. They were living out of/traveling in a U-Haul truck and had accidentally locked their keys in the cab with their dog in front. Having no money and no friends within the area, they were desperate for help. Moments before going out, however, I had briefly glanced at my bank account and noticed that I haven’t really done much spending at all – aside from food and various necessities. What I am grateful for, though, is that in that moment of checking my account, I had praised God for what I had been given. So when I happened across a couple in need, I immediately recognized an opportunity to act as I truly am: one of God’s stewards. I called a locksmith, he unlocked their door, and then I gave them some cash for gas to get back to Portland.
I don’t like writing about moments where I appear as a good servant because it might come across as what I call “modest pride”; taking pride in one’s own modesty – an outright contradiction. I know full well that on most days I would have passed on from the stranded couple and continued about my business. “Tough luck,” I would think and move on. I am very glad that my heart was in the right spot when I met them. But I bring it up as an example of what it means to be God’s steward. It means parting with $80 or $100 so that a new married couple can get home – but even beyond that. It means lending an item here and there, wherever the item is needed – instead of allowing it to gather dust. And it means remembering that in every way we are stewards for God.
“And all the time the joke is that the word ‘Mine’ in its fully possessive sense cannot be uttered by a human being about anything,” – Screwtape to Wormwood
With great power comes great responsibility, as the saying goes. But I’d say that even with a little power comes great responsibility. For we are all entrusted with something “according to [our] ability,” and therefore expected to do something with it – not bury it in the sand and do what we want to from then on. We own nothing. God owns everything. Render it to Him.