Sheldon Vanauken’s A Severe Mercy is a book that will make you addicted to reading. With as much as I’ve read thus far in my lifetime, I have yet to come across one that fluctuates so seamlessly from prose to poetry, first person to third person, and Christian to non-Christian and back again. Sheldon, a man who wrote personal letters to C.S. Lewis, is a brilliant author who captivates readers with but a few words. Not only do you see what he sees, feel what he feels, but you also fears what he fears.
It is this exact subject, what Sheldon Vanauken fears, that has stuck with me throughout the night.
Normally I do not read in bars due to the countless TVs and incessant drunken noises. But tonight the coffee shops were full and this particular bar, the Webfoot, was empty. Feeling a little hungry and in need of beer, I sat in a booth warming my fingers from the chilly outside air. After ordering a pint of Blue Moon and some fries, I opened to the fourth chapter. In that booth with my Belgian Ale and deep-fried potatoes, I was re-awoken to the presence of God and, more specifically, what that means.
In his first letter from C.S. Lewis, Vanauken transcribes:
“Do you think people like Stalin, Hitler, Haldane, Stapledon (a corking good writer, by the way) would be pleased on waking up one morning to find that they were not their own masters, that they had a Master and a Judge, that there was nothing in the deepest recesses of their thoughts about which they could say to Him ‘Keep out! Private. This is my business’? Do you? Rats! Their first reaction would be (as mine was) rage and terror.” – 89
Upon reading those last few words, a chill of excitement had chased up my spine. God knows what I know. “Of course He does!” you might say. But let it set in. Those unkind things you were thinking about your coworker not but two minutes ago – those are heard by God. You may not have known it at the time, but God can see the malice you (and I, for that matter) hold in your heart. As Lewis said, there is nowhere within yourself where God cannot see – nothing that is truly yours.
Knowing what Mr. Vanauken had experienced in the first three chapters (he, like Lewis, has an amazing ability to pack so much into so little), I felt the lump he had in this throat. I had empathized with his skepticism regarding Christianity and his reluctance to investigate the faith (and fully believe now that his particular story was meant to discover Christ later in his life). But what Lewis wrote as the final line in his second letter to Vanauken changed things up.
After replying to Vanauken’s second letter, Lewis closes:
“But I think you are already in the meshes of the net! The Holy Spirit is after you. I doubt if you’ll get away!”
I doubt that Vanauken ever expected a response like this.
“These letters gave [my wife and I] much to think on, then and later. Seldom if ever have I encountered anybody who could say so much in so little. And the letters frightened us, or frightened me anyway – especially that shocking last paragraph. This was getting serious. Alarum bells sounded, but I couldn’t decide where to run.” – 93
Lewis’ statement that the Holy Spirit was after Sheldon has an amazing imagery about it. This is a God who chases you down. I immediately thought of Jesus’ parable regarding the lost sheep from the fold of 99 and how no man among those whom He taught would not leave the rest of the fold to search for the missing sheep. When I first read this in middle school, I pictured Jesus actively seeking out that missing sheep. But with what Lewis wrote to Sheldon, I now picture Jesus running after that lost sheep as that sheep runs away from Him.
We often like to think that we’re the ones finding God or pursuing God. How often do we allow ourselves to be found or pursued by Him? As Vanauken says, it’s serious business to be known by God – terrifying, even. And not simply because of those sinful thoughts, but also those insecurities; those tiny little fears we hold onto because we were hurt when we were young or because something was supposed to happen but didn’t – like a father saying to his son, “I’m proud of you.” We’re afraid of those moments being exposed because those moments still hurt us. It still aches where those arrows pierced our hearts.
A final passage from Lewis’ second letter to Vanauken:
“Do fish complain of the sea for being wet? Or if they did, would that fact itself not strongly suggest that they had not always been, or would not always be, purely aquatic creatures? Notice how we are perpetually surprised at Time. (‘How time flies! Fancy John being grown-up & married! I can hardly believe it!’) In heaven’s name, why? Unless, indeed, there is something in us which is not temporal.” – 93
God knows your thoughts, but still pursues you. He pursues you not to harm you, but to bring you home. Like the lost sheep being shouldered by the searching shepherd, God chases us down, sometimes wrestles with us, and carries us home. And home is the only place where our wounds – our deepest, most painful scars – will be healed fully.
What Sheldon was afraid of is the greatest thrill any of us will ever experience: We are fearfully and wonderfully made, and therefore fearfully and wonderfully loved.
Our relationship with God is often likened to a marriage. And yet in a marriage, both the husband and wife do the pursuing. Let God pursue you as you pursue Him.