tgd again

24 Apr

I’ve heard it said that hell is other people, but according to a little book I just re-read for the twenty-millionth time, hell is not other people: hell is me.

My church friends and I just had a rousing discussion of The Great Divorce and instead of talking about what we can expect when we get to heaven (which is all speculation at this point, n’est-ce pas?) we zeroed in on what hell really is.  Hell is where we make our home – where we place ourselves – when we choose to reject God and his good desires for us.

The book is delightful.  It begins in a bus line with a bunch of people who can’t get along with each other.  They jostle and they jockey and position and self-promote.  Eventually the bus comes and anyone who wants to can board.  Or not.  It’s optional.  The bus travels from the point of embarkation and lets its riders off in a beautiful, vibrant land.  It isn’t heaven.  It’s the foothills perhaps.  Heaven is over the mountains.  The riders are met by their friends and family members who have predeceased them and are prepared to act as guides.  And then the bus-riders start deciding whether to get back on the bus to go back to the town that was hell or to stay in this beautiful but frightening place.

This book is about how people make the decision to become holy – or heaven-bound, and what it will cost them.  And whether it will be worth it.

Hell is making the decision to stay in the place we are comfortable.  It’s about choosing earthly delights – like romantic love, maternal possessiveness, holding onto old hurts and wrongs instead of letting go of those temporary – and temporal – temptations.  Many characters in the book and many people I know (and let me not exclude myself) lack the vision and the faith that God can and will take care of the empty place that remains when these space-fillers are expelled.  But the guide – the endearing George MacDonald – makes it clear that God’s plans and God’s remedy are so much more real, so much more beautiful, so much more enduring and ultimately satisfying than any cure or condition we can imagine for ourselves.

Lewis suggests that until we make the decision to start the journey into heaven – or God’s kingdom, let’s call it – we are stuck in a hell of our own design.  The lone saving grace of hell seems to be that its inhabitants are too self-absorbed to even know that’s where they live.  The town is rainy and gray and sprawling.  The people live far away from one another, because every time there is a quarrel or disagreement, one just moves away.  There is no unity, no common good, no reconciliation, no real love.  Just an endless number of people living for themselves and the idols they cherish.

The discussions, the deciding, comes when they realize that they can start the journey to a better way of living.   God’s gift of free will is ultimately the instrument we will use to make or break our destinies.  The issue is what we will choose to satisfy ourselves with.  Will we choose our comfort or a need to be needed or our soothing vices instead of trusting in God’s goodness?

It’s a book that becomes richer every time I read it.  Every time I am tempted to choose a small satisfaction – the barbed word, the superior tone, the self-righteousness, the trinket – I think of the realness of heaven as it stands next to the pettiness and smallness of hell.  Which is where the feeding of the earthly appetites for gossip, victory, drugs, alcohol, acquisition, and ambition will land us.

TGD never fails to set my mind percolating and processing.  And wondering where I fit in.  Where my choices are likely to take me.  Who I am becoming.  What example I am setting for aspiring believers who look to me to live in a way that is set-apart from the secular world.  What my children see.  What my friends know about my priorities.  Whether I am willing to let God take care of the manifold sins and wickedness I hold onto for my own comfort, even though they may be all-but-invisible to the world.

Read it.  It’s worth every word.

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