One of my favorite quotes by C. S. Lewis is from his popular book Mere Christianity.
But if you are a poor creature—poisoned by a wretched upbringing in some house full of vulgar jealousies and senseless quarrels—saddled, by no choice of your own, with some loathsome sexual perversion—nagged day in and day out by an inferiority complex that makes you snap at your best friends—do not despair. He knows all about it. You are one of the poor whom He blessed. He knows what a wretched machine you are trying to drive. Keep on. Do what you can. One day… you may astonish us all—not least yourself: for you have learned your driving in a hard school.1
Let’s be honest: in this particular quote, Lewis shows himself to be an equal-opportunity offender. His strong language and provocative examples catch us off guard, push our buttons, and seem to offend most everyone. For some, it's finding his use of “loathsome” to be callous and uninformed. For others, his statement “no choice of our own” avoids issues of sin and culpability. Whatever it is, most of us can find something in this quote that we take issue with.
In spite of this, what I’ve come to appreciate most about this quote is how it maps onto the Christian experience of living in a fallen world. It captures our lived experience of dealing with sinful hearts and broken bodies, and how we exist and operate parallel to God’s tender and compassionate posture toward us.
First, in describing the human experience of suffering and trouble, Lewis injects a degree of dignity and honor into the more challenging and disruptive of human problems and disabilities. This perspective swims upstream from our reflexive instincts, and that’s what is so helpful about it. He goes on to creatively describe how so many of our difficulties constitute learning to drive in a “hard school.” He frames it this way because, as he states, we tend to be saddled with these afflictions “by no choice of our own.”
Is Lewis saying our sin is not our fault because we didn’t choose it? At first glance, it might appear that Lewis’s automobile analogy is ignoring personal responsibility or the moral dynamics of the heart. It's more likely, however, that he is just choosing to emphasize something that is far too often left out. Lewis is broadening our understanding of temptation. Lewis is giving appropriate recognition to the fact that these types of challenges and afflictions are always a complex and intertwined compilation of hardship outside our control, others' sin against us, our insatiable appetites and cravings, and our own foolish actions and decisions. He is right then to ascribe a certain level of valor and faith to those courageously striving with hope and conviction in a heated battle against the temptations that beset us. For the Christian, these temptations are one of our most severe trials, and engaging them in faith and trust is one of our most noble tasks. Regardless of the concerns we may have with Lewis’s examples of temptations, his central thrust remains relevant and timely.
Lewis is reminding us that temptation is a form of suffering. We don’t often think of temptation in this way though, do we? We rightly see it as something to be fled or fought, but we don’t think of temptation itself as a trial and tribulation. But it is! None of us got to choose the particular lusts of the flesh or bents of the heart that we uniquely face. We never picked the childhoods, limitations, or trauma that create the occasion and context in which each of us is tempted to love ourselves above God or put our interests above our neighbor’s. My particular set of temptations and troubles differ from yours, and yours differ from those around you. Therefore, there is dignity, honor, and beauty found in a person striving to honor God and love their neighbor despite the temptations that arise within their respective circumstances and liabilities.
Second, and most comforting, Lewis emphasizes God’s compassion for us amidst the hardship and handicaps of our distinct temptations. With his automobile analogy, Lewis captures God’s tenderhearted posture toward his people. God is not blind to what his children are up against in this life. He does not stand at a distance, callous and aloof. Rather, he bears an intimate and personal knowledge of what is happening to his children and what is confronting them. Lewis emphasizes this state of affairs perfectly when he states in the quote, “He knows all about it.”
Not surprisingly, Lewis’s presentation of our loving and compassionate Father is powerful for us because it is true. He is only reiterating and repackaging what the Scriptures already say. This exact sentiment is echoed in Psalm 103:13–14, as the psalmist proclaims, “the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.” These verses announce that God indeed knows our frame and our finitude, and that because of this knowledge he has compassion.
Like Lewis’s quote, Psalm 103 takes us full circle. Despite trials and tribulations, weaknesses and limitations, and the temptations that ride upon our coattails, the Lord’s faithful love is toward “those who fear him.” This same God “knows all about it, he knows the machine you’re trying to drive.”
1 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1952), Chapter X.