Last Tuesday, I drove solo down I-95 on my way back home from a vacation in North Carolina with my wife’s family. To make the most of a long and lonely trip, I popped in an audio book of CS Lewis’ classic The Great Divorce. It’s the story of a man who had just entered the afterlife. The main character narrates his journey through an imaginary eternal realm that CS Lewis employs to communicate spiritual truths about the human condition and our final destination. As the story progresses, the narrator discovers that eternal torment and eternal joy hinge upon a man’s willingness to relinquish his rights and embrace the promise of eternal joy in Christ.
Characters on their way to ever-increasing torment were those individuals who willingly chose to cling to their rights. Their right to be appreciated. Their right to be heard. Their right to exact revenge. Their right to use their own money as they saw fit. Their right to hold a grudge. Their right to control their child’s life. Their right to be respected among their peers. Each of these characters clung to something that prevented them from making the journey to everlasting joy that Christ was promising.
As for those individuals who were experiencing the ever-increasing joy of heaven, they had long since abandoned those formerly sacred yet now seemingly silly and self-righteous notions of personal rights. The one telling trait of those heaven-bound characters in Lewis’ story was humility. The abandonment of the self had freed them to interact with others without needing to be heard, affirmed, respected, validated, or even acknowledged. These characters were free to give without needing anything in return and in doing so, grew closer to eternal joy in Christ.
I finished the audio book and arrived back home at 6:00pm that Tuesday evening. Before I could drop my bags, my phone rang with the news that my wife’s Uncle Steve had tragically and unexpectedly died while jogging through the woods near his Michigan home. At the age of 51, Steve’s journey into the afterlife began during my trip down I-95.
There are a handful of men who I’ve encountered over the years that seemed to possess such a degree of humility that my own insecurities vanished when I was around them. Steve was one of these men. Now that Steve has passed and his life story is being recounted, I’ve realized that I was just one of so many who recognized the peculiar goodness of a great man even as it was cloaked by a simple and soft-spoken demeanor.
With an unyielding identity in Christ, Steve was not unlike some of those Lewis’ characters who had been freed from the need to gain the approval or affirmation of man. When you spent time with Steve, you would never know that you were speaking to a man who was so cherished by an entire community, that his death would spur a string of news articles and pack a church. Steve never saw fit to tell me or anyone just how big a deal he really was. Probably because he didn’t know. Humble people never do. Steve was content to be known by Christ alone. In one of CS Lewis’ other masterpieces, Mere Christianity, Lewis says this about men like Steve:
“Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.”
Last Tuesday was Steve’s last Tuesday. Yet because of Christ, we know it was really the end of his beginning and the beginning of his eternal joy. Men like Steve aren’t perfect but Jesus didn’t ask for perfection. He’s asked that we just forget ourselves and fix our eyes on him. In doing so, we begin to enjoy the freedom that comes with ceding our silly rights to a Sovereign Savior.
“Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted”. – Matthew 23:12