One of my favorite books by C. S. Lewis is The Great Divorce, a fictitious story about a man given the opportunity to leave hell and visit heaven, along with a bus filled with other souls. While on their heavenly tour, these guests encounter someone from their past who begs them to stay, but astonishingly many of them refuse heaven for hell. Why would they choose the inconceivable? Not because hell is more glorious than heaven, but because these visitors have become so self-obsessed and loathsome of a God who might require something of them, they would rather spend eternity alone in their self-justification than in the glory of heaven. And then Lewis adds this now famous quote:
Hell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others... but you are still distinct from it. You may even criticize it in yourself and wish you could stop it. But there may come a day when you can no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood or even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself, going on forever like a machine. It is not a question of God "sending us" to hell. In each of us there is something growing, which will BE hell unless it is nipped in the bud.
Ouch. I’ve always known grumbling, complaining and playing the “blame game” were unbecoming characteristics to be avoided, but I never looked at them as attributes that can completely corrupt the soul. Whether or not you agree with Lewis’s depiction of hell, the truth of the matter is that there is something growing in all of us, outside of a life surrendered to Jesus Christ, that is “hell-ish” and will lead us to a self-absorbed, deplorable end.
We are far too comfortable with our sins, at least the ones that don’t seem overly offensive. A grumbling mood, a complaining heart, a critical spirit—these we let slide, because they don’t reek of the stench of really “bad” sins like adultery or murder. But all sins reflect one’s choice of self over God, hell over heaven. And all sins left unchecked and unconfessed begin to harden our hearts and darken our souls. This is why a Christian who has attended church for many years can actually be more critical and hateful than a pagan who has never darkened a church’s door. Just because someone professes that Jesus Christ is the Son of God does not mean spiritual formation has occurred.
To experience the depth of heavenly transformation means we choose to grow beyond an initial reception of Christ Jesus the Lord by walking with Him, “rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving” (Colossians 2:6-7). Receiving Jesus as Lord is not the culmination but the origin. We are to be built up “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13), which is a pretty tall measure.
The Church, therefore, is not a place to coddle the saints in our spiritual lethargy. We are not to fuel others self-absorption. Nor should others fuel ours. The Church is not a country club where we placate the whims and wishes of paying customers. It is a called-out community of people under the loving lordship of Jesus Christ. He is the only One who can save us from ourselves and the growing darkness found within. He is the only One who can turn us from self-absorption to Spirit-transformation. Through Him our grumbling turns to praising, our complaining turns to celebrating, and our blaming turns to blessing.
Then and only then will the Church of our Lord Jesus appear as the beautiful Bride “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:27). The world—our friends, family, neighbors and beyond—will see such a stark contrast between light and darkness, beauty and repugnance, heaven and hell, that people from the nations of every tongue will take hold of us, saying, “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you” (Zechariah 8:23). And what a day of rejoicing that will be.