Let’s look in on a parade that comes from the imagination of Christian author, C.S. Lewis. In The Great Divorce, he introduces us to characters who struggle to accept the joy of heaven even when its breathtaking beauty is before their very eyes.
We meet Sarah Smith who is at the center of an exultant procession of joyful children and adoring animals. In her earthly life every girl or boy who ever met Sarah felt like they belonged to her. Every animal experienced her tenderness. So, on the outskirts of heaven, Sarah arrives in a parade that travels with her wherever she goes. She has come to meet her husband, Frank, who traveled on the bus from the gray town. Sarah is described as almost oozing love and possessing a beauty that cannot be described in earthly terms. The appeal of her husband? Not so much!
He is part of a bizarre two-person team. You have to remember that this is a fantasy. What our narrator observes is a tall, gangly man wearing an actor’s black hat. He is attached by a chain to an unattractive dwarfish figure. The assumption at first is that the tall figure is in control of the smaller man who is described as being no bigger than an organ grinder’s monkey. But, upon closer examination, the narrator sees that the small man holds the chain which connects to a metal collar around the neck of the other. But it is the chained figure who addresses Sarah as she approaches, make grand gestures and using an actor’s voice. Her husband has spent his life manipulating others through pity. Beginning as a child, rather than apologize he would go up into the attic and sulk. He knew that one of his sisters would eventually come up to fetch him because they felt sorry for him sitting up in the attic alone. In his marriage to Sarah he used pity to exploit her kind-heartedness, trying to make her life as miserable as his own. The persona he developed to control his world was that of a seedy old actor. He was an exaggerated Tragedian who was inauthentically magnanimous toward others all the while trying to stir up their sympathy for him. In the gray town he lived as a conjoined twin, allowing his false self to take on greater life than his real self. Frank yanked on the chain to get the Tragedian to answer for him.
The one question the true Frank has for Sarah is whether she has missed him. She tries to explain that there is only joy in heaven. The tragedian twists this into a message of rejection, trying to do what he did during their earthly marriage: siphon off her joy and replace it with his dim view of reality. She says that there are no miseries in heaven. Incredulously, and with dramatic flair, the gangly ghost asks, “Do you mean to say you’ve been happy?” “Don’t you want me to be?” she responds. Frank has never thought of her well-being and still can’t, even in the stunning beauty of her presence. She tries to explain the nature of love in heaven versus what we experience on earth:
“’…what we called love down there was mostly the craving to be loved. In the main I loved you for my own sake: because I needed you.’
‘And now!’ said the Tragedian with a hackneyed gesture of despair. ‘Now, you need me no more?’
‘But of course not!’ said the Lady; and her smile made me wonder how both the phantoms could refrain from crying out with joy.
‘What needs could I have,’ she said, ‘now that I have all? I am full now, not empty. I am in Love Himself, not lonely. Strong, not weak. You shall be the same. Come and see. We shall have no need for one another now: we can begin to love truly.’”
Tragically Frank is unwilling to let go of his emotional blackmailing. Even though Sarah pleads with him to let go of the chain and enter into the joy of heaven, he will not unlearn his manipulative ways. The guide for the narrator points out that pity is meant to be an impetus to help others out of misery but it can be misused. He explains, “The demand of the loveless and the self-imprisoned that they should be allowed to blackmail the universe: that till they consent to be happy (on their own terms) no one else shall taste joy: that theirs should be the final power; that Hell should be able to veto Heaven.”
So for poor Frank and his ghastly persona, it was a round trip back to the gray town.
Ever met someone who overused pity to gain favor? Have you encountered someone who moped so impressively when you broached a sensitive topic that you felt like you had to back peddle to placate them? Is there someone whose circumstances always seemed so difficult that you found yourself continually trying to improve things for them—only to discover that there would be no end to their troubles?
We resettled a refugee many years ago through our congregation. He had clearly lived through traumatic circumstances—as have all refugees. Unfortunately, he struggled with mental health issues. He could be gracious and charming. But he could change moods in a moment and go to a very dark place where we were accused of not adequately meeting his needs. We gladly collected furniture and home goods so that we could set him up in an apartment. He got a job and even got a driver’s license—one of our members probably still suffers from flashbacks from those terrifying driving lessons! We did all that was asked of us as a host congregation but it was never enough. He tried to yank our chain repeatedly and, because we knew his life had been so hard, we responded positively for a long while. It was difficult for us to put up boundaries when we began to realize that we would never be able to adequately meet his perceived needs. Even his sponsoring agency had to cut him off because of his masterfully manipulative ways. No one felt good about this completion to our commitment but it was necessary.
On the other hand, through him we met another refugee who had come to the United States earlier with four sons. A widow, there was a heavy responsibility on her to put together a life that would meet their needs. She never asked for help but we learned of her needs through conversation or observation. She accepted our assistance with gratitude. She established a not-for-profit aimed at helping the women still stuck in Sudan. She understood that she was blessed so that she could be a blessing to others. Helping her was a great joy. It felt like a privilege. She always thanked God for the help she received from us.
In Mark 5 we meet a woman who has every reason to yank the chains of her fellow villagers with her sob story. Suffering from an undiagnosed bleeding condition for twelve years, she has sought medical help from more doctors than she could remember. She spent all her money on co-pays and deductibles and still had no cure. For Jews of her day, bleeding made you ritually unclean which meant she was an outcast, forbidden to mingle with others lest she taint them.
So it is no wonder that she surreptitiously crept up behind Jesus in the midst of a mob scene, wanting just the tiniest piece of him. She didn’t cry out for pity, as some did who sought Jesus’ healing touch. She didn’t drag her medical file with her to build a case for His mercy. Fully believing in His restorative power, she reached down just to touch the hem of Christ’s robe. It’s as if she tried to keep her spiritual cooties to herself rather than infect Jesus.
So when Jesus asks who touched Him, she is startled and confesses. She tells her story more to explain her actions than to yank on His heartstrings. Jesus sees her history of suffering and the purity of her heart. The response is beautiful: “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” No doctor had delivered on their promises yet they had taken her money. No one else had seen her for anything besides her infirmity. Like a leper she was isolated. But Jesus calls her “daughter.” He not only heals her body—He nourishes her spirit with a loving benediction: “Go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” This was such a moving experience for the crowd that witnessed the miracle that Matthew, Mark and Luke all include the story in their gospel.
We have to be careful how we dole out our mercy. That may seem antithetical to the Gospel but the reality of our earthly bodies is that we have limited energy and resources. If someone who craves attention and misuses pity siphons off all that we have to give, those with legitimate needs will continue to suffer. This is difficult for us because the very nature of our faith is to selflessly give for the sake of others. But when it goes in the direction of enabling someone with their unhealthy dependency, we have to draw the line. Otherwise we will give away all our gifts for someone who will never be happy. We will exhaust ourselves for someone who would happily drag us down to their own hellish existence if there is something more we could possibly give them.
Lewis teaches a lesson about healthy pity that jumps into helpful action. He does it in the voice of the guide who tries to give some understanding to the narrator in The Great Divorce. When asked about genuine pity, Lewis writes, “It leaps quicker than light from the highest place to the lowest to bring healing and joy, whatever the cost to itself. It changes darkness into light and evil into good. But it will not, at the cunning tears of Hell, impose on good the tyranny of evil. Every disease that submits to a cure shall be cured: but we will not call blue yellow to please those who insist on still having jaundice, nor make a midden of the world’s garden for the sake of some who cannot abide the smell of roses.”
As Christians we are called to carefully—prayerfully—navigate the many calls for assistance that come our way. We cannot meet all the needs around us nor should we. Jesus said that we would always have the poor in our midst. That is such a pity! But, until we turn in these earthly bodies for glorious ones, like Sarah Smith, we ask God to help us discern how we can best serve. While our response will never be perfect, if we serve in Jesus’ name, it will be enough!