A Counselor Reflects on Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
“Surely what a man does when he is taken off his guard is the best evidence for what sort of a man he is? Surely what pops out before the man has time to put on a disguise is the truth? If there are rats in a cellar you are most likely to see them if you go in very suddenly. But the suddenness does not create the rats; it only prevents them from hiding. In the same way the suddenness of the provocation does not make me an ill-tempered man; it only shows me what an ill-tempered man I am (p. 192).” Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
We tend to only want to “own” actions we meant to do (intentional aforethought) or what we regularly do. Other actions, those without premeditation or a strong history, we may acknowledge doing, but we describe them as “not really me.”
This pattern is as close to universal as children wanting to skip their vegetables and still get dessert. But prevalence is not the same thing as accuracy; just because something is common does not mean it is healthy.
Lewis is saying that those things we do without forethought or pattern are most “us.” To examine this, let’s first consider a positive example and then a neutral example. If Lewis’s assertion holds, then we will consider whether we should own our unsavory reactions.
Consider an individual who, in a moment of danger, places their own life in danger to save another person (i.e., rescues a child from oncoming traffic or runs into a burning building to save someone). When interviewed, these individuals almost always downplay the “hero” label. They say they just did what anyone would do. We don’t believe them and honor them as a hero anyway.
Consider an individual in the forest who gets startled and runs away from a bear. Regardless of what they say (even if a macho teenage guy who tries to say he wasn’t scared), their actions of self-preservation clearly indicate to clear values – the desire to live and the fear of pain. Once we know everyone is okay, we laugh profusely at the teenager who tries to convince us he was brave.
In each of these examples it seems absurd to disagree with Lewis’s point. We believe the hero’s heroism was revealed by the unexpected, irregular moment. We believe the teenager’s appropriate fear was revealed by the startling woodland creature.
So now we go where no one wants to go. Does this apply to actions that are sinful? If an unexpected situation arises, and we responded sinfully (i.e., anger or doubting God faithfulness), should we “own” that sin as revealing “the true me”?
The answer is yes. Emotions are not phantoms that can pop up from no where. Emotions are value judgments that reveal what we believe to be most important, precious, valuable, relevant, etc… in a given moment.
The most interesting part of this discussion is that we only deny the negative portion. The logic is so airtight that we never question whether a hero is really a hero or whether a teenager screaming in the woods is really afraid. It is only interesting that we (personally and culturally) can so suppress this self-evident truth that an inherently contradicting belief (i.e., my sin was not really me) becomes accepted as “deep insightful thinking” and is embraced by the majority of our culture.