Sometimes a thing needs to be pruned before it can bloom.
In C.S. Lewis' classic work of fiction "The Great Divorce," the reader is introduced to an unsubstantial, dark and oily ghost who faces such a dilemma. In this dream of the eschatological, the ghost has what appears to be a little red lizard perched on his shoulder, whispering unholy things into his ear. What we know of the ghost is that he is on his way to a holier place, and the lizard asked to tag along. The ghost agreed to bring the little critter with him on the sole condition that he would stop whispering his profane ramblings.
Like most things that we take on that are unholy, the lizard's whispers deter the ghost and convince him to abandon his pursuits of sanctification. But just as the ghost is about to give in to the lizard, he encounters a flaming spirit, an angel. The angel asks the ghost if he would like him to silence the lizard and thus his vulgarities. Initially, the ghost agrees, but once he finds out the process may be initially painful, he reconsiders and begins to make a variety of excuses.
The angel quickly assures him that, while the process might hurt, it won't kill him. The angel pledges that, in the end, the ghost will be better off than he is now. There is one condition, though. The ghost must grant the angel his permission to purify him.
At this assertion the lizard begins to wildly attempt to convince the ghost that he can't live a worthwhile life without him. Thus the angel asks the ghost:
"Have I your permission?"
"I know it will kill me," replies the ghost
"It won't. But supposing it did?," answered the angel.
The ghost, considering the alternative says, "You're right. It would be better to be dead than to live with this creature."
With permission, the angel reaches out and sears the lizard from the ghost. The ghost screams in agony. But, as the lizard is torn from the ghost and thrown to the ground, the ghost begins to solidify into a man and, remarkably, the once meddling little lizard is transformed into a gallant stallion. After crying tears of joy from his renewal, the newly made man hops onto the horse and once again heads for the holy land.
I don't know about you, but I frequently find myself wrestling with my own versions of lizards on my shoulder. Removing them never seems to be easy. Fortunately, I too have had a few individuals act as angels in my life. In the end, though, the decision to try and be better always seems, by God's grace, to start with me.
The pain of admitting our flaws is often, initially, personally devastating, even painful. Over time, though, once we start the process of being refined, our tolerance to such sanctification grows and we become better people than we were before.
George MacDonald once wrote: "There is no heaven with a little bit of hell in it -- no plan to retain this or that of the devil in our hearts or our pockets. Out Satan must go, every hair and feather."
Sometimes it may feel like hell removing the whisperings of the profane from our lives, but in the end, that seemingly fretful process helps to make us more substantial as human beings and consequently reveals the majestic transcendence of beauty that is to come.
The Rev. Christopher Benek is the associate pastor of family ministries at Providence Presbyterian Church. Read his blog at www.christopherbenek.com