Student Government Vice President
In a penetrating passage in “The Screwtape Letters,” the older devil advises his nephew in the following terms: “Be sure that the patient remains completely fixated on politics. Arguments, political gossip and obsessing on the faults of people they have never met serves as an excellent distraction from advancing in personal virtue, character and the things the patient can control. … Ensure the patient continues to believe that the problem is ‘out there’ in the ‘broken system’ rather than recognizing there is a problem with himself.”
Sound familiar? In a hyper-politicized, post-COVID world, C.S. Lewis’ warning appears even more relevant now than it was 70 years ago.
In fact, I would propose that this same warning provides us with an ideal lens through which to read Matthew 7:1-5 today. In this famous section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus exhorts his listeners to “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”
Despite its potent imagery, I should confess that I have never found this particular injunction of our Lord to be very compelling. We are to avoid hypocrisy, sure, but that seems evident enough.
Moreover, when we evaluate the text more rigorously, one questions whether Jesus was simply using hyperbole to press home a point. After all, it is objectively not the case that all of my neighbours are holier than me. On the contrary, if I am a baptized Catholic living in a state of grace, the chances are that I’m located substantially further along the moral life than the average resident of Steubenville.
What to make of it, then? Was Jesus only addressing people implicated in serious sin? Or was he simply exaggerating when he described yours and my faults as “logs” rather than splinters?
Not so fast! Indeed, it is precisely here, as with so many other areas, that Lewis provides light. For what Screwtape teaches us is that it is really the objectivist reading of Matthew 7 that falls flat; the fact that some of my neighbours are, objectively speaking, less holy than me is irrelevant to the point Jesus is making. Instead, a subjectivist interpretation of the text is needed, without which we cannot do justice to the passage.
Viewed from a subjective perspective, the full force of the Saviour’s admonition becomes readily apparent. Whether or not the state of my neighbour’s soul is objectively inferior to mine is, at least for the present purposes, irrelevant. What matters is not so much how big or small my faults are, but rather the fact that they are my faults — and as such, they are logs for me.
The point of the metaphor is not that everybody else is holier than me, but that as far as I am concerned, the faults in my own life are logs, and the faults of those around me are mere splinters by comparison. Why? Because my own soul is my first priority and duty, and because without this attentiveness I will inevitably fall into the very trap which Screwtape seeks to lay. It is with a keen awareness of this predicament that Jesus chooses to warn us in such seemingly overstated terms.
Reflecting further on this spiritual danger, it would appear that the preoccupation with the problem “out there” — as opposed to the manifold problems within — can take one of a couple of different forms.
The first is more of a “conservative” or even Pharisaical temptation. For people of a traditionalist bent, it can be easy to become distracted by all the moral and cultural chaos around us.
Oftentimes it is right and just that one takes issue with these things, but the problem arises when they become an object of obsession. The COVID imbroglio offers a great illustration of this: Am I more annoyed at my neighbour for complying with stupid regulations than I am with myself for continuing to commit stupid sins? If so, it might be time to re-focus on the logs.
The second temptation is of the “liberal” variety, and here the dangers are no less grave. Like the conservative, the liberal can all too easily become preoccupied with the problem “in the system,” all the while neglecting to address the faults within the self.
Today there are no shortage of social justice movements, and doubtless many of these are worthy causes in themselves. But oftentimes such causes are attractive, especially to young people, precisely because they demand so little of us.
It is easy to attend a protest or reshare a post on social media, and to feel morally superior as a result. Conversely, hacking away at the logs in one’s own self is a difficult and arduous task, one that demands considerable discipline and self-sacrifice. But, per Matthew 7, it remains an essential task.
All extremes, then, are to be avoided — even the extreme that denies that splinters exist in other people. This too would be a distortion of the Gospel text.
Again: The force of Jesus’ words is not that nobody else has faults, or even that everybody else is better than me. Much more simply, it is the message that before all else I must be my own keeper, and I would do well to resist the lures of the Evil One who would have me do all manner of “good” things provided I ignore the one thing God has entrusted to me most, that is, the state of my own soul.