Sometimes when I can’t sleep at night, I do what call psychologists call life review and think about my childhood, which has a relaxing effect. So one night this week, I think it was Monday night, I was remembering how after church Mom would take us to Johnston’s IGA and buy a box of Saps donuts and we’d take them home and sit around the kitchen table eating Saps donuts and reading the Sunday comics. My favorite comic strip was Barney Google and Snuffy Smith, with Loweezy and Jughaid and Lil’ Tater. And Spark Plug the horse and Elviney the neighbor lady who would gossip with Loweezy at the clothesline.
I liked the cartoons where Snuffy was facing some great existential dilemma and on one shoulder there would be a Snuffy Smith angel, wooing him toward goodness and decency, and on his other shoulder would be a Snuffy Smith devil, seducing him, tempting him. It was if Snuffy Smith had two persons within him battling for supremacy. Later, when I took courses in psychology and learned about multiple personality disorder, or dissociative identity disorder, I would think, “That’s what Snuffy Smith had!” Eventually, it occurred to me I suffer from the same condition. That is, I sometimes feel as if two persons reside within me, whose purposes are diametrically opposed, and they’re vying for power, contending for dominance.
The Apostle Paul talked about this when he wrote to the church in Rome. “I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate.”
You and I live in this very human tension between our highest ideals and the reality of our imperfections. Well, I shouldn’t presume to speak for you. So if you don’t struggle with this inner conflict, then that’s wonderful and you can take a nap now. As for me, I want to do what is right, but don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. I’m torn between my aspirations and my imperfections.
Not long ago I was driving home, it was late at night, and I was getting sleepy, so I turned on the radio to listen to a preacher, which always ratchets up my blood pressure. Some people drink coffee to stay awake, I listen to bad theology. So I was listening to this man preaching away and he said that when he accepted Jesus Christ as his Savior, the urge to sin left him and he hadn’t sinned since. He trotted out a Bible verse or two to back up his claim. People clapped and said Amen! and I thought, “That’s pretty good. Not even the Apostle Paul could pull that off.” I thought of all the people listening to him and hating themselves because they hadn’t become spiritually perfect in the snap of a finger, all those people who occasionally succumbed to the Snuffy Smith demon, wooing them, seducing them, people whose highest ideals waged battle with their imperfections, which is to say all of us.
Listening to him, I wanted to buy radio time and remind people that spiritual growth tends to be evolutionary, not revolutionary. I wanted to remind people that we will always have that shadow side, that little voice perched on our shoulders wooing us to be lesser—less loving, less generous, less compassionate, less patient, less tolerant, less understanding—and that voice can probably never be eliminated, only held back by God’s grace and our own determination to give it no heed. We can shrink that shadow side, we can lessen its influence, its power, its claim, on our lives. But I’m not sure we can eliminate it altogether.
Bear in mind, friends, this happens also with nations. On America’s shoulders are two voices. One voice is aspirational, the other lesser. One says, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…,” while the other voice says “You do not belong here. You are not American. Go back to where you’re from.” We are having to decide right now which voice, which vision, we will heed. And even if we decide today to listen to our better angels, there is no telling what we might decide tomorrow. It is a battle forever with us. Our growth is evolutionary, not revolutionary. So we can only ever say, “We will be a better nation today than we were yesterday. I will be a better person today than I was yesterday. And should I fail, I will wake up tomorrow and try again.”
Mothers know this instinctively. I remember when Spencer was little and Joan said it was time to potty-train him. Before long, we had this successful day. That night, lying in bed, I turned to Joan and said, “Boy, I’m glad that phase is over.” She said, “Don’t count on it.” And sure enough, the next day he exploded everywhere and I was pacing around the house, frustrated, wondering what in the world was going on, and she was just cleaning him up. Growth is evolutionary, not revolutionary. So stop punishing yourself when you fail. Wake up tomorrow and try again.
Now let’s get to the heart of the matter. What does it say about God when we believe people are changed in a miraculous instant? Doesn’t it suggest God is impatient, unwilling to persist with us as we grow? After all, what kind of parents would insist their child be instantly transformed? (Other than me, of course.) What spouse would demand instant perfection from his or her mate? Why this emphasis on immediate change? Are we celebrating the power of God or are we revealing our own impatience with the often glacial pace of spiritual maturity?
Two voices perched on our shoulders. Two people within each of us, vying for dominance. It’s Snuffy Smith all over again. We will never completely conquer that lesser voice. But we can recognize its lies, and we can commit ourselves anew, every day, to the better angels of our nature.