I’ve been reading (slowly) Reflections on the Psalms by C.S. Lewis. It is going slowly in part because, having read through chapter 4, I was compelled to go back and reread chapter 3. The title of chapter 3 is “The Cursings.” As is typical with Lewis, he begins this book by first addressing the more troubling aspects of his overall topic before getting on to the more palatable aspects. This chapter is sandwiched between the chapters on “Judgment in the Psalms” and “Death in the Psalms,” both of which were interesting and challenging.
But there was something about chapter 3 that seemed particularly interesting to me. There is something in this chapter that shines a light on the topic of mercy that I and some fellow bloggers have written about recently, and that light reveals a very different side of the equation.
First, what exactly does Lewis mean by the cursings? Some specific examples that he refers to include:
6 Appoint someone evil to oppose my enemy;
let an accuser stand at his right hand.
7 When he is tried, let him be found guilty,
and may his prayers condemn him.
8 May his days be few;
may another take his place of leadership.
9 May his children be fatherless
and his wife a widow.
10 May his children be wandering beggars;
may they be driven from their ruined homes.
11 May a creditor seize all he has;
may strangers plunder the fruits of his labor.
12 May no one extend kindness to him
or take pity on his fatherless children.
13 May his descendants be cut off,
their names blotted out from the next generation.
14 May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the LORD;
may the sin of his mother never be blotted out.
15 May their sins always remain before the LORD,
that he may blot out their name from the earth.
Psalm 109:6-15 (NIV).
8 Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who repays you
according to what you have done to us.
9 Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.
Psalm 137:8-9 (NIV).
This sort of cursing, even of one’s enemies, seems quite harsh to Lewis, as it does to me. And yet there is something in me that imagines that God will treat the truly wicked in such a way. Those who abuse women and small children, those who commit murder and seem to have no remorse, and those who greedily swindle the elderly and the downtrodden out of their last penny, deserve such punishment, and so this type of cursing seems natural.
But when we read the words of Christ telling us to “ love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43 (NIV)), it is difficult to reconcile this with the prayers of cursing that are found in the Psalms. I have often, in my own thinking, reconciled these seemingly conflicting notions with the understanding that the Psalmist trusted God to know when to answer the prayer of cursing because God knows the hearts of the enemy that is being cursed. I think Lewis has pondered out a better way to reconcile the cursings and the command to love, and shown the value of an attitude that might lead one to pray such a prayer in relation to the truly wicked.
Lewis tells a story of overhearing some soldiers during World War II who believed that their government had fabricated the evils of Hitler and the Nazi regime in order to “pep up” the troops; and yet those soldiers were not the least bit bothered by this. “That our rulers should falsely attribute the worst of crimes to some of their fellow-men in order to induce others of their fellow-men to shed their blood seemed to them a matter of course.” Reflections, pg. 29. Lewis argued that these uncaring soldiers were in a worse condition than the vindictive Psalmist because they had seemingly lost any moral compass of right and wrong. Although a vindictive reaction might be a sin, it at least indicated an awareness that a wrong had been committed.
Lewis goes on to write:
Thus the absence of anger, especially that sort of anger which we call indignation, can, in my opinion, be a most alarming symptom. And the presence of indignation may be a good one. Even when that indignation passes into bitter personal vindictiveness, it may still be a good symptom, though bad in itself. It is a sin; but it at least shows that those who commit it have not sunk below the level at which the temptation to that sin exists — just as the sins (often quite appalling) of the great patriot or the great reformer point to something in him above mere self. If the Jews cursed more bitterly than the Pagans this was, I think, at least in part because they took right and wrong more seriously. For if we look at their railings we find they are usually angry not simply because these things have been done to them but because these things are manifestly wrong, are hateful to God as well as to the victim. Reflections, pg. 30.
Of course, as Lewis also points out, the danger exists of letting one’s indignation over wrongs that are hateful to God turn into self-righteousness, spiritual pride, and persecuting zeal. As with many good intentions and aspirations, taken to an extreme hating sin can become the sin of hating the sinner, and forgetting one’s own sinful nature.
I still believe that the better course of action, when faced with someone who has committed an evil act, is to pray for their repentance and salvation. It is far better, in God’s kingdom, that the lost be found than that they be abandoned. But I am grateful to Lewis for shedding light on a different side of the indignation and vindictiveness I have seen expressed towards various “evil” people who have been in the news. That’s what I love about C.S. Lewis; I always find something in his writings that challenge my thinking and help me to better understand God and my fellow human beings.