Link by Link, Yard by Yard
Our lives are made up not of spectacular transformations, but choices that accumulate while we're not looking.
Again the spectre raised a cry, and shook its chain and wrung its shadowy hands. “You are fettered,” said Scrooge, trembling. “Tell me why?”
“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the ghost. “I made it link by link and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free wil, and of my own free will I wore it.” —A Christmas Carol
“Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one--the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signpost.” —The Screwtape Letters
We humans in the modern West are micro-beings living in a macro-society. Every square inch of our news and political culture, our entertainment, and even religion is preoccupied with “big” problems that allegedly demand even bigger solutions. Nothing is more common than to hear people talk about the real issue facing the whole nation, or the problem with the church or Christianity at large. We increasingly attribute our daily angst to systemic troubles and our ordinary frustrations to major dysfunctions with our lives. This is why there is a seeming willingness among many to blow up their lives regularly: moving from job to job, place to place, friend group to friend group, identity to identity. Everything around us tells us that if something is wrong, everything must be fixed. Rootlessness, cancel culture, “de-churching:” all of these are in many ways reflections of this obsession with the Big Picture and our intolerance for anything in our lives or worldviews that causes tension.
This mentality obscures an important truth: the vast majority of sin and suffering we encounter in this life is made up of small things, not big ones. Our biggest felt weaknesses are frequently the aggregate sum of dozens of small choices that we make. We do not wake up one morning and evolve into selfish people; we protect our own time here and there, shirk back from loving others this time and that. Few people with raging lusts undergo a spectacular transformation that made them that way. For most, it’s the incremental indulgences, the daytime forays that construct a character. The little foxes spoil the vineyard.
Like Jacob Marley, our chains are forged not at once but link by link and yard by yard. This is one reason it matters that we live in a culture of constant distraction but endless justice discourse. Those two realities combined to form a deep blindness inside us. We are simultaneously relentlessly passionate for moral righteousness and indifferent toward the situations where such righteousness is most likely to be practiced. There are explosive examples of this, like when self-described feminists are revealed to be rapacious predators. But there are many more mundane examples: the warrior against the sexual revolution who indulges a little bit of porn every now and again; the crusader against church abuse who gets online and treats pastors and institutions every bit as savagely as the villains he exists to fight. Almost none of these choices by themselves are enough to register on our self-examination radar. But they accumulate into patterns that crush our souls…and contaminate our witness.
I’ve spent much of the past year on this newsletter thinking about two things: the effects of technology on our intellectual and spiritual formation, and the state of evangelical life and culture. Especially regarding that latter topic, I think this idea of being taken captive by our small vices has been haunting me. What’s true at a personal level is true at an institutional one. I just can’t stop wondering how much of the “big” problems we seem to be pressed by as evangelicals are really very small problems that have accumulated through indifference.
One thing that struck me afresh about Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol is how he acknowledges that his eternal condemnation is not because he was a spectacular sinner. It was not, in fact, for anything he did; it was for what he did not do. He tells Scrooge:
“It is required of every man that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellowmen, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world—oh, woe is me!—and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!”
This is a terrifyingly mundane portrait of sin. Where we picture the flagrant adulterer, the flamboyant pervert, the unrepentant murderer or thief, Dickens presents Marley (and by extension, Scrooge) as simply someone who did not pay attention. He did not see, he did not give. There was no titanic episode of lawbreaking. It was the ordinariness of it all: day in, day out life, characterized by a thousand seemingly random acts of indifference that made Marley and Scrooge what they were. Marley never saw it until it was too late; Scrooge only saw it because of a divine intervention.
It has frequently been said that the changes and shifts we see in American evangelical Christianity are poised to take the church smaller. I wonder: might this be a blessing engineered specifically to help us find the deceitfully ordinary parts of our theological and church cultures that are wounding and enslaving us? Might the demise of major organizations, huge-tent movements, and massive conferences be an invitation to greater attentiveness?
The incremental nature of sin is also a big reason why the imputed righteousness of Jesus is such a crucial aspect of the gospel. Marley tells Scrooge that the latter’s own invisible fetter is a “ponderous chain.” Biblically, this is true of all of us. It’s precisely the ordinariness of sin that makes us absolutely hopeless without an atonement specific enough to wash away every stain and cut through every bar of iron (Psalm 107). I know a lot of people are weary of “gospel-centered” jargon. I get it. It outstayed its welcome in the publishing world; it became a shorthand for a specific group rather than a concrete truth. But here’s the thing: we really don’t have a shot apart from the gospel. Every day, whether it’s in the privacy of our houses or in the public square, we add a little bit more to what would be a ponderous chain. In A Christmas Carol, it is a dead sinner who has to procure salvation for Scrooge. Jesus Christ, the babe in the manger, the desire of nations, heaven-born prince of peace, the sun of righteousness—he’s a living savior who procures salvation for us.
I hope both the myth of Dickens and the true myth of Scripture makes this truth come alive in my own heart in 2023. And I hope that for you too.
I often remind myself of Samuel Johnson's lines: “How small, of all that human hearts endure,/
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure./ Still to ourselves in every place consign'd,/
Our own felicity we make or find.” The same is true of our own sins. We can't blame the Democrats or the Republicans or Twitter or the mainstream media or Trump or Biden or Big Eva. Our daily lives are filled with acts of faith or unbelief, obedience or disobedience, love or malice or indifference. Thank the Lord that He is always with us, His grace is sufficient, and He welcomes the repentant sinner.
"The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart…even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…an uprooted small corner of evil." -Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn