My Chains Are Gone

“I think earth, if chosen instead of Heaven, will turn out to have been, all along, only a region in Hell: and earth, if put second to Heaven, to have been from the beginning a part of Heaven itself.” [1] C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

Last semester I took a course on John Milton, the great 17th century poet, where we focused almost entirely on his epic poem Paradise Lost. Before that class, I had never read Paradise Lost; since the term finished I have been increasingly excited to read it again. But for all its beauty, when I look back on the class what I remember most are not particularly moving scenes illustrating God’s goodness. Instead, I remember the poem’s mock hero, Satan, and the class’ collective reaction to him. I remember being, in our first discussion, shocked, amazed, and incredibly frustrated that my trusted and able peers repeatedly upheld the actions and thoughts of Satan. As a Christian, it horrified me to witness the celebration of the father of lies alongside the refusal of the divinely Good, even if only in the world of the epic! Soon, though, I caught myself identifying and sympathizing with Satan. It was, at first, a very disconcerting realization. And yet, the more we read, the more I reflected that I was familiar with Satan’s Hell. I realized, too, and that my shock told me I was beginning to learn something of God’s grace.

While I had an extremely privileged childhood, things rarely felt right. Surrounded with all the physical comforts one could ask for, I was constantly dissatisfied; full of anxiety even though everything, social and otherwise, usually went my way. As I progressed from middle school to high school, I steadily withdrew into myself. Even surrounded with a good group of friends and a loving family, I was desperate for attention but too scared to find it anywhere but in video games, books, and, eventually, drugs. Gradually, any meaning my life once held was replaced with apathy, discontent, and the incessant search for immediate gratification as a means to placate my growing sense of loneliness. Deep depression took hold in my life until I cared for nothing but the pleasures which, only for a moment, would make me forget my pain.

Satan’s Hell is marked by the absence of good. In every way, it is the complete opposite of the Heaven where Satan, as one of God’s former archangels, once dwelt. Heavenly “bliss” is replaced with “eternal woe.”[2] Within the torments of Hell, “peace / and rest can never dwell… [and] hope never comes.”[3] Even the highest rewards of Hell, such as the demon’s exaltation of Satan, serve only to increase woe. Celebrated with the adoration that he sought in his rebellion from God, Satan’s seat on “the throne of hell” makes him supreme only “in misery.”[4] Empty of all merit, Satan enthroned can only “boast so vain,” holding dominion of only “anguish and doubt and fear and sorrow and pain.”[5] These are the “joys” of Hell: insatiable desire that, when filled, only drags its prisoners lower into ever-deepening suffering. There is nothing worth seeking nor having within Hell, where the only pursuit is evil and the only reward pain.

I came to college depressed, looking for a way out of myself and the circumstances which I blamed for my pain. Despite my anxiety, I made friends easily and was, by all outside accounts, successfully making the transition to college. But the emptiness I brought to Williams kept growing: college failed to fix me. Unable to find peace, I looked for relief in drugs, alcohol, and sexual satisfaction. Mid-way through my freshman fall, I was in no place to be at college and had lost all control over my life. My loneliness reached new depths. My anxiety and fear crippled me like they never had. The pain only grew worse until I did almost nothing but sleep, smoke weed, and drink. And even though even these stopped providing immediate reprieve, over and over, I chose to return to the same habits that only created more emptiness, shame, and fear.

Similarly, Hell understood properly in Paradise Lost is not a place, but a malady of the self. True, on waking in Book I, Satan and his legion of fallen angels find themselves in a place identified as hell: “a dungeon horrible” full of “torture without end.”[6] However, Satan immediately undertakes an epic journey out of hell to to Paradise – earth.[7] He plans, once there, to tempt the unsuspecting Adam and Eve and leaves leaves with the vain “hope” of finding in Paradise’s proximity to “heaven’s fair light” the power to “heal the scar of… [hell’s] corrosive fires.”[8] But flying through Paradise, Satani is “undelighted [though he sees] all delight.”[9] No matter what Satan had told himself and others about their condition and its solution, a change of place does nothing to alleviate the Hell he always carries. Satan cannot fly “one step” more from Hell “than from himself.”[10] As I sank further into drug use and depression, Christ started to reach out to me. People would strike up conversations with me that turned to God. Sitting in a friend’s room, I would notice a Bible on their desk and feel an urge to read it. Although I largely tried to ignore these moments, they spurred me to consider the possibility of God’s existence. As I grew more open to that possibility, God started visiting me in little moments at the height of my despair. Utterly high and confused – bereft of all peace as my head reeled around itself – I would look up at a wall, and, just for a moment, the world would hold together and I would be at peace. A moment, but long enough for me to see a beauty, unity, and transcendence in the most mundane things of the world. By November, I lost the ability and desire to deny the existence of a world beyond the material. Soon, I also realized that behind these moments was a caring God: someone offering me a way out of the life I so desperately wanted to leave.

Satan, too, can never actually escape from the recognition of God and God’s goodness. Remaining steadfast in his decision for rebellion, Satan, with terrifyingly insidious pride, asserts that his mind “can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”[11] Despite his determination, he cannot make hell good. Satan tries to escape to Paradise, but there, the beauty of creation only strikes Satan with the truth of God’s goodness and the wretchedness of his own. In anguish atop a mountain, Satan painfully admits that God, his “good” creator, “deserved no such return” as rebellion.[12] Rather he recognizes with shame that service was not “hard” under God, to whom “praise” and “thanks” are in fact due![13] Crying out in sorrow, Satan is tormented by how easy, even joyful, it was to serve and place God above himself. As much as he would like to deny the goodness of God and heaven, Satan cannot.

In the ensuing months, God often overwhelmed me with this surpassing beauty and infinite love. Overcome with God’s goodness, I was brought to the brink of acknowledging my wrong and need before God and shown the truth of my wretched state and the failure of my authority. Similarly, Satan can only rightly blame himself for the wretchedness of his state. Recognizing the goodness of God and the life he has left, Satan laments to himself that he “against [God’s] will… / Chose freely what it now so justly rues.”[14] Rather than the judgment of a domineering, unjust ruler, Satan admits that only he is to blame for the anguish of his Hell. For this moment, Satan is free from the delusions that so plague him, allowing him to see that he, “could obtain, / By act of grace, [his] former state” of bliss.[15] Experiencing mountain moments of my own, I was faced with a decision: continue to follow my will and desires, or turn and follow God’s.

In that brief reprieve from my pain and depression, I could see the promise of a life so much better than my current state. I could even hope for one better than I had ever lived. But the offer came with what I then saw as a condition: to be free I would have to admit God, not I, was the head of my life. So too Satan recognizes that a return to his “former state” comes with a condition he is unwilling to accept. He imagines the possibility of repentance.[16] But simultaneously, he acknowledges that there is no path back to God, “but by submission; and that word / Disdain forbids [him].”[17] Satan can never return to God and good because he can never bring himself to submit again before God. I couldn’t leave my futile ways because my control meant everything to me.

For the next year and a half, I struggled against Christ. One month I would admit my powerlessness before God and find the strength to stay away from my paralyzing habits. Other times, I chose the belief that my life was mine to do with as I pleased. Each time I turned from God, my binge would be worse than the last, revealing new depths of pain and loneliness. Satan’s Hell, too, is perpetuated by the refusal to live under God’s, and specifically Christ’s, authority.[18] With his first words in hell, he declares that “all is not lost” in the fight against Christ because there is one thing which God can never defeat: “the unconquerable will, / …And courage never to submit or yield.”[19] Yet his willfulness is precisely what torments him. Like an obstinate child, Satan disdains to “sue for grace / with suppliant knee,” admitting before God what he already knows: Christ, and not he, is supreme in power and goodness. It does not matter that all his efforts sink him into an ever “lower deep… to which the hell [he now suffers] seems a heaven.”[20] No matter how terrible his circumstances, no matter how much he recognizes the good of God and the evil of Hell, Satan refuses to submit. For my whole life I had been this same stubborn child, refusing a better way only because it was not my way.

As the months went by, the wretchedness of life lived under my authority became increasingly clear, and I started to understand the consequence of my decision. In choosing my authority, I made the same declaration that Satan himself makes: “Evil, be thou my good.”[21] True, I had grown up happily complicit in this declaration, but the harm of evil had not yet manifest. Stuck in an everdeepening cycle of destructive behavior, I knew what that choice held for me. To make evil my good did not only mean finding pleasure where I wanted it; it also implied choosing “infinite despair” over a life of bliss. It was the insanity to make “anguish and doubt and fear and sorrow and pain,” my heart’s desire.[22] Even though my actions would say otherwise, I knew I wanted love, joy, and peace, not the fruits of evil. I wanted good, and the brief moments in which I chose to follow Christ showed me that good was found in God. When this truth clarified, I started, a little bit at a time, to make the decision for God. Tasting the riches a life lived under God offered, it was only a matter of time before I was regularly admitting my wrongs before God and asking for Christ’s grace.

Writing now, I have been sober a year and three months and have not once felt as lonely as I used to feel for weeks at a time. In so many ways, I am learning of the abundance of life that Christ has to offer, and of the clarity and joy a life lived in obedience to God contains. Despite what the world still tries to tell me, freedom doesn’t come from doing what I want when I want it. Slowly God is teaching me that freedom comes from the acknowledgement before Him that my life is not my own. I am Christ’s, and I will rejoice that God is showing me that true life comes by putting down my will and learning to live in and under Christ’s.

Admittedly, I do daily forget the joy of submission and in recognizing Christ’s lordship. In these times I find myself angry with God and looking for sympathy with Satan. But as soon as this happens, I simultaneously feel my old life alluring me. Thankfully, what it offers no longer fools me; the life lived for my own pleasure is full of nothing but pain. Often I am still that broken man lost in the denial of God and good. But if the last two years of my life have taught me anything, it is that while I constantly fail and fall short of the glory of God, forgetting one moment the very thing Christ has just taught me, God never falls short of being God. Slowly, but undeniably, Christ is teaching me to cultivate, wherever I go and through whatever I suffer, a “paradise within.”[23]

 

[1] C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (Newfork: Macmillan, 1946), ix. [2] John Milton, Paradise Lost, ed. Alastair Fowler (Great Britain: Pearson Education Limited, 2007, revised 2nd ed). II.161.

[3]Milton, Paradise Lost, I.65-67

[4]Milton, Paradise Lost, IV.89, IV.92

[5]Milton, Paradise Lost, IV.87, I.558

[6]Milton, Paradise Lost, I.61, I.67

[7]Milton, Paradise Lost, I.657-658

[8]Milton, Paradise Lost, II.398, 401

[9]Milton, Paradise Lost, IV.286

[10]Milton, Paradise Lost, IV.22

[11]Milton, Paradise Lost, I.225

[12]Milton, Paradise Lost, IV.43-44

[13]Milton, Paradise Lost, IV.45-48

[14]Milton, Paradise Lost, IV.71

[15]Milton, Paradise Lost, IV.93-94

[16] Milton, Paradise Lost, IV.80

[17]Milton, Paradise Lost, IV.81-82

[18]Milton, Paradise Lost, V.604-608, V.787-790

[19]Milton, Paradise Lost, I.106-108

[20]Milton, Paradise Lost, IV.76-78

[21]Milton, Paradise Lost, IV.110

[22]Milton, Paradise Lost, IV.110, I.558

[23]Milton, Paradise Lost, XII.586

 

Chih McDermott ’14 is an English major from Palos Verdes, Calif. He hopes this piece has helped you see Jesus more clearly.

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