Speak Now, or Forever Shut Up
He’s preaching to young men who might be maimed or dead in three months. Leave the future in God’s hands because He’ll keep it anyway, says C. S. Lewis in that too little known sermon “Learning in War Time.” We can only do what we can do at the moment.
Lewis is not giving easy, armchair advice, that evening in 1941, preaching from the pulpit of Oxford’s university church. He had been wounded on the front in World War I himself. “Happy work is best done by the man who takes his long-term plans somewhat lightly and works from moment to moment ‘as to the Lord,’” he explains. “It is only our daily bread that we are encouraged to ask for. The present is the only time in which any duty can be done or any grace received.”
The present is also the only time when courage can be shown. You can only speak for someone who needs your help now, when he needs it, not tomorrow. Especially as tomorrow never comes. Or only rarely.
In other words: Speak now when it matters, or just shut up. Don’t pretend to be a soldier when you refuse to leave the camp twenty miles behind the front lines.
They Would Not Speak
I think of this because I’ve been writing and working for causes for many years now. Protecting the unborn has been the biggest, but not the only one. In those decades, I’ve known hundreds of people with voices and status who would not speak to the matter of the moment. Literally hundreds. They could make a difference. People would listen. People would follow. But they refused.
When you pressed them, as I did, they’d usually tell you that they wouldn’t speak now in order to speak more effectively and forcefully later. More than one told me he was “keeping my powder dry.”
For David’s profile of three people who speak for life in difficult circumstances, see his New Spokeswomen Standing Up For Life, about Rehumanize’s Aimee Murphy and New Wave Feminist’s Destiny Herndon-de la Rosa, and his profile of Stream writer Peter Wolfgang, When Planned Parenthood Bullies Try to Push Your Buttons.
That was a favorite line. Think how it works. It says they’d joined the army. They’re my brothers-in-arms. Basically, they’d done enough. But they know I won’t agree. I might ask them why they sit safely in camp when others go out to fight. “I’m keeping my powder dry” gives them an answer. They’re shrewdly taking care of things until the big battle. Let other people fight the little battles. “You’ve got to pick your battles,” some would add. These people always assured me that “When the time is right, you’ll hear me loud and clear.”
Now that I think of it, they were often quite patronizing. They tried to bully me into backing down. I didn’t understand the need for care, they’d say, for “picking my battles” and “speaking at the right time.” I was young (then), they informed me, sometimes kindly and sometimes sternly, was idealistic or unrealistic, didn’t see the complexity of life, etc. No, I wasn’t idealistic and I saw the complexity of life. I just saw something they should do that they weren’t doing.
Many were clerics calculating the political costs. They decided they’d lose too much by speaking out. They’d upset the congregation or the people who could move them on and up. This didn’t keep them from preaching sermons about total commitment to Jesus. (Especially, and I’m not being cynical, on stewardship Sunday.) Many were writers avoiding any harm to their brand. That didn’t keep them from writing books about total commitment to Jesus.
How Many Voices?
Thinking back over the years, do you know how many who said, “When the time is right, you’ll hear me loud and clear,” were heard loud and clear when the time was right? Not one. Not a single freaking one. Crickets, as the expression goes.
No, that’s not quite right. A few clerics spoke out. A handful suddenly discovered their voices after they retired with their pensions guaranteed and no need to deal with anyone who disagreed. They’d kept their powder dry. Of course, they’d given up their cannons when they left their churches. Now, they shot muskets. But, hey, they had lots of dry powder.
Worse, many who did not speak drifted over to the other side. The thing they once strongly — though privately — opposed, they began to tolerate and then to accept. Some of them even to promote. We seem to be so made that when we don’t speak against an evil we see, eventually we come to speak for it. At least when that evil is one the world pushes and promotes. We have to run from it, or else we become its friend.
Basically, they were all lying. Maybe to themselves as much as to me, but they were lying. They were rationalizing not doing something they knew they should do. They had good lines to excuse their inaction. Good lines fool you into thinking you’re okay. The road to Hell is paved with good lines. They should just have shut up, and not pretended to care.
Remember: The present is the only time in which any duty can be done. One of those duties is to speak against an evil we see. Speak “as to the Lord,” and the Lord will give you His grace to speak and to go on speaking.
I can’t find an online copy of the sermon, but here is the summary from the C. S. Lewis website. The sermon appears in Lewis’s short book, The Weight of Glory (Eerdmans). It’s a book I cannot commend too highly.
Note: A few corrections and additions made since publication (none changing the meaning).