“I wonder whether, in ages of promiscuity, many a virginity has not been lost less in obedience to Venus than in obedience to the lure of the caucus. For, of course, when promiscuity is the fashion, the chaste are outsiders.” – C. S. Lewis, “The Inner Ring”
Each of us have a core status that we long to achieve or earn and the pursuit of that status drives us in just about everything we do. These statuses become for us what Lewis called “The Inner Ring”—a small, selective, elite society of people who have become a clique of which we yearn to belong. Those societies don’t have to be recognized globally or at the highest level, but they do have to be recognized within our own spheres of local life. For each of us the allure of acceptance, applause, authority, or abundance is a siren call for our lives to chase and do all we can to achieve the societal connection of that particular Inner Ring.
But why do we chase these things? In short, we’ve made fundamental exchanges that have generated consequences that are ultimately killing us. These exchanges are not only true universally for all of humanity, but they are seen specifically in each of our lives. No one is exempt from the “Great Exchanges” that we have made and no one is exempt from reaping the consequences of those exchanges, yet it is those very exchanges that have left us hungry for the achievement of being part of the Inner Ring. Let me detail three exchanges that we have made and the way they have left us pursuing Inner Rings.
From Imago Dei to Imago Stati
The first exchange came at the hands of our first parents, Adam and Eve, and has been a consequential exchange that you and I make daily. We have traded our identity in God for an identity in our status. Genesis 1-3 spells out this exchange.
In the beginning God creates and makes all things in the universe for his glory. He is the Creator and the King and all things are made good in his sight. Nothing is out of place, nothing out of alignment, all things are identified properly and beautifully. Even humanity is created and called “very good” (Gen. 1:31). Yet what makes the creation of male and female unique is the nature of their creation and relationship with God. God himself declares that humanity were created “in his own image” (Gen. 1:27). Beyond resembling God in terms of his dominion over all things being made in the image of God means that humanity was created in relationship with God. Just as God exists completely in relationship with and to himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit so humanity was created to bear God’s likeness in community with one another and live in perpetual relational union with him. The imago Dei marks humanity as representatives of God and relationally close to God. In the beginning, we were made to bear the identity of belonging to and with God. Nothing else in all creation bore that mark.
The exchange came, however, with the crafty serpent’s deceit. Instead of our first parents understanding their identity as being representatives and relationally unified with God, they were led to believe they were not unique to God—that they were instead lacking something of God’s image in their lives, namely his moral capacity to “know good and evil” (Gen. 3:4). What Satan deceived our first parents into believing was that a unique relationship with God was less desirable than obtaining a shared status with God. At the moment they believed that lie, the pursuit of an Inner Ring began. No longer did they love the imago Dei (image of God) they were created in, now they longed for the imago Stati (image of Status) that they did not yet possess.
The fallout from this exchange was nothing less than death. Their capacity to attain the Inner Ring they so desperately longed for was impossible. Instead of becoming like God, as the serpent had promised, they became disenfranchised from God. The relationship was broken and the imago Dei was, as John Calvin puts it “erased.”
Humanity had lost their original relationship and reality.
It’s because of this exchange, from relationship to status, that all of us live in the pursuit of Inner Rings. Our original relationship has been lost and now to find worth, value, and identity we chase the status symbols of the Inner Ring. Instead of existing as beings with value, dignity, and worth we’ve become creatures who chase after the status we do not have. Exchange number one is the exchange of identity through a relationship to identity in a status. It’s death for each of us.
From Provision to Performance
The second exchange we made was the exchange from the provision God had for us to the posture of earning our own way. We exchanged God’s riches to find and fix ourselves on our own accomplishments. Again, Genesis 1-3 demonstrates the template of this exchange.
According to Scripture, God’s creation of the universe wasn’t to set it up as a empty, desolate environment that would grow and be cultivated into maturity. He created a mature world with mature plants, mature animals, mature human beings and placed our first parents into a luscious and beautifully abundant Garden. Adam and Eve lacked absolutely nothing. They had all the provision of food, shelter, abundance, and pleasure they could ask for. Nothing was missing.
Yet the Deceiver came and sought to convince us otherwise. Our first parents were told that God was holding back, that his love for them was inadequate and insufficient. More so his provision of wisdom and knowledge was incomplete. What God was doing was not providing for them, but withholding the very things they needed to make it in the world. The lie was sown and we believed it!
We believed that God’s good provision wasn’t sufficient for the long-haul. We looked at the options; either we could rest in God’s perfect timing and provision for us or try to provide for ourselves more completely. We chose to earn rather than receive. Humanity decided in that Garden and every day since then that our best step forward is to pursue and perform to earn a status, rather than enjoy the provision of everything from God’s generous and gracious hand. We’ve chosen to earn our identity rather that receive and live in the provision that God has for us.
Imagine after working a full 10-hour shift you head home from your job. On the way home, you stop at a favorite restaurant to buy take-out for your family to enjoy. You stop at the florist and pick up a beautiful bouquet of flowers to bless and encourage her as well. You stop at the Redbox and pick up that movie your children have been longing to see. You head home to bless your family. However, when you get home you notice a line of cars out front of your house. People are walking in and out with various things. One person walks out with your television, another with your children’s favorite toy. Someone has a plate of grilled chicken and green beans. As you rush into the house you find your wife with a distant look on her face. “What are you doing?” you ask. “Well,” she says, “I really don’t like the way you’ve been providing for us, in fact I think we can do it better ourselves.” And with that your favorite chair is hoisted out by another unsuspecting couple looting your possessions. Everything is for sale.
That is the kind of folly that we have embraced. Instead of enjoying and trusting God’s good and faithful provision for us, we’ve turned into performers trying to earn our way forward. We’ve jumped out of the identity given to us as God’s people into the pursuit of making a name for ourselves. We’ve rejected the faithful provision of God’s hand for us and have decided to earn our own way forward. What God said through Jeremiah certainly is true of us, “My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jer. 2:13).
From Common to Exclusive
If the reason why we pursue Inner Rings and the societal acceptance they bring comes from an exchange of our identity and our provision, we are in pretty bad shape. However, the hole we have dug down for ourselves is deeper still. The first two exchanges are enough to destroy us, yet there is a third. It is the exchange of the common for the delight of the exclusive.
What did Adam and Eve have in the Garden? They had identity, they had provision, and they had community. They related perfectly with God and with one another. They enjoyed perfect unity, harmony, joy, delight, compatibility, and acceptance with God and with one another. It is readily apparent that our first parents enjoyed and held all things in common together. Nothing divided them or their relationship with God. This is the essence and origin of the word “community”—common. Humanity was designed and created to be a common people.
Yet the seduction of Satan was great. The common wasn’t the best or most beautiful for the world. God was holding out. He was holding back. He was being exclusive. He was being the “One Percenter” hoarding the wealth to himself while Adam and Eve were left to lack and not possess. Satan’s attack hits right at God’s exclusivity. “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’” By twisting God’s words he created the tension of common and exclusive. As Eve responds, she affirms the provision of God, “We may eat of fruit of the trees in the garden” but also identifies where God has exercised his exclusive rights. “You shall not eat of this of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden” (Gen. 3:3). Humanity lives in the common, but God deals with the exclusive.
Humanity’s exchange on that day has broken our community. In trading the sacred commonality of life together in an attempt to possess the exclusive reality of God, we’ve been at each others throats ever since. The entire race fell into corruption and decay when that exchange was made. No longer was there unity; disunity prevailed. In shame, our parents hid from God and one another embarrassed by the nakedness their sin brought. Adam shifted the blame to God and his wife for his sin. A curse of death fell upon the human race.
Now—let me absolutely clear—God is an exclusive being, one of a kind in the entire universe, and he is good and right. He alone is worthy of all power, glory, authority, splendor, and majesty. He is wholly other than us. No one can attain to his greatness and glory and no one can possess his majesty. The very word “holy” which describes who God is throughout Scripture (see Isaiah 6:3 and Revelation 4:8) is loaded with the sense of God’s unique rarity and exclusivity. He in no way is evil, unjust, or malicious in withholding things from us. He is God; we are not. And yet, just as God is exclusive in his nature, he also exists eternally in perfect community. His creation of humanity was creation of us into common unity with him.
The Fall came for us in our exchange. We desired the exclusivity of God for ourselves. We were seduced into thinking our common unity as human beings was worthless. Satan created an evil dualism that we follow to this day. He appealed to fear of being an outsider, not having, and not being part of the exclusive club who possess “the knowledge of good and evil.” The serpent attacked the idea of the common and elevated the exclusive. We traded the joy of community as people made in the image of God for the pursuit of God’s exclusivity as God.
Inner Rings Crafted
I am sure that as Tolkien and Lewis sat around a table at The Eagle and Child pub in Oxford they shared thoughts of the pursuit together. One crafted a legendary tale in which the pursuit of the Inner Ring became a pursuit of The One Ring. The other saw it lived out in every life as men and women traded the identity they were created to posses for the status they sought to obtain. He saw it as we traded the good provision of God for the enticing self-reliant attempts to earn our own way. It showed up in our rejection of the common beauty of one another for the prestige of being one of the few.
In the beginning, there were no Inner Rings. We were created perfectly in community with God and with others. We enjoyed the security and comfort of full and abundant provision. We were children loved and accepted by God. The reality is that we were part of the greatest community, the greatest Inner Ring; God’s special and uniquely imprinted creation. And, in a moment, we gave it up for a lie. We bought the myth that we didn’t have enough; that there were Inner Rings left for us to obtain. As soon as we bought that lie we fell immediately into the Pursuit. We’ve been chasing “The Precious” ever since.
Jeremy Writebol (@jwritebol) has been training leaders in the church for over fourteen years. He is the author of everPresent: How the Gospel Relocates Us in the Present (GCD Books, 2014) and writes at jwritebol.net. He is the pastor of Woodside Bible Church’s Plymouth, MI campus.