In preparing a wedding meditation this week, I’ve skimmed and read Timothy Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage. It’s good and worthwhile, but I was not moved by it until near the end, where Keller discusses sex, singleness and temptation. But what he says applies to temptations of all kinds.
In that section he quotes from Jane Eyre, a book I’ve never read and never really had an interest in reading. But the dialog he quotes is, I believe, incredibly powerful for those who walk through temptations of all kinds.
Keller sets it up this way: In the classic novel Jane Eyre, Jane has fallen in love with Mr. Rochester, but she has also learned that he is married and that his mentally ill wife lives in an upper room in his estate. Nevertheless, he urges her to live with him as her [sic?] mistress. This touches off an inner storm, and an enormous conflict in her heart:
“. . . . while he spoke my very conscience and reason turned traitors against me, and charged me with crime in resisting him. They spoke almost as loud as Feeling: and that clamoured wildly. “Oh, comply!” it said. “Think of his misery; think of his danger- look at his state when left alone; remember his headlong nature; consider the recklessness following on despair- soothe him; save him; love him; tell him you love him and will be his. Who in the world cares for YOU? or who will be injured by what you do?”
Jane discerns different rooms or faculties in her soul. There is conscience, there is reason, and there is feeling, and they all rise up and argue that they should do what Mr. Rochester asks : he is lonely and miserable- she could comfort him. He is rich and adores her- after a life of hardship, surely she deserves this. But she resists what they all say.
“Still indomitable was the reply: “I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad – as I am now. Laws and principles are not for times when there is no temptation: they are for moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth – so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now it is because I am insane- quite insane: with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs. Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot.”
Keller comments: Jane Eyre has been made into a movie or TV show many times, and as far as I know, when this scene comes and Mr. Rochester makes his powerful plea, none of this inner dialogue is ever depicted. We hear Jane resisting only by saying things like, “I will respect myself.” Modern viewers are therefore likely left with the illusion that Jane was able to resist temptation simply out of an effort to keep high self-esteem. She appears to be saying not that being Mr. Rochester’s mistress would be immoral, but that it would be demeaning. All the movie versions I have seen give the impression that she looks inside and finds the inner self-assurance and self-respect to refuse a second-class position. But see how she actually does resist. She does not look into her heart for strength-there’s nothing there but clamorous conflict. She ignores what her heart says and looks to what God says. The moral laws of God at that very moment made no sense to her heart and mind at all. They did not appear reasonable, and they did not appear fair. But, she says, if she could break them when they appear inconvenient to her, of what would be their worth? If you only obey God’s word where it seems reasonable or profitable to you – well, that isn’t really obedience at all. Obedience means you cede someone an authority over you that is there even when you don’t agree with him. God’s law is for times of temptation, when ‘body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour.’
On God’s Word then, not her feelings and passions, she plants her foot.
Keller says (and I agree): “I’ve never seen anywhere a more clear or eloquent example of what a Christian person’s inner dialogue should be in regard to temptation. Learn how to plant your foot.”