January 16, 2021

Fridays with Michael Spencer: October 21, 2011

P1060007In Screwtape Letter 10, the senior tempter reminds Wormwood that, as much as possible, he should strive to have his patient lead two completely separate and parallel lives.

It’s basic demonic advice, and few of us would need much explanation. Someone ought to add that’s there’s no good reason to stop at two separate lives. Three, four, five or fifteen separate lives are all possible if you learn the basics of compartmentalizing.

Yes, that’s a fifty cent word: compartmentalizing. Taking a whole life, dividing it into sections, putting up walls between those sections and living in each one as a different world that allows you to be a different person.

I’m not talking about multiple personalities. I’m simply saying that Screwtape was wise to point out that we often live in one room- and with the people in that room- as if the other rooms don’t exist.

I look at my students, and I realize that we are constantly training them to live in various compartments as different people. Integration, integrity and wholeness in all of life are very difficult. We construct a student’s life in such a way that it’s extremely easy to imagine that compartmentalization is normal and good.

Activity after activity. Class after class. Different adults. Different peers. Different settings. The person who can move easily from one relationship and experience to another is rewarded. The person who has difficulty adopting these many different roles into one personality is looked at as inferior. We give awards for “versatility.”

I’ve noticed over the years that teenagers and young adults who are successful easily develop a kind of false and movable personality. It’s useful, and it’s one of the reasons they do well and we like them. But if you listen to their stories, their poetry and their self-reporting, you hear the consistent complaint: I am a false person; I am living a life that is not truly me.

We’re very invested in compartmentalizing who we are. It works. It’s safe. It keeps us away from what hurts. And, of course, it’s disastrous in the long run.

Years ago, I heard that one of my friends had discovered her husband was married and had children with another woman in another community. This was a man who came to our church quite often. He was a successful businessman. He had a good reputation and never seemed the least bit unusual.

He was, however, a man who looked at himself in the morning, realized he was two people, realized he was heading for judgment day with a life full of lies, then he shaved and went to work. He did this over and over, and as far as I know, was very good at what he did.

The compartments in his life were well sealed. Whatever master plan it took to juggle all the various versions of himself, I doubt that he ever laid them all out on the table. No, one lie at a time. One room, one compartment at a time.

I want to steadfastly refuse this insidious and compromising temptation to build my life as a collection of rooms that have nothing to do with one another. I am watching it in the lives of others, and it’s frightening. I’ve seen it over time in my own life and it’s poison.

Do you refuse to take seriously what the Bible actually says and doesn’t say? Then build a room where the Bible doesn’t matter as much as your general ideas of Christianity. Does your version of Christianity refuse all critiques and evaluations? Then build a room where your religion is flawless. Do you want to conveniently divide the world into the good people who nod and smile and the bad people who ask questions? Then build another room.

Build a room for your money. Build one for your porn addiction. Build one for your flirtations and affairs. Build one for cheating, greed and racism. Build a room where your rudeness, laziness and dishonesty don’t matter. Build one for your ambitious, backbiting and betrayals of co-workers. Build a room where you get to see your children the way you want to see them, not the way they are. Build a room that exactly fits your church, then lock the doors. Build a room for your politicians and their worldview. Build a room that controls whatever you want to hear and protects whatever conclusions you are unwilling to ever question.

Screwtape says that those parallel lives are usually best maintained with an aversion to “Puritanism,” i.e. religion that actually takes the Gospel seriously, and with a large dose of vanity. In other words, if it feels goods, results in praise, approval and pleasure, let’s build a compartment for it. Once built, don’t let something like the presence of the Holy Spirit make you feel bad.

Or let me suggest another project. Instead of building more rooms, why not tear some things down? Tear out some walls. Become, as much as possible, one person, in one life, for one audience.

When Jesus calls his disciples to inevitable conflict with family or the authorities of the world, he is inviting us to live one life, and not two or three or fifteen. he is asking us to repent of all the rooms we’ve build and to make this world- the Lord’s “House”- the one room we live in as one person.

The community of Jesus shouldn’t promote and encourage our multi-compartmentalized existence, but often it is a primary facilitator of exactly that. I’ve watched more students learn to have a false persona at church than I care to recall. But they received permission and instruction from a community of adults — including leaders — who were afraid to ever live the same life before everyone in one room.

The stories of what happens to Christians as they flame out in notorious sin or simply break down under the pressure should serve as a warning to us of the short-term consequences of compartmentalization. The long term consequences are more serious. We all might consider those persons who are utterly convinced they’ve been living in a room with Jesus’ approval, and to whom his word is “I never knew you.”


  1. Every church organization has certain “rules and regulations” that a member in good standing must adhere to if they want to become a part of “the family”, so to speak. MINE does, or DID, until the pastor resigned to move back to Texas.

    There were certain behaviors that were expected of those in “ministry” (anything from greeters to board members and nursery workers) that mere attendees were absolved from. No smoking, no drinking, regular tithing, you know the list. And I guess they were instituted with good intent, but they were extra-biblical, instituted by man and not required of Christians in general.

    The problem was that almost EVERYONE had an issue with one or another of those strictures and didn’t fully comply, making them “two-faced”. For me it was the occasional beer. I almost never drank in public and when I brought it home it was in single bottles and not six packs. Still, I was a scofflaw, but my conscience did not bother me over it.

    But others were not so easy-going about it, whether it be tithing or drinking or smoking, so they ended up leaving the fellowship. Maybe they became Lutherans or Catholics, who knows. And when I was questioned about the subject I would always turn to the Acts of the Apostles and the simple rules that were given for Gentile believers…“Act 15:20 but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood.”

    This may be a bit far from what Michael was referring to, but not too far. Humans have the nasty habit of building walls to lock IN holiness but those walls also trap the spirit and the freedom of the believer, forcing them to create a separate personae from their daily lives so that they can “fellowship with the other captives.

    At the age of 65 I am done with that. If I am not accepted for my faith, my gift(s) and my commitment, well then, tough!

  2. Like all of us, Michael Spencer must have been sinner and saint all at once. But he was one heaven of a one.
    At Jesus Creed it has been mentioned that the most common complaint about church is exploiting others and insensitivity to others and not listening to others. This implies abuse This being afraid to live the same life before everyone is usually not on that radar as abuse. But I’m thinking the main psychological reason. And the real reason church can become hard to “go to”.

  3. This one goes to my heart, Michael. The only times I ever feel like ‘myself’ is when I get away from everyone and spend a few hours in the woods.

    I remember for my 18th birthday, my mom took in upon herself to have a surprise party for me by inviting all of my known friends. I’m still traumatized from having my artist friends, freak friends, nerd friends, and random early childhood friends altogether in one room. If I’d had any church friends at the time I would have died!

    “Integration, integrity and wholeness in all of life are very difficult.”

    Some people who really do seem to have dispensed with the masks appear to share the distinction of not being terribly polite. Where it becomes really magical is when the Holy Spirit works in such people so that they develop an almost feral compassion. Love that doesn’t pretend.

    Something really special happens though when you let someone from one room into another. You’re vulnerable for letting someone see an aspect of you you’d kept hidden from them, but I believe there really is something to fellow believers being an aspect of Christ, and that by letting them in, we allow Christ himself to integrate and heal us.

  4. I think perhaps meditation is the solution. Time spent with the Lord allows us to clarify who we are and how we can best serve the Lord. It helps us define our priorities and how we spend our time. From this central core, we are free to respond appropriately to the specific folks around us. You will always act differently with family, colleagues, neighbors, new friends, old friends, folks with whom we share hobbies. But time spent with the Lord enables us to keep a unified core that easily allows outreach to those with whom we share just an aspect of our persona.

  5. Some of the guys in my Saturday men’s group were discussing just a week ago how well men compartmentalize (we saw it as truth, anyway). Problem with Item A? Just stick that in this little box here and everything will be okay. Problem with Item B? Just stick that over here in this other box and everything will be okay. It’s then easier for us to FIX these items one by one, in our own time, when we’re ready to open those boxes again.

    Women, we then discussed, tend to do better at seeing how things interact. They might see how Items A and B relate to each other, or how, if ignored, might impact bigger Item C. We conjectured that this is one of the reasons for frustration between men and women, this “compartmentalizing”.

  6. Coincidentally (if one assumes it relates a bit to Michael’s post), I wrote this just a week ago. By the way, I have no idea what it means. Feel free to psychoanalyze.


    the bend in the road
    (R. Rosenkranz, 2016)

    disappears into a stand of trees
    hides the way forward
    and when my car makes the turn
    I see, too late, a person on the pavement

    he’s straddling the yellow stripe
    wide-eyed and frozen
    and he’s me, or rather
    the person I used to be

    my choices are poor:
    swerve to protect who I was
    and crash into a tree trunk
    killing who I am and who I’ll be

    or plow through the poor sap
    grind my former flesh
    into the rough roadway
    to save my present and future self

    so I close my eyes
    and hope and pray
    everyone will be alright.

  7. Isn’t this the point of spiritual formation? Inner transformation….then, there is outward change, not vice-versa. This is why M Spencer and internet monk is impactful on so many. No longer playing the game, just being real.
    This is also,IMO, why depression is so rampant among so-called believers–keeping all those doors locked from everyone, including the self, and we think…from God, too,
    I have spent the last three years getting out of depression, and the only people who don’t like the ‘new’ me? Believers in my family–everyone else sees a changed person, a whole person, inside and out, and, well, I want to say happy (which is true) but more of a satisfaction..I can love myself…flaws and all, and realize I don’t have to be perfect for anyone, much less God!
    Thanks for this post?

  8. Randy Thompson says

    To borow a term from architecture, what Michael Spencer is advocating here is “open concept” living. That is, the dining room opens into the kitchen which, in turn, opens into the living room, which in turn opens into. . . and so on. The walls are knocked down and there is only one big room. To live an “open concept” life is to live an authentic life, and that is the only Christian life that our post-modern world is likely to find interesting or attractive, an alternative to the collection of selves under one skin that characterizes post-modern “identity.”

    (I don’t know if anyone is still using the phrase “post modern” anymore, but I didn’t know what else to call it. Suggestions for alternative terms would be greatly appreciated.)

    • Randy, I for one speak of post modernity and don’t know what else I would call it. It says what it is, even if some of those still stuck in the modern age treat it as some kind of frivolous passing fad. However, I don’t know what you mean by “the collection of selves under one skin that characterizes post-modern ‘identity.’ ” That seems to contradict what you had just said about post-moderns being attracted to authenticity. Possibly you misspoke and intended to say “modern identity.”

  9. Ben Cribbin says

    This discussion makes me want to quote Alexander Shaia (whom I’m surprised and “horrified” to never hear quoted here. That has to change:

    ‘The good wine of relationship cannot be served at the very beginning. It takes years for 2 people, or a group of people to learn to live with each other, to call forth their radiance.’ [sic]

    To call forth each other’s radiance

  10. Michael Jones says


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