January 22, 2021

Living In One Room

In 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. For those of us who observe Lent, this would be good daily reading. We could “take this ” on as a Lenten discipline–very timely, and so insightful! As I have writen here before, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner!” and break down the walls in the lives of us all.

  2. Mercy. The conviction is heavy right now… Lord help me to be a whole person.

  3. On a related note:

    There was once a man who wanted to make some money by selling his house. However, he didn’t want to sell the entire house, but wanted to keep a single room for himself. Eventually, he found some buyers who were willing to accept his unusual proposal and the deal was made.

    At first things went along just fine. The man only kept a few of his belongings in the room and the new owners rarely saw him come or go. Next, the man took up different occupations and began to keep the tools for his various jobs in the room. Then, one day, the man started keeping dead cats in the room.

    After awhile the smell from the decomposing cats filled the entire house and the new owners tried to get the man to remove them, but he refused. After begging and then threatening, all to no avail, the new owners finally sued the man to force him to remove the cats.

    The two parties came before the judge and stated their cases. After listening to the complaints of the new owners, the judge sided with the man. The buyers had agreed to let him keep one room, and there were no stipulations placed on what he could do in his room.

    The man offered to buy the house back from the new owners, at a greatly reduced price, and the new owners, defeated, agreed.

  4. Thank you, Michael! You have a unique gift of seeing our open wounds and where we struggle most, and also in pointing out the cure. Thanks again for sharing!

  5. Very nice Imonk.

    A lot of truth and conviction in those words.

  6. Last fall I realized that I had way too much stress in my life, so I sat down and over a couple of days made a list of all the things that were causing me stress. My goal was to identify my sources of stress so I could come up with concrete actions for reducing or eliminating those sources.

    It turned out to be a fairly short list, but one source of stress stood out from all the others. I realized the thing that was causing me the most stress was that I was trying to live two separate lives. I was worried about appearing too pagan to my Christian friends, and too Christian to my pagan friends, so I conformed my speech and actions to what I thought were the acceptable standards for each group. I didn’t feel like I could be my _complete_ self anywhere except when I was alone or with my wife.

    It never occurred to me how much stress trying to live like that caused me, or how it could contribute to discouragement and depression. I wanted everyone’s approval, so I re-made myself for each situation that I was in. A person can’t live like that and remain sane or whole.

    I made a firm decision to stop trying to compartmentalize my life. I decided that I was going to be _me_ in whatever situation I was in, and let the chips fall where they may. You know what? It _wasn’t_ a disaster. No one disowned me or stopped speaking to me. My pagan friends haven’t dismissed me as a fanatic, and my Christian friends haven’t dismissed me as a heretic. My friends haven’t been critical, but they have been curious. In fact sharing my true beliefs with both groups had led to some interesting conversations.

    I figured out that it was impossible for me to live effectively as a Christian while I was trying to live two lives and not be my true self. I’ve already seen doors open for witness and ministry that would have remained closed had I kept my compartmentalized life. It’s still difficult for me sometimes to remember to just be myself; 40 years of habit don’t evaporate overnight. But I will say that closing the compartments has been the most positive change I’ve made in my life in many years.

  7. I am just a few years into breaking walls down, and shoveling junk out of rooms in my life. Or sometimes tearing a room down completely.

    I still ask myself if I’m still living with compartments, things hidden almost daily. It’s an odd thing to realize rooms in my life are gone because sometimes they’re still haunting. Just ask any close friend of mine, I need to be tearing out the room of “Dwell On The Past.”

    Good post, Michael.

  8. Remind me not to read you after I eat. It doesn’t help my digestion to get punched in the stomach.

  9. “For that person must not suppose that a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways, will receive anything from the Lord.” James 1:7
    Imonk translation? , The compartmentalized man? Works for me. Some of our churches force us to compartmentalize in a way. We are expected to be happy-clappy Sun. Am.

  10. Memphis Aggie says


  11. Would you not agree that this is more of a problem for men than women? I’m hard-pressed to find women commanded in Scripture to be people of integrity.

    Is this not one of the reasons that women are more involved and spiritually responsible in church/kingdom life?

    Not to say that it’s impossible, of course. But in the years of assessing my own failures and counseling people in 45 states and provinces, it was nearly always the man who lived the double life and the women who asked, “How could you do this? For so long?”

  12. This why you need to write a book, or put together a collection of essays. You have a gift Michael.

  13. My first thought was, “Ouch.”

    On further thought, I believe that in addition to writing my series “Scriptures That Bother Me,” I’ll begin a new series called “Michael Is Bothering Me.” Or I could call it, “iMonk Masticates the Masses.” Or simply, “Michael chewed me up and spit me out and it hurt but I’m better for it.” It’ll never sell, but I’ll be a better man.



  14. I am afraid the room that is the true me is very small. I do not feel free to be myself with my husband, my family, or anyone. It would take too many words to explain why, but suffice it to say that people in my life are afraid that if you even mention anything about Christianity you must be becoming a wacko. It’s not easy sometimes. You folks are my “church.” But, also, I feel that I am such a poor representation of what a follower of Jesus “should” be like that perhaps it is just as well that I am not very public about what I truly believe.

    I just re-read what I wrote and it makes me sound more pathetic than I am. I have siblings I am close to and though my husband has HUGE emotional and medical problems, he really wants to do what is right and he often says he adores me, so things could be much worse. I was thinking just a few days ago that I act like this is my mantra: “Things could be worse.” I really don’t want that as my mantra. Something more like “Life is good. God is good” would be better.

    Jesus…help us all. Amen.

  15. Andy, believe me, women are just as messed up as men in this area. I think sometimes women’s involvement is merely part of their church-mask. Once upon a time my husband was not afraid to say “this is a drag,” and stay home. I, on the other hand, was afraid that my Christianity would be called into question, so I kept going and kept being involved when I probably should’ve left as well.

    Michael, this is good stuff. Thanks.

  16. iMonk is not what you are talking about really a life-long struggle for each and every one of us? I am thinking of St. Paul in Romans 7 when he writes about doing the things he would wish not to do, and finally crying out asking who will free him from that body of death.

    I know that there are too many times in my life when I find myself crying out on the inside because of the same dissonance that St. Paul experienced. On the one hand I desire to follow God, on the other hand, there is this other “me” in me that could care less, and even enjoys his sin, at times.

    The real deep and troubling sin is not that we have this struggle within us. The real deep and troubling sin is what you pointed out, how often we are willing to reach a “peace treaty” with the other “me” that allows that other to have some room to do his thing provided he leaves some of the other compartments alone. That “peace treaty” is the worse sin because it is a false peace, much like the false peace right before World War II, right before the Germans went around the Maguinot Line and defeated Europe. Sooner or later the false peace ends and sin conquers. Sooner or later the walls of the compartment fall down and, behold, there is no Christian inside only a Prodigal Son who needs to repent and return.

  17. iMonk,
    I had noticed this as a youth pastor a few years back. It seemed that the more plugged in the teens got, the more compartmentalized they became. It was church person and school person and home person and online person and none of them were the same. Then I realized that I was doing it too and had done it for years. I am not completely decompartmentalized (I am not sure that is a real word), and I keep noticing a nasty tendency to want to erect a new compartment from time to time. This is a great and straightforward way of putting it. I may have to save this somewhere just so I can read it from time to time.

  18. This is all very true. But what about the stuff you have to compartmentalize in order to survive? I have a room for guilt over my parent’s deaths, a room for all the guys I have laid off and fired in the course of my work, a room for my sister who doesn’t speak to me, a room for the guy who tried to harm me physically but I can’t prove it. Lots of compartments like that. Well insulated, snug little soundproof rooms with heavy doors and sturdy locks only I have a key to.

    Men who have been in combat talk about putting those terrifying experiences into compartments so they could live. Healthy? Dunno. But it’s how they cope.

    Compartmentalizing pain may be more common and more destructive than secret habits. But they all need the wrecking ball.

  19. iMonk –

    I don’t know if you have read much of Larry Crabb. I like his thoughts a lot. He uses the ‘room’ metaphor in his book The Safest Place On Earth. This is a description he believes should be true of the church. In the second part of the book, he mainly looks at the two rooms, whereas you mention a possible 15 rooms.

    Anyways, I think he has some really good thoughts in this book.

  20. Internet Elias says

    Imonk…this one is pure Holy Spirit quality. I’ve shared with this audience before how God, for reasons only He knows, has shared deep wisdom with me since first grade in the form of DVD quality (ha)visions. In my late teens, Two men carried me to a luscious, extremely wet with dew, greenest green, and heavy with vegetation…both on its floor and ceiling….forest. AS we walked, I was completely engaged in the ‘aliveness’ of the place. They stationed themselves beside a quiet…still small pool of clear water and ‘telepathically’ invited me to see. I bent down to look into the crystal clear water…and rather seeing its pebbled bottom…..I saw down onto the earth. There were like..two movies going at the same time….of my adult life and family….one version on the left…..the other version on the right. I looked at the one on the left. I saw hatefulness, arguing, selfish priorities, hurtful outcomes….and lots of sadness. Down within that life…I would have not seen it as I saw it from my perspective point from ‘above.’ I was seeing hurt, disappointment…lots of disappointment….lots of hope lost. From my ‘clear’ vantage point ‘above’, I knew I was seeing my life in the death and carnality that began in Eden. Then I viewed my life and family on the right. All the life things were there but they were respectful, kind, peaceful, unselfish, and so..so..hopeful. My children gave me honor. Everything was right. Immediately, the men..telepathically said,,”You choose!” There and then, I chose the life on the right because I knew it was the one the God of the beautiful place I had been allowed to visit……so deeply wanted for me. Now let me tell you how my life is being lived. I am living both. They are connected. I am living the one on the left with the outcomes of the one on the right. In my real life and family I see continual restoration, healing, and hope abounds. I live my life knowing that the understanding given to me during the ‘above’experience has to do with much more than my family. I was actually seeing the family of man in the fallen state…on the left. On the right, I was seeing the family of man, as he had moved from death to life….in the world…but not of the world. Imonk, you’re going to love this….there were no wall, no rooms, both those on the left and those on the right….were continually open to the view of all those ‘above.’ Though we believe so…..nothing is hidden. Feel completely free to with this ‘sharing’ what you want.

  21. Excellent insight Michael! I have been deconstructing for the last 5 years… It’s painful. Just when you think you kind of have things all pulled together, another door to another room appears!

    Thanks for sharing!!!

  22. We learned about this in communication, and it was called “blending”. To a small extent, it isn’t all bad: you should be acting professional when you are around co-workers, bosses, and customers, and you should be more familiar with friends. But when it hits the part where a friend or family member couldn’t recognize you somewhere else, then you have a problem.

    There is also another compartment: your online persona. I’m curious if the people who, for instance, post on youtube comments are that rude and crude (and in a lot of cases, sexist, racist, and bigotted) in their day-to-day life.

    Quick defense for the law: the judge would never rule that way. Dead cats (with few exceptions) are prohibited by statue, and that constitutes a nuisance for the true owners. But, the point of the story is good nonetheless.

    To whom said women did that less:

    Who were you growing up? Sometimes I felt like a circus clown trying to juggle all the different masks I had up in the air growing up. Prettending to be a chaste, intelligent, but modest and demure Christian vs. trying to be confident and acknowledge my own sexual desire. Trying to be confident and assertive (and just a little bit of a tease) at school without getting the reputation of being oppinionated and bitchy and getting a reputation for being a slut. Trying to impress my parents with the AP track while desperately wishing to persue art. Trying to present a family that is comfortable and well-adjusted when we were broke and dysfunctional.

    It got to be downright exhausting.

  23. Fr. Ernesto — Isn’t this the real crisis of faith? Do we really believe in the forgiveness of God?

    Isn’t it the case that the only way for me to live an integrated life is not to get rid of my own rebellion against and rejection of God’s Will, but to accept His forgiveness for it and victory over the death that is the punishment for it. God is not judging me so that I have to wall off my own rebellion from His sight, as in the Garden (even this was self-imposed); I either have not believed in His acceptance of me as I am, or — what is more likely — there are others whose manner of rebellion I can not accept as “able to obtain mercy.”

    If I am judging myself for my behavior and/or circumstances, it must be because I must believe that others behavior renders them as unacceptable in God’s sight. “The judgment ye mete …”. The only way I know of out of my self-imposed “house arrest” is to identify who they are that I am trying to “lock-up” and to forgive them aggressively, praying for them fervently. Then the walls and boulders melt before my eyes.

  24. Just want to add my “way to go” to the others.

    I agree with other comments that tearing down walls and dividers is likely a lifelong process. And I agree that the Holy Spirit is the one who’s lead we need to follow otherwise it just becomes a self-help project led by the one who is a little too subjective and screwed up for the job; namely ourselves. It reminds of me the scene in A Beautiful Mind where John Nash tells the shrink that he can figure this out. The shrink tells him something to the effect that he can’t think his way out of this because the problem is essentially with his mind.

    As a teacher and parent, every once if a while I get annoyed with the way we try to teach our kids to be “nice”. There’s something insipid about that and I think we’re setting them up.

  25. This is a total disappointment, because I didn’t slap my forehead ONE TIME while reading it.

    In all seriousness, I got tears in my eyes as I read, “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.” That is me you’re describing, brother, and THAT SUCKS. Thanks for putting into words what I’ve felt for ten years and more. I’m with Pastor M at the top — this is going to be my Lenten meditation.

  26. Amen to what the others have been saying about this post being a source of Lenten meditation for 2009. I’ll be thinking over this post as I prepare for the Eucharist this morning.

  27. I’m not saying I disagree, but there is something to be said for interacting differently with different groups…

    1 Corinthians 9:19-23
    19Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. 23I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

  28. It seems to me that exposing a different face in different circumstances is a matter of survival …

    Admittedly, not all have lived the sort of life I’ve lived.

  29. I’m with surfnetter on this one.

    After a lifetime of trying to empty out / break down the walls to the uglier rooms in my life (at the endless admonishment of those promising a better, holier existence), I’ve essentially had little to no success. I’m as bad as ever, and even if I’ve eliminated some things, there are plenty left. And there always will be and I’m sick of trying.

    Why do we teach that there is nothing that we can do to earn salvation, and then once we begin the Christian journey we load ourselves down with the burden of earning it with our actions and lifestyles?

    For me, I wish I could eliminate the false rooms that society and some in the church expect of me and simply be who I really am. Years ago, during a private conversation, my pastor and I both admitted that we enjoy a good drink (and horrors to all of you, we are both SBC). I can’t tell you how removing that mask opened up our relationship with each other beyond the normal “how-are-you I’m-fine”.

  30. Pope John Paul II speaks to this issue in a document he wrote twenty years ago: Christifideles Laici (link below). Read sections 15 thru 17. It is both inspiring and challenging, as was Michael’s post.

  31. The comment by Ed above reminded me of an incident that happened years ago when one of my sisters decided to go on the Atkin’s Diet and cut out carbs. She was and still is a sugar-oholic if ever there was one and within 2 hrs of having begun the diet, became essentially what amounted to a neurotic raving lunatic. She was driving us so nuts that we finally said “Here, have a damn chocolate bar already!” For her, even the thought of dieting brought out the worst.

    I don’t think assimilating our fractured selves is something that we can simply make a resolution to undertake otherwise we’ll likely end up like my sister, piling on more failed resolutions. Paul’s statement about doing the very things that he shouldn’t do, etc. reminds me of just that. Essentially, I think we become aware of our plight and we put it in God’s hands. All we can do is follow His lead and it ain’t always easy. Small steps back to the core.

  32. That was a sobering word. I find it resounding in my soul. Wow… That is relevant and well-spoken, as always.

    Thanks for taking the time to be honest about topics like this.

    I guess a question that I would ask you is, What do you do to not live with these walls? How do you break down these walls?

  33. Internet Elias says

    MATTHEW BERRY …I guess a question that I would ask you is, What do you do to not live with these walls? How do you break down these walls?

    Maybe call in a Master carpenter. I heard once there is one who advertises, ‘if I make you free you are free indeed.’ Isaiah talks about walls of salvation (60:18). Those might be nice.

  34. Surfnetter, that is why I quoted St. Paul in Romans 7. This was an apostle expressing the same thought as iMonk. He does go on to Romans 8, but the fact that he is forgiven, and knows it, does not stop his sadness and frustration with himself in his expression of the Christian life. But, neither does it stop him from faithfully preaching the Gospel and faithfully following his Lord to death itself. As with most things, it is a matter of balance.

    But, iMonk is talking about Satanic compartamelization. That is very different from psychological compartamelization. The psychological one can be a way to deal with traumas, at least temporarily. But, the Satanic one keeps you from even seeing that you are sinning, that you are keeping God out of parts of your life. Often the person who has compartamentalized as a defense actually knows so. The danger that Screwtape points out is those who have been blinded so that they do not know they are compartamentalized.

  35. I was never as broken and wretched as I was when I was a Christian. As long as I live, your grand commission will fail. Do I make myself clear?

  36. i wasnt here in my present role as associate pastor a full month before my willingness to question the intermediate state and certain dispensationalist eschatology raised such a ruckus that people left the church.

    since then ive been admonished not to talk about such things outside of the lead pastors office. he encourages me to come to him with such thinking but has made it clear he doesnt want it anywhere else.

    so it seems that for me at least there is no place where compartmentalizing seems more necessary for survival than in church.

  37. CS Lewis has a lot of good things to say. I’m going to re-read Screwtape Letters this year sometime.

  38. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    I was never as broken and wretched as I was when I was a Christian. As long as I live, your grand commission will fail. Do I make myself clear? — Goliath

    So you got burned by Christians, so now you’re an Anti-Christian, an Anti-Theist on the level of Madelyn Murray O’Hair, never passing up as chance at the only thing you live for — Sticking It To Those Hated Xians. Like a funhouse mirror of Those Xians, puking up the same abuse you got but in the other direction. You know who that reminds me of?

    Ayn Rand, the Russian expat who was as Anti-Soviet as it was possible to be, a funhouse mirror-image of Lenin and Stalin who founded a cult of Utter Selfishness instead of Utter Collectivism.
    Atlas Shrugged as SCRIPTURE (TM) instead of Das Kapital.
    Communism begets Objectivism.

  39. What a hilariously incorrect attempt at armchair analysis. I have never been a communist.

Speak Your Mind