Are You A Scoundrel: The Deceptive Longing for the Inner Ring

It’s never long before I realize that I am always on the outside of some indefinable inner ring – and mostly I’m bitter about it. I always want more authority, more influence, and to be further on the inside than the guy next to me.

CS Lewis writes that all of our lives at one point or another are colored and controlled by the desire to be on “the inside of the local Inner Ring and the terror of being left outside.” To my shame, I am no exception. I am one of the many men whose life has been dominated at all periods, both by my desire to be on the inside and the terror of being left on the outside.

While the existence of inner rings is a necessary part of life, the desire to be inside those rings is nearly demonic.

In That Hideous Strength, Lewis fictionalizes this desire. The story follows Mark, a man who’s longing to be inside the “inner ring” leads him to increasingly dark places. His ambitions, which start innocently enough at university and the National Institute of Coordinated Sciences (NICE for short), take him to a very real hell. Driven by his desires, he becomes a “scoundrel by degrees,” making more and more compromising decisions. These choices never seem all that compromising in the moment, but nevertheless lead him to his greatest desire – the highest echelons of authority. Mark is invited to meet the head of NICE. But he’s horrified when he discovers the “head” of NICE is just that: a literal decapitated head, re-animated by fallen spirits. Lewis’ point is that the unchecked desire for the inner ring only ends one way – in horror; the horror of the mirror. Mark realizes that to get to the top, he had become an “unscrupulous, treacherous, ruthless egotist,” essentially a head possessed and controlled by demonic desires.

Lewis is a little gentler in his homily “The Inner Ring.” He tells us that one of the greatest tragedies of longing to be on the inside is you never get what you want. Searching for the inner ring is “peeling an onion. If you succeed there will be nothing left.”

Were he still alive, Lewis would point out that a blog with a readership as large as Rooted is presumably read by godly people but, statistically, “it is almost certain that two or three of you before you die will become something very much like scoundrels.” He warns all of us, that the desire for the inner ring is subtle and exceedingly dangerous. You won’t be taken in by obvious threats, or bribes, or adulteries. But “over a drink or a cup of coffee, disguised as a triviality and sandwiched between two jokes… you will be drawn in, not by the desire for gain or ease but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you [could not] bear to be thrust back into the cold outer world.”

As an ambitious guy under the age of 30, I feel vulnerable to this sin. As a leader in the church and a contributor to this widely read blog, I feel even more susceptible to this sin. Every time I am invited to preach, or asked to demonstrate my expertise, it can feel (if I’m being honest) like an invitation to a pagan temple consecrated for, and adorned with my idols. I do not believe I’m alone in this. Inner rings ruin ministries weekly, and will continue to do so. We must do the hard work of uprooting our desires for inner rings. John Owen would tell us to be “killing our inner rings, lest they be killing you.”

I know I sinfully desire the inner ring every time I hear a coworker complimented by our senior pastor… (…wondering to myself how do I get that accolade?)

I know it as a blogger when I double check to see how many likes my article got, or the number of comments I received, or when I compare these things to the article posted the next day. When I do any of those things, I know I am jones-ing for the inner ring.

I know I sinfully desire the inner ring every time I wonder why I wasn’t asked to contribute on a particular project, wondering what I could have done to prove my expertise on that subject.

I know I want to be on the inside because I am hawkishly aware of the details and number of times I have been praised, while assiduously documenting the faults of my co-workers.

I know I want to be on the inside when I savor and replay what every youth pastor eventually hears: “When are you going to be leaving us… You’re so anointed, talented, gifted. When are you going to lead your own church?”

In The Screwtape Letters, Lewis writes a series of letters between an elder demon coaching a younger one. Screwtape (the elder) gets angry with Wormwood for allowing his “patient” to read a book. According to Screwtape, this is a disaster because the patient didn’t read it with the hope of being clever at his next dinner party. He didn’t read it to get on the inside of another more inner ring. He read the book just for the pleasure of it.

How many books, sermons, articles, have I read or listened to with that same selfish motivation? And how many has Satan tallied as a victory?

This sin is nothing new. It’s as old as Adam. Discontent with the relationship and community that God had initially invited them into, Adam and Eve desired an even more inner ring. No other animal had been imprinted with the imago dei, but the Devil convinced them that the image of God was less desirable than a shared status with God. In fact, at the center of all our desires for the illusive inner ring is nothing more than the desire to “be like God.”

However, the glorious good news of the gospel to young, ambitious, youth pastors, bloggers, and leaders of all kind is that we are already on the inside of the most intimate, exclusive, and truly Inner Ring through Christ. Although we constantly forsake the relationship of one worldly inner ring to achieve the status of another, our savior did not.

Jesus regarded His status as nothing, so that He might purchase our exclusive relationship. He left the Inner Ring of heaven’s throne, perfect communion with God, exclusive authority over heaven and earth. And He humbled Himself to not just death on a cross, but death on the outside: outside of the city of Jerusalem, abandoned by His most loyal disciples, and outside of God’s grace – “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus did all of this so that when He was raised, not only would our sinful desire for the inner ring remain buried, but also we would be raised into the most exalted ring of all. “Raised with Him, and seated with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus. So that in the coming ages He might show the immeasurable riches of His grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus.”

When we truly know and remember that we have been invited into the utmost inner ring of God’s immeasurable riches of grace in kindness, we can let all the titles and positions we long for rot. We will be gloriously unconcerned with whether or not they pan out because our title and position is fixed with Christ on high.


Seth Stewart is a husband and a dad, and after a decade in student ministry is now working as the Editor-in-Chief at Spoken Gospel. Spoken Gospel creates online resources that point to Jesus from every passage of Scripture. Seth spends his day writing, speaking, and being his family's chef.

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