Last month I read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. I was vaguely familiar with the story but definitely unfamiliar with the characters. As I read I was intrigued by Atticus Finch. At every turn he seemed to give people the benefit of the doubt and even (perhaps to a fault) willing to cover character defects with loving understanding.
It is the interaction with characters like these that showcase some of the pleasures of reading. When we read we find ourselves reacting. These reactions serve to reveal what is in our hearts.
In my case, Atticus kept on surprising me, even after I thought I had him figured out. Over the course of the book these reactions betrayed my heart. For example, he surprised me with his comments about and perspective on Mrs. Dubose. She was a mean, rude, racist woman. She stood against a lot of what Atticus gave himself for. She was also a morphine addict who had vowed to get clean before she died. And she did. After her death Atticus talks to Jem and Scout and says,
“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do. Mrs. Dubose won, all ninety-eight pounds of her. According to her views, she died beholden to nothing and nobody. She was the bravest person I ever knew.”
The lady was on my nerves but Atticus was eulogizing her, with sincerity. He seemed to do this with everyone he intersected with in the book, from the vile Mr. Ewell to Judge Taylor to Tom Robinson to Walter Cunningham Sr to even the town and time they lived in. Everything, it seemed, was an occasion to find an explanation for the evil or an evidence of something noble or praiseworthy. Atticus was slow to anger, balanced, and just.
I can sometimes find myself to be comfortably self-righteous in my judgments. Can you relate? We close the door to mercy and wipe away opportunities to find something noble or upright or praiseworthy. We are instructed by the Apostle to actively fix our minds on things that are good and praiseworthy (Phil. 4:8).
At times this work is more difficult than others. However, it is always easier when we remember that we ourselves are not the good guys but the bad guys. We have sinned and fallen short. We are the questionable characters in God’s story. But God, being rich in mercy and full of love, walks onto the stage in and through Christ to rescue us from our sinful rebellion by paying our eternal debt.
Early in the book Atticus gives Scout some advice:
“First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things form his point of view-“
“Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
When we are talking about patience and understanding, Christians above all, have to remember we are walking around in the skin of another. We ourselves were lost and in bondage to sin; without God and without hope in the world. We have a category for people acting foolishly and selfishly. Compassion and sympathy come from hearts of understanding.
The character in Harper Lee’s story helped me to become uncomfortable enough to ask questions about myself. You might say he cross examined me when I didn’t know I was even on the stand. This is a pleasure of reading, sometimes the book you are reading begins to read you. As a Christian everything is a tool that can aid in the heart work of sanctification.