Christian Magnanimity

Christian magnanimity is an overflow of grace to bear with the immaturities and shortcomings of people around us – for their benefit.

The chest, C.S. Lewis reports, is the seat of magnanimity.

Between the demands of the head (logic) and the rumblings of the belly (appetite), humans are overwhelmed with conflict, and one of these two warriors will typically win the battle. In the middle lies a mediating factor, a middle man – the Chest. The Chest does not simply avoid conflict, like a middle child, but takes up responsibility as a trained referee – “emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments.”

The magnanimous man, The Great Souled Man, can see that his reason and his passions are both dangerous, and both indispensable. Why? Lewis’s version of magnanimity may sound merely like a golden mean, but the Greeks did not see it that way. The Great Souled Man was to them Great indeed. He won battles. He overflowed with generosity to the defeated (but not to the still-hostile). Problems did not turn him off his course. As Churchill said, “In War, Victory; In Defeat, Defiance; In Victory, Magnanimity.” Valor is throughout the thread.

The puerile doppelgänger of magnanimity is pusillanimity – pettiness. Drowning in a sea of smallness, a petty fellow is overcome with jealousies, rivalries, fear.

Sound familiar? The disciples of Jesus are throughout the gospels struggling with their immature emotions. The events after the Transfiguration, when Jesus decidedly sets his path toward Calvary, reveal an unravelling of James, John, Simon, and the rest. Upon the Lord’s descent from the mountain, he like Moses before him discovered a walloping mess at the base of the holy hill. Mark chapter nine records a tangle of disciples, crowd, scribes, and a man with a possessed son. The disciples had tried but failed to cast out a demon, and incurred all the personal frustration and theological brow-beating of failed charismatic healings.

Jesus’ arrival is as powerful as Charlton Heston casting down the stone tablets. “You wicked generation!” he tells his sorry followers, “How much longer must I be among you?” You can imagine how they felt. They had not only failed but created a mess for Jesus to clean up. They had disappointed their leader.

Shortly afterward, they are walking with the Christ, and he tells them about his impending doom and victory. “But they did not understand what he was saying, and were afraid to ask him.” Moments later, Jesus calls them out on an immature tussle over who would be greatest. “But they were silent.”

Disappointment of your hero, fear and especially fear of looking stupid, embarrassment. The disciples in these short scenes are overcome by their small emotions. Even John’s attempted logical response to the last (he ironically tells Jesus about some other man who was failing to exorcise correctly) is ultimately self-centered and off the mark.

On the other side of this evangelical coin, Jesus is striving with the disciples with incredible forbearance. Purposefully stepping on the path toward his hour of pain, the disciples’ foibles not only fail to distract him, but he refuses to abandon his commitment to them.

Even after the failed demon-casting debacle, Jesus speaks privately with his novices in reflective instruction (“this kind only comes out by prayer”). Next, his words about suffering and three days’ death come in a private walk with the men, in which he is pouring into them and them alone. Finally, upon unearthing their petty fight about greatness, Jesus not only withholds an outright condemnation (“You’re wrong”) but turns the conversation back around to his own teaching points. His vision is their benefit, and he will not be deterred by his own frustration.

Christian magnanimity is seeing the big picture, yes. It is a generosity of the soul, just like the ancients saw it. But it is also thunderously personal, focused on the real benefit of specific people.

Christian magnanimity is an overflow of grace to bear with the immaturities and shortcomings of people around us – for their benefit.

Fear. Embarrassment. Frustration. Annoyance. Taking offense. These are feelings and usually not bad in themselves. But we must be aware that they are sloped toward petty sins, immature responses, and self-justification.

The Great Soul is greatening our own souls by his forbearance, so let us overflow with grace for the benefit of those around us.

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