The Intolerable Compliment

We have all received our share of painful compliments ranging from the tame “Wow, you look so much healthier than you used to” to the more potent “Where on earth did your sons get that incredible skin? They clearly did not get that from you.”

But C.S. Lewis had something different in mind when he wrote about the intolerable compliment.

To borrow from Old Testament imagery, God is the potter, painstakingly and patiently, yet powerfully working on us, his lumps of clay. According to Ephesians 2:10, believers are His workmanship, His masterpiece.

Initially, this sounds like a high compliment, as indeed it is. However, if God is an infinite artisan with perfection as His standard, then to be one of His masterpieces can be seen as an intolerable compliment. For He cannot and will not leave well enough alone. He will not cut corners or rush the process to get to the finished product. And, if He has an eternal backdrop in mind, He will not be in a rush or a hurry.

Over the past few weeks, my husband has been working on a pair of mid-century modern chairs. He didn’t start from scratch, but planned on transforming two of the ugliest and largest chairs on the earth into functional and aesthetically pleasing furniture. Quite a tall task, especially considering that he works in our cluttered garage with three small boys underfoot.


Usually I step onto the scene for the finishing and staining after he has done all the hard work; however, this time, motivated by a selfish desire to have chairs to sit on in our living room, I jumped in a little earlier in the process, offering to sand the chair.

For an hour or two, it was just me, the chair and an electric sander. At first, I thoroughly enjoyed the process, as countless layers of veneer and varnish disappeared leaving smooth fresh surfaces. However, as novelty and exhilaration gave way to boredom and exhaustion, I began caring less about the process and rushing to the product.

The corners, crevices, curves and other hard-to-sand places left me frustrated and exposed me as simultaneously hasty and lazy. I just wanted the chairs to be complete; besides, who looks on the underside of arm chairs, anyway?

If I am honest, I often wish God were more like me, rushing to His final product with little regard for the details and quality. I want God to sanctify me, electric-sander-style, sloughing off layers of selfishness in one motion.

Yet, in what Lewis calls the intolerable compliment, God will not treat me as a cheap piece of furniture to be thrown away in a decade. He will treat me as His masterpiece that will live on with Him eternally.

Over a sketch made idly to amuse a child, an artist may not take much trouble; he may be content to let it go even though it is not exactly as he meant it to be. But over the great picture of his life – the work which he loves, though in a different fashion, as intensely as a man loves a woman or a mother a child – he will take endless trouble – and would, doubtless, thereby give endless trouble to the picture if it were sentient. One can imagine a sentient picture, after being rubbed and scraped and recommenced for the tenth time, wishing that it were a thumbnail sketch whose making was over in a minute. In the same way, it is natural for us to wish that God had designed us for a less glorious and less arduous destiny; but then we are wishing not for more love but for less.” The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis.

Just as Jesus used his hands to sand literal pieces of furniture as a carpenter, He continues His carpentry on His sentient masterpieces. With the slow, steady strokes of a Master and the ease of One who is outside time, He will slowly shape and sand His children into those completely made in His likeness. He will not rush the process to get a poorly made product, His intolerable compliment to His children.

When the sandpaper of life and relationships rubs you raw or circumstances grate against your knotty places, know you are being shaped by the scarred hands of the Master who means to make you into His masterpiece. Receive the compliment of His uncomfortable sanctification.

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