On compound interest

I was rereading a chapter in “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis this morning during a little downtime, and I encountered this passage, which talks about how our treatment of others can compound, both internally and externally.

“This same spiritual law works terribly in the opposite direction. The Germans, perhaps, at first ill-treated the Jews because they hated them: afterwards they hated them much more because they had ill-treated them. The more cruel you are, the more you will hate; and the more you hate, the more cruel you will become—and so on in a vicious circle for ever. Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest good act today is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of. An apparently trivial indulgence in lust or anger today is the loss of a ridge or railway line or bridgehead from which the enemy may launch an attack otherwise impossible.”

I’ve fallen victim to this spiral of downward thinking in my own past.  A simple slight turns into a chasm of frustration and anger. One little misstep early in the morning can ruin the entire day. I’m not typically a grudge-holding type, but I am also not the forgetting type, so sometimes I’ll admit that things can weigh heavy on my mind and heart if I’ve been mistreated, and I’ll definitely admit that when I mistreat someone, that can affect my mood in a negative way moving forward.

The converse side of that argument is that it is very easy to compound that interest in a positive direction, as well. A single compliment or success early in the day can affect your mood positively moving forward, whether that compliment is paid or received. This is intuitive, but what isn’t intuitive is that I can actively affect those outcomes by being conscious of how an investment in someone can pay forward. I think that in the past I’ve thought of emotions as something that happened to me, but I’ve been experimenting lately with the idea actively pursuing better feelings. One of those ways is by seeking God, but another is through seeking more positive interactions with people in everyday life.

This passage from 2 Peter spoke to me on this very subject: “For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love” (2 Peter 1: 5-7). These verses tell us that the positive emotions–and even the cardinal virtues–can compound and lead to each other. An investment in faith and goodness can lead to love.

In that same previously-mentioned chapter, Lewis expounds on that idea: “Some writers use the word charity to describe not only Christian love between human beings, but also God’s love for man and man’s love for God. About the second of these two, people are often worried. They are told they ought to love God. They cannot find any such feeling in themselves. What are they to do? The answer is the same as before. Act as if you did. Do not sit trying to manufacture feelings. Ask yourself, ‘If I were sure that I loved God, what would I do?’ When you have found the answer, go and do it.”

This also calls back to my previous thoughts on practice. Sometimes in a dark moment, it can be difficult to summon those positive emotions associated with faith in God and goodwill towards humankind.  If we actively and consciously act like we think God would want us to act, though, we might be able to become closer to those beautiful things, and then we might actually achieve them.

In that way, a little thing like saying a morning prayer can pay dividends later in our relationship with God, and practicing/pretending to be our best imitation of Christ can lead to a better understanding of Him.


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