C. S. Lewis: How much do we really love God?

In a 1949 letter written to Warfield M. Firor (an American surgeon and post-war benefactor), C. S. Lewis relates to his correspondent personal experience regarding the difficulty of achieving the ‘peace that passes all understanding’ (c.f.; Philippians 4:7) – namely that peace, in worldly terms, is more often than not conceived of in terms of the absence of some negative factor (pain, fear, stress, etc), and not in terms of a positive love of God for its own sake:

It’s all there in the New Testament, though. “Dying to the world” – “the world is crucified to me and I to the world”. And I find I haven’t begun: at least not if it means (and can it mean less) than a steady and progressive disentangling of all one’s motives from the merely natural or this-worldly objects…

…It is not the things, nor even the pleasures in them, but the fact that in such pleasures my heart, or so much of my heart, lies. Or to put it in a fantastic form – if a voice said to me (and one I couldn’t disbelieve) “you shall never see the face of God, never help to save a neighbour’s soul, never be free from sin, but you shall live in perfect health till the age of 100, very rich, and die the most famous man in the world, and pass into a twilight consciousness of a vaguely pleasant sort forever” – how much would it worry me? How much compared with another war? Or even with an announcement that I should have to have all my teeth out? You see? And what right have I to expect the Peace of God while I thus put my whole heart, at least all my strongest wishes, in the world which he has warned me against?

from a letter dated 5th December 1949, in Yours Jack: The Inspirational Letters of C. S. Lewis (2008), pp.148-149, Harper Collins.

            Lewis here draws attention to something that I am sure everybody will have experienced at least at some point in their life, and for a great deal (including myself) it is a frequent concern. How much do I really love God? When put in the context presented by Lewis – that “‘you shall never see the face of God, never help to save a neighbour’s soul, never be free from sin, but you shall live in perfect health till the age of 100, very rich, and die the most famous man in the world, and pass into a twilight consciousness of a vaguely pleasant sort forever”’ it is very difficult to deny that if these terms were offered I would leap at the chance. For true Christian love involves self-sacrifice; it is costly – and not just with respect to loving one’s neighbour, but the love of God too. To truly love God for His own sake, above all else, involves an enormous amount (often a lifetime’s worth) of internal spring-cleaning, re-ordering of priorities and re-setting of habitual inclinations to things both healthy and sinful.

We, of course, are given ample means of grace to assist us in this journey of growing closer to God and developing a perfect love of Him, but often even these are not enough (or rather we do not open ourselves up to them enough), and so other means are required to work in us the humility that is required to place God above all else in our lives. Lewis follows the above passage with a consideration of the other, extra-sacramental means that God uses to bring us on in holiness (for to be holy and to be perfect in love are one and the same):

Well, thank God (for there is still part of me, a tiny little infantine voice somewhere amidst all the strong, confident natural voices, which can just thank Him, or perhaps only thank Him for being able to wish to thank Him) we shall not be left to the world. All His terrible resources (but it is we who force him to use them) will be brought against us to detach us from it – insecurity, war, poverty, pain, unpopularity, loneliness. We must be taught that this tent is not home. And, by Jove, how terrible would it be if all suffering, including death itself, were optional, so that only a very few voluntary ascetics ever even attempted to achieve the end for which we are created. A propos – dare we gloss the text “Strait is the way and few there be that find it” by adding “And that’s why most of you have to be bustled and badgered into it like sheep – and the sheep-dogs have to have pretty sharp teeth too”! I hope so.

ibid, p.149.

            Though expressed in stark terms, and in language that, due to the epistolary nature of the passage, is perhaps more offhand than the problem of pain is normally treated with, Lewis does capture rather well the essence of a theodicy first developed by Saint Irenaeus, often termed ‘soul-making’ – the idea that our sufferings and travails in this life are in some sense necessary to bring us closer to God. Otherwise, as Lewis says, ‘only a very few voluntary ascetics’ would ever attempt the process of self-denial and re-ordering of desires that is required to perfect ourselves in love. Now, I don’t intend to go into the ins and outs of theodicy here, nor the question of whether Irenaeus’ theory can be justified or not, but it does seem to me that in some sense (whether providentially arranged that way or not) the sufferings of this life do genuinely help us to grow closer to God, and without them the majority of us would almost certainly do what we preferred, which would more often than not involve the most comfortable and pleasurable option.

What is wrong with choosing comfort and pleasure? Nothing in and of itself; but continually choosing the soft option (even for ends good in themselves) inevitably leads to a soul that is solely concerned with itself and its own satisfaction. We can ponder other possible worlds where self-sacrifice is not needed in order to grow spiritually, where love of God is an easily achieved goal or even an unnecessary one, but apart from the fact that these worlds (when we have thought long and hard about it) are in many ways either incoherent or in some way inferior to our own, they are not real. This is the world we live in, and holiness is hard work. Growing perfect in love is difficult, and requires many hours of struggle before the path starts to become a little clearer.

Thanks be to God however, that this is not the whole story. Life is not all struggle, and not all suffering (despite what many atheists would have you believe!) – there is much joy to be had, much wonder and beauty to behold, and much love to be received and passed on again. That it is sometimes hard to see the end of the road, or that it sometimes feels like little progress is being made, should not be a hindrance to experiencing the profound awe and gratitude that we should exist at all, and even more, that the reason we are here is Love.

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