Archive for the ‘ The Christian Spirit ’ Category

Lewis: Redefining Happiness & Comfort

C. S. Lewis 3People are always striving to be happy. The problem is the definition of the term. It’s always self-centered and focused on how we feel. As a result, we drift toward the quick and easy, anything that makes us “feel” good. In just two sentences, C. S. Lewis lays bare the barrenness of that approach:

Which of the religions of the world gives to its followers the greatest happiness? While it lasts, the religion of worshipping oneself is the best.

The key there is the phrase “while it lasts.” Scripture tells us that sin gives pleasure for a short time, but it ultimately leads to emptiness. The search for the “comfortable” is illusory; what we need is the truth that will challenge us and teach us the real source of happiness, in the process redefining the term. Lewis goes on to say,

As you perhaps know, I haven’t always been a Christian. I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.

That’s because comfort and happiness, as understood by the unrenewed mind, are illusions, pale shadows of what we find in a relationship with God once we have put away our sin and received new eyes. There will be happiness, there will be comfort, far beyond anything we imagine while bound in sin. But it won’t be based on selfishness. We’ll finally comprehend that what the Lord offers us is the real definition of those terms.

Finney: Man Can Obey God

One reason Charles Finney was so successful as an evangelist was his insistence that all people are accountable for their actions. Finney didn’t allow excuses; in his view, too many people would hide behind a theology that said they couldn’t obey God. He considered that illogical and dangerous to one’s spiritual state. In his Revival Lectures, he is quite blunt:

Revival LecturesWe, as moral agents, have the power to obey God, and are perfectly bound to obey; and the reason that we do not is, that we are unwilling. The influences of the Spirit are wholly a matter of grace. If they were indispensable to enable us to perform duty, the bestowment of them would not be a gracious act, but a mere matter of common justice.

Sinners are not bound to repent because they have the Spirit’s influence, or because they can obtain it, but because they are moral agents, and have the powers which God requires them to exercise. So in the case of Christians. . . .

When God commands us to do a thing, it is the highest possible evidence that we can do it. For God to command is equivalent to an oath that we can do it. He has no right to command, unless we have the power to obey. There is no stopping short of the conclusion that God is tyrannical, if He commands that which is impracticable.

The children of Israel were told in Deuteronomy, chapter 30, that they were capable of obeying God:

For this commandment which I command you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it out of reach. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?” . . . But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it.

I’m also reminded what the apostle John says in chapter 5 of his first letter:

For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome.

We are called to lives of obedience, and He’s given us the ability to be obedient. It’s time we stop making excuses for sin.

Lewis: The Source of Happiness

There is a genuine happiness and a false happiness. Some people seem to make it their goal in life to be happy, but when that is your goal, you miss it entirely because it’s based on self-centeredness. You run around trying to get happy or find someone or something that will make you happy, but it’s all artificial. Happiness, in itself, is not the be-all and end-all of life. Your expectations make all the difference. In an essay, “Answers to Questions on Christianity,” C. S. Lewis discusses this:

If you think of this world as a place intended simply for our happiness, you find it quite intolerable: think of it as a place of training and correction and it’s not so bad.

Imagine a set of people all living in the same building. Half of them think it is a hotel, the other half think it is a prison. Those who think it a hotel might regard it as quite intolerable, and those who thought it was a prison might decide that it was really surprisingly comfortable. So that what seems the ugly doctrine is one that comforts and strengthens you in the end.

The people who try to hold an optimistic view of this world would become pessimists: the people who hold a pretty stern view of it become optimistic.

This doesn’t mean there isn’t true happiness, though. One just needs to find the source. Lewis explains in his classic Mere Christianity:

God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other.

That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.

We are restless and unhappy until we find our peace in Him. Therein lies a happiness that won’t be found anywhere else.

C. S. Lewis & Happiness

Finney: The Clear Communication of the Gospel

Charles Finney 4A good many ministers in Charles Finney’s day didn’t like the way he preached. He hadn’t gone to one of the seminaries of the time; instead, he came directly out of the practice of law into his evangelistic ministry. They despised his lack of “polish” in the pulpit, in the sense that he didn’t fill his sermons with examples from classical history or use language suited more to the well-educated congregations. He had this penchant for talking to the common man and making sure that man understood the message of the Gospel.

Finney listened to their criticisms, but found no good reason to change his style. He shares this story in his autobiography that touches on the issue:

Many years ago a beloved pastor of my acquaintance, left home for his health, and employed a young man, just from the seminary, to fill his pulpit while he was absent. This young man wrote and preached as splendid sermons as he could. The pastor’s wife finally ventured to say to him, “You are preaching over the heads of our people. They do no understand your language or your illustrations. You bring too much of your learning into the pulpit.”

He replied, “I am a young man. I am cultivating a style. I am aiming to prepare myself for occupying a pulpit and surrounding myself with a cultivated congregation. I cannot descend to your people. I must cultivate an elevated style.”

I have had my thought and eye upon this man ever since. I am not aware that he is yet dead; but I have never seen his name connected with any revival, amidst all the great revivals that we have had, from year to year, since that time; and I never expect to, unless his views are radically changed, and unless he addresses the people from an entirely different stand-point, and from entirely different motives.

How many ministers are in the ministry for the wrong reasons? How many just want to impress with their intellect? How many talk above the heads of the people who need to hear the message that will lead them out of sin and into life? As Finney says, the motives need to be entirely different. I have no problem with a learned ministry, but if one has really “learned” what God wants one to learn, the Gospel will be communicated clearly and with conviction. God will work with that to bring results.

On Being Thankful

Thankful PeopleThanksgiving is not just the fourth Thursday in November, as dictated by the government. For Christians, every day is one of thanksgiving, even when our circumstances tempt us to think we have little for which to be thankful. Whenever we give in to that temptation, we erect an obstacle to the flow of God’s blessings. Stop and think. No one is immune from difficulties; the difference is God’s presence in those difficulties.

It’s from that perspective that I offer thanks for the following:

  • Growing up in a family that wasn’t broken by divorce, knowing that my parents always wanted the best for me.
  • Starting my own marriage with someone who was as committed to serving God as I was.
  • Two children who are now happily married with children of their own. Having seven grandchildren is one of life’s greatest joys.
  • God’s abundant forgiveness for the times I’ve breached trust with Him and those closest to me.
  • The experience of seeing how God leads from one place to another at times when I didn’t know where to turn. I now live in the confidence that the cliché of the open door is more than a cliché for those who put their trust in Him.
  • The opportunities I have for speaking His truths, whether in the classroom, in books and articles, or in this daily commentary.
  • The hundreds of students who have crossed my path and with whom I stay in contact over the years; the friendships that have grown as a result.
  • The simple, yet essential, things of life: shelter, a good night’s sleep, tasty food, free time to read and think, good fellowship.
  • The sure promise that this life is only the beginning of an eternity with the One who is the source of all life.

Yes, I am thankful, and I never want to lose that spirit of gratitude. Anything less would be an affront to the God who lifted me from the pit and made me a new person. As the apostle Paul instructed in I Thessalonians, chapter 5:

Be cheerful no matter what; pray all the time; thank God no matter what happens. This is the way God wants you who belong to Christ Jesus to live.

That is my goal.

Finney: Effective Prayer

Prayer-FerventCharles Finney writes of “agonizing prayer.” What he means by this is a deep connection of the individual with the heart of God for the salvation of others. It’s not an external effort—the harder we pray, the more will happen—but an internal identification with the will of God and a sincere desire to see His will fulfilled. Properly understood, this type of prayer stems from humility and will never become proud when an answer is received. Finney explains it this way:

Another reason why God requires this sort of prayer is that it is the only way in which the Church can be properly prepared to receive great blessings without being injured by them. When the Church is thus prostrated in the dust before God, and is in the depth of agony in prayer, the blessing does them good. While at the same time, if they had received the blessing without this deep prostration of soul, it would have puffed them up with pride. But as it is, it increases their holiness, their love, their humility.

The efficacy of earnest prayer is referenced in the book of James also:

The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the earth for three years and six months. Then he prayed again, and the sky poured rain and the earth produced its fruit.

Let that be an encouragement to us all.

Remembering—and Rereading—C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis 5Fifty years ago yesterday, C. S. Lewis, just one week shy of his 65th birthday, slipped into eternity. At the ripe young age of twelve, I was unaware of his death. The whole world was watching the unfolding events surrounding the JFK assassination, so the passing of a university professor whose writings had awakened a generation to the vibrancy of Christianity, went virtually unnoticed.

Lewis himself felt his influence had waned in his later years. Most observers agreed, and they predicted his works would slip into obscurity with him. Both Lewis and those cultural observers were wrong.

I never read any of Lewis’s works until after I was in college. If I remember correctly, the first time I heard him mentioned was in one of my classes, when I inadvertently overheard a conversation between a couple of students sitting in front of me. One girl seemed quite taken with a book of Lewis’s—either The Screwtape Letters or That Hideous Strength [my memory on that point is fuzzy]—and it piqued my interest. Over the next several years, he became one of my favorite writers, as my own faith grew. He obviously has remained so, since I use Saturdays in this daily commentary to draw attention to some of his most poignant quotes and valuable insights.

Lewis is difficult to classify; he was a Christian writer, to be sure, but he was far more. His first writings were anything but Christian, as he emerged from his early education and his WWI experience a convinced atheist. The transformation to orthodox Christianity was not easy, as he struggled with many intellectual objections. Yet with the help of friends like J. R. R. Tolkien—later famous as author of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings—he found his way “home.”

He began his academic tenure at Oxford as a philosopher and an aspiring poet. His focus later shifted to English literature, where he earned praise as an original thinker and critic. He used all of that background and training as the basis for his specifically Christian writings. His first foray into that realm was philosophical and apologetic. His very first book as a Christian was titled The Pilgrim’s Regress, a reformulated Pilgrim’s Progress that tackled the many philosophical traps modern man falls into.

C. S. Lewis on TimeFrom there, he ventured into science fiction, with the “Ransom Trilogy”: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. Even before completing that series, he gave a series of radio broadcasts on the BBC during WWII that catapulted him into national prominence. Those talks later were edited and bound together as the bestseller Mere Christianity. Simultaneously, his fanciful side more fully emerged with the popular Screwtape Letters, consisting of supposed letters of advice from a senior devil to his junior, instructing him how to lead a man into hell. It has remained one of Lewis’s most admired works, not only for its imaginative approach but also for its practicality as we seek to live the Christian life and avoid the pitfalls Satan places in our path.

One of my personal favorites is a slim volume, The Great Divorce, which explores what it might be like if a busload of hell-dwellers had the opportunity to go to heaven for one day. How might they respond? I’ve never read a more insightful peek into the utter selfishness of man than what I find in this book. Try it; you might like it.

His The Abolition of Man is a magnificent treatise on the absurdity of moral relativism and nihilism. It’s been quite a while since I’ve read that one; I need to get back to it soon. That’s one way to know the value of an author. If you feel compelled to reread, you know you have found a treasure.

One of my favorite Lewis pieces is a sermon he gave called “The Weight of Glory.” His description of how common everyday people should be viewed instead as potential heavenly creatures or potential horrors one would meet only in a nightmare is striking. It makes you see everyone in a distinct, eternal light.

Lewis’s breadth of scope in his works is highlighted of course by The Chronicles of Narnia. They are ostensibly children’s books—and they are—but their appeal extends to adults who want to ensure their own children are immersed in them. The lessons within those books are for all ages, and although the writing style is superb for children, it doesn’t insult the intelligence of their elders. One comes away from those books, particularly, for me, The Last Battle, with a clearer understanding of the temporal nature of our current world and an anticipation for the arrival of the next one, which will be better by far.

I’ve hardly exhausted what could be said about Lewis’s works, both the ones noted above and others. His influence continues. His home nation of Great Britain has been slow to recognize his worth; America seems to have understood and appreciated him more over the decades. Oxford never fully grasped his genius, never promoted him, and many of his supposed colleagues despised him because of his popularity and his disdain for academic politics. Yesterday, though, he finally received his due, in part. He is now honored at Westminster Cathedral with a special tribute in its famed Poets Corner.

C. S. Lewis Memorial

If you haven’t delved into the writings of C. S. Lewis yet, I urge you to do so. If you’re an afficianado of his labors as I am, perhaps it’s time to reread something you haven’t read for some time. He was a man used by God during his life, and even more so since his death. Of course, he lives on still. Read The Last Battle and “The Weight of Glory” to help grasp that truth more clearly than ever.