Jesus & Anxiety: A Lewis Primer

Letters to MalcolmAnother C. S. Lewis book that I read recently—for the first time—is Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. One section speaks directly to me with respect to a hard time I’m going through at the moment.

We would like the world to be predictable, something we can manage according to our expectations. Lewis says we have to lay that expectation aside:

But is it not plain that this predictable world . . . is not the world we live in? This is a world of bets and insurance policies, of hopes and anxieties, where “nothing is certain but the unexpected” and prudence lies in “the masterly administration of the unforeseen.”

Nearly all the things people pray about are unpredictable: the result of a battle or an operation, the losing or getting of a job, the reciprocation of a love. We don’t pray about eclipses.

Therefore, despite our faith, we can’t avoid the potential anxieties life throws at us. Lewis seeks, though, to distinguish between anxiety and sin:

Some people feel guilty about their anxieties and regard them as a defect of faith. I don’t agree at all. They are afflictions, not sins. Like all afflictions, they are, if we can so take them, our share in the Passion of Christ.

Jesus in GethsemaneJesus, Lewis reminds us, had to suffer anxiety in order to be fully human. His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane prior to the crucifixion, held the hope, however slim, that He might not have to go through with it:

Lest any trial incident to humanity should be lacking, the torments of hope—of suspense, anxiety—were at the last moment loosed upon Him—the supposed possibility that, after all, He might, He just conceivably might, be spared the supreme horror.

If Jesus hadn’t sweat blood in the Garden, “perhaps He would not have been very Man. To live in a fully predictable world is not to be a man.”

Lewis concludes these thoughts with this:

We all try to accept with some sort of submission our afflictions when they actually arrive. But the prayer in Gethsemane shows that the preceding anxiety is equally God’s will and equally part of our human destiny. The perfect Man experienced it. And the servant is not greater than the master. We are Christians, not Stoics.

Who am I to think that I should be allowed a lifetime full of completely manageable, totally predictable moments? That expectation would place me above my Master.

I like Lewis’s final sentence very much. The Stoics attempted to glide through life unaffected by anything bad that happened. They sought to so completely control their emotions that nothing bothered them. That is unrealistic.

Christians should not expect to be unaffected by the sin and misery that are the common lot of us all, redeemed and unredeemed alike. What we have that the unredeemed do not is a Savior we can look to who knows what it is like to experience similar anxieties. He was fully human, even as He was fully God. He can come to our aid in our darkest hours.

Lewis on the Proper Christian Spirit

C. S. Lewis 13Last Saturday, I wrote about how C. S. Lewis warned against what he called a type of “band-wagoning,” in which we can, at the expense of our principles, decide to become part of a system with which we say we disagree. He continues the discussion in Reflections on the Psalms with what he believes are more subtle forms of the problem that can easily deceive us.

Many people have a very strong desire to meet celebrated or “important” people, including those whom they disapprove, from curiosity or vanity. It gives them something to talk or even (anyone may produce a book of reminiscences) to write about. It is felt to confer distinction if the great, though odious, man recognizes you on the street.

That motive is completely unchristian. But what about Jesus’ example of sitting down with sinners? One must keep in mind that when Jesus did it, His goal was to revolutionize their thinking, not to join in with it. There is a fine line here that Lewis works through carefully with these words:

But I am inclined to think a Christian would be wise to avoid, where he decently can, any meeting with people who are bullies, lascivious, cruel, dishonest, spiteful and so forth.

I could insert a certain political figure here as an example, but I will restrain myself.

Why avoid such people? Lewis continues,

Not because we are “too good” for them. In a sense because we are not good enough. We are not good enough to cope with all the temptations, nor clever enough to cope with all the problems, which an evening spent in such society produces.

The temptation is to condone, to connive at; by our words, looks and laughter, to “consent.”

TruthIf you seem to go along to get along, what happens to your Christian witness? Yet are we to become obnoxious in our response? Again, Lewis threads the needle:

What is one to do? For on the one hand, quite certainly, there is a degree of unprotesting participation in such talk which is very bad. We are strengthening the hands of the enemy. We are encouraging him to believe that “those Christians,” once you get them off their guard and round a dinner table, really think and feel exactly as he does. By implication we are denying our Master; behaving as if we “knew not the Man.”

Yet the opposite actions can be just as bad:

On the other hand is one to show that, like Queen Victoria, one is “not amused”? Is one to be contentious, interrupting the flow of conversation at every moment with “I don’t agree, I don’t agree”? Or rise and go away? But by these courses we may also confirm some of their worst suspicions of “those Christians.” We are just the sort of ill-mannered prigs they always said.

What is the solution, then? Lewis advises this course of action:

Disagreement can, I think, sometimes be expressed without the appearance of priggery, if it is done argumentatively not dictatorially; support will often come from some most unlikely member of the party, or from more than one, till we discover that those who were silently dissentient were actually a majority.

A discussion of real interest may follow. Of course the right side may be defeated in it. That matters very much less than I used to think. The very man who has argued you down will sometimes be found, years later, to have been influenced by what you said.

So it really comes down to the attitude we display. We can stand for truth, even argue for it, as long as our spirit is Christian. And it is that Christian spirit that may ultimately win someone to God’s kingdom. After all, isn’t that the goal, and not simply winning an argument?

Lewis: On Bandwagons & Integrity

C. S. Lewis 11In Reflections on the Psalms, C. S. Lewis takes aim at people who jump on bandwagons for their own personal benefit. In a chapter he titled “Connivance,” he writes of those in ancient Judea “who fleeced their fellow-countrymen to get money for the occupying power in return for a fat percentage” of the take.

He was, frankly, astounded by the attitude he witnessed in one young man who had studied at Oxford. The man had been an avowed socialist during his student days: “Everything ought to be run by the State; private enterprise and independent professions were for him the great evil.”

A decade after graduating, he returned to speak with Lewis, who was surprised by the change in the man’s philosophy:

He said his political views had been wholly reversed. You never heard a fuller recantation. He now saw that State interference was fatal. What had converted him was his experience as a schoolmaster of the Ministry of Education—a set of ignorant meddlers armed with insufferable powers to pester, hamper and interrupt the work of real, practical teachers who knew the subjects they taught, who knew boys, parents, and all the real conditions of their work.

So what did this conversion yield? Did the young man, who had now seen the error of his ways and had witnessed the corruption of the system up close, firsthand, seek a way to change the system or to work outside of it? Wouldn’t that have been a natural response? Instead, Lewis recounts,

The real point . . . of his visit, when it came, nearly took my breath away. Thinking thus, he had come to see whether I had any influence which might help him to get a job in the Ministry of Education.

Rather than stand tall on his presumed principles and do something about this vile system, he sought instead to find a way into it. Lewis concludes,

Here is the perfect band-wagoner. Immediately on the decision “This is a revolting tyranny,” follows the question “How can I as quickly as possible cease to be one of the victims and become one of the tyrants?” . . . This is an instance of band-wagoning so crude and unabashed as to be farcical.

Motive of the HeartWhat’s the lesson here? Could it be that we need to examine our own lives and see if there be any ways—more subtle than this man’s—where we compromise our principles and seek to ingratiate ourselves into a system or way of life we say we deplore? Are we being consistent with our profession of faith and with what we tell others we believe?

If so, our next step should be to abandon any such bandwagon and regain our integrity.

My Forthcoming Lewis Book

C. S. Lewis 5During my sabbatical year in 2014-2015, I finally had the time to fulfill a dream—research and write about C. S. Lewis. Out of that sabbatical emerged a book-length manuscript that I hoped would find a publisher.

That hope has now come to fruition.

A Christian publisher, Wipf & Stock, has accepted my manuscript, and the probable date for publication is late summer-early autumn. My goal in this book was to shed light on how Lewis has influenced/impacted Americans. No one has written a book yet that focuses on that aspect of his life and legacy.

The last hurdle is to receive permission from the Lewis Company in England to quote from his many letters to Americans. I’m praying (and hope you will also) that the permission is granted without any major issues or objections. A speedy permission also would be nice.

Working title? C. S. Lewis in America: His Enduring Influence.

My book on Whittaker Chambers and Ronald Reagan, The Witness and the President, came out this past November. The Lewis book now makes two in one year, a feat I probably never will accomplish again.

I am grateful to Southeastern University for granting the sabbatical. I am eternally grateful to God for the opportunity to put into writing what He has placed in my heart.

Lewis on Gnat-Straining & Camel-Swallowing

I’m not a seminary-trained theologian. Everything I’ve learned about Scripture is the result of deep personal interest inspired by a desire to get closer to the One behind the Scripture. That’s why, as a young man just out of college (with a degree in radio, TV, and film production), I spent countless hours with a cassette-based course learning Koine Greek. (Anybody remember cassettes?)

Some might say that I shouldn’t be so theological in my commentary because I don’t have the official stamp of approval from an institution that grants degrees in religion. I prefer C. S. Lewis’s perspective when he noted, “One is sometimes (not often) glad not to be a great theologian; one might so easily mistake it for being a good Christian.”

C. S. Lewis 8Knowledge about theology is not the same as knowledge of God. Lewis details the temptations that can come to those who feel they have attained some type of exalted status:

The temptations to which a great philologist or a great chemist is exposed are trivial in comparison. When the subject is sacred, proud and clever men may come to think that the outsiders who don’t know it are not merely inferior to them in skill but lower in God’s eyes; as the priests said (John 7:49), “All that rabble who are not experts in the Torah are accursed.”

How ironic that devotion to learning about the God of love and unrivaled humility should lead us to the opposite end of the spectrum. Lewis notes that “as this pride increases, the ‘subject’ or study which confers such privilege will grow more and more complicated.” He goes on:

The list of things forbidden will increase, till to get through a single day without supposed sin becomes like an elaborate step-dance, and this horrible network breeds self-righteousness in some and haunting anxiety in others.

PhariseesThose who consider themselves the elite theologians, like the Pharisees of Jesus’ time, will burden people down with externals, ignoring the essence of the faith. Lewis concludes:

Meanwhile the “weightier matters of the Law,” righteousness itself, shrinks into insignificance under this vast overgrowth, so that the legalists strain at a gnat and swallow a camel.

We do this gnat-straining and camel-swallowing in other areas of life as well, such as in politics. I see it all the time in that realm. To avoid that, we need to look at ourselves and make sure we are putting first things first, being careful to make loving God and mirroring His character our primary goal.

Lewis: God & Chocolate Easter Eggs

C. S. Lewis 7I think I’m doing what C. S. Lewis wanted readers of his Reflections on the Psalms to do: I’m reflecting. He provides such good material for reflection as he shares insights in this little book.

For instance, he refers to how the psalms always talk about seeing the beauty of the Lord, yet it’s not the Lord directly that the typical Jew saw, but rather the rituals in the Temple or some other aspect of the outward symbols of God’s presence.

That’s good, as far as it goes, but Christians need to make the distinction between that which symbolizes God and God Himself. There is a danger in becoming too attached to the symbol:

When the mind becomes more capable of abstraction and analysis this old unity breaks up. And no sooner is it possible to distinguish the rite from the vision of God than there is a danger of the rite becoming a substitute for, and a rival to, God Himself. Once it can be thought of separately, it will; and it may then take on a rebellious, cancerous life of its own.

We are to worship God, not the external artifacts that point to Him. If we revere those outward signs of His presence more than the Presence Himself, we are setting up a false god, which is in direct contradiction to both the spirit and the letter of the Word.

Lewis provides this example as an illustration:

Chocolate Easter EggsThere is a stage in a child’s life at which it cannot separate the religious from the merely festal character of Christmas and Easter. I have been told of a very small and very devout boy who was heard murmuring to himself on Easter morning a poem of his own composition which began “Chocolate eggs and Jesus risen.” This seems to me, for his age, both admirable poetry and admirable piety.

That would be “for his age.” But we don’t stay children, and neither should our worship remain wedded to a child’s understanding of the object of our worship. Lewis continues,

But of course the time will soon come when such a child can no longer effortlessly and spontaneously enjoy that unity. He will become able to distinguish the spiritual from the ritual and festal aspect of Easter; chocolate eggs will no longer be sacramental.

What must we do, then, when we reach that point, and we begin to grasp the difference? We have a choice to make:

And once he has distinguished he must put one or the other first. If he puts the spiritual first he can still taste something of Easter in the chocolate eggs; if he puts the eggs first they will soon be no more than any other sweetmeat. They have taken on an independent, and therefore a soon withering, life.

The symbols will never satisfy the inner longing of our hearts. Clinging to them and believing them to be the substance of our faith will lead only to what Lewis rightly calls “a soon withering life.”

May our worship and the presence of God be the real thing. May our spiritual eyes see Him above all else, and relegate all that points to Him as secondary. In heaven, we will see Him face to face. I would like to begin that experience now, as far as this temporary earthly life will allow that to happen.

Lewis & Righteous Indignation

C. S. Lewis 4C. S. Lewis, writing in Reflections on the Psalms, contrasts the anger displayed toward evil men in some of the psalms with the apparent lack of vindictiveness found in some pagan writings. Does this reveal a better spirit among the pagans? Not so, he says.

He gives a personal example to illustrate how lack of anger can often be the worst response. During WWII, he was taking the train one night (as he often did, traveling to speak and then returning home late) and found himself in a compartment with a number of young soldiers. He was more than a little dismayed by the comments he heard:

Their conversation made it perfectly clear that they totally disbelieved all that they had read in the papers about the wholesale cruelties of the Nazi régime. They took it for granted, without argument, that this was all lies, all propaganda put out by our own government to “pep up” our troops. And the shattering thing was, that, believing this, they expressed not the slightest anger.

It’s worth noting that Lewis himself rarely read the newspapers because he considered most of what was contained therein to be lies, yet he certainly had no reason to doubt what the papers were saying about Hitler and his horde. The attitude of the soldiers stunned him:

That our rulers should falsely attribute the worst of crimes to some of their fellow-men in order to induce others of the fellow-men to shed their blood seemed to them a matter of course. They weren’t even particularly interested. They saw nothing wrong in it.

If you were being asked to go to war and possibly lose your life, and you were convinced that the rationale for doing so was based on a fabric of lies told by your government, wouldn’t that bother you more than a little? Apparently not in this case. Lewis then compares these apathetic soldiers to psalmists who didn’t hide their anger:

Now it seemed to me that the most violent of the Psalmists—or, for that matter any child wailing out “But it’s not fair”—was in a more hopeful condition than these young men. If they had perceived, and felt as a man should feel, the diabolical wickedness which they believed our rulers to be committing, and then forgiven them, they would have been saints.

But not to perceive it at all—not even to be tempted to resentment—to accept it as the most ordinary thing in the world—argues a terrifying insensibility. Clearly these young men had (on that subject anyway) no conception of good and evil whatsoever.

Good & EvilLoss of the entire concept of good and evil betrays a society wandering in a fog of moral apathy. “Thus the absence of anger, especially that sort of anger which we call indignation,” Lewis concludes, “can, in my opinion, be a most alarming symptom. And the presence of indignation may be a good one.”

It’s perfectly fine to feel righteous indignation toward evil. In fact, if we feel nothing at all when confronted with the evils of our day, there is something terribly wrong with us.