Archive for the ‘ The Christian Spirit ’ Category

Our Very Unscrupulous God

The fool says in his heart, “There is no god.” Psalm 53:1

For many years, C. S. Lewis was a fool. He later acknowledged the truth of that statement. As a young man who had seen his mother die of cancer despite his prayers, who had witnessed the horrors of the Great War, and who had been trained in severe logic by an atheist, he declared to himself that there was no god. As he put it in his autobiography Surprised by Joy,

I was at this time living, like so many Atheists or Antitheists, in a whirl of contradictions. I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing. I was equally angry with Him for creating a world.

There are many people who have that same attitude today. They rail against the god they say doesn’t exist. They, despite the logical incongruity of it, demand “justice.” Yet what is justice to an atheist? Why is demanding it incongruous? Lewis again, this time from Mere Christianity:

[When I was an atheist] my argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust?

A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it?

Unlike many atheists, Lewis took his logic to its ultimate destination; he eventually saw the illogic of it:

Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist—in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless—I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality—namely my idea of justice—was full of sense.

His conclusion?

Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning [emphasis mine].

Then, as Lewis continued to ponder the possible meaning of the universe and, as an academic, delved into his large stack of “books to be read”—something all avid readers will understand—he kept coming across sensible authors who, irritatingly, always turned out to be Christians. They came across as so sensible that he had to rethink everything.

As he explained in the autobiography,

A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere—“Bibles laid open, millions of surprises” as Herbert says, “fine nets and stratagems.” God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.

This “unscrupulous” God is our salvation. I thank Him daily for being so “very unscrupulous.”

That which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. Romans 1:19-20

Screwtape’s War Lesson

I’ve been teaching a Screwtape Letters class at a local church on Wednesday evenings. It’s one of the highlights of my week. Although I’ve read this wonderful C. S. Lewis book a number of times, this is the first time I’ve attempted to discuss it with a group paragraph by paragraph, and the interaction with members of the class over Lewis’s key points has been illuminating.

Nearly every paragraph offers some pearl of meditation that could conceivably fill up my blog posts every day, but I’ll go with this one today from letter #5 where Screwtape is warning Wormwood not to be too elated that a war is occurring. Wars don’t always lead one away from the Enemy [God]; rather, they can have results inimical to the purposes of Hell.

“Of course a war is entertaining. The immediate fear and suffering of the humans is a legitimate and pleasing refreshment for our myriads of toiling workers,” Screwtape begins. “But what permanent good does it do us unless we make use of it for bringing souls to Our Father Below?”

Therefore, he continues, “Let us . . . think rather how to use, than how to enjoy, this European war. For it has certain tendencies inherent in it which are, in themselves, by no means in our favour.”

How can war not be a delightful thing for the devils in Hell? Men killing other men; constant anxiety and hatred for others. What could possibly be the down side of this for those who want to destroy the souls of men?

We may hope for a good deal of cruelty and unchastity. But, if we are not careful, we shall see thousands turning in this tribulation to the Enemy, while tens of thousands who do not go so far as that will nevertheless have their attention diverted from themselves to values and causes which they believe to be higher than the self.

The underlying truth here is that God uses everything, even very awful circumstances, to get our attention. Those awful circumstances make us think more seriously about our eternal condition.

Consider too what undesirable deaths occur in wartime. Men are killed in places where they knew they might be killed and to which they go, if they are at all of the Enemy’s party, prepared.

That’s not what Hell wants. Screwtape then instructs Wormwood about the “ideal” situation that Hell desires for each human:

How much better for us if all humans died in costly nursing homes amid doctors who lie, nurses who lie, friends who lie, as we have trained them, promising life to the dying, encouraging the belief that sickness excuses every indulgence, and even, if our workers know their job, withholding all suggestion of a priest lest it should betray to the sick man his true condition!

Lewis nearly experienced that later. In July 1963, he went into a coma, and when he came out of it, neither the doctors nor the nurses would be honest about his condition. Walter Hooper had to fill him in on how serious it was, for which Lewis thanked him.

Screwtape concluded his commentary on war with this:

How disastrous for us is the continual remembrance of death which war enforces. One of our best weapons, contented worldliness, is rendered useless. In wartime not even a human can believe he is going to live forever.

Lewis, in an essay appropriately titled “Learning in War-Time,” observed,

War makes death real to us, and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past. They thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality. I am inclined to think they were right.

This doesn’t mean we should eagerly anticipate a war, or any terrible circumstance, simply for spiritual gain. Yet we need to constantly be aware, as Lewis notes, of our mortality, and welcome all worldly trials that remind us of it.

Leaving Ambition in the Dust

Ambition! We must be careful what we mean by it. If it means the desire to get ahead of other people—which is what I think it does mean—then it is bad.

If it means simply wanting to do a thing well, then it is good. It isn’t wrong for an actor to want to act his part as well as it can possibly be acted, but the wish to have his name in bigger type than the other actors is a bad one.

Thus wrote C. S. Lewis in a 1944 essay, “Answers to Questions on Christianity.” Written after the phenomenal success of The Screwtape Letters, his well-received novel Perelandra, and during his prominence with BBC broadcasts that were later turned into Mere Christianity, one might say that he was reminding himself not to get too proud of being recognized as a great writer.

The desire to succeed had been a driving force in Lewis’s life prior to his conversion. He desperately wanted to be known as an insightful poet. Yet his books of poetry never sold well.

In 1930, about the time God was getting hold of his life, he wrote a letter to his good friend Arthur Greeves that dealt with the subject of literary ambition. It seems to have been a response to Greeves’s hopes with his own writing. Lewis shared the dangers of making that ambition central to one’s life.

“From the age of sixteen onwards I had one single ambition [to succeed as a writer], from which I never wavered,” he told Greeves. He prosecuted that ambition with “every ounce” of himself, and upon its achievement he staked his entire “contentment.” His conclusion? “I recognise myself as having unmistakably failed in it.”

This is the pre-successful Lewis speaking, of course, but it shows that he had to get this part of his thinking straightened out before God was able to use him for His purposes.

“The side of me which longs, not to write, for no one can stop us doing that, but to be approved as a writer, is not the side of us that is really worth much,” he counseled.

And depend upon it, unless God has abandoned us, he will find means to cauterise that side somehow or other. If we can take the pain well and truly now and by it forever get over the wish to be distinguished beyond our fellows, well: if not we shall get it again in some other form.

Lewis, in this letter, is helping Greeves get to the point he has reached: set aside the goal of being well-known and “approved” by others. Only when we do that are we really free to be what God wants us to be.

And honestly, the being cured, with all the pain, has pleasure too: one creeps home, tired and bruised, into a state of mind that is really restful, when all one’s ambitions have been given up. Then one can really for the first time say “Thy Kingdom come”: for in that Kingdom there will be no pre-eminences and a man must have reached the stage of not caring two straws about his own status before he can enter it.

Lewis then projects into a possible future for someone who hasn’t learned this lesson early on. “Think how difficult that would be if one succeeded as a writer,” he mused, and then “how bitter this necessary purgation at the age of sixty, when literary success had made your whole life and you had then got to begin to go through the stage of seeing it all as dust and ashes.”

Far better to learn this lesson at an early age than to have to try to learn it when one is less open to such lessons later in life. He concludes his counsel to Greeves with these words:

I would have given almost anything—I shudder to think what I would have given if I had been allowed—to be a successful writer. . . . I am writing as I do simply & solely because I think the only thing for you to do is absolutely to kill the part of you that wants success.

Why do I focus on this particular topic today? Well, it’s because it hits home with me personally. While my early life was not one of seeking literary success, as I’ve progressed as a university professor and scholar, I’ve seen that desire Lewis talks about rise up in me.

I think I had too grandiose dreams about how something I’ve written would take the world by storm. Surely everyone who is anyone will want to know about Noah Webster. How could anyone with any political interest not want to read a book about the impeachment of Bill Clinton? Won’t all sincere Christians eagerly delve into a volume that provides guidance on the Biblical principles for political involvement?

More recently, I harbored the hope that an analysis of a famous president, Ronald Reagan, and a less-famous but highly influential man, Whittaker Chambers, would attract a large audience. And a book on C. S. Lewis? Why, it should be a national bestseller, right?

Don’t get me wrong. I believe with all my heart that God wanted me to write these books. But His idea of success may not be the same as mine. Was I faithful in my research and writing? Did I say what He wanted me to say? If so, I am to rest and find contentment in that.

Perhaps the things I have written (and continue to write in this blog) will help a number of individuals over time. If anything I write leads a person to consider more seriously one’s relationship with the Lord and others, I rejoice.

Here’s where my heart needs to be: may God be glorified in everything I do.

The Hallmark of Humility

Ronald Reagan, on his desk in the Oval Office, kept a small plaque with the following words:

“There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he does not mind who gets the credit.”

The first time I read those words, they struck a chord in me—not because I naturally lived those words, but because it was a striking reminder that too often I didn’t.

On one of my visits to the Reagan Library, I bought a paperweight with those very words. It’s now on my office desk. I find that I need such a reminder at critical times.

Reagan exemplified humility in his high station, something that is rare indeed. Yet it is a requirement from God that we live in humility and that it be a hallmark of our character. After all, it’s what Jesus exhibited when He voluntarily set aside all of His divine prerogatives and chose to suffer and die for us.

One of the most poignant Scriptural passages for me is found in Philippians, chapter 2:

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.

Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.

Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

May that example be what inspires us today.

Lewis: “Up into the Real World, the Real Waking”

I’ve begun teaching a class in a local church on The Screwtape Letters every Wednesday evening. What a delight it has been thus far. I’ll probably write some about that in future weeks, but for today, I will just refer to one comment made by an attendee. I don’t recall exactly what I said to elicit the comment, but her response was something about how I was still so young.

At age 66, it’s encouraging to hear someone say I’m young. I’ll take that and savor it. It reminds me, though, of letters Lewis wrote to an American woman named Mary Willis Shelburne. He wrote more letters to her than to any American primarily because she bombarded him with letters.

One of Shelburne’s concerns was the approach of old age and death. Lewis’s responses to her fears showcase both his humor and his wisdom. In my book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis, I give this account of how he counseled her. I trust using an excerpt today will be both acceptable and enlightening.

He did his best to help Shelburne face her own demise with the proper Christian spirit and perspective. His letters become peppered with reminders that all humans have to face this ultimate test, but that Christians have a glorious eternity awaiting them.

He joked about imminent death in a 1957 letter thusly: “What on earth is the trouble about there being a rumour of my death? There’s nothing discreditable in dying: I’ve known the most respectable people do it!”

Commenting in another letter on horrible visits to the dentist, he told her to keep in mind they both had to recognize that “as we grow older, we become like old cars—more and more repairs and replacements are necessary. We must just look forward to the fine new machines (latest Resurrection model) which are waiting for us, we hope, in the Divine garage!”

And why not have the same attitude as the apostle Paul? “If we really believe what we say we believe—if we really think that home is elsewhere and that this life is a ‘wandering to find home,’ why should we not look forward to the arrival.”

After Joy’s death and the realization that he would no longer be healthy in his final years, he wrote to Shelburne about the hope of the resurrection of the body. He kept his sense of humor even as he suffered greater physical distress, telling her, with respect to their bodies, “Like old automobiles, aren’t they? Where all sorts of apparently different things keep going wrong, but what they add up to is the plain fact that the machine is wearing out. Well, it was not meant to last forever. Still, I have a kindly feeling for the old rattle-trap.”

In his final year, Lewis’s comments on death appeared more frequently, as he sensed his time was near. In March 1963, he conveyed to Shelburne his lack of concern about moving from this world to the next.

A letter in June remarked on her obvious fear of dying; Lewis’s response was the most direct one yet:

“Can you not see death as the friend and deliverer? It means stripping off that body which is tormenting you: like taking off a hair-shirt or getting out of a dungeon. What is there to be afraid of? . . . Has this world been so kind to you that you should leave it with regret? There are better things ahead than any we leave behind. . . . Of course, this may not be the end. Then make it a good rehearsal.”

Lewis’s final word to Shelburne on the subject of death came about two weeks before he fell into a brief coma, followed by his resignation from Cambridge and his death four months after that. This final word showcases once again his facility with phrases that are memorable, as he encouraged her one more time:

“I think the best way to cope with the mental debility and total inertia is to submit to it entirely. . . . Pretend you are a dormouse or even a turnip. . . . Think of yourself just as a seed patiently waiting in the earth: waiting to come up a flower in the Gardener’s good time, up into the real world, the real waking. . . . We are here in the land of dreams. But cock-crow is coming. It is nearer now than when I began this letter.”

I’m not expecting an imminent death; most of us aren’t at that point yet. I’m still looking forward to many years of fruitful and productive activity. Yet not one of us can know that for sure. We need to be ready at all times for the final curtain on our earthly existence. Lewis shows us the proper attitude and reminds us that the real world awaits us still. The land of dreams will pass away and we will enter into an eternity that will far exceed our expectations.

That Which Comes Out of Our Mouths

But among you, as is proper among the saints, there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality or impurity or greed. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk, or crude joking, which are out of character, but rather thanksgiving. Eph. 5:3-4

Those are instructions to Christians, the called-out ones, the saints (yes, that word is used in the passage). It’s not a suggestion, but a God-given standard for our lives.

The world around us doesn’t care about that standard, of course. We, though, should take it seriously. The problem of obscene, foolish, and crude talk is nothing new; our society didn’t create it. Paul had to admonish Christians in the first century, as we see in the verses above, but he wasn’t the only one:

The tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? James 3:5-6, 9-11

Christians are supposed to model godly behavior by abstaining from crudeness. Are we succeeding?

Why am I writing about this? No, it’s not only the controversy over President Trump’s language, but that is a symptom of what we see in the culture at large.

Some may say I’m naive—people have talked like this throughout history. Yes, I know that. The human heart is the same in all ages. Yet there are standards in a society, and American society, influenced as it was by the Christian ethos, put a damper on outward displays of coarseness in speech and actions.

Well, it used to. Now that Christian morality is becoming less of an expectation, we see society unleashing all of its inner demons, not only in how we speak publicly, but in how we act.

Today, though, I want to concentrate on the speaking.

Recently, I was browsing a site that listed one thousand songs of the past century. It was kind of fun looking through the list. I easily recognized songs from my parents’ era, dominated by people like Bing Crosby. When the list entered my own lifetime, I saw all the old familiar titles from the 1960s and early 1970s, the height of my fascination with the latest tunes.

Even though there were some edgier songs starting to pop up in the 1960s, there was nothing openly obscene. As the list continued, and my knowledge of the songs lessened considerably, I was nevertheless struck by the downward slide into pure raunchiness in the titles. Nothing like that would have been allowed back in the 1960s, which was hardly an era of moral purity.

Yet what was unacceptable in the 1960s is now practically mainstream.

I think back on my circle of friends when I was in my teens. While most of them were churchgoing kids, they probably were churched because their parents were. I’m not sure how many were sincere Christians. Yet I don’t recall any of our speech descending into the depths of sexual depravity or any other crudeness. We just didn’t talk that way.

I recall, though, a party I attended at which one girl, outwardly pretty and seemingly nice, launched into a verbal tirade with all the possible obscenities available to her at the time. And then she laughed about it. Frankly, I was shocked. The incongruity of someone so outwardly prim, proper, and nice-looking having that spew forth sickened me. It must have made an impression since I remember it so clearly even now.

You see, that kind of language was heard only in the presence of the “hoods” (a quaint term of the day) who hated being in school and who were already on a path toward dissipation in life. It wasn’t supposed to come from that girl.

Neither is it supposed to come from those who say Jesus Christ is their Lord. Beyond that, our response to crude and obscene language in others should never be excused or rationalized. Take that and apply it as you wish.

We are to be witnesses to the Truth, and our lives, both in speech and in action, should point to Him. There are words in one song that always lead to sober reflection within me whenever I hear them. The song is Find Us Faithful and the lyrics are as follows:

We’re pilgrims on the journey
Of the narrow road
And those who’ve gone before us line the way
Cheering on the faithful, encouraging the weary
Their lives a stirring testament to God’s sustaining grace
Surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses
Let us run the race not only for the prize
But as those who’ve gone before us
Let us leave to those behind us
The heritage of faithfulness passed on through godly lives

After all our hopes and dreams have come and gone
And our children sift through all we’ve left behind
May the clues that they discover and the memories they uncover
Become the light that leads them to the road we each must find

Oh may all who come behind us find us faithful
May the fire of our devotion light their way
May the footprints that we leave
Lead them to believe
And the lives we live inspire them to obey
Oh may all who come behind us find us faithful

When I hear these words, I think of my public testimony. Is it the kind that will inspire my grandchildren? My students? Those who read my blog posts?

When my days are over on this earth, I want to leave a legacy that reminds others of their high calling in Christ. I want them to consider seriously the words that come out of their mouths (and the heart that is the fount of those words) and remember that we are to be the mouth, hands, and feet of Christ to others.

Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.

And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. Rom. 12:1-2

Appreciating God’s Pleasures

Are we supposed to enjoy life? Are we supposed to appreciate the pleasures that life can offer? Or are we instead to be ascetics, denying ourselves anything and everything that enhances this experience called “life”?

I do believe God calls us to be disciplined. We don’t run into a hedonistic lifestyle in the way the world does. However, there can be an opposite danger when we never appreciate the pleasures God provides—when we become so obsessed with our Christian “duties” to the exclusion of godly pleasures.

Whenever the Christian life becomes a list of rules and regulations rather than a deep love of God and great joy in our walk with Him, we degrade the faith into a type of legalism that stifles true devotion.

C. S. Lewis, in his Letters to Malcolm volume, expresses this well. “Pleasures,” he remarks, “are shafts of the glory as it strikes our sensibility.” Genuine pleasures emanate from God. He adds,

But aren’t there bad, unlawful pleasures? Certainly there are. But in calling them “bad pleasures” I take it we are using a kind of shorthand. We mean “pleasures snatched by unlawful acts.”

It is the stealing of the apple that is bad, not the sweetness. The sweetness is still a beam from the glory. That does not palliate the stealing. It makes it worse. There is sacrilege in the theft. We have abused a holy thing.

The pleasurable thing itself—the sweetness of the apple, for instance—is a gift from God. It is to be enjoyed, appreciated, recognized as one of His many blessings. The misuse of the blessing—in this case by stealing it from someone else—is what undermines the original pleasure and God’s intent in providing that pleasure.

We should be grateful that God, in spite of the sinfulness that rocks this world, has maintained His provision of pleasures of all kinds. Recognition of His gifts should lead us closer to Him. Lewis continues,

Gratitude exclaims, very properly, “How good of God to give me this.” Adoration says, “What must be the quality of that Being whose far-off and momentary coruscations are like this!”

One’s mind runs back up the sunbeam to the sun.

The gifts/pleasures from the hand of God should make us think of the Giver more than the gift. While many can appreciate the gift itself, how many then “run back up the sunbeam to the sun” itself? Are we more focused on what we receive from God than on the nature of the God who gives it?

We need to be grateful for all that comes from the hand of God, from the least of blessings to the greatest. More than anything, though, we need to learn through those blessings to truly adore the One who offers them.

We—or at least I—shall not be able to adore God on the highest occasions if we have learned no habit of doing so on the lowest. At best, our faith and reason will tell us that He is adorable, but we shall not have found Him so, not have “tasted and seen.”

Any patch of sunlight in a wood will show you something about the sun which you could never get from reading books on astronomy. These pure and spontaneous pleasures are “patches of Godlight” in the woods of our experience.

May you see those “patches of Godlight” in your life today. Accept them, appreciate them, but don’t stop there. Allow them to be the sunbeams that lead you closer than ever to the sun.