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.

That Writing Urge

I am a teacher and a writer, and have been now for three decades. Earlier in life, I never envisioned myself as a teacher; in fact, I minored in history as an undergraduate, avoiding making it my major out of fear that I would end up having to teach.

Well, God had a different path for me, and I can now see that He developed that desire to teach even when I was trying to ignore the calling.

I think I’ve always wanted to write but had very little training in the art prior to my experience as a graduate student. The master’s thesis and the doctoral dissertation created a greater urge within me to express thoughts in writing.

C. S. Lewis was a great teacher and a great writer, so I naturally am attracted to his insights on both. With respect to writing, he made some thoughtful comments. In a letter to his friend Arthur Greeves, early in his writing career, he noted,

I am sure that some are born to write as trees are born to bear leaves: for these, writing is a necessary mode of their own development.

If the impulse to write survives the hope of success, then one is among these. If not, then the impulse was at best only pardonable vanity, and it will certainly disappear when the hope is withdrawn.

That caused me to reflect: is my desire to write more a desire to be noticed and appreciated [i.e., be considered successful] than a natural desire to say what I think needs to be said regardless of the reception of the public?

I’ve written five books thus far. While I have had modest success in sales over the years, I can say that if my primary goal had been to enrich myself monetarily through publishing, I would now pack my bags, metaphorically speaking, and move on to something more rewarding.

If my primary goal had been to be noticed and applauded for what I’ve written, I again would be moving on to another endeavor.

Yet I continue to have the writing bug—witness this very blog. So perhaps I am one of those that Lewis was speaking of—born to write simply because God has placed that within me.

Then there’s this mild warning from Lewis about the art of writing:

To the present day one meets men, great readers, who write admirably until the fatal moment when they remember that they are writing.

In other words, the writing goes along quite well until one becomes too self-conscious of the fact that one is indeed writing. One can then fall into the trap of paying more attention to the mechanics of the craft than the message. At least, that’s how I understand this warning.

I do want to craft my words carefully, but the message itself remains the most important reason for writing. I don’t want to become too stilted in my “style” and thereby hurt the message.

Further instruction from Lewis is common sense, but not always common to us as we write:

The way for a person to develop a style is (a) to know exactly what he wants to say, and (b) to be sure he is saying exactly that.

The reader, we must remember, does not start by knowing what we mean. If our words are ambiguous, our meaning will escape him.

I sometimes think that writing is like driving sheep down a road. If there is any gate open to the left or the right the readers will most certainly go into it.

All of Lewis’s insights that I’ve mentioned could be applied to anyone who writes, but he also gives advice specifically to Christians with respect to how they can use their writing to draw their audience to truth:

Our Faith is not very likely to be shaken by any book on Hinduism. But if whenever we read an elementary book on Geology, Botany, Politics, or Astronomy, we found that its implications were Hindu, that would shake us.

It is not the books written in direct defence of Materialism that make the modern man a materialist; it is the materialistic assumptions in all the other books.

In the same way, it is not books on Christianity that will really trouble him [the anti-Christian]. But he would be troubled if, whenever he wanted a cheap popular introduction to some science, the best work on the market was always by a Christian.

That’s the challenge, but also the opportunity. Our Christian faith must be so much a part of us—not merely an appendage to who we are—that it permeates everything we touch. Christian writers, in particular, have both the responsibility and the pleasure to transmit God’s message in all they write, even when it is not blatant apologetics.

May we live up to that challenge.

Lewis’s “Poison of Subjectivism” in Our Day

Subjectivism: the belief that moral judgments are statements concerning the emotional or mental reactions of the individual or the community.

In other words, we make up our own morality without any reference to an outside, objective authority, i.e., God.

Subjectivism has become rampant in most of what used to be called Christian civilization. Moreover, those who, as a recent president infamously remarked, “cling to their religion,” are pressured, by law, to violate their consciences and accept the new ideas of morality. At this time, we await a Supreme Court decision on whether a Christian bakery must be forced to make and decorate a same-sex-marriage-affirming cake.

This type of subjectivism is a poison that will lead to the destruction of traditional Christian morality in a society, thus destroying that society eventually.

“The Poison of Subjectivism” is an essay by C. S. Lewis that addresses this danger. Strong statements such as this one against the subjective mindset would be roundly condemned in our day:

This whole attempt to jettison traditional values as something subjective and to substitute a new scheme of values for them is wrong. It is like trying to lift yourself by your own coat collar.

Then he gives two propositions that should, he advises, be “written into our minds with indelible ink.” They are the following:

(1) The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of planting a new sun in the sky or a new primary colour in the spectrum.

(2) Every attempt to do so consists in arbitrarily selecting some one maxim of traditional morality, isolating it from the rest, and erecting it into an unam necessarium.

In the case of same-sex marriage, there remains the vague concept of marriage and an even more vague definition of love. Both come from traditional morality, but they are lifted from their Biblical basis and given a new twist. The arbitrary selection of “love” as the highest good, isolated from all the boundaries in which we are to understand that word, provides a new morality that rests solely on subjective belief.

“All idea of ‘new’ or ‘scientific’ or ‘modern’ moralities,” Lewis counters, “must therefore be dismissed as mere confusion of thought.” It comes down to only two alternatives:

Either the maxims of traditional morality must be accepted as axioms of practical reason which neither admit nor require argument to support them . . . or else there are no values at all, what we mistook for values being ‘projections’ of irrational emotions.

Irrational emotions abound in the actions of those pushing the latest new morality. Objections to their newfound right and wrong must be shouted down, and if that doesn’t work, the strong arm of the government must be brought to bear against any who oppose this new understanding.

What makes this even worse is that many, under the banner of Christian love, try to give the new morality a Christian affirmation. Lewis will have none of that:

A theology which goes about to represent our practical reason as radically unsound is heading for disaster. If we once admit that what God means by “goodness” is sheerly different from what we judge to be good, there is no difference left between pure religion and devil worship.

Government and pseudo-science come together in an unholy alliance to advance the “new” morality and ensure that everyone accepts it:

Many a popular “planner” on a democratic platform, many a mild-eyed scientist in a democratic laboratory means, in the last resort, just what the Fascist means.

He believes that “good” means whatever men are conditioned to approve. He believes that it is the function of him and his kind to condition men; to create consciences by eugenics, psychological manipulation of infants, state education and mass propaganda.

Politicians team with the social scientists to “create” a new “conscience.” Propaganda wins the day as the unthinking masses (you pick the percentage of the population that fits that description) are led along this destructive path.

The planners, Lewis believes, may not yet fully realize what they have done, but once they grasp the power they have in their hands, they will use it fully.

He must awake to the logic of his position sooner or later; and when he does, what barrier remains between us and the final division of the race into a few conditioners who stand themselves outside morality and the many conditioned in whom such morality as the experts choose is produced at the experts’ pleasure?

If “good” means only the local ideology, how can those who invent the local ideology be guided by any idea of good themselves?

Lewis then summarizes where the society ends up:

The very idea of freedom presupposes some objective moral law which overarches rulers and ruled alike. Subjectivism about values is eternally incompatible with democracy. We and our rulers are of one kind only so long as we are subject to one law.

But if there is no Law of Nature, the ethos of any society is the creation of its rulers, educators, and conditioners; and every creator stands above and outside his own creation.

We have a choice between creators: the one holy God who gives us His objective standard of morality or the people who seek to overturn that objective morality and substitute their own whims (that allow them to do as they please) as the new morality.

The first unites us with Eternal Love; the second leads to eternal misery and remorse.

Lewis: Promiscuity’s Women Victims

Sometimes when I’m wondering what C. S. Lewis post to write on Saturdays, I turn to an excellent compilation of his works, The Quotable Lewis, edited by Wayne Martindale and Jerry Root. Often it sparks further thoughts on one of Lewis’s insights.

This morning, I happened upon a relevant Lewis quote from his essay “We Have No Right to Happiness,” which he wrote near the end of his life. While 1963 may seem to be a long time ago to some, I remember the year well and the changes that were occurring in culture as sexual mores were moving more rapidly away from Biblical standards.

With all the latest revelations about sexual harassment (new accusations are popping up daily), Lewis’s comments in this essay are even more applicable in 2017 than they were in 1963.

A society in which conjugal infidelity is tolerated must always be in the long run a society adverse to women.

Women, whatever a few male songs and satires may say to the contrary, are more naturally monogamous than men; it is a biological necessity.

The more radical among us today would dispute that immediately. Biological necessity? Are you saying men and women are different? Yes. Lewis and I agree on that. What’s amazing is that it can be a matter of dispute at all.

Lewis continues,

Where promiscuity prevails, they will therefore always be more often the victims than the culprits.

Don’t the latest reports from all spheres of our society—politics, entertainment, sports, etc.—bear this out?

Also, domestic happiness is more necessary to them than to us. And the quality by which they most easily hold a man, their beauty, decreases every year after they have come to maturity, but this does not happen to those qualities of personality—women don’t really care twopence for our looks—by which we hold women.

Lewis is attesting that men can be truly superficial, attracted to women primarily by the external appearance and tempted to lose interest when that external appearance declines over time. Yet women, he asserts, are far less trapped by the external appearance of men. They seek something more substantial.

Thus in the ruthless war of promiscuity women are at a double disadvantage. They play for higher stakes and are also more likely to lose.

This has led many women to want to compete with men to see if they can be just as superficial, sex-obsessed, and crass. I find Lewis’s reaction to that attempt to mirror men’s foolishness to be just the right attitude a Christian should have:

I have no sympathy with moralists who frown at the increasing crudity of female provocativeness. These signs of desperate competition fill me with pity.

In their quest to be more like the men, women have demeaned themselves. They have lowered themselves to that same abysmal standard.

God calls both men and women to look past the externals and concentrate on what really matters: hearts that are truly seeking to follow Him. Those who have those hearts will never treat one another in despicable, self-serving ways.

Personally, I welcome the current revelations of sexual improprieties as exposure of the sinfulness of mankind, both men and women. It mustn’t stop there, though. Recognition of sin must go on to genuine repentance and being set free from that sin.

And that happens only through the Cross of Christ.

Man-Made Utopias: A Lewisian Assessment

The Almighty Mind of Man can do anything, we’re often promised. Every age has its share of utopians who believe that societal perfection lies at the other end of that proverbial rainbow (if only we could ever find the location of the “end”).

Karl Marx was positive that his scheme would usher in the perfect society where there would be no more government, no more religion, no more philosophy, and no more family.

The Age of Aquarius, that illusion of the generation in which I grew up, is no closer to reality now than it was when the Fifth Dimension sang about it so enthusiastically.

Dreams of a man-made utopia have always been with us, and I feel sorry for those who put their faith in those wisps of smoke. A more sober assessment, one based on Scripture, needs to take root. C. S. Lewis, in his superb essay, “Is Progress Possible: Willing Slaves of the Welfare State,” offers such an assessment:

[By] the advance, and increasing application, of science . . . we shall grow able to cure, and produce, more diseases—bacterial war, not bombs, might ring down the curtain—to alleviate, and to inflict, more pains, to husband, or to waste, the resources of the planet more extensively.

We can become either more beneficent or more mischievous. My guess is we shall do both; mending one thing and marring another, removing old miseries and producing new ones, safeguarding ourselves here and endangering ourselves there.

The Christian message is clear and forthright: all have sinned; sin destroys; mankind will never save itself; there will be no human utopia; salvation comes through One only; the genuine utopia is a place called Heaven, which will be established by God, not man.

While we work to make our existence on this small planet better, we must never lose sight of those Biblical truths. There are limits to what will be achieved, and we must understand those limits.

Each emerging generation seems to think it can achieve what no other generation has achieved, yet the message of the book of Ecclesiastes still rings true: there is nothing new under the sun.

Our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.

God’s Peace in a Nuclear Age: Wisdom from Lewis

I grew up with the nuclear threat; it’s always been there. C. S. Lewis didn’t. He was 46 when those bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending WWII. So one might expect a different reaction from someone in his generation. As he surveyed the response to this new weapon, he saw that many were nearly beside themselves with fear; yet he continued to offer clear thinking on this subject (as he did on all subjects).

Three years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he authored an essay called “On Living in an Atomic Age.” “In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb,” he argued. Many were asking, “How are we to live in an atomic age?”

I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

We should not “begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation,” he counseled. We need to keep in mind that all people “were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented,” and in case we are living in a fantasy, he added, “and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways.”

“Death itself,” Lewis reminds us, has never been “a chance at all, but a certainty.”

Then he gives this sound advice:

If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (any microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

I find Lewis’s perspective to be in accord with Scripture. Here are a few samples:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. –Philippians 4:6-7

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. –I Peter 5:6-7

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. –Psalm 23:4

“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. –Matthew 6:34

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. –John 14:27

May the peace of God be with us all this day.

Life Has Never Been Normal: Lewis on War

World War I devastated Europe and decimated the male populations of Britain and France. C. S. Lewis served in that war, even though, having grown up in Northern Ireland, he wasn’t required to do so. In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, he doesn’t spend a lot of time describing his wartime experience, but what he does relate is striking:

The war—the frights, the cold, . . . the horribly smashed men still moving like half-crushed beetles, the sitting or standing corpses, the landscape of sheer earth without a blade of grass, the boots worn day and night till they seemed to grow to your feet—all this shows rarely and faintly in memory.

It is too cut off from the rest of my experience and often seems to have happened to someone else. It is even in a way unimportant.

How can anyone have seen what Lewis saw and yet say that it was, in a way, unimportant?

He published his autobiography in the mid-1950s; prior to that, he had laid out his philosophy of the significance of war in an essay called “Learning in War-Time,” spurred on by those who thought the intellectual activities of the universities should cease during such a harrowing time. Lewis disagreed and offered this perspective:

War creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it.

Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself.

If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life.”

Life has never been normal.

I remember the first time I read that. It struck a chord deep within me. I, along with probably most of humanity, yearn for the normal. Yet what is ever really normal? We have in our minds the concept of normal (always peaceful, never disturbed by trials and tribulations, unceasing happiness—or at the very least, the avoidance of any genuine pain). Yet how often is that the case?

Lewis continues in that essay with a thought that is so commonsensical that it shouldn’t shock us, but the way he states it does give a jolt:

What does war do to death? It certainly does not make it more frequent: 100 per cent of us die, and the percentage cannot be increased. . . .

Does it increase our chances of painful death? I doubt it. . . . Does it decrease our chances of dying at peace with God? I cannot believe it. If active service does not persuade a man to prepare for death, what conceivable concatenation of circumstances would?

As we’re told in the book of Hebrews, we all have an appointment with death, it will happen only once, and afterward we face judgment before the Throne.

A few years after writing that essay, Lewis gave the world The Screwtape Letters and, in a different format, made the same argument. Screwtape scolds his trainee, Wormwood, for being so delighted that men have started another war. There is a danger to satanic plans in the midst of war, he warns him:

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

Screwtape, of course, is referring to living forever in this world. By God’s grace, though, we will live forever in the new heaven and new earth.

In the meantime, though, it would be best for us to take to heart that life has never been normal, is not now normal, and we will not awake tomorrow to the kind of normality our flesh seeks. Yet, with the Holy Spirit as our Guide and Helper, we can navigate this absence of normality (as we define it) and see God’s hand at work in all the abnormality we must face day by day.