Billy Graham’s Coronation Day

Billy Graham was ready to go. He had been ready for many years. Even though his passing was not a shock—after all, he was 99—just the fact of his death makes the world stop for a moment and consider a man who was faithful to His Savior and who made an enormous impact for Him.

I remember watching Graham crusades on television when I was a teenager. I read a number of his books at that relatively young age. I guess I wasn’t your typical teen.

As time went on, the Lord directed me to many other Christian writers, speakers, and spiritual guides, but I will always be grateful that Graham was the one who first got my attention.

In my book on C. S. Lewis, I mention the one time these two men met. Lewis had this to say afterwards:

I had the pleasure of meeting Billy Graham once. We had dinner together during his visit to Cambridge University in 1955. I thought he was a very modest and a very sensible man, and I liked him very much indeed.

The Oxford/Cambridge intellectual having a meeting of the minds and hearts over dinner with a Baptist revivalist. Why did that work? Both believed genuinely in what Lewis called “mere Christianity.” They shared the same Savior and recognized that in each other.

Four years ago, during my sabbatical, I not only researched and wrote a book on Lewis but I began work with a colleague on another book that aims to analyze spiritual advisors to presidents post-WWII. Graham naturally figures prominently, as he was the only Christian leader/pastor who knew each president personally, starting with Eisenhower.

It was a joyful experience going to the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College to research him. Then I did the same at six presidential libraries. Graham’s commitment to offering spiritual counsel to any president who asked, regardless of the label of Republican or Democrat, is a lesson to all of us today.

Our book is still in the works, with a great hope that it may be picked up by a publisher who sees its value. Yesterday, we were interviewed about Graham and the proposed book by a local television news outlet. We were glad for the opportunity to showcase what Graham has meant to so many.

While it may be a cliché among Christians, it is nonetheless true that yesterday was Billy Graham’s Coronation Day. He is now in the presence of the Lord he served for most of those 99 years. May his life inspire the rest of us to be just as faithful.

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

False Assurances of Eternity

I’ve never read George MacDonald’s Thomas Wingfold, Curate, but in the anthology C. S. Lewis put together of MacDonald’s writings, one selection from that book stood out to me this morning. I think the nugget in this excerpt is worth noting.

It begins with MacDonald quoting someone who says, “I cannot see what harm would come of letting us know a little—as much at least as might serve to assure us that there was more of something on the other side.”

Don’t we hear that quite often today? People just want some kind of assurance that death isn’t final, that there is something that awaits hereafter. The problem is that they almost don’t care what that something is as long as it isn’t too bad.

MacDonald explains that “their fears allayed, their hopes encouraged from any lower quarter, men would (as usual) turn away from the Fountain, to the cistern of life.”

Mankind will accept any explanation of the afterlife that provides some assurance, yet they stubbornly resist the only Source of knowledge of what actually transpires upon death; they don’t turn to the “Fountain” where eternal life is found.

He then hits home with this insight:

That there are thousands who would forget God if they could but be assured of such a tolerable state of things beyond the grave as even this wherein we now live, is plainly to be anticipated from the fact that the doubts of so many in respect of religion concentrate themselves nowadays upon the question whether there is any life beyond the grave; a question which . . . does not immediately belong to religion at all.

What does he mean? People don’t really want to know the God who offers life beyond the grave; they simply want to know there is something. God is an afterthought.

Satisfy such people, if you can, that they shall live, and what have they gained? A little comfort perhaps—but a comfort not from the highest source, and possibly gained too soon for their well-being.

Does it bring them any nearer to God than they were before? Is He filling one cranny more of their hearts in consequence?

Simply coming to some kind of assurance that life goes on after one dies is not only insufficient—it is a delusion by itself. It ignores the stark Scriptural reality that there are two destinations after death, and only one is a state of eternal joy. Further, there is only one path to that joy:

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. John 14:6

Hell is just as real as heaven, but most people don’t want to believe that. They want the assurance that all will go to the same blissful eternity. Yet, as Jesus warns,

For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it. Matthew 7:14

That’s not a popular message. It refuses to agree with the culture that assumes all roads lead to the same place.

Unfortunately, the message is not popular in many churches either. How many pastors teach this truth? How many are providing false assurances?

If we truly love others, we will want them to know the truth and not be misled. Warnings are essential in the proclamation of the Gospel. The Good News must be preceded by the bad news. That’s what makes the Good News good.

If True, This Is of Infinite Importance

“Apologetic work is so dangerous to one’s own faith. A doctrine never seems dimmer to me than when I have just successfully defended it.” So wrote C. S. Lewis in a 1946 letter. Yet a good many of us are grateful that he took the time and effort to add his part to all the apologetics offered throughout the Christian era.

I can understand his sentiment in that letter. When you have to labor to help people understand the basics of how the universe functions, who is behind it all, the problem of sin and the remedy for it—well, it can be, at times, a wearying task.

Shortly before Lewis wrote that letter, he wrote an essay called, simply, “Christian Apologetics.” In it, he sought to help readers come to grips with the obstacles we face when we try to explain and demonstrate to people that there is a Truth out there. “One of the great difficulties,” Lewis opined, “is to keep before the audience’s mind the question of Truth.” He continued,

They always think you are recommending Christianity not because it is true but because it is good. And in the discussion they will at every moment try to escape from the issue “True—or False” into stuff about a good society, or morals . . . or anything whatever.

The apologist’s job, he says, is “to keep forcing them back . . . to the real point.” The goal is to help lead them out of a phony idea that while “religion” may be useful, “one mustn’t carry it too far.” He then provides a wonderfully insightful quote that many have used ever since:

One must keep on pointing out that Christianity is a statement which, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.

Lewis argues similarly in another essay written at about the same time, “Modern Man and His Categories of Thought.” In this one, he notes, “Man is becoming as narrowly ‘practical’ as the irrational animals.” People don’t seem interested in objective truth.

They only want to know if it will be comforting, or “inspiring,” or socially useful. . . . When an Englishman says he “believes in” or “does not believe in” Christianity, he may not be thinking about truth at all. Very often he is only telling us whether he approves or disapproves of the Church as a social institution.

The mass of mankind doesn’t desire to find truth. After all, if they had to come face to face with the truth of the Gospel, they would have to acknowledge their sins, repent of them, humbly lay down all pretensions to their own goodness, and learn to be a disciple of Christ, setting aside all of their selfishness, pettiness, and pride.

That’s not appealing. Therefore, they run away from the truth.

Closely connected with this unhuman Practicality is an indifference to, and contempt of, dogma. The popular point of view is unconsciously syncretistic: it is widely believed that “all religions really mean the same thing.”

Such a statement defies all logic and rational thought. How can Christianity and Hinduism both be correct when they disagree on all pertinent points? How can one really equate the god of Islam with Christianity? A bland monotheism by itself in no way equates with what Christianity says. Neither is the character of Islam’s Allah the character we see in the God of the Bible. That’s why Lewis also poignantly declares,

I think we must attack wherever we meet it the nonsensical idea that mutually exclusive propositions about God can both be true.

It all makes so much sense. But then, is our society interested in “sense”? Is it interested in truth? Not if it points the finger at them and says that dreadful word “repent.”

Yet we must not falter in explaining the faith and in praying that God’s Holy Spirit will awaken hearts and minds to His truth.

In your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect. I Peter 3:15

Lewis Found Treasures There . . . & So Do I

C. S. Lewis, as a young man, and before he was a Christian, read the novel Phantastes, written by a minister named George MacDonald. He was so taken by the novel that eventually, after his conversion, he delved into MacDonald’s sermons also. He found treasures there, so many that he edited them into an anthology for which he wrote an endearing preface.

I’ve recently begun working my way through this anthology—indeed, it’s now part of my morning devotions—and have found treasures as well. Just this morning, on pages facing one another, three separate pearls stood out to me, and I sensed that God wanted me to ponder them seriously.

Under the title “First Things First,” I was cautioned, as someone who seeks to explain who God is, that something else is even more important in my life:

Oh the folly of any mind that would explain God before obeying Him! That would map out the character of God instead of crying, Lord, what wouldst thou have me to do?

While the Lord does want me to explain Him to others, that explanation would be hollow if my life doesn’t match up to what I’m saying.

Another one, titled “The Author’s Fear,” mirrors my own concern as I attempt to write these blog posts and publish books:

If I mistake, He will forgive me. I do not fear Him: I fear only lest, able to see and write these things, I should fail of witnessing and myself be, after all, a castaway—no king but a talker; no disciple of Jesus, ready to go with Him to the death, but an arguer about the truth.

The possibility of being a castaway after all I’ve written over the years is a horror to my soul. I don’t want to be merely a talker/writer. I don’t wish to be only an arguer about the truth. I earnestly seek to be a real disciple of Jesus.

Then MacDonald truly hit home with this entry that Lewis called simply “Salvation”:

The notion that the salvation of Jesus is a salvation from the consequences of our sins is a false, mean, low notion. . . . Jesus did not die to save us from punishment; He was called Jesus because He should save His people from their sins.

Some people just want to escape the consequences of their sins, in this life and the next, rather than wanting to stop sinning entirely. That’s not real salvation. Only when we desire to cast all sin out of our lives are we at one with God.

We should abhor the sins themselves, not just seek to have sins forgiven and then continue in them. That is a false concept of salvation because it is not based on genuine repentance and a heart that wants a relationship with the One who made heaven and earth and our own souls.

I appreciate those reminders this morning. I needed all three.

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.