Ok, I have to admit, I took the advice of Prince Humperdinck from “The Princess Bride” and did something I never do: “Skip to the end!” I had started a C.S. Lewis book I had never read before, The Four Loves, and had read the first chapter, which was very interesting. But I am starting a new sermon series on I Corinthians 13 this Sunday, and so I had more than a passing interest in what Lewis had to say regarding agape love (or “Charity” as he entitles the chapter, in accordance with the old King James translation of that great word for love). I guess it was too much for me – I went to the last chapter and read it. Yep. Never do that – but I just did.
And what a chapter it was. It contained searching insights on the nature of God, man, salvation, relationships, love, heaven … and more – all within the space of the 25 pages that comprise the final chapter of The Four Loves. Let me give you just a taste of it:
Reminding us of the nature of God, Lewis writes:
But to be Sovereign of the Universe is no great matter to God. In Himself, at home in “The Land of the Trinity”, He is Sovereign of a far greater realm. We must keep always before our eyes that vision of Lady Julian’s in which God carried in His hand a little object like a nut, and that nut was “all that is made.”
This kind of expansive view of God is needed today, in a world where so many have minimized His greatness.
But Lewis’ portrayal of the need of man for God’s love and grace is perhaps even more revealing:
We want to be loved for our cleverness, beauty, generosity, fairness, usefulness. The first hint that anyone is offering to us the highest love of all is a terrible shock.
He then shares an eye-opening analogy:
Suppose yourself a man struck down shortly after marriage by an incurable disease … useless, impotent, hideous, disgusting; dependent upon your wife’s earnings …. Impaired even in intellect and shaken by gusts of uncontrollable temper, full of unavoidable demands. And suppose your wife’s care and pity to be inexhaustible … But what the extreme example illustrates is universal. We are all receiving Charity.
What a reminder that what we receive from God is not earned AT ALL; it is all of grace: “By grace you are saved.” It is painful to see ourselves in such a light, but we need that perspective. It undoubtedly the proper one to have of ourselves.
Lest one think of Lewis as dealing only in an “ivory tower” philosophical realm, he writes insightfully of how the highest love can be formed in the crucible of our very imperfect earthly relationships. He remarks that our attitudes are similar to: “If only my husband were more considerate, less lazy, less extravagant” … BUT, he writes:
These frets and rubs are beneficial. It may even be where there are the fewest of them the conversion of natural love is most difficult. Where they are plentiful the need of rising above it is obvious.
If I interpret Lewis rightly, he is saying that instead of dwelling on the flaws of those around us, we need to allow God, through our interaction with those far-from-perfect people in our lives, to form His higher, more sacrificial, godly love in us. If there were no “frets and rubs” in our relationships — if there were only those to whom we were naturally drawn by lower loves – there would be no need of developing God’s higher agape. No wonder God ordained for such imperfect people to share our lives with us. (No wonder He allowed us to BE such for their sake too!) Now if only we may keep His ultimate purposes in mind as we interact, and work with Him towards that agape love.
Lewis is iconoclastic when it comes to some common views of heaven. He writes of:
… the widespread illusion that reunion with the loved dead is the goal of the Christian life. The denial of this may sound harsh and unreal in the ears of the broken-hearted, but it must be denied.
He quotes Augustine’s “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our heart has no rest till it comes to Thee”, and then writes:
In heaven there will be no anguish and no duty of turning away from our earthly beloveds. First, because we shall have turned already; from the portraits to the Original … from the creatures He made lovable to Love Himself. But secondly, because we shall find them all in Him. By loving Him more than them we shall love them more than we do now.
He admits that is easier in theory than in practice (it would have been interesting to see how the subsequent loss of his wife Joy might have altered this view?) and says:
But all that is far away in ‘The Land of the Trinity,” not here in exile, in the weeping valley. Down here is all loss and renunciation. The very purpose of the bereavement …. may have been to force this upon us. We are then compelled to try to believe, what we cannot yet feel, that God is our true Beloved.
It is one thing to read such words; and hopefully to comprehend them at least minimally. It would be yet another thing entirely to apply them in some meaningful measure. It is very convicting, while reading about agape love, to see how far short of it one falls. But Lewis even has some words of consolation regarding that:
Those whose imagination far exceeds their obedience are subject to a just penalty; we easily imagine conditions far higher than any we have really reached.
I am right there with him; I always knew we must be kindred spirits! He then goes on to write a word of consolation to those of us: “If we cannot ‘practise the presence of God’ (amazingly enough, one of my personal and preaching emphases the last couple of years) it is something to practise the absence of God, to become increasingly aware of our unawareness …” I guess that IS akin perhaps to “poverty in spirit” – knowing how short one falls can be his first step in the right direction.
There’s an abundance of soul-searching stuff here – and remember, all of the above comes from just the last chapter. Kind of makes me want to go back and read the rest of the book!