The Text that Nearly Destroyed the Faith of C. S. Lewis9
[I posted on this subject a few years ago, but as I’m preaching through John’s gospel it reared its head yet again. It is of such profound importance that we need to meditate deeply on it over and over again.]
C. S. Lewis was voted by evangelicals in America as the single most influential Christian of the 20th century. If you are wondering why he was known only by his initials, it is probably because C. S. stands for Clive Staples. If you were named Clive Staples, I suspect you’d go by C. S. yourself!
Lewis was born in 1898 in Belfast, Ireland. His death was hardly noticed by many, because he died on the same day that President John Kennedy was assassinated: November 22, 1963. His mother died when he was nine years old and his father never remarried. Lewis attended four different boarding schools before being admitted to Oxford University. However, before going to Oxford he joined the British Army to serve in World War I. In February of 1918, he was wounded in France and returned to England to recover. It was then that he began his studies at Oxford.
Over the next six years he was awarded three First Class Honors in classics, humanities, and English literature. He became a teaching fellow at Oxford in October, 1925, at the age of twenty-six. After a long personal and intellectual struggle, he professed faith in Christ as his Savior six years later, in 1931. After thirty years at Oxford, in 1955, he became professor in Medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge University. Lewis was not quite 65 years old when he died. Lewis is probably known most for his books, Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and The Chronicles of Narnia.
The reason I’ve taken time to tell you a little of Lewis’s life story is because it was the statement by Jesus in John 4:23 and others like it, especially in the Psalms, that almost destroyed Lewis’s faith. He had come out of atheism into theism and eventually to faith in Jesus as Lord. But he was deeply troubled and even angry with what he saw in Scripture as a less than flattering portrayal of God. So what did Jesus (and the psalmists and virtually every other biblical author) say that so angered Lewis?
“But the hour is coming and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him” (John 4:23).
What kind of God is it, Lewis asked himself, that would go about trying to find people to worship him? “What are you doing, God?” we might ask of him. “Well, I’m on the hunt, I’m on the lookout for people who will tell me how great I am. And I especially want them to tell everyone else how great I am.”
Lewis was more than puzzled by this. He was agitated and deeply offended. It is one thing, said Lewis, that Christians tell other people to worship God. What made it even worse is that God himself called for praise of God himself. This was almost more than Lewis could stomach. What kind of “God” is it who incessantly demands that his people tell him how wonderful he is?
Lewis describes his struggle and how he worked through it in an extraordinary passage from the essay, “The Problem of Praise in the Psalms” (found in Reflections on the Psalms [New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1958], pp. 90-98). Although I’m not widely read in Lewis, of what I have read this is undoubtedly the most important thing he ever wrote. I want you to hear it for yourself.
“We all despise the man who demands continued assurance of his own virtue, intelligence or delightfulness; we despise still more the crowd of people round every dictator, every millionaire, every celebrity, who gratify that demand. Thus a picture, at once ludicrous and horrible, both of God and His worshippers, threatened to appear in my mind. The Psalms were especially troublesome in this way – ‘Praise the Lord,' 'O praise the Lord with me,' 'Praise Him.' . . . Worse still was the statement put into God's own mouth, 'whoso offereth me thanks and praise, he honoureth me' (50:23). It was hideously like saying, 'What I most want is to be told that I am good and great.' . . . It was extremely distressing. It made one think what one least wanted to think. Gratitude to God, reverence to Him, obedience to Him, I thought I could understand; not this perpetual eulogy. . . .”
I suspect this strikes us as problematic, as it did Lewis, because we want to think that God is preeminently concerned with us, not himself. We want a God who is man-centered, not God-centered. Worse still, we can’t fathom how God could possibly love us the way we think he should if he is so unapologetically obsessed with the praise and glory of his own name. How can God love ME if all his infinite energy is expended in the love of HIMSELF? Part of Lewis’s problem, as he himself confesses, was that he did not see that,
“it is in the process of being worshipped that God communicates His presence to men. It is not of course the only way. But for many people at many times the 'fair beauty of the Lord' is revealed chiefly or only while they worship Him together. Even in Judaism the essence of the sacrifice was not really that men gave bulls and goats to God, but that by their so doing God gave Himself to men; in the central act of our own worship of course this is far clearer – there it is manifestly, even physically, God who gives and we who receive. The miserable idea that God should in any sense need, or crave for, our worship like a vain woman wanting compliments, or a vain author presenting his new books to people who never met or heard him, is implicitly answered by the words, 'If I be hungry I will not tell thee' (50:12). Even if such an absurd Deity could be conceived, He would hardly come to us, the lowest of rational creatures, to gratify His appetite. I don't want my dog to bark approval of my books.”
Lewis is addressing, somewhat indirectly, the question: How, or better yet, why do you worship a God who needs nothing? If God is altogether self-sufficient and cannot be served by human hands as if he needed anything (Acts 17:24-25; Romans 11:33-36), least of all glory, why does he command our worship and praise of him? Lewis continues.
“But the most obvious fact about praise – whether of God or anything – strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honour. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise unless . . . shyness or the fear of boring others is deliberately brought in to check it. The world rings with praise – lovers praising their mistresses [Romeo praising Juliet and vice versa], readers their favourite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favourite game – praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians or scholars. . . . Except where intolerably adverse circumstances interfere, praise almost seems to be inner health made audible. . . . I had not noticed either that just as men spontaneously praise whatever they value, so they spontaneously urge us to join them in praising it: 'Isn't she lovely? Wasn't it glorious? Don't you think that magnificent?' The Psalmists in telling everyone to praise God are doing what all men do when they speak of what they care about. My whole, more general, difficulty about the praise of God depended on my absurdly denying to us, as regards the supremely Valuable, what we delight to do, what indeed we can't help doing, about everything else we value.”
What Lewis is touching on here is how the love of God for sinners like you and me is ultimately made manifest. God desires our greatest good. But what greater good is there in the universe than God himself? So, if God is truly to love us, he must give us himself. But merely giving us of himself is only the first step in the expression of his affection for sinners. He must work to elicit from our hearts rapturous praise and superlative delight because, as Lewis said, “all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise.” That’s the way God made us. We can’t help but praise and rejoice in what we most enjoy. The enjoyment itself is stunted and hindered if it is never expressed in joyful celebration. Here’s how Lewis explained it.
“I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed. [“I just have to tell you how beautiful you are. I can’t keep it in any longer. I’m about to explode. You are the most wonderful person I’ve ever seen or met, and I love you!”] It is frustrating to have discovered a new author and not to be able to tell anyone how good he is; to come suddenly, at the turn of the road, upon some mountain valley of unexpected grandeur and then to have to keep silent because the people with you care for it no more than for a tin can in the ditch; to hear a good joke and find no one to share it with. . . .
If it were possible for a created soul fully . . . to 'appreciate', that is to love and delight in, the worthiest object of all, and simultaneously at every moment to give this delight perfect expression, then that soul would be in supreme beatitude. . . . To see what the doctrine really means, we must suppose ourselves to be in perfect love with God – drunk with, drowned in, dissolved by, that delight which, far from remaining pent up within ourselves as incommunicable, hence hardly tolerable, bliss, flows out from us incessantly again in effortless and perfect expression, our joy is no more separable from the praise in which it liberates and utters itself than the brightness a mirror receives is separable from the brightness it sheds. The Scotch catechism says that man's chief end is 'to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.' But we shall then know that these are the same thing. Fully to enjoy is to glorify. In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him.”
Let me summarize.
God’s pursuit of your praise of him is not weak self-seeking but the epitome of self-giving love! If your satisfaction in God is incomplete until expressed in praise of him for satisfying you with himself (note well: with HIMSELF, not his gifts or blessings, but the intrinsic beauty and splendor of God as God), then God’s effort to elicit your worship (what Lewis before thought was inexcusable selfishness) is both the most loving thing he could possibly do for you and the most glorifying thing he could possibly do for himself. For in our gladness in him (not his gifts) is his glory in us. Or as John Piper has most famously said, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.”