Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Soak In the Wisdom and Joy of C.S. Lewis This Weekend

I hope the last few posts have persuaded you that you need to read The Weight of Glory. The full insights of Lewis's sermon can't be appreciated just from the parts I have quoted. The flow of his argument is brilliant and reading the 10 pages all the way through is an experience of wonder.

There is another feast available this weekend for those who have delighted in the wisdom and the brilliance of C.S. Lewis's thinking. The Desiring God conference for 2013 is entitled: The Romantic Rationalist: God, Life, and Imagination in the Work of C.S. Lewis. From Friday, September 27 through Sunday, September 29, desiringgod.org will be live-streaming the talks and messages from the conference for anyone who wants to watch them for free. After the conference, usually within a week or less, they will all be available online at desiringgod.org to watch or download (still for free).

In advance of the conference, John Piper has put together a free e-book summarizing the influence C.S. Lewis has had on his life and Christian thinking, including helping him behold the wonder of God in Creation and the romance and poetry of life. The title is Alive to Wonder. You can download it here as a PDF or for Kindle, Nook, etc.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Ultimate Fulfillment Is Greater Than We've Ever Dreamed

C.S. Lewis perceived that our inconsolable longing in this life will only be completely fulfilled when we are united to God in the next. He also identified another awesome dimension to our ultimate desire for fulfillment. What we really want is not merely to be satisfied, but to become part of the beauty and glory that draws us in even now:

"When I attempted, a few minutes ago, to describe our spiritual longings, I was omitting one of their most curious characteristics. We usually notice it just as the moment of vision dies away, as the music ends, or as the landscape loses the celestial light. What we feel then has been well described by Keats as 'the journey homeward to habitual self.' You know what I mean. For a few minutes we have had the illusion of belonging to that world. Now we wake to find that it is no such thing. We have been mere spectators. Beauty has smiled, but not to welcome us; her face was turned in our direction, but not to see us. We have not been accepted, welcomed, or taken into the dance. ... A scientist may reply that since most of the things we call beautiful are inanimate, it is not very surprising that they take no notice of us. That, of course, is true. It is not the physical objects that I am speaking of, but that indescribable something of which they become for a moment the messengers. And part of the bitterness which mixes with the sweetness of that message is due to the fact that it so seldom seems to be a message intended for us, but rather something we have overheard. By bitterness I mean pain, not resentment. We should hardly dare to ask that any notice be taken of ourselves. But we pine. The sense that in this universe we are treated as strangers, the longing to be acknowledged, to meet with some response, to bridge some chasm that yawns between us and reality, is part of our inconsolable secret. And surely, from this point of view, the promise of glory, in the sense described, becomes highly relevant to our deep desire. For glory means good report with God, acceptance by God, response, acknowledgment, and welcome into the heart of things. The door on which we have been knocking all our lives will open at last.

"Perhaps it seems rather crude to describe glory as the fact of being 'noticed' by God. But this is almost the language of the New Testament. St. Paul promises to those who love God not, as we should expect, that they will know Him, but that they will be known by Him (1 Cor. 8:3). ... Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. And to be at last summoned inside would be both glory and honor beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache.

"At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in." (C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory)

We All Have an Inconsolable Longing - For Now

In the last post, I said that C.S. Lewis spent a great deal of time thinking about our universal human longing for happiness. One of the greatest and most important things he ever wrote on this subject is a sermon entitled The Weight of Glory. Every Christian should read it. It is one of the most revealing commentaries written in modern times on desire, fulfillment, satisfaction, and what it really means to be created for eternal life in heaven. Here is how Lewis explains our inconsolable longing:

"Now, if we are made for heaven, the desire for our proper place will be already in us, but not yet attached to the true object, and will even appear as the rival of that object. ... In speaking of this desire for our own far-off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. ... Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited." (C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory)

We are always trying in this life to arrive – to get to a place where we feel really fulfilled and do not long for anything else. And that is just what we can’t do. Lewis recognized that because we were not made for this world, we have a natural and inborn longing for something better and deeper that will only be fulfilled in the next world. That doesn't mean we don't get foretastes of joy and happiness and fulfillment in this life. Lewis also recognized that we are given the good pleasures in this world (the music, the beauty, the happy relationships) to whet our appetites for the glories of the next. But this world is temporary, and limited, and we can't experience the fullness of everlasting joy that God has planned for His people in this perishable world. We have to be ready to put it away when the time comes to receive our true inheritance.

In fact, the more we try to be completely satisfied here in this life on earth, the further we put ourselves from complete satisfaction. Our only means of being fully satisfied is to seek with all our hearts to find our satisfaction completely in God, something we will not fully receive until our bodies are renewed and we join Him in eternity. While we are on earth, this experience will become an increasing fulfillment and satisfaction in God if we continue to pursue it. The eternal fountain of absolute joy does overflow into Creation, filling those who embrace Jesus as their Lord and Savior with streams of living water. But we aren't satisfied taking drinks from the overflow of the fountain forever. What we really want is to be plunged into joy endlessly, to never get thirsty again. In the next post, I'll share how Lewis depicted that glorious union.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Happiness Is Limited in This Life So You'll Enjoy It Forever

I want to make sure that I am clear in what I mean when I say God wants us to be happy. I do not at all mean that God promises we will be happy all of the time in this life, or that we will mostly have joy and very little pain. Joy is not a constant thing. If you have many seasons where you must struggle to find joy, you're normal. God does provide joy, and God is the only one you can rely on to provide everlasting joy. But He deliberately limits our experience of it in this life, and I think C.S. Lewis understood why.

I have been helped and encouraged immensely by C.S. Lewis when I have been struggling to find joy and happiness (as you can see from the link). Lewis has made more sense out of why we long so much for satisfaction that seems elusive, and why we suffer so much, than just about anyone else outside the Scriptures. The only other Christian author that has helped me this much is John Piper, and I suspect that is in no small part because Piper himself has been richly helped by Lewis. Piper titled his biographical sketch of Lewis "Lessons from an Inconsolable Soul" (a title that will be explained by the next post). It summarizes well how much Lewis thought about joy and satisfaction and the longing to find them.

Lewis's conclusion about why happiness is limited in this life was simply this: God gives us as much happiness in life as is good for us, but not so much that we miss out on everlasting joy.

"The Christian doctrine of suffering explains, I believe, a very curious fact about the world we live in. The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacles to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home." C.S Lewis, The Problem of Pain

Or, as the Scriptures put it: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” 1 John 2:15-17.

And not only that, but their joy abides forever too.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Why Does God Delay Giving Us Joy?

I firmly believe God does want us to be happy. The way Jesus prays for His people in John 17, especially John 17:13, is a powerful example of that. John 15:11 is another. He is really focused on our joy being full. It appears to be one of the main priorities Jesus has as He is preparing to leave the world. So why is joy so hard for many people to find? If God wants us to have it, why do we have to seek for it in spite of so many obstacles, and why do some of us have to wait so long to find it? This is a painful question for so many people. It has been a painful question for me. The thoughts below have truly helped.

I argued here that the Bible has many examples of God telling us we ought to ask Him for good things that He has already said He wants to give to us. The riches of God's love and kindness to us are displayed much more powerfully when we ask Him for something in complete dependence and He faithfully gives us just what we need. It's one way of demonstrating to the world who He is: a loving heavenly Father who knows how to give good gifts to His children. (Matthew 7:7-11.) That's probably only one glimpse of what God uses prayer to do. What about the prayers for joy, for relief from pain, that God doesn't seem to answer? Why do we sometimes have to ask repeatedly? Why not grant it the first time we ask for it? Wouldn't that look more generous than making us wait?

God clearly has a much more complex purpose in prayer. C.S Lewis made the point that prayer is not about changing how God acts; prayer changes us. There is something happening inside of us as we pray, and especially as we wait for God to act. In fact, to put it fairly, God is acting all the time as we pray to Him. Even when we don't see signs that He is answering the prayers we lifted up, He has already been at work changing us through the relationship of prayer. The process of praying earnestly for God's help over a long period of time is doing something in our souls while we experience it.

When we feel we need something from God and He doesn't seem to give it, it often doesn't feel like a comfort that He is invisibly doing something else in our souls we can't feel yet. We are almost always focused on our immediate needs and wants. We don't have the benefit of God's far-sighted perspective on what will bring us the most happiness. God is not just seeking our immediate happiness. He is seeking a permanent and lasting happiness. In fact, the process of waiting may be a necessary tool that shapes us and trains us so that we actually can receive the joy God wants to give us. We aren't always ready to receive what we ask for - it might not even help us much if we got it when we first asked for it. A loving God would do more than just give us whatever we ask; He would make sure to change us so that we could actually enjoy it.

We easily forget that we are not whole yet. We are not at present the mature children of God that we one day will be. There is still a lot of work to be done to untangle the cords of sin and defiance and pride that are wound around our hearts and souls. There are glorious things God has promised to us, but we have to undergo the process of being healed and fixed and restored in order to appreciate them, and to avoid ruining them. J.D. Greear, in his book Gospel (p. 188), pointed out that waiting for God, and even being denied what we ask for, reveals things about what we really place our hope in and what we really treasure. Sometimes when we ask for joy or happiness, what we really mean by that is that we want certain things in our lives to work out a certain way because that's what we think we need to be happy. The process of waiting can lead to our discovering that we treasure other things more than God, or we trust them to satisfy us more than we trust God to do it. This discovery may be exactly what God uses to bring us to the greater joy of being satisfied in Him alone. J.D. Greear quotes Larry Crabb as saying: "You might never really know Jesus is all that you need until He is all that you have."

The pleasure of knowing God Himself is the only joy in the universe that will never let us down and never wear out. One of the clearest demonstrations of God's love is that when we are wrong about what we think we need to be happy, He doesn't give it to us, but instead helps fix us so we will learn what will really complete our happiness. If we are depending on other things to happen for us to be happy, even "good" things like being married, having unity in our church, or being free from pain, then those things control our joy. As J.D. Greear put it, "Whatever controls your joy is what you abide in." (Gospel, p. 188.) Abiding in anything other than God for joy is setting ourselves up for disappointment. Learning to abide in God alone for joy is a very difficult process for us, but if it guarantees that we will get that joy, and keep it forever, then the sooner we learn to do that the better. That is truly a loving answer to prayer.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Don't Let Being Unhappy Make You Feel Guilty

I am very conscious that what I said in the last post about the importance of seeking happiness can easily come across as making it sound like it's our fault if we're not happy. Telling someone who is very unhappy that he or she needs to be happy sounds insensitive and condemning, not to mention unhelpful. That isn't what I want to convey. The conviction that God encourages happiness and wants us to seek it should give us hope. The fact that we can't make it happen takes us back again to one of the keys to spiritual life: the things we need and the things we are supposed to do are impossible for us to accomplish by our own strength.

Being told you should be happy can't give you the ability to be happy when you're not. It often simply tends to make you feel worse. The only thing that can make you happy when you aren't is for God to act in your heart to give you joy. God uses many methods and means to do that, but the main way it happens is through prayer. Believing that God wants us to be happy and satisfied should give us hope that God wants to give that to us when we ask Him for it. It should make us bold in praying to God for happiness, joy, and freedom from anxiety or depression. We have every reason to eagerly trust that He will answer us because we know we are asking for something He already wants to give us.

The mystery of why God desires that we ask Him earnestly and prayerfully for things He already wants to do isn't something we will fully understand on this side of heaven. But it should be enough that the Scriptures tell us this is how He relates to us. We don't know how or why it works that way, but the important thing for us is that it does work. Jesus tells us God knows our needs before we seek them (Matthew 6:31-33), but He also tells us to ask God for our bread daily (Matthew 6:9-13). God desires all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:3-4), but Jesus also tells us to pray to God that He would send laborers out to the harvest to save souls (Luke 10:2). God has blessings to give us that He is waiting for us to ask Him for.

Perhaps the most helpful explanation of this I have heard is that God's goodness and faithfulness and generosity are displayed more clearly when we desperately ask Him for something and He gladly responds by giving it to us than they would be if He simply gave us everything we needed without our ever thinking about it.

The bottom line is that God has given us a message that He wants us to be happy. We can't make it happen by ourselves. But we can choose to seek it diligently in every possible way, chiefly by praying to Him that He would make it happen. And the fact that He has told us He wants us to have it is the guarantee that if we keep asking Him for it, He will do it.

Wanting to Be Happy Is a Virtue - and a Necessity

This perspective by C.S. Lewis has really ministered to me through a painful summer. Walter Hooper describes the virtue of Lewis's positive willingness to pursue his own happiness: "Lewis had his share – some would say more than his share – of worries. But, having done all in his power to solve them, he left the matter to God and got on with his work and pleasures. … Lewis really wanted and liked the happiness which the Divine Son died to give all men. …in a letter to his brother … he says, 'I begin to suspect that the world is divided not only into the happy and the unhappy, but into those who like happiness and those who, odd as it seems, really don’t.'" (Introduction to The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses)

The world will give us plenty of reasons to be tempted by despair. We have to teach ourselves to unapologetically choose to be happy. Many people are sad, lonely, or depressed when they very much do not want to be. But it seems that not many of us feel the freedom to actively choose to cast away our anxieties and cares upon God and simply enjoy the life He has given us. (Phil. 4:6-7; 1 Peter 5:6-7.) It seems it is all too easy to succumb to sorrows and to become accustomed to being burdened by them, so much so that it almost feels unnatural and "guilty" to us to simply enjoy some free and unfettered happiness - as if we're somehow being selfish for having a carefree mind and unhindered joy. The Scriptures show that God Himself is supremely happy in being who He is and in the work He does. Then it follows that it is a quality of godliness to diligently seek to be as happy as we can in the ways God designed us to find our joy, however much we must work to get there. Happiness itself is a genuinely good thing of which God heartily approves.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

This Is What the Government Wants from Christians in the U.S.

Pastor Louie Giglio, founder of the Passion conferences, was invited to pray at the Inauguration of President Obama because of his sincere and compassionate dedication to ending sex slavery and human trafficking (www.enditmovement.com), something the President also supports. Now the White House has decided it doesn't want him because he has religious beliefs grounded in the Christian Scriptures that offend homosexual activists. Essentially, activists dug up a sermon he preached 15-20 years ago in which he states plainly what the Bible says about homosexual behavior: the Scriptures call it a sin, and like any other sin it needs to be resisted and turned away from. He also said that change can be very difficult, but it is possible, as it is for all of us who are willing to seek God's help to turn away from sin. The Obama Administration has reacted by indicating that Pastor Giglio's words "don't reflect our desire to celebrate the strength and diversity of our country", and Giglio has withdrawn, which one presumes he was asked to do.

Dr. Russell Moore brilliantly captured in this post the nature of what's going on here and why it should be considered disturbing. Some citizens don't agree with Giglio's religious beliefs, but the government itself is supposed to be neutral as to what its citizens believe. The very bedrock of the Bill of Rights is freedom of speech and freedom of religious belief, and the Constitution itself forbids any religious test for public office. These principles were established by men who had seen what it was like to live under a government that favored people of one religion (the Church of England) and disfavored those of any other religion. The new republic, committed to democracy and freedom, was founded with a firm commitment to prevent a man from having his government be against him regarding his religious beliefs. The Founders agreed that matters of religious belief were so important to a person's conscience and freedom that it was a grave evil to coerce someone to abandon or change his beliefs under pressure from the government.

It should deeply disturb all of us that the elected government of the United States now applies a political litmus test to decide whether a pastor can pray at a public event. Essentially, for the millions of Christians in the United States who are convinced of the truth of the Bible and submit to what it states about homosexual behavior, our government has indicated that we aren't welcome to participate publicly in events of national significance. The government has decided that only views which legitimize homosexual behavior are acceptable.

This has become so pervasive in our government now that this move isn't really a surprise. It's just proof of how far we have abandoned the value of freedom of religious belief and practice. A person who has to suffer loss of public participation or loss of access to elected office unless he discards his religious convictions is not really "free" to believe as his mind and heart dictate - certainly not in the way those who fought and labored to establish a free republic intended. They intended that a person be able to live by whatever beliefs he is most convinced are true and good, without being subject to the pressure and coercion of losing significant access to participation in the democratic process of government if he believes one thing instead of another. We need to be honest as a nation about the fact that many people influencing our government don't want to have that kind of republic anymore, and we need to consider what kind of country that is changing the United States into.