How C. S. Lewis Changed the Way I Worship1
[What follows is the substance of a brief, 10-minute, talk I gave at the recent national conference of Desiring God, a gathering that focused on C. S. Lewis as a “Romantic Rationalist.” In case you weren’t aware, Lewis died 50 years ago in 1963, on the same day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. My focus in this brief talk was how Lewis changed the way I worship.]
Let me say right from the start that when I refer to “the way I worship” and how C. S. Lewis changed it, this has nothing to do with style or physical posture or contemporary songs vs. traditional hymns or acoustical guitars vs. the pipe organ. So let me explain what I do have in mind.
My understanding of the nature of worship has been radically transformed by two fundamental truths, one of which came from John Piper and the other from C. S. Lewis, both of whom, of course, got their ideas from the Bible! And both truths are inextricably tied together and greatly overlap.
(1) Piper helped me overcome what I now recognize as the blasphemous and God-dishonoring belief that in worship I could actually give to God something he otherwise lacked. In my former way of thinking about God and worshiping him I mistakenly envisiond God as in need of me, as in some sense dependent on my praise, as if by expressing my gratitude I could make him feel better after a long day of running the world, or that by saying nice things about him I could actually make him greater than he was.
Then, with Piper’s help, I ran headlong into Acts 17:24-25 where Paul said this in his sermon on Mars Hill: “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.”
The result of the transformation that occurred is that I now come to God to get rather than to give. He is the infinitely resourceful one and I am the one in need. I glorify him not by pretending to supply what he lacks but by satisfying my heart, soul, mind, and body with all that he is and offers me in Jesus.
(2) What C. S. Lewis helped me grasp is best explained by looking briefly at his own struggle with worship as he explained it in the essay titled, "A Word About Praising,” in his short book, Reflections on the Psalms (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1958), pp. 90-98. In a word, Lewis enabled me to recognize that not only was it permissible to enjoy God in worship, it was absolutely essential if I was truly to honor him. He said it in this one profound statement: “I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.” But there is a lot that leads up to this statement.
Lewis was more than a little agitated by the persistent demand, especially in the Psalms, that we all “praise 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 great he is? Lewis was threatened with a picture of God in which he appeared as little better than a vain woman demanding compliments. Thanking God for his gifts was one thing, but this “perpetual eulogy” was more than Lewis could stomach.
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 communicaes His presence to men.” Even in the Levitical sacrificial system it wasn’t so much that the Israelites gave bulls and goats to God “but that by their so doing God gave Himself to men.” God is, after all, the creator and owner of the cattle on a thousand hills. If he were to become hungry, so he said in Psalm 50:12, he would hardly need to tell us!
Lewis is addressing, somewhat indirectly, the question that Piper earlier raised: Why do you worship a God who needs nothing? Indeed, how do you do so? 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? This is where Lewis turned the light on in my brain and stirred the affections of my heart:
“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? If, therefore, 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. 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.”
So, if I understand Lewis correctly, he’s telling us that God’s pursuit of my praise of him is not weak self-seeking but the epitome of self-giving love! If my satisfaction in God is incomplete until expressed in praise of him for satisfying me 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 my worship (what Lewis before thought was inexcusable selfishness) is both the most loving thing he could possibly do for me and the most glorifying thing he could possibly do for himself. For in my gladness in him (not his gifts) is his glory in me.
If that was hard to digest, try this.
If God is to love me, optimally, he must bestow or impart the best gift he has, the greatest prize, the most precious treasure, the most exalted and worthy thing within his power to give. That gift, of course, is himself. Nothing in the universe is as beautiful and captivating and satisfying as God!
So, if God loves me he will give himself to me and then work in my soul to awaken me to his beauty and all-sufficiency. In other words, he will strive by all manner and means to intensify and expand and enlarge my joy in him. All of which is to say, in the words of John Piper, that God’s love for me is seen not in him making much of me, but in him graciously enabling me to enjoy making much of him forever.
So God comes to me and says: “Here I am in all my glory: incomparable, infinite, immeasurable, unsurpassed. See me! Be satisfied with me! Enjoy me! Celebrate who I am! Experience the height and depth and width and breadth of savoring and relishing me!”
Does that sound like God pursuing his own glory? Yes! But it also sounds like God loving me perfectly and passionately. The only way it is not real love is if there is something for me better than God: something more beautiful than God that he can show me, something more pleasing and satisfying than God with which he can fill my heart, something more glorious and majestic than God with which I can occupy myself for eternity. But there is no such thing! Anywhere! Ever!
That is how C. S. Lewis forever changed the way I worship!