top of page

What C. S. Lewis Says About Charity

Lewis’s overall conclusion about love comes in his examination of the final of the four loves, Charity, which we are calling the second ‘intellectual’ love:

The natural loves are not self-sufficient. Something else, at first vaguely described as ‘decency and common sense’ but later revealed as goodness, and finally as the whole Christian life in one particular relation, must come to the help of the mere feeling if the feeling is to be kept sweet.

As we have seen, Eros, Affection and Friendship are unreliable on their own. They ‘wobble’, in one way or another. They are all subject to either variable emotions or the dangerous intellectual trap of Pride. What, then, is reliable? Lewis has all along more than hinted that his chief concern was the love of human beings for God. He explains that he has delayed talking about this for two reasons: people struggle to love at all, let alone love God; and it means that somehow, Eros, Affection and Friendship ultimately have to acknowledge that they are ‘second-best’.

One reason for rejecting the other loves in favour of the love for God - that it is less painful to do so, as the other loves are temporary and fleeting - is not really conscionable, as far as Lewis is concerned: love was never meant to be ‘safe’. Calculating who or what to love on the basis of safety isn’t like Love at all. Love is unavoidably risky and painful, as Lewis says in one of his most famous quotes:

There is no escape along the lines St. Augustine suggests. Nor along any other lines. There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket - safe, dark, motionless, airless - it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.

One draws nearer to God not by arming oneself against the risks of love, but by purposefully stripping away any armour and suffering accordingly: ‘If our hearts need to be broken, and if He chooses this as the way in which they should break, so be it.’ And yet the earthly loves - Eros, Affection and Friendship - seem to be liable to become disproportionate. Lewis points out the difficult passage in Scripture which demands the apparently impossible from us, ‘If any man come to me and hate not his father and mother and wife... and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple’ (Luke xiv, 26) but examines it more closely and concludes that what is meant is that we reject any distraction which might lead us away from God.

So, in the last resort, we must turn down or disqualify our nearest and dearest when they come between us and our obedience to God. Heaven knows, it will seem to them sufficiently like hatred. We must not act on the pity we feel; we must be blind to tears and deaf to pleadings.

We should, Lewis says, make sure that we order things so that this conflict of interest doesn’t occur: ‘Indeed, a real disagreement on this issue should make itself felt early enough to prevent a marriage or a Friendship from existing at all.’ In other words, a love which began with Eros, for example, should be suitably ‘briefed’ early on to make sure that, when it comes to the crunch and a choice has to be made, the other person isn’t completely startled.

But all along, the main challenge that all of this has been building up to is how to link the loves of Eros, Affection and Friendship with the divine love called Charity in some meaningful way. Eros, which clings to the other with passion; Affection, which expects and takes for granted a natural love; and Friendship, which is already freeing itself from emotion - how exactly does one ‘inject’ Charity into these?

Lewis returns to the statement which he drew from when he began: ‘God is love.’ But he shies away from a merely mystical interpretation: ‘We begin at the real beginning, with love as the Divine energy. This Primal love is Gift-love. In God there is no hunger that needs to be filled, only plenteousness that desires to give.’ God created everything that exists, that has existed and that will exist. He knew as Creation was made, that he would need to save it; he implanted in us Need-loves and Gift-loves. Gift-love most closely resembles the pure love that God emanates or embodies; Need-love is its opposite, the receptacle into which Gift-love flows. And Gift-love is essentially divine, seeking out objects which are far from seeming ‘lovable’:

He communicates to men a share of His own Gift-love. This is different from the Gift-loves He has built into their nature. These never quite seek simply the good of the loved object for the object's own sake. They are biased in favour of those goods they can themselves bestow, or those which they would like best themselves, or those which fit in with a pre-conceived picture of the life they want the object to lead. But Divine Gift-love - Love Himself working in a man - is wholly disinterested and desires what is simply best for the beloved. Again, natural Gift-love is always directed to objects which the lover finds in some way intrinsically lovable objects to which Affection or Eros or a shared point of view attracts him, or, failing that, to the grateful and the deserving, or perhaps to those whose helplessness is of a winning and appealing kind. But Divine Gift-love in the man enables him to love what is not naturally lovable; lepers, criminals, enemies, morons, the sulky, the superior and the sneering.

Need-loves are the ‘negative images’ of Gift-loves, then. But God is able to receive a Gift-love from us, though He has no need of it whatsoever.

And as all Christians know there is another way of giving to God; every stranger whom we feed or clothe is Christ. And this apparently is Gift-love to God whether we know it or not. Love Himself can work in those who know nothing of Him.

This is what is meant by Charity, and it is clearly where the more commonplace definition of the word ‘Charity’ comes from in modern times.

But Lewis further describes two other gifts from God:

a supernatural Need-love of Himself and a supernatural Need-love of one another….I mean a love which does not dream of disinterestedness, a bottomless indigence. Like a river making its own channel, like a magic wine which in being poured out should simultaneously create the glass that was to hold it, God turns our need of Him into Need-love of Him. What is stranger still is that he creates in us a more than natural receptivity of Charity from our fellow men. Need is so near greed and we are so greedy already that it seems a strange grace. But I cannot get it out of my head that this is what happens.

He tries to explain it further:

All those expressions of unworthiness which Christian practice puts into the believer's mouth seem to the outer world like the degraded and insincere grovellings of a sycophant before a tyrant, or at best a façon de parler like the self-depreciation of a Chinese gentleman when he calls himself ‘this coarse and illiterate person’. In reality, however, they express the continually renewed, because continually necessary, attempt to negate that misconception of ourselves and of our relation to God which nature, even while we pray, is always recommending to us. No sooner do we believe that God loves us than there is an impulse to believe that He does so, not because He is Love, but because we are intrinsically lovable.

This gets into untold complexities where, even in the depths of humility, we are suspicious that there might not be some quality truly ‘ours’ which God is finding admirable.

For all the time this illusion to which nature clings as her last treasure, this pretence that we have anything of our own or could for one hour retain by our own strength any goodness that God may pour into us, has kept us from being happy. We have been like bathers who want to keep their feet - or one foot - or one toe - on the bottom, when to lose that foothold would be to surrender themselves to a glorious tumble in the surf.

He goes on to point out that this idea that there is some part of us which is lovable, which ‘explains’ why God must love us, is no more than an illusion:

We want to be loved for our cleverness, beauty, generosity; fairness, usefulness…We are all receiving Charity. There is something in each of us that cannot be naturally loved. It is no one's fault if they do not so love it. Only the lovable can be naturally loved. You might as well ask people to like the taste of rotten bread or the sound of a mechanical drill. We can be forgiven, and pitied, and loved in spite of it, with Charity; no other way. All who have good parents, wives, husbands, or children, may be sure that at some times - and perhaps at all times in respect of some one particular trait or habit - they are receiving Charity, are not loved because they are lovable but because Love Himself is in those who love them.

In looking at Eros, Affection of Friendship then, we have to keep in mind that all of them love because the object of their love seems lovable: the lover loves the admirable things about the partner, the parent loves the adorable things about the child, the friend loves the qualities of the friend, and in doing so often embraces the less-than-lovable, less-than-admirable and less-than-quality aspects of the other. But they don’t seem designed to love the absolutely unlovable: this is the task of Charity, intellectual love.

In attempting to create relationships which survive and flourish, then, here is an important point: we are going to come across aspects of the other person which are far from admirable. In effect, it is those attributes - the jealousy of the lover, the slovenliness of the child, the criminality of the friend, and so much more - which can doom Eros, Affection or Friendship. Charity being based upon a decision rather than an emotion or a reaction, is the only kind of love which can help us to see through those attributes and love the other person regardless.

Eros, Affection or Friendship have inward and outward arrows, which can change, be tampered with, vary in intensity, become disproportionate. Charity is the love which corrects and restores them.

Charity is also the ‘senior’ love because it is the only one into which all the others can be properly taken: ‘Charity does not dwindle into merely natural love but natural love is taken up into, made the tuned and obedient instrument of, Love Himself.’ And we are always conscious of this, when engaged in the other, earthly loves:

The invitation to turn our natural loves into Charity is never lacking. It is provided by those frictions and frustrations that meet us in all of them; unmistakable evidence that (natural) love is not going to be ‘enough’ - unmistakable, unless we are blinded by egotism… But in everyone, and of course in ourselves, there is that which requires forbearance, tolerance, forgiveness. The necessity of practising these virtues first sets us, forces us, upon the attempt to turn - more, strictly, to let God turn - our love into Charity. These frets and rubs are beneficial. It may even be that where there are fewest of them the conversion of natural love is most difficult. When they are plentiful the necessity of rising above it is obvious. To rise above it when it is as fully satisfied and as little impeded as earthly conditions allow - to see that we must rise when all seems so well already, this may require a subtler conversion and a more delicate insight. In this way also it may be hard for ‘the rich’ to enter the Kingdom.

Just as Christ must enter into an individual if he or she is to get into Heaven, ‘Only those into which Love Himself has entered will ascend to Love Himself.’

Natural loves can hope for eternity only in so far as they have allowed themselves to be taken into the eternity of Charity; have at least allowed the process to begin here on earth, before the night comes when no man can work. And the process will always involve a kind of death. There is no escape. In my love for wife or friend the only eternal element is the transforming presence of Love Himself. By that presence, if at all, the other elements may hope, as our physical bodies hope, to be raised from the dead. For this only is holy in them, this only is the Lord.

Lewis goes on to speculate that: ‘In Heaven, I suspect, a love that had never embodied Love Himself would be equally irrelevant. For Nature has passed away. All that is not eternal is eternally out of date.’

With this discussion of the transmutation of earthly loves, and the hope that they may be somehow experienced eternally in a higher condition, comes a danger which Lewis feels obliged to point out:

The moment we attempt to use our faith in the other world for this purpose, that faith weakens. The moments in my life when it was really strong have all been moments when God Himself was central in my thoughts. Believing in Him, I could then believe in Heaven as a corollary. But the reverse process - believing first in reunion with the Beloved, and then, for the sake of that reunion, believing in Heaven, and finally, for the sake of Heaven, believing in God - this will not work. One can of course imagine things. But a self-critical person will soon be increasingly aware that the imagination at work is his own; he knows he is only weaving a fantasy.

The inevitable conclusion is a tougher one to face from an earthly point of view:

We were made for God. Only by being in some respect like Him, only by being a manifestation of His beauty, lovingkindness, wisdom or goodness, has any earthly Beloved excited our love. It is not that we have loved them too much, but that we did not quite understand what we were loving. It is not that we shall be asked to turn from them, so dearly familiar, to a Stranger. When we see the face of God we shall know that we have always known it. He has been a party to, has made, sustained and moved moment by moment within, all our earthly experiences of innocent love. All that was true love in them was, even on earth, far more His than ours, and ours only because His.

Does this mean that earthly loves are in vain? That they can never actually have a substance beyond what they seem to be to us here in this world? No. ‘By loving Him more than them we shall love them more than we now do.’

Lewis concludes:

[God] can awake in man, towards Himself, a supernatural Appreciative Love. This is of all gifts the most to be desired. Here, not in our natural loves, nor even in ethics, lies the true centre of all human and angelic life. With this all things are possible… Perhaps, for many of us, all experience merely defines, so to speak, the shape of that gap where our love of God ought to be. It is not enough. It is something. If we cannot ‘practise the presence of God’, it is something to practise the absence of God, to become increasingly aware of our unawareness till we feel like men who should stand beside a great cataract and hear no noise, or like a man in a relationship who looks in a mirror and finds no face there; or a man in a dream who stretches out his hand to visible objects and gets no sensation of touch. To know that one is dreaming is to be no longer perfectly asleep. But for news of the fully waking world you must go to my betters.

Charity, then, is the lynch-pin upon which all other forms of love depend, standing apart from the world and independent from emotion. It can teach us key things:

1. One draws nearer to God not by arming oneself against the risks of love, but by purposefully stripping away any armour and suffering accordingly.

2. We must reject any distraction which might lead us away from God, or perfect love.

3. Gift-love most closely resembles the pure love that God emanates or embodies; Need-love is its opposite, the receptacle into which Gift-love flows.

4. Need-loves are the ‘negative images’ of Gift-loves.

5. Charity is the ‘senior’ love because it is the only one into which all the others can be properly taken.

Join the Inner Circle Writers' Group on Facebook

The Inner Circle Writers' Group is all about fiction: what it is all about, how it works, helping you to write and publish it. You can keep up to date with live contributions from members, upload your own fiction, enter competitions and so on:
Tag Cloud
bottom of page