Thoughts on Herbert and Lewis

Sometimes, you can tell when I have a paper to write because it’s then that I have most of my ideas for the blog. This is partly the inconvenience of inspiration; but mostly the delicate art of procrastination. It’s not that I actively delay writing required essays. It’s just that they do have a tendency of being written eventually…at ungodly hours of the morning. I don’t always remember, on the other hand, what it was I wanted to blog about. So blogging usually wins.

I finished C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves just now. Holy smokes. His were such good, good thoughts, and I am sorry it took me this long to read them. Most of this post will likely consist of me quoting Lewis, and, later, a sixteenth century poet named George Herbert. Less Jo, more Clive Staples. It should be good:)

First, though, here’s an introduction for why this particular section resonated so much. I’ve been trying to understand why everybody hates Calvinism/Calvinists. And while that sentence is probably too much (and too vague) to tackle right now–besides being off-topic–I will say that I think a big part of it is that big, fat “T” in their whole TULIP acronym. Total Depravity.

Um, guys. You need to work on your marketing. That is kind of heavy stuff for being the first letter in the acronym. It’s not very pleasant, or attractive, to contemplate unless you understand more of the grace side of things. So it makes sense, that, if you just know just a little bit about Calvinism, you might not like it. No one wants to think they’re completely depraved. Maybe? I apologize because I am rapidly getting in over my head here, and I’m talking more than I said I would. Let’s get back to Lewis as fast as we can.

Anyway, every so often something comes on my Facebook newsfeed from this group called “Depraved Wretch,” and, especially early on, my reaction wasn’t exactly charitable. My reaction was usually something along the lines of “Whoa. What is wrong with you guys, guilt-tripping everybody and ruining my day? A Day on which I felt perfectly fine and comfortable and…conveniently forgetting all the ways in which I didn’t measure up. Until now, when I remember them all. Thanks for that.”

[Note to the reader: Every now and then on this blog, the sarcasm setting gets turned on, and it’s hard to turn it back off. Please know that I am genuinely interested in both sides of most things, and I try not to make fun of ideas just for kicks. I’m not a huge fan of cynicism, in fact. Also, while I’m explaining in this parenthetical, I apologize to people I’m probably offending. I don’t always know what I’m talking about–in fact, it’s rare that I do. Helpful comments are both welcomed and filtered.]

What it seemed like to me (past tense, yo) was that those people on the Depraved Wretch page were focusing too much on their sin, almost wallowing in their unworthiness and glorifying that over their new identity in Christ. So my question was this: as a Christian, what’s the balance between a). continually recognizing your unworthiness of God’s grace and b). having hope in God’s grace, not dwelling on your past before Christ. Can you go to either extreme (I think yes) and if so, what’s the difference between remembering your own unworthiness yet rejoicing in Christ’s worthiness on your behalf and being crippled by the temptation to despair in who you once were?

Maybe this is too simplistic, but I think it has to do with the difference between guilt and conviction.

So this is where I’ve been lately. And then I read Lewis, and it made a little more sense. Let’s read some Lewis, shall we?

From his chapter on Charity,

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 facon 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. The Pagans obeyed this impulse unabashed; a good man was “dear to the gods” because he was good. We, being better taught, resort to subterfuge. Far be it from us to think that we have virtues for which God could love us. But then, how magnificently we have repented! As Bunyan says, describing his first and illusory conversion, “I thought there was no man in England that pleased God better than I.” Beaten out of this, we next offer our own humility to God’s admiration. Surely He’ll like that? Or if not that, our clear-sighted and humble recognition that we still lack humility. Thus, depth beneath depth and subtlety within subtlety, there remains some lingering idea of our own, our very own, attractiveness. It is easy to acknowledge, but almost impossible to realize for long, that we are mirrors whose brightness, if we are bright, is wholly derived from the sun that shines upon us. Surely we must have a little–however little–native luminosity? Surely we can’t be quite creatures?

In Jo’s words, surely not quite totally depraved wretches?

Lewis goes on to explain why those strange individuals who embrace their identity as wretches do so:

…Grace substitutes a full, childlike and delighted acceptance of our Need, a joy in total dependence. We become “jolly beggars.” The good man is sorry for the sins which have increased his Need. He is not entirely sorry for the fresh Need they have produced. And he is not sorry at all for the innocent Need that is inherent in his creaturely condition. 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. The consequences of parting with our last claim to intrinsic freedom, power, or worth, are real freedom, power, and worth, really ours just because God gives them and because them to be (in another sense) not “ours.” 

Here is where the connections were made, and Jo got quite happy. There’s this poem, which I love, written in the sixteenth century by a fellow named George Herbert. It’s called “The Holdfast,” and I’m going to put it right here for you to read:

The Holdfast

I threatened to observe the strict decree

Of my deare God with all my power and might.

But I was told by one, it could not be;

Yet I might trust in God to be my light.

Then will I trust, said I, in him alone.

Nay, ev’n to trust in him, was also his:

We must confesse that nothing is our own.

Then I confess that he my succour is:

But to have nought is ours, not to confesse

That we have nought. I stood amaz’d at this,

Much troubled, till I heard a friend expresse,

That all things were more ours by being his.

What Adam had, and forfeited for all,

Christ keepeth now, who cannot fail or fall.

If you think about it, it is sort of a comical picture, how we try to get this relation between ourselves and God exactly right. It’s this ridiculous cycle of humility and unconscious pride, and I guess I understand my initial frustration. Sometimes it seems like it would be better simply to rest in the finished work of Christ. But then I go back and read what Lewis said, and I waver again. After being clear as mud, and probably offending all seven people who read this, I better conclude with the thing I really wanted to say all along, quoting Herbert:

All things are more ours by being his.

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2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Herbert and Lewis

  1. I think I’ve mentioned it before, but the “L” of the TULIP acrostic is the primary challenge for me. If we can accept the atonement for ourselves, who are we to say it is not sufficient for others? Even if we accept unconditional election, how, in light of scripture, can we say Christ died only for the elect, and not the ungodly (e.g. me,) as mentioned in Romans 5? I have yet to find something that convinces me of that point.
    I’ve not thought about the “T” in great depth, so I enjoyed reading your thoughts.
    Each of the five points is so final, and I think there can be a danger in that.
    (Also The Four Loves is one of my all time favorites!)
    -Lauren

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    • Lauren, yay! Thanks for commenting:) Like I said, I always feel like I’m in way over my head in this whole discussion, but I am trying to understand. I’m like you–that doctrine is particularly troubling to me, as it offends my sense of fairness. I’m sure there are responses to that, which could make Limited Atonement seem like a thing to celebrate. Right now, though, I think that, if it were right, it would be a hard thing to accept, and I’m not sure I could rejoice in telling others about it. And yes, I’ve very much enjoyed The Four Loves. On to more Lewis this summer!

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