In rereading Bonhoeffer’s masterful Life Together (1954), my favorite book, I was again blown away by the passage quoted below, where, in discussing how Christians must “bear each other’s burdens,” he says that the reason that such bearing (or forbearing, or sustaining) is difficult is because of the other’s freedom, meaning that in all their particularities and needs and quirks and sins, that person – something completely real, outside of ourselves – makes demands on us and challenges our own freedom and preferences and selfishness. I think this is a basic but profound reality that sheds light on what makes all meaningful relationships – whether in friendship or brotherhood or marriage – so difficult at times. This same reality, however, is what can make them so worth it, because in testing our limits, as such relationships will often do, they broaden those limits to make us more loving, more patient, more humble, and stronger – in short, more large-hearted. This reminded me of another passage (below) that stopped me in my tracks: What C.S. Lewis said about marriage, based on his brief experience as husband to Joy Davidman, an American poet and writer whose romance with Lewis began over a series of intellectually- and literary-minded letters to the Oxford Don.
“The most precious gift that marriage gave me was this constant impact of something very close and intimate yet all the time unmistakably other, resistant – in a word, real.” (19)
And from Bonhoeffer:
“It is, first of all, the freedom of the other person, of which we spoke earlier, that is a burden to the Christian. The other’s freedom collides with his own autonomy, yet he must recognize it. He could get rid of this burden by refusing the other person his freedom, by constraining him and thus doing violence to his personality, by stamping his own image upon him. But if he lets God created His image in him, he by this token gives him his freedom and himself bears the burden of this freedom of another creature of God. The freedom of the other person includes all that we mean by a person’s nature, individuality, endowment. It also includes his weaknesses and oddities, which are such a trial to our patience, everything that produces frictions, conflicts, and collisions among us. To bear the burden of the other person means involvement with the created reality of the other, to accept it and affirm it, and, in bearing with it, to break through to the point where we take joy in it.” (101)
I just read this brilliant little reflection by Lewis in The Joyful Christian, a collection of 127 readings from his various nonfiction works, including Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters. This really does not need much by way of introduction, I think. Enjoy, and perhaps more importantly, allow yourself to be challenged if you’ve found yourself thinking of God in these terms!
“The Russians, I am told, report that they have not found God in outer space. On the other hand, a good many people in many different times and countries claim to have found God, or been found by God, here on earth.
“The conclusion some want us to draw from these data is that God does not exist. As a corollary, those who think they have met Him on earth were suffering from a delusion.
“But other conclusions might be drawn:
1. We have not yet gone far enough in space. There had been ships in the Atlantic for a good time before America was discovered.
2. God does exist but is locally confined to this planet.
3. The Russians did find God in space without knowing it because they lacked the requisite apparatus for detecting Him.
4. God does exist but is not an object either located in a particular part of space nor diffused, as we once thought ‘ether’ was, throughout space.
“The first two conclusions do not interest me. The sort of religion for which they could be a defense would be a religion for savages: the belief in a local deity who can be contained in a particular temple, island, or grove. That, in fact, seems to be the sort of religion about which the Russians – or some Russians, and a good many people in the West – are being irreligious. It is not in the least disquieting that no astronauts have discovered a god of that sort. The really disquieting thing would be if they had.
“Space travel really has nothing to do with the matter. To some, God is discoverable everywhere; to others, nowhere. Those who do not find Him on earth are unlikely to find Him in space. (Hang it all, we’re in space already; every year we go a huge circular tour in space.) But send a saint up in a spaceship and he’ll find God in space as he found God on earth. Much depends on the seeing eye” (5-6).
Wouldn’t it be much easier if God simply showed himself to us? Wouldn’t that make it easier for us to believe in him and trust him and maybe even love him?
Writing from the perspective of Screwtape, the senior demon instructing his nephew on how to tempt a man, C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters (Time Life, 1942) offers a very helpful explanation for why God (called the “Enemy” below) does not simply show himself to human beings:
“You must have often wondered why the Enemy does not make more use of His power to be sensibly present to human souls in any degree He chooses and at any moment. But you now see that the Irresistible and the Indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of His scheme forbids Him to use. Merely to override a human will (as His felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for Him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo” (24-25).
The question is often sincere: if God is real, why doesn’t he simply show himself to us? It’s a good question that deserves a good answer. None of us can know God’s mind and pretend to adequately answer for him, but we have clues, and I believe part of the answer lies in the fact of God having created us as free beings. This faculty of freedom is closely related to the faculty of love, in that only a free person is capable of exercising genuine love. Such love cannot be coerced, but is rather a very real choice that a person makes with full (or sufficient) knowledge of the object of his love – both the good and the bad (it was Plato who said that to truly love something is to love not just a part, but all of it). Moreover, the true lover understands that he cannot force the love of the other; nor would he want this, for it would be a cheap and shallow submission having nothing of the glad and trusting self-giving that is the mark of true love. For this reason the true lover works for the love of the other: he thinks and plans and knows and does, and through these happy efforts earns the affection and love of the other. And how amazing to think that the best lovers are only small shadows of the Ultimate Lover – the One who stepped down from His throne and served and loved and gave His life that we who are undeserving might have life and have it abundantly!
Screwtape writes to his apprentice devil, on one of the spiritual “perils” of war:
“And how disastrous for us is the continual remembrance of death which war enforces. One of our best weapons, contented worldliness, is rendered useless. In wartime not even a human can believe that he is going to live forever” (16).
As Lewis writes, the “Enemy” here would have us stupidly holding onto the illusion that death is something abstract and remote, nowhere to be seen or many years down the road. Thus war – or at least such a war as World War II, which provided the backdrop for Lewis’s classic work – can offer a healthy dose of reality to “contented” human beings who live as if death will never come. It forces one to become acquainted (one prays in a healthy and not traumatic way) with the cold fact of death, and in so doing provides a necessary and more complete perspective of life. Indeed, many philosophers and thinkers have said something similar – that it is a wise thing to hold the prospect of death before one.
Do you ever ask such things as, “What is real?”, or “What is truth?”, or “What does it all mean?” These shouldn’t be questions asked only by fresh-faced college students or airy philosophers. Each of us should at some time or another grapple with the truly big questions of life, the ones that seek to uncover the meaning, the truths, behind the reality we experience day to day.
This is C.S. Lewis’s point at the outset of his acclaimed fictional work, The Screwtape Letters (Time Life, 1942). Lewis’s brilliance is on full display in a series of letters from a senior demon (named Screwtape) instructing a junior demon (named Wormwood) on the “best practices” for leading a man astray from God and into eternal damnation. Wickedly funny while at the same time instructive, Screwtape demonstrates Lewis’s keen grasp of human nature and moral psychology. Whether or not you are religious, I heartily recommend you pick up a copy and read this smart, entertainingly serious book.
“Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to having a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily ‘true’ or ‘false,’ but as ‘academic’ or ‘practical,’ ‘outworn’ or ‘contemporary,’ ‘conventional’ or ‘ruthless’… The trouble with argument is that it moves the whole struggle onto the Enemy’s [the “Enemy” here is God] own ground… By the very act of arguing, you awaken the patient’s reason; and once it is awake, who can foresee the result?… Your business is to fix his attention on the stream [of immediate sense experiences]. Teach him to call it ‘real life’ and don’t let him ask what he means by ‘real’ (2).”