Seventy-five years ago (June 8, 1941) C.S. Lewis ascended the pulpit at the University Church of St Mary the Virgin in Oxford and delivered “The Weight of Glory,” one of the most insightful sermons of the twentieth century.
At the new Evangelical History blog I will give a historical overview of that presentation—with photographs—and some of the influence that it has had as a subsequent publication. I look at who drove him to the sermon, the weather outside, who attended the sermon, how long it lasted, where it was published, and how it was popularized for Reformed evangelicals in particular.
I suspect that this celebrated address is more “sampled” than read straight through and understood in full. Many of us know the famous opening, where Lewis observes that we have settled for mud pies in the slum, ignorant of a holiday at the sea, and that we are far too easily pleased. Or we might know his section observing that we have never met a mere mortal. But what is the argument of the piece as a whole? Do we know that Lewis takes some surprising turns in this address, such as focusing more upon the glory we will receive from God than upon the glory that we will render to his name?
If you have to choose between reading this post and reading the original, by all means go back to Lewis! But if you could use some motivation or guidance, or simply want a substantial overview of the whole thing, I’ve tried my best to summarize the whole thing, tracing the various places Lewis takes us in this profoundly and edifying meditation.
The Highest Virtue? Love vs. Unselfishness
Almost all good men today would identify the highest virtue as unselfishness in contrast to love, which is how Christians of old would answer. But that means that something negative has replaced something positive, as unselfishness is foregoing good for ourselves, while love is securing good for others.
The Place of Desire
Unselfishness sees self-denial as an end in itself, such that it is bad to desire and hope for the enjoyment of our own good. Love sees self-denial as containing within it an appeal to desire, since it is good to desire and hope for the enjoyment of our own good.
The ethic of negating desire comes from Kant and the Stoics, whereas the ethic that appeals to the desire for our own good comes from the New Testament.
The former says our desires are too strong. The latter says our desires are too weak.
The problem is not that we have too much pleasure, but that we are far too easily pleased with that which is second best.
Objection: Desiring a Reward Makes One a Mercenary
To answer this objection, we have to recognize that there are three kinds of relationships between and action and a reward: (1) an unnatural reward (e.g., a man marrying for money); (2) a proper or natural reward (e.g., a man marrying for love—i.e., the reward is the activity itself in consummation); (3) a proper or natural reward that is not known by the actor until the reward is actually received (e.g., a boy learning Greek, where there is a gradual transition from drudgery to enjoyment, and only as he approaches the reward does he begin to enjoy it for its own sake). In this third category, the emerging desire itself is a kind of preliminary reward.
What Is the Christian Life Like?
The Christian life in the here and now fits best into the third category. Those who have gone to glory are in the first category, seeing that everlasting life is the consummation (proper/natural reward) of earthly discipleship. But those of us who have not yet attained this reality cannot know it in the same way, and cannot even begin to know it at all except by (a) continuing to obey and (b) finding the first reward of our obedience in our increasing power to desire the ultimate reward. As our desire increases, our fear of this being a mercenary desire eventually recedes to the point of being an absurdity.
The Object of Our Desire
What is the object of our reward? And what must be true about the connection between the desire and the reality?
If it’s true that we were made for heaven, then three things would also be true: (1) this desire for our proper place would already be within us; (2) this desire would not yet be attached to its true object; (3) this desire would appear to be the rival of its object (namely, heaven).
If it’s true that our real destiny is a good that transcends this temporal, finite world, then any other good on which our desire fixes must be in some degree fallacious, bearing at best only a symbolical relation to that which will truly satisfy.
To talk of this desire for our own far-off country almost feels like committing an indecency. It’s like ripping open an inconsolable secret in each of us. Our experience constantly suggests it, but it is a desire for something we have never actually experienced.
And our whole education is devoted to silencing this shy, persistent, inner voice, seeking to convince us that the earth is our home. But despite all efforts, we remain conscious of a desire which no natural happiness will satisfy.
Objection: The Presence of a Person’s Desire Doesn’t Prove That It Will Be Satisfied
It’s true: a man’s physical hunger does not prove that that man will get any bread; he may die of starvation on a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man’s hunger does prove that he (1) comes of a race which repairs its body by eating and (2) inhabits a world where eatable substances exist.
Likewise, our desire for Paradise does not prove we will enjoy it. But it’s a good indication that such a thing exists and that some will enjoy it. A man may fall in love with a woman with no resulting marital union, but it would be odd if men fell in love with women in a sexless world.
Authoritative Imagery of Heaven
By definition heaven is outside our experience, but in order to be intelligible to us, all descriptions must come from within our experience. The Scriptural image comes to us with authority.
Five Types of Promises
There are basically five types of promises in Scripture: (1) we shall be with Christ; (2) we shall be like Christ; (3) we shall have glory; (4) we shall in some sense be fed or feasted or entertained; (5) we should have some sort of official ruling position in the universe.
Why Did God Give Us Any of These Promises Beyond the First One?
If “he who has God and everything else has no more than he who has God only,” why would Scripture induce us with promises beyond being with Christ?
Answer: The Nature of Symbols
The answer has to do with the nature of symbols, because any concept of being with Christ has to be communicated by earthly images of things from within our experience.
The variation of the promises does not mean that anything other than God will be our ultimate bliss. (1) Because God is more than a Person, and (2) lest we should imagine the joy of His presence too exclusively in terms of our present poor experience of personal love, with all its narrowness and strain and monotony, (3) therefore God supplies a dozen changing images, correcting and relieving each other.
The Promise of Glory
Salvation, both in the New Testament and in early Christian writings, is constantly associated with things like palms, crowns, white robes, thrones, and splendor (like the sun and stars). But for most of us, this kind of thing has little immediate appeal.
“Glory” suggests two things: (1) fame (which seems wicked), and (2) luminosity (which seems ridiculous). Does God want us to be better known than other people? Does he want us to be a kind of living light bulb?
1. Glory as Fame
Shockingly, Christian writers and theologians speak approvingly of glory as fame—not in the sense of approval from fellow creatures, but in receiving a good report or appreciation or approval by God.
This turns out to be a Scriptural idea: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant” (Matt. 12:21, 23). No one can enter heaven except as a child; and nothing is so obvious in a good and humble child as his great and undisguised pleasure in being praised. The humblest, most childlike, most creaturely of pleasures is pleasure of the inferior: a child before its father, a pupil before his teacher, a creature before its Creator.
Obviously this lawful pleasure of praise can quickly turn into the deadly poison of self-admiration. But can we not detect in our experience a very, very short moment when this satisfaction—of having pleased those whom we rightly love and fear—was pure? And if that is the case, we can contemplate the redeemed soul learning that he has pleased God, free from vanity and the miserable illusion that this is his own doing.
God Will Look Upon Us with Either Glory or Shame
In the end, that Face which is the delight or the terror of the universe must be turned upon each of us—either with the expression of conferring glory inexpressible or the expression of inflicting shame that can never be cured or disguised.
To please God . . . to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness . . . to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son—all of this it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is.
Note What Would Have Happened If We Had Ignored the Authoritative Scriptural Image
If we had stuck with our original vague notion of desire as a pointer to heaven and ignored the Scriptural teaching, we could not have seen the connection between this desire and the Christian promise. But having worked through the Scriptural promise, which at first seemed perplexing and repellent, the connection now seems perfectly clear. Christianity teaches us that glory will satisfy our original desire, revealing an element in our desire we hadn’t previously noticed.
The Connection between Glory and Desire
In the earlier discussion about our inconsolable longing, a crucial element was left out: we end up feeling like spectators instead of truly belonging to the world. We have tasted of it but not truly been accepted, welcomed, or taken into the dance. We feel like strangers having overheard something.
It’s at this point we see the relevance of God’s promise to our deepest desires, as glory means good report with God, acceptance by God, response, acknowledgment, and welcome into the heart of things.
Welcome or Banishment
Note how strange it is that the Apostle Paul promises those who love God not that they will “know God” (as we would expect) but rather that they would be “known by him” (1 Cor. 8:3). Jesus said that some who appear at last before the face of God will hear “I never knew you. Depart from me” (Matt. 7:23). In other words, in some mysterious way they will be banished from the presence of God who is everywhere and erased from the knowledge of him who knows all things. In contrast to those who are left on the outside—repelled, exiled, estranged, finally and unspeakably ignored—others will be called in, welcomed, received, acknowledged. To be summoned inside would be both glory and honor beyond what we deserve and the healing of our old ache.
2. Glory as Brightness, Splendor, and Luminosity
We now come to the second meaning of glory. The Bible says we are to shine as the sun (cf. Matt. 13:43) and to receive the morning star (Rev. 2:28).
Of course we can already view the morning star if we get up early enough in the morning to observe it. But we want more than to merely observe beauty—in an almost indescribable way, we want to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.
Someday we will put on the glory of creation, or rather that greater glory of which Nature is only the first sketch.
Nature as Image or Symbol
This is not the heathen idea of being absorbed into Nature (after all, nature is mortal while we are immortal). But Nature is the image or symbol Scripture invites us to see. We are summoned to pass in through Nature, beyond her, into that splendor which she fitfully reflects. And in there, in beyond Nature, we shall eat of the tree of life (Rev. 2:7).
At present, if we are reborn in Christ, the spirit in us lives directly on God. The mind, however, and still more the body, receives life from God at a thousand removes—through our ancestors, through our food, through the elements.
What we now call “physical pleasures” are the faint, far-off results of those energies which God’s creative rapture implanted in matter when he made the worlds. Even so they are filtered, being too much for our present management.
What would it be to taste at the fountain-head that stream of which even these lower reaches prove so intoxicating?
But that is what lies before us. The whole man is to drink joy from the fountain of joy. As St. Augustine said, the rapture of the saved soul will “flow over” into the glorified body. In the light of our present specialized and depraved appetites we cannot imagine this violent torrent. We must not even try. But we must mention it, or we will have even more misleading thoughts (like what is saved is a mere ghost, or the risen body lives in numb insensibility). The body was made for the Lord, and these dismal fancies are wide of the mark.
The Practical Application of These Speculations
It may be possible for us to think too much of our own potential glory in the afterlife. However, it is impossible to think too often or too deeply about the potential glory of our neighbor.
The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses—to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.
All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.
No Ordinary People
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal—they are immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.
This does not mean we must always be solemn.
The greatest form of merriment exists between people who take each other seriously, without flippancy, superiority, or presumption.
And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment.
Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbor he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ truly hides—the glorifier and the glorified, Glory himself, is truly hidden.