A Higher Love

[I issue a warning before a rather long post, largely due to quotations, but only because Mr. Lewis supports his claims better than I could.]

My parents were watching television in the den and on my way to the kitchen I overheard one of the characters asking, earnestly (though poorly acted), “Did you ever love us? At the end of the day… did you ever really love us?” She went on and on, and I don’t quite remember what the context was, but I was struck at how empty her life must be if whether or not that other character loved her (and whoever “us” were) was the highest meaning in her existence.

Not to be harsh, or to be read myself out of context, as I have just finished reading C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves. The purpose of this book, and of its delineations between Need-love and Gift-love, natural loves and love by appreciation, Affection (familial), Friendship, Eros (romantic), and Charity, is to point out that all earthly/natural loves are finite, limited, and unable to achieve their fullest potential without appealing to a Higher Love, to Love Himself, and, as Lewis begins and ends with: God is love.

Lewis argues that each of the natural loves (Affection, Friendship, Eros) will fail and turn on themselves if left to their own devices, or made the sole focus. A few quotations (Lewis is much more eloquent than I):

“The mere feeling is not enough. You need ‘common sense,’ that is, reason. You need ‘give and take’; that is, you need justice, continually stimulating mere Affection when it fades and restraining it when it forgets or would defy the art of love. You need ‘decency.’ There is no disguising the fact that this means goodness; patience, self-denial, humility, and the continual intervention of a far higher sort of love than Affection, in itself, can ever be. That is the whole point. If we try to live by Affection alone, Affection will ‘go bad on us.'”

“Eros never hesitates to say, ‘Better this than parting. Better to be miserable with her than happy without her. Let our hearts break provided they break together.’ […] It is in the grandeur of Eros that the seeds of danger are concealed. He has spoken like a god. His total commitment, his reckless disregard of happiness, his transcendence of self-regard, sound like a message from the eternal world. And yet it cannot, just as it stands, be the voice of God Himself. For Eros, speaking with that very grandeur and displaying that very transcendence of self, may urge to evil as well as to good.”

In essence, “Love, having become a god, becomes a demon.” Affection, Friendship, Eros–all three necessary experiences to the richness of human life, but all fall short of eternal happiness. “The rivalry between all natural loves and the love of God is something a Christian dare not forget. God is the great Rival, the ultimate object of human jealousy”–but this is not to say that God does not want our lives to have Affection, Friendship, Eros, or that he would steal those loves from us. The point isn’t that God is some kill-joy, wanting to rob us of our happiness, quite the opposite. The point is that the fourth love, Charity, which can only ultimately find its source in God, enhances the other loves, transcends them to an even fuller happiness: to joy.

Charity–in part the ability to love that which is unlovable, or difficult to love–“does not dwindle into merely natural love but natural love is taken up into, made the tuned and obedience instrument of, Love Himself. […] Nothing is either too trivial or too animal to be thus transformed. A game, a joke, a drink together, idle chat, a walk, the act of Venus–all these can be modes in which we forgive or accept forgiveness, in which we console or are reconciled, in which we ‘seek not our own.'”

I suppose it is most clearly said here: “But in everyone, and of course in ourselves, there is that which requires forbearance, tolerance, forgiveness. The necessity of practicing these virtues first sets us, forces us, upon the attempt to turn–more strictly, to let God turn–our love into Charity.”

To continue with the unfortunate actress in the TV show and with the idea that God is the great Rival, Christians do have to come to terms with that we are called to hate our loved ones in the service of God. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14:26. How shall we contend with this word hate? Back to Lewis again: “To hate is to reject, to set one’s face against, to make no concession to, the Beloved when the Beloved utters, however sweetly and however pitiably, the suggestions of the Devil.” Not to harbor resentment toward, not to cherish the Beloved’s misery or to delight in injuring the Beloved, but to choose, should the alternative arise, to obey God rather than the Beloved.

In love relationships where the family, friendships, and romance have transcended to include Charity, both parties would accept this as fact, as normal. It would not feel like hate to them because such a decision, to choose a higher love over a lesser (not in importance to either individual, but because it is earthly), is expected, even, we should hope, encouraged.

Lewis gives the example of a Cavalier poet going off to war, who wrote to his lady: I could not love thee dear, so much / Loved I not honor more. This may seem cold or meaningless, or an excuse, if the Beloved did not also acknowledge the claim of Honor. “He does not need to ‘hate’ her, to set his face against her, for he and she acknowledge the same law. They have agreed and understood each other on the matter long before.” The Beloved and the Lover are in one accord: they both agree that loyalty to the higher love, to Love Himself, overrules their own earthly love. Indeed, their mutual agreement on this fact, and their own individual experiences with Love Himself, serves as a by-product to enrich their natural love.

The point, which I hope to have made, is that it is easy to allow love to become a demon by becoming a god, as evidenced in the TV show, which we must also acknowledge how much shallowness is inundating us through television. How much easier is it to eat junk food than to prepare a meal? We should be on guard lest we come to believe the lies that we can find complete fulfillment in another person, whether as a friend, family member, partner–someone who is as fallible and idiosyncratic as we are. Life and all its natural loves are empty and broken if we do not appeal to a higher love, to Love Himself, to God. For God is love.

[Alas, there were so many other quotations, especially about Friendship, that were positive and wonderful, but those shall wait for another day.]

One thought on “A Higher Love

  1. Sarah says:

    Wow! Thank you for sharing your thought. I have been prompted by reading this to start The Four Loves again (today) so that we can have a more meaningful conversation about it.

    For now, I will say this: It is true. Love is empty if God is not in, behind, in front of, and around it. No matter how strong the “feeling” can be it is fallible and limited. If one’s definition of one’s self comes solely from others (be they family, friends, spouses, children, etc) one will inevitably feel lonely, betrayed, jealous, and ultimately empty. This is not easy to remember and practice in our day of TV and movies that portray human love as the end-all-be-all of life…


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