The Four Loves Read-Along Week 4, Part 2, Charity

The Four Loves


As we reach the end of our The Four Loves Read-along, we have so far investigated Affection, Friendship and Romantic Love (the natural loves) but none of these loves are sufficient in and of themselves without another Love to support the feelings and keep them sweet.  Lewis now investigates Charity, or Agape (ἀγάπη).

Lewis then uses the analogy of a garden.  The garden grows beautiful with the love and attention of the gardener, but without Nature itself the garden would be nothing.  Even so, the gardener’s input is of prime importance.

The Enchanted Garden John William Waterhouse

The Enchanted Garden (1917) John William Waterhouse
~ source Wikiart

Now Lewis addresses the question of the natural loves being rivals to the love of God.  However, Lewis does not think we need to start here; we can hardly get to the point of loving well with an earthly love, so the real rivalry lies between “self and the Human other.”  We can deceive ourselves into thinking that if we love people less, we therefore love God more but perhaps we are “mistaking the decays of nature for the increase of Grace.”  The natural loves naturally prove unworthy of being on a level of God’s love because they “cannot even remain themselves and do what they promise to do without God’s help.”  The natural loves must submit to God to even be the things they want to be.

Before the nineteenth century, the natural loves could have certainly become rivals for God’s love, says Lewis, and “the danger of loving our fellow-creatures too little was less present to their minds than that of loving them idolatrously.”  However, by Lewis’ implication it seems we love not enough in our time to come close to this danger.

Still Life Vase with Flowers Paul Gaugin

Still Life Vase With Flowers (1881) Paul Gaugin
~ source Wikiart

Lewis rejects one ideology which discourages us from loving our fellow-man inordinately, the ideology based in the beliefs of St. Augustine who experienced extreme desolation at the death of his friend, Nebridius, and decided that no one should love a mortal so much, as they pass away. In other words, “do not let your happiness depend on something you may lose.”  While this philosophy might at first make sense and appeal to your nature, or temperament, it cannot appeal to your conscience.

(What Lewis says next is so important and insightful, perhaps the moment that resonates with me most in the book, that I’m going to quote him verbatim. )

“When I respond to that appeal I seem to myself to be a thousand miles away from Christ.  If I am sure of anything I am sure that His teaching was never meant to confirm my congenital preference for safe investments and limited liabilities.  I doubt whether there is anything in me that please Him less.  And who could conceivably begin to love God on such a prudential ground — because the security (so to speak) is better?  Who could even include it among the grounds for loving? Would you choose a wife or a Friend  — if it comes to that, would you choose a dog — in this spirit?  One must be outside the world of love, of all loves, before one thus calculates ….


“I think that passage in the Confessions is less a part of St. Augustine’s Christendom than a hang-over from the high-minded Pagan philosophies in which he grew up.  It is closer to Stoic “apathy” or neo-Platonic mysticism than to charity (agape-the love of God). We follow One who wept over Jerusalem and at the grave of Lazarus, and, loving all, yet had one disciple whom, in a special sense, he ‘loved’.  St. Paul has a higher authority with us than St. Augustine — St. Paul who shows no sign that he would not have suffered like a man, and no feeling that he ought not so to have suffered, if Epaphroditus had died. (Phil. II, 27.)


“Even if it were granted that insurances against heartbreak were our highest wisdom, does God Himself offer them?  Apparently not.  Christ comes at last to say, ‘Why has thou forsaken me?’


“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 dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.


“I believe that the most lawless and inordinate loves are less contrary to God’s will than a self-invited and self-protective lovelessness.  It is like hiding the talent in a napkin and for much the same reason.  ‘I knew thee that thou wert a hard man.’  Christ did not teach and suffer that we might become, even in the natural loves, more careful of our own happiness.  If a man is not uncalculating towards the earthly beloveds whom he has seen, he is none the more likely to be so towards God whom he has not.  We shall draw nearer to God, not by trying to avoid the sufferings inherent in all loves, but by accepting them and offering them to Him; throwing away all defensive armour.  If our hearts need to be broken, and if He chooses this as the way in which they should break, so be it.”


When Lewis uses the term “inordinate” he does not mean that we could love too much; on the contrary, it is impossible for us to love any human too much.  Instead he is speaking of the natural loves in proportion to our love for God; it is the smallness of our love for God that often puts things out of balance. But when it comes down to it, the question is not whom you love more, God or man, but “which (when the alternative comes) do you serve, or choose, or put first?  To which claim does your will, in the last resort, yield? God does not say anything about guarding our heart against earthly loves, but indeed says to trample them under foot if they get in our way from following Him.”

Landscape Study After Nature Paul Cezanne

Landscape Study After Nature (1876) Paul Cezanne
~ source Wikiart

When Jesus said, “If any man come to me and hate not his father and mother and wife … and is own life, he cannot be my disciple,” ‘hate’ is meant in the context of “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 …. 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 ….. I will not say this duty is hard; some find it too easy; some, hard almost beyond endurance ….. That is why it is of such extreme importance so to order our loves that it is unlikely to arrive at all.”  Lewis uses an example of a Cavalier poet who loves honour more than his lady and the lady understands. “They have agreed and understood each other on this matter long before. “  It is to be understood between a wife and husband or friends that duty to God comes before duties to self and others and this should have been demonstrated “by implication of a thousand talks, by the principle revealed in a hundred decisions upon small matters,” and any disagreement (one hopes) occurs early enough to prevent the marriage or friendship from existing at all. “The best love of either sort is not blind.”  If “all for love” is found in the Beloved’s philosophy, their love is not worth having for it is not balanced in accordance with Love (love for God) itself.

Tristram and Isolde

Tristram and Isolde (1916) John William Waterhouse
~ source Wikiart

Now to relate the human activities called “loves” to God.  While we can in humility and a state of Grace have some “knowledge-by-acquaintance” of God, we cannot have direct knowledge about his ultimate Being, only analogies. “We cannot see light, though by light we can see things.  Statements about God are extrapolations from the knowledge of other things which the divine illumination enables us to know.”

God is love and here we must start.  With the love of God for us, not with our love for Him or the notion we can receive of Him in our present life.  We must begin with His love as Divine energy which is a Gift-love.  God was not under compulsion to create and is not a “managerial” God.  He is sovereign of a great realm, is part of the Trinity, and knows no tenses.  Lewis gives a biological description of God as a host, creating his own parasites who “exploit and take advantage of Him.”  (I dislike this analogy.  If he is trying to communicate a love to the reader, best not to take a biological approach. I believe he’s trying to make a point but while the description is effective, I don’t believe it communicates a proper feeling that is helpful to understand Lewis’ general argument.)

charity william-adolphe bouguereau

Charity (c. 1878) William-Adolphe Bouguereau
source Wikiart

In us, He places both Gift and Need-loves; once again (from Chapter II) Gift-loves are images of God and proximities of Him by resemblance but not necessarily of approach; Need-loves are “correlatives” or opposites, “not as evil is the opposite of good, of course, but as the form of the blanc-mange is an opposite to the form of the mould.”  Yet God can give something more: he can give them his own Gift-love which is different from the Gift-love they naturally have which can be biased in a person’s favour without being completely unselfish.  However, Divine Gift-love “is wholly disinterested and desires what is simply best for the beloved.” and “enables him to love what is not naturally lovable.”  And finally God enables a Gift-love towards Himself.  Can we give God anything He does not really have?  Of course not.  But we can withhold ourselves, yet we can also give ourselves.  This Gift-love “comes by Grace and should be called Charity” yet God bestows two other gifts: a supernatural Need-love of Himself and a supernatural Need-love of one another.  With the first Grace allows an awareness and complete acceptance of this Need. (Here’s where it gets interesting)  Lewis says all the expressions of unworthiness that Christians continually employ and which sound so insincere to non-Christians, are really us trying to negate the misconceptions of ourselves and our connection with God that nature continually provides us.  No sooner do we believe God loves us than we start to believe we are lovable.  Pride and self-satisfaction can follow but “if we are bright, (it) is wholly derived from the sun that shines upon us.”  Even though there are parts of our Needs that we regret (sins), there are other parts that we don’t regret and have the illusion that we are partially in control and can do things by our own strength alone.  This belief will make us unhappy for “the consequences of parting with our last claim to intrinsic freedom, power, or worth, are real freedom, power and worth,” because God gives them and therefore they are not really ours. “Anodos has got rid of his shadow.” (a reference to the main character of George MacDonald’s novel, Phantastes).

God also transforms Need-love for each other, which allows us to love the unlovable.  We want to be loved for our good traits like cleverness, or beauty or generousity but there is something in everyone that is unlovable and this transformation allows that barrier to be transcended.  We all receive Charity; only the lovable can be naturally loved.

Elisabet av Thüringen

Elisabet av Thüringen (1915) Edmund Leighton
source Wikimedia Commons

We may be summoned to renounce a natural love which can be difficult, but while the natural loves can be separate, they can also be “taken up into, made the tuned and obedient instrument of, Love Himself”.  Nothing is too simple, trivial or animal to be thus transformed.  But to have complete transformation can be difficult for man in his fallen state and there is a danger of taking a “wrong turn.”  Christians are often apt to make an outward display; “they are always and unnecessarily asking, or insufferably offering, forgiveness.”  We must make our work “secret” and show a deeper and less conscious Charity.  We are given endless opportunities of turning our natural loves to Charity by the many frustrations we meet everyday, times when natural love alone will not be enough.

“… 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.”

Our natural loves must be converted to Divine love in order to enter a heavenly life; mere nature will not get us there.  Perhaps our natural loves can only ascend to heaven if they have been transfigured by His love and do so by dying to self (a parallel to Christ’s death on the cross) as we experience and learn during this earthly life.

Will we know each other in Heaven?  Lewis believes only if our natural loves have been transformed by Divine love.  Nature will have passed away and “all that is not eternal is eternally out of date.”  However, Lewis does not want the reader to think the goal of becoming a Christian is to be reunited with those we love in the afterlife; the point is to be reunited with God.

“For the dream of finding our end, the thing we were made for, in a Heaven of purely human love could not be true unless our whole Faith were wrong.  We were made for God ……. 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.  In Heaven there will be no anguish and no duty of turning away from our earthly Beloveds.  First, because we shall have turned already; from the portraits to the Original, from the rivulets to the Fountain, from the creatures He made loveable to Love Himself.  But secondly, because we shall find them all in Him.  By loving Him more than them we shall love them more than we now do.”


La Caridad (1848) Antonio Maria Esquivel Sevilla

La Caridad (1848) Antonio Maria Esquivel Sevilla
~ source Wikimedia Commons

Phew!  What an intense read-along!  Can you believe that we’ve finally finished?  Lewis has given me much to think about.  I know that I’ve been seeing strong echoes of his theories each day as I live life and he’s given me a new perspective in certain areas.  I know I used to think that couples could make idols of each other by putting the other person in the place of God, however Lewis would dispute this opinion, saying that we cannot love enough to make this happen.  I also like how, instead of prescribing to the idea that a love of others takes away from our love for God, that Lewis believes our love for God enhances our love for others and our love for others can work to make us more like God (ie. give us opportunities to practice Divine love).  Such a lovely thought.

Well, for those of you who stuck it through to the end, I’m impressed.  This was not an easy book but well worth the effort.  Now I believe I’m going to start reading Cicero’s How To Be A Friend: An Ancient’s Guide to True Friendship.  I’d also like to revisit The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm (Silvia mentioned it in her comments) which is a more philosophical, but nevertheless insightful, look at this fascinating topic.

Once again, thanks to all who joined in and I promise my next read-along will be a little less mentally taxing!


⇐ The Four Loves ~ Eros (Ἔρως)




8 thoughts on “The Four Loves Read-Along Week 4, Part 2, Charity

  1. I know I used to think that couples could make idols of each other by putting the other person in the place of God, however Lewis would dispute this opinion, saying that we cannot love enough to make this happen

    Didn’t Lewis dispute this very point in his “A Grief Observed”? It has been longer than I can remember since I read that, so I might very well be mis-remembering.

    Whether Lewis did or not, I certainly would would agree with your former opinion. Anything that has a higher place in our lives than God has become an idol…

    • It’s been awhile since I read A Grief Observed too. I don’t remember it being a major point in that work, however, I could be wrong. I know that he mainly focussed on God and questioned what type of God He is and then his own strength of faith. I’m not sure if I explained myself well enough. We can certainly make things/people idols by putting them in the wrong place but Lewis disputed that we could love anyone TOO MUCH. In that, he meant loving properly with the natural loves supported by Divine love. I’ll have to think about it some more. When we think of love we think of the type that is presented to us in modern culture which often is not love at all, just a warm fuzzy feeling. If we think of loving properly, I can agree with Lewis in that it is hard for us to do it well and therefore we cannot even get close to loving too much.

  2. This was SUPERB. Please, don’t shy away from the difficult, if difficult is what comes your way. You have a natural way for scholarly work that’s also so clear to read. I love the art you so thoughtfully add to these posts.

    I think I understood your post more than the book itself. Charity was difficult. I may read the chapter again now with your post fresh. This is one of those books that had both theoretical knowledge and practical application.

    Count me in. I will read Cicero, and read Fromm again, and gobble up your posts on them, – I don’t want your posts to end. I shared this one with some friends who have read the book-. I will try to write on the books too myself.

    Thanks again for doing this. It means a lot to me.

    • Oh Silvia, your words mean so much too me! It’s soooo much work doing these posts but I want to do it, knowing that I’ll understand the work better AND therefore I can perhaps help others to understand it too. It’s so wonderful to me that you appreciate it so much. I do like stretching my brain but a break is nice now and then. 😀 I’m going to start Cicero in the next few days; not sure when I’ll get to Fromm but I’ll let you know.

      And just so you know, I’m having computer problems which is why I haven’t been on other blogs lately; it’s been difficult just to get my posts out. I need to take it in to get it fixed so if I’m silent for awhile, you’ll know why. Again, I’m so happy my posts were so helpful to you. Now on to Cicero!! 🙂

  3. Thanks for this wonderful post!

    One of the things I most liked about The Four Loves was his insistence in the last section that it isn’t Christian to put all of our loving potential into the other worldly to the exclusion of the this worldly. I was very impressed by the paragraph you quote above, “There is no escape along the lines St. Augustine suggests…” and copied it out into my commonplace book.

    Thanks for prompting me to read this great work, and don’t give up on that prompting! Sure one may need a chaser every now and again (Roger Ackroyd, anyone?) but it’s been huge fun (even though a challenge) to read the book and everyone’s posts. I’ve read Cicero’s On Friendship relatively recently, and while I could certainly read it again, in any case I’ll be looking forward to your thoughts!

    • Thanks, Reese! I love how you put that … “it isn’t Christian to put all of our loving potential into the other worldly to the exclusion of this worldly.” We can use our loves in this world to enhance our love for the next.

      Lol, don’t worry, I will continue prompting. 😀 I’m interested in your thoughts on Cicero’s On Friendship but I’ll have to get reading first! Thanks for participating in this read-along and here’s to more to come!

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