C.S. Lewis on the Pleasure of Pleasing People without Being a People Pleaser

A few years ago I had one of those little formative experiences. I was leaving a long-term evangelistic ministry to teenagers in which I participated at my church. After six years of Friday nights, after countless hours of work I loved and loved sharing with other church members, it was time to step aside and let others fill my spot.

The leader of the group thought it appropriate to have a few words said on my behalf, and to give me some parting gifts from the church bookstore. The books were generous, but it was the words that yielded the lesson. The leader asked two men who’d worked alongside me to speak briefly about my impact. It was a little awkward; it always is when you have to listen to people thank and/or praise you. What they said was very gracious, but it was vague. What they said could have been said of all the other faithful people there, many of whom invested more hours than I (some of whom still do, ten years later).

But then the leader stood up to say his own parting words, and he was specific. He had carefully noticed the one thing I had most dedicated myself to doing in the ministry; I won’t say what it was. But I was always doing it, and he had seen it.

I felt a correspondingly specific pleasure, a rare one in my life, a pleasure I C.S. Lewis describes in my favorite piece of his ever: the pleasure of a child being praised by a parent, the pleasure of pleasing someone I respected greatly whom it was my God-given duty to please. I had not been pandering. I hadn’t done the work primarily to please him, or I wouldn’t have pleased him; but when I did, and when he named the reason specifically—what a God-given joy.

I’ve tried since then to keep my eye out for the specific gifts of others, and to name them when possible.

Here’s Lewis:

I turn next to the idea of glory. There is no getting away from the fact that this idea is very prominent in the New Testament and in early Christian writings. Salvation is constantly associated with palms, crowns, white robes, thrones, and splendour like the sun and stars. All this makes no immediate appeal to me at all, and in that respect I fancy I am a typical modern. Glory suggests two ideas to me, of which one seems wicked and the other ridiculous. Either glory means to me fame, or it means luminosity. As for the first, since to be famous means to be better known than other people, the desire for fame appears to me as a competitive passion and therefore of hell rather than heaven. As for the second, who wishes to become a kind of living electric light bulb?

When I began to look into this matter I was shocked to find such different Christians as Milton, Johnson, and Thomas Aquinas taking heavenly glory quite frankly in the sense of fame or good report. But not fame conferred by our fellow creatures—fame with God, approval or (I might say) “appreciation” by God. And then, when I had thought it over, I saw that this view was scriptural; nothing can eliminate from the parable the divine accolade, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” With that, a good deal of what I had been thinking all my life fell down like a house of cards. I suddenly remembered that no one can enter heaven except as a child; and nothing is so obvious in a child—not in a conceited child, but in a good child—as its great and undisguised pleasure in being praised. Not only in a child, either, but even in a dog or a horse. Apparently what I had mistaken for humility had, all these years, prevented me from understanding what is in fact the humblest, the most childlike, the most creaturely of pleasures—nay, the specific pleasure of the inferior: the pleasure of a beast before men, a child before its father, a pupil before his teacher, a creature before its Creator. I am not forgetting how horribly this most innocent desire is parodied in our human ambitions, or how very quickly, in my own experience, the lawful pleasure of praise from those whom it was my duty to please turns into the deadly poison of self-admiration. But I thought I could detect a moment—a very, very short moment—before this happened, during which the satisfaction of having pleased those whom I rightly loved and rightly feared was pure. And that is enough to raise our thoughts to what may happen when the redeemed soul, beyond all hope and nearly beyond belief, learns at last that she has pleased Him whom she was created to please. There will be no room for vanity then. She will be free from the miserable illusion that it is her doing. With no taint of what we should now call self-approval she will most innocently rejoice in the thing that God has made her to be, and the moment which heals her old inferiority complex forever will also drown her pride deeper than Prospero’s book. Perfect humility dispenses with modesty. If God is satisfied with the work, the work may be satisfied with itself; “it is not for her to bandy compliments with her Sovereign.” I can imagine someone saying that he dislikes my idea of heaven as a place where we are patted on the back. But proud misunderstanding is behind that dislike. In the end that Face which is the delight or the terror of the universe must be turned upon each of us either with one expression or with the other, either conferring glory inexpressible or inflicting shame that can never be cured or disguised. (36–39)

Read his whole essay, the first in this collection.

Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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