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

Mark Ward

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.

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New Bible Study Magazine

Mark Ward

Top Five Responses to Authorized from KJV-Only Brothers

Mark Ward

Does My Argument in Authorized Apply to Old Hymns?

Mark Ward

A pastor friend in urban Chicago asked a great question:

How does the case you make in your book regarding [unintelligible language in] the KJV apply to our hymnody? I’m editing our Sunday slide presentation and am finding that the “thees” and “thous,” while beautiful and transcendent, may not be clear to an outsider attending our fellowship. In some cases, the old English is updatable without ruining the message or meter. But, in other cases a small tweak would ruin a rhyme.

I replied that that question is a really good one, one other friend has already posed. And here’s what I’ve come to so far:

First, nobody is 17th-Century-Hymnody-Only or has made a doctrine out of using archaic hymns exclusively, so the pressure to push back against unintelligible language in hymns is not as great as the need to push back against unintelligible language in Bibles.

Second, the Bible is also more important than hymns, so that’s the battle I’m picking first.

But, third, to be consistent with my argument in Authorized, I have to say that we should not use unintelligible language when intelligible language is available. What a lot of KJVOs think I’m saying (or want me to be saying so they can burn up my straw man) is that we should remove all difficulty, including literary beauty and metaphor, from our worship. They say I’m calling for an emoji Bible. I’m not; and nor do I want an emoji hymnal. “I woke, the dungeon flamed with light” is a beautiful metaphor, and totally gettable. It should stay. Maybe “Rise, the woman’s conqu’ring Seed / Bruise in us the serpent’s head” is a bit harder. But it’s straight Bible, with a small interpretive twist (“Bruise in us the serpent’s head”)—and I don’t want to get rid of such things. I’m actually fine with challenging metaphors, particularly if they’re drawn from the Bible—or comparable to the Bible’s metaphors in their obscurity quotient. Parts of the Bible are hard to understand; Peter said so (2 Pet 3:16). A good shepherd knows when to lead his sheep to those pastures, and how to lead them there. The same goes for our tradition of (non-inspired) hymnody.

I think “thee” and “thou” and “thy” really are not very difficult or unintelligible to modern English speakers with any education whatsoever. They are part of a recognizably high or sacral register in modern English. They show up on TV, even. But I want to be sensitive to my audience. I want to be on the lookout, because of 1 Corinthians 14’s edification-requires-intelligibility principle, for traditional wording I just have to know my congregation won’t get. “Naught be all else to me save that thou art” probably qualifies, I’m afraid. I tried to explain it recently to my congregation (I’m manic about this when I lead singing), but I’m not 100% sure of my own interpretation—even after watching the great Randy Leedy in class try to parse it one time. If he can’t get it, no one can. It probably needs to be revised—or what are we? Hidebound traditionalists who care more about aesthetic forms than about understanding and the edification that comes from it. And considering how poor our low-church aesthetic forms are compared to those of High Anglicanism or Rome itself, that’s pretty sad.

I love certain old hymns like “And Can It Be?” for their text and their tunes. The latter have been updated often in recent years; perhaps it is time for a concerted effort to update the former—just enough to retrieve intelligibility while preserving the doctrine and the metaphors.

Sort of fourth: to clarify one point I’ve been making… For almost six years I “pastored” an outreach congregation full of functionally illiterate people. I loved it. But we sang simple songs that I don’t sing in my current middle-class congregation. My current church can surpass the simple, for their spiritual and even aesthetic benefit. I’m not trying to dumb everything down; I’m trying to make understanding possible for my audience rather than impossible. That’s part of my calling when I shepherd the flock.

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“Grandfathered In,” Racism, and a Copy-Editor’s True Calling

Mark Ward

It seems that the phrase “grandfathered in”—as in, “Smokers who were already working at the company were grandfathered into the new health plan, but new hires won’t be able to get on if they smoke”—has its origins in overtly unjust, racist practices. This was sent to me by an editor from a website for copy-editors. And those unjust and racist practices, by the way, were truly terrible. Hateful.

But I’m left wondering why a copy-editor thought a bunch of other copy-editors should know all this. It suggests to me that this copy-editor has forgotten what his job is: gauging the reaction of the intended audience of a piece to every piece of meaning in that piece. Effectively zero English speakers today are aware of the allegedly racist origins of the common phrase “grandfathered in.” Effectively zero readers will react negatively to it—until now, now that they’ve read this article.

This copy-editor has just torpedoed, to a tiny degree, the work of the authors he’s called to serve. Now a few readers out there may possibly tsk-tsk a writer for using a common English phrase that he or she has little reason to know has origins in racism.

Almost all of us are almost totally ignorant of the history of almost all of our words. And that’s okay. The words eleven and twelve derive from the base-6 numbering system—should we stop using them for modern base-10 math?

Search the prose of black writers and I’ll be willing to bet that they use the phrase just as much as writers of other ethnicities. It’s like snafu: it just doesn’t mean what it used to mean.

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A Book Review, Or, What Bothers Me About Self-Help Books

Mark Ward

By page 3 of most self-help books, I start hearing a cheery person intoning in the background, I’m good enough, I’m smart enough. By page 10: And, doggone it, people like me! Without denying that I should Win Friends and Influence People, go from Good to Great, and work harder at Getting Things Done—indeed, without denying that there is a lot of practical wisdom in these books that I ought to heed—I get a little frustrated with their vapidity quotient. Could anything be more clichéd than “Synergize” or “Put first things first”? But there’s something deeper that nags at me when I read these mega-bestelling works. In my experience (and I confess I haven’t even read all the ones I’ve just named), they studiously avoid the deeper issues that Drive us: our loves, our beliefs in ultimate realities.

Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People was refreshingly, though not entirely, different. It professes religious neutrality, but it also makes explicitly religious claims drawn from the author’s Mormon faith. Where other books might say, as Covey did, “Success in any endeavor is always derived from acting in harmony with the principles to which the success is tied,” Covey takes a further theological step. He posits an ordered cosmos and an Orderer who actively ties successes to principles. He himself says explicitly that the natural laws structuring his book “have their source in God.” He doesn’t dwell much on this theme, but he does repeat it often enough that I felt he really believed it. (I came away liking the guy, frankly.) Covey even urges readers to make all their decisions in light of the end of life, not something I’ve read in other self-help and productivity books.

But his overall religious neutrality gets Covey in a little trouble here, because I want to ask: what about making decisions in light of what will happen a millisecond after the end of life? I’m not asking this book to be a theology book; I’m suggesting that staying neutral about ultimate realities means you have to leave out key ingredients of a successful life—including the very definition of ultimate success. Maintaining neutrality among competing “visions of the good” means refusing to give real meaning to this life Covey is trying to help me structure according to natural law. Do I get to live in the light of the Lamb on a restored earth for all eternity, do I enjoy the ministrations of 72 virgins, do I reincarnate as a wealthy man, do I achieve nirvana, do I win if I get the most toys, do I get to go populate a planet? And what if I believe there is no God, no lawgiver to give us any natural laws? Each worldview rather colors my view of a life well lived on this earth, and how I achieve it, I’d say. Covey thinks you can map his principles onto any religion and have the same success, but if fearing God and keeping his commandments are the whole duty of man, if loving God and loving neighbor are the whole law, then Covey just can’t be right.

Similarly, though Covey’s stories about working lovingly through conflict with his wife and children were really touching and exemplary, there didn’t seem to me to be a category in his thinking for “sin.” Surely a book about success can’t truly work if it doesn’t tell us how to deal with that ultimate but daily failure we all experience (whether we know it or suppress it). Perhaps many people in modern Western societies don’t experience guilt, but some are crushed by it. What do they do? Also, I think the Bible’s themes are a good bit more nuanced than “observe these principles and you’ll have a good life.” That’s part of the truth—it’s the part Proverbs hits, I’d say. But right after Proverbs in God’s wisdom come the exceptions of Ecclesiastes: sometimes you follow the principles in this fallen world and, in the good providence of God under the sun, bad stuff still happens.

Covey’s title promises to make you an “effective” person, but the book mostly maintains the strategy of secularism to avoid conflict by focusing on utilitarian means without deciding among metaphysical/theological/religious ends. Wikipedia quotes someone who says that The Seven Habits is a “secular distillation of Mormon values.” But given some people’s value systems, I don’t want them to be effective. (Godwin’s law alert.) My father wrote his dissertation at Clemson on the “technical communication” used by the Nazis to make the Holocaust more “effective” and efficient, thereby to distance themselves from the ends they were actually pursuing. One must align his ends to natural law, not just his means, if he wishes truly to succeed.

I’ll happily plunder this very wise Egyptian for his well-honed observations of natural law in the workaday world, but I’ll keep my explicitly Christian teloi, and I’ll let my religion remap my understanding of the appropriate means to reach them. I won’t expect to be truly effective in doing anything ultimately worthwhile—on the only scale of worth that (ultimately) counts—unless love for God and neighbor is driving me (Rom 8:8).

I do, however, have sincere praise for this book and the natural law wisdom it contains. Covey has, no doubt, discovered truths in God’s ordered world that I needed.

  1. Covey made me want to think more carefully and explicitly about my gifts and goals, to the point of aligning my commitments to those gifts and goals. This advice came at the right time for me, as opportunities have recently begun to exceed capacities in a new way. I do have end goals: the glory of God, the growth of Christ’s church in the light of the Bible (as it happens). His prudent advice will help me reach those goals.
  2. Covey encouraged me to encourage others to acknowledge their agency, something I can readily align with my biblical faith.
  3. Covey’s parenting stories made me want to be a more loving and understanding father, one who focuses on fixing my own attitude before fixing those of my children. I was surprised at this regular emphasis in a “business” book, and I thought it was very healthy. It acknowledged implicitly that business and personal success are tied together in the cosmos we were given.
  4. Covey blew a little dust off my pluck. I am an American, and our optimistic, can-do spirit is a cultural legacy I don’t want to squander, a common grace God has given to my nation. I don’t want my Gen-X/Millennial sardonic eye to undermine my capacity to do something good in this world, for the glory of God and the good of my neighbor.
  5. Covey handed me a really wonderful Cecil B. DeMille quote about the law: “We cannot break the law; we can only break ourselves against the law.”
  6. I think I could “think win/win” more often than I do; I could be more optimistic about the possibility that, within a given conflict, everybody can come out ahead—precisely because of that natural law, and of God’s grace.
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