In his 1942 sermon “The Weight of Glory,” C. S. Lewis challenged people to consider the difference between love and self-denial, arguing that the Bible’s emphasis on love and reward means we need to reconsider the role of self-denial in the Christian life. He’s not encouraging a wanton lifestyle of excess and selfishness, but one that views human desire and pleasure as good things, albeit twisted by our failure to understand what desire and pleasure are really all about.
I thought it would be good to hear Lewis’ words again as we make our way through this holiday season. They seem appropriate for reminding us both that God created pleasure, so we can enjoy life shamelessly, and that we are created for far higher pleasures than those with which we often try to satisfy our desires.
If you asked twenty good men to-day what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness. But if you asked almost any of the great Christians of old he would have replied, Love. You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance. The negative ideal of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point. I do not think this is the Christian virtue of Love. The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire. If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.