A Counselor Reflects on Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

“The rule for all of us is perfectly simple. Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him… There is, indeed, one exception. If you do him a good turn, not to please God and obey the law of charity, but to show him what a fine forgiving chap you are, and to put him in your debt, and then sit down to wait for his ‘gratitude’, you will probably be disappointed (p. 131).” Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

This quote makes me a bit uncomfortable, although I have trouble disagreeing with its general directive. The second half redeems the first half, which could easily be taken for a “fake it until you make it” methodology of self-manipulation to coerce unnatural emotions or dispositions.

The second half of Lewis’ quote reveals that is not what he is advising. Lewis is giving advice to the person who sincerely wants to please God, but does not naturally desire to do a particular thing that pleases God. The individual to whom Lewis is speaking is keeping the First Great Commandment (love God) but is struggling with the Second Great Commandment (love your neighbor).

Lewis is saying that where there is a sincere love for God, then obedience will shape our character to enjoy that obedience. The love for God in our hearts will leap towards others when we love them; taking our heart in which His love is encased with it. Where God’s love is truly present it serves as a strong magnet drawing us towards others if we will move towards them enough to feel its pull.

This is the reason for Lewis’ “exception.” It is not the action of “loving as if you loved” that produces genuine affection. It is the presence of God’s love in us and our love for God getting close enough to another person to be activated that produces change.

So the first question we must ask ourselves in these moments is this, “Am I responding to social pressure, a sense of duty, or a desire to honor God in this action in which I am resistant but feel compelled to do?” Unless our answer is a sincere desire to honor God, then Lewis’ advice is not for us—at the very least it would have to be applied in a modified form.

If it is not the desire to honor the God we love that compels us to love others in unnatural ways, then there is no magnet in our heart. Hence, no matter how close we get to them by serving them there will be no “internal pull” to make unnatural actions feel natural.

So what do we do then? We do everything Lewis has been talking about for 130 pages before this quote. We learn who God is. We fall in love with God. We become convinced that there is no “life” (at least not one worth living) apart from Him. We see who we are. We recognize the bent-ness of our nature. We grow to trust God more than our natural instinct. Then we are prepared to follow Lewis’ advice and can be confident in God’s grace that it will work.

What if I don’t have that longing, know I should “do what’s right,” but have the wrong motive? The previous paragraph could take hours, weeks, or months and often we need to “do what’s right” at a moment’s notice.

By God’s common grace, there is still some effectiveness in Lewis’ advice even when our motives are off. So love like God even when you’re not doing it for the love of God. But make sure you’re not just “checking a box” or “quieting your conscience.” Don’t be satisfied with fake it until you make it. Realize even your “common sense” and conscience are calling you to imitate your Creator. Make this a step in your journey to know Love Himself (I John 4:8), and not just a good deed.