Bend Every Pleasure Back to God

Enjoying Gratitude with C.S. Lewis

God takes great pleasure in helping us grow in the happy grace of gratitude. And the almost unbelievably wonderful thing about this is that he uses pleasures to do it. This casts a whole new light on the blessing, often used as a table grace, “For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful.”

One gift among many we can be truly thankful for today is the life of C.S. Lewis, who pointed so many of us to a life of joy-drenched faith and gratitude. Jack (as he preferred to be called) spent much of his adult life learning to look up the sunbeams of God to their Source, and write what he saw so we could learn to do this too. Such looking caused him to ponder,

What would it be to taste at the fountainhead that stream of which even these lower reaches prove so intoxicating? Yet that, I believe, is what lies before us. The whole man is to drink joy from the fountain of joy. (The Weight of Glory, 44)

Fifty-five years ago today, Jack Lewis drank at that fountainhead for the first time and finally saw unfiltered where all the beauty came from. And he experienced in full force what he knew here in part, that “joy is the serious business of Heaven” (Letters to Malcolm, 124).

Would you like to be a more joy-drenched, thankful person? Learn, with Lewis, how to bend every pleasure back to God.

A Cruel Twist on Grace

When I was in the fourth grade, I was in a local production of the musical “Oliver” (adapted from Dickens’s Oliver Twist). The musical begins with poor Oliver incarcerated in a dungeon-like London workhouse for orphans, managed by the terribly stern, even cruel, Mr. Bumble. Every meal the orphans eat is a single small bowl of thin “gruel” (think icky oatmeal). And before the orphans are allowed to partake of their pitifully meager meal, Mr. Bumble threateningly proclaims, “For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful.”

Mr. Bumble’s version of this table grace is a tortured one. He believes “truly thankful” means something like a cowering, complaint-less, resigned subjection, and God’s way of making people truly thankful is via authoritarian decree with a not-so-subtle threat of punishment — such as taking away what little one has. The “Lord” to whom Mr. Bumble refers bears a striking resemblance to Mr. Bumble himself — “a hard man” (Matthew 25:24).

We too can be tempted to think of God as an austere, severe overlord, who, when he commands us to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18), is expecting his poor, oppressed subjects to wring thanksgiving out of the dry rags of their weary, malnourished souls for the rather parsimonious portion of gruel he gives them. This, of course, renders the act of thanksgiving about as pleasurable as paying taxes to Caesar.

At one time, C.S. Lewis held such suspicions of God. But the more he delved into Scripture and the world, the more he saw how wrong such views are.

Shafts of Glory

Lewis discovered that God doesn’t make us truly thankful by threatening us; he draws it out of us with pleasures. And these pleasures are pointers to something greater — they become our tutors in thanksgiving.

I was learning the far more secret doctrine that pleasures are shafts of the glory as it strikes our sensibility. As it impinges on our will or our understanding, we give it different names — goodness or truth or the like. But its flash upon our senses and mood is pleasure. (Letters to Malcolm, 119)

Pleasures are shafts of God’s glory. What kind of pleasures? “No pleasure [is] too ordinary or too usual for such reception; from the first taste of the air when I look out of the window — one’s whole cheek becomes a sort of palate — down to one’s soft slippers at bed-time” (120). No pleasure is too small to be a preacher of the kindness and mercy and goodness of God. This means we are bombarded by shafts of the glory of God all the time. All around us is fuel for the fire of thanks, if we will but notice.

Objections should come quickly (if we’re thinking). Surely, not all pleasures are shafts of glory. We’ve indulged in too many forbidden pleasures to believe that. Lewis agrees, but clarifies something important:

Certainly there are [bad pleasures]. But in calling them “bad pleasures” I take it we are using a kind of shorthand. We mean “pleasures snatched by unlawful acts.” It is the stealing of the apple that is bad, not the sweetness. The sweetness is still a beam from the glory. That does not palliate the stealing. It makes it worse. There is sacrilege in the theft. We have abused a holy thing. (119)

Looking Up the Sunbeam

So how exactly do pleasures — these shafts of God’s glory — become our “tutors” in gratitude?

We learn very early in our Christian life that Scripture commands us to feel grateful to God (Psalm 106:1; Colossians 3:15). Very often, we learn this before we really understand how thanksgiving works. So we try to work up a sense of thankfulness and worship over abstract things like “God’s beauty,” or goodness, or blessings, or love, but we wonder at the wispy, ephemeral quality of our gratitude. The problem is, we can’t emotionally connect with an abstraction that isn’t sufficiently grounded in specifics. As Lewis said,

[We] shall not be able to adore God on the highest occasions if we have learned no habit of doing so on the lowest. At best, our faith and reason will tell us that He is adorable, but we shall not have found Him so, not have “tasted and seen.” Any patch of sunlight in a wood will show you something about the sun which you could never get from reading books on astronomy. These pure and spontaneous pleasures are “patches of Godlight” in the woods of our experience. (122)

Pleasures teach us about God like patches of forest sunlight teach us about the sun. The golden glow in an autumn wood, the happy laughter of a beloved child, the bright red cardinal alighting in the snowy white bush just outside the kitchen window, the savory bite of hot Thanksgiving turkey with just the right amount of cranberry sauce — these are patches of Godlight.

And it’s in glimpsing these “shafts of glory,” these specific pleasures, for what they are, that the glory of the greater abstract realities begins to dawn on us. We discover that “to experience the tiny theophany is itself to adore” (120). And it makes us wonder, “What must be the quality of that Being whose far-off and momentary coruscations are like this! One’s mind runs back up the sunbeam to the sun” (120).

Tutors in Thanksgiving

That’s the key to understanding pleasures as tutors in thanksgiving. They are sunbeams filling the woods of our experience with patches of Godlight. And as we follow their beams up to their Source, they point us to far greater glories. When Lewis made this discovery, he made it his goal “to make every pleasure into a channel of adoration” (119). And he has been so helpful to us in seeking to do the same, thanks be to God!

Does God command our thankfulness? Yes. But it is not the exacting command of a tyrant. It is the loving command of a father whose desire is his children’s highest happiness. Therefore, unlike Mr. Bumble, God does not coerce thanks out of us with threat. He draws it out with pleasures. For he takes pleasure in pleasing us. And the more pleasure we have in him (resulting in more thanksgiving to him), the more glorious he becomes to us. That’s the purpose for all these patches of Godlight.