Hero Image

Dangerous Compassion

How to Make Any Love a Demon

In his book The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis begins his discussion of the natural loves with the observation of de Rougemont that “love ceases to be a demon only when he ceases to be a god.” Or, in Lewis’s restatement, “love begins to be a demon the moment he begins to be a god.”

Lewis is concerned that human loves, at times, tend to claim for themselves a divine authority that overrides all other claims and obligations. They demand unconditional allegiance and thereby become gods (and thereby become demons which destroy both us and themselves).

Significantly for Lewis, the human or natural loves only make this claim when they are at their highest, at those moments when they most resemble God. Their claims to divinity are only plausible if there is a real likeness between the natural love and Love Himself. But having become deities, they become demons, and as demons, they cease to be loves at all but instead become only very complicated forms of hatred.

Great Divorce

To illustrate the point, we might consider a recurring character in Lewis’s writings — the tyrannical and possessive mother. In The Four Loves, she is called Mrs. Fidget. In Screwtape Letters, she is described as “the sort of woman who lives for others — you can always tell the others by their hunted expression.” And in The Great Divorce, she is called Pam, the ghost who is Michael’s mother.

It is this last example that I wish to use as an illustration. In the allegory, Lewis depicts a bus traveling from hell to heaven. The conversations that happen on the bus unfold the tensions between good and evil, grace and judgment, all to show (in Lewis’s words), “If we insist on keeping hell (or even earth) we shall not see heaven: if we accept heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of hell.”

Pam’s love for her son, Michael, is “uncontrolled and fierce and monomaniac.” When she meets her brother Reginald on the green plains, she is put out because Michael has not come to meet her. Reginald, a solid spirit who is there to lead her to the mountains (heaven), insists that she must be “thickened up a bit” before Michael will be able to see her. The thickening process begins with her desiring someone else besides Michael.

Corruption of Mother-Love

Pam sullenly agrees to try “religion and all that sort of thing” but only so that they will hurry up and let her see her boy. In other words, she attempts to use God as a means to Michael. Her love is intensely possessive. “I want my boy, and I mean to have him. He is mine, do you understand? Mine, mine, mine, for ever and ever.” This is a twisted form of the rightful affection that a mother has for her son. A child does belong to his mother, in some sense. But when natural affection becomes a god, it makes a total and ultimate claim to ownership.

What’s more, Pam’s love for Michael has the appearance of sacrifice but is, in fact, a complicated form of hatred. She protests that she gave up her whole life for Michael, that she sacrificed everything for his memory. But George MacDonald, Lewis’s guide in The Great Divorce, points out that her love is not excessive, but defective. It’s the type of love that will even demand to have the beloved with her in hell rather than give up possession. It prefers to possess the beloved in everlasting misery, rather than release them into joy. Hatred is not too strong a word.

Lewis takes pains to remind us that the corruption of such loves is greater because their natural goodness is greater. Mother-love is a grand and glorious virtue. Therefore, when it goes bad, when it becomes a god, it becomes a terrifying demon indeed.

Passion of Pity

Lewis, of course, applied this principle to the three natural loves — storge (familial affection), eros (romantic or sexual love), and philia (love between friends). But in principle, he notes that the same can be applied to many other kinds of love — love of country and love of nature, for example. But in The Great Divorce, he also points to another surprising form of corrupted love, what he calls, “the passion of pity.” The passion of pity is what happens when love for the hurting, the broken, and the weak (what we typically call compassion) becomes a god, and in doing so, becomes a demon.

We see subtle indications of the complicated dynamics when compassion goes wrong in Pam’s conversation with Reginald. Recall that Pam was attempting to use God as a means to see her son Michael. When Reginald points out this fact, Pam rebuffs him with her own suffering as a mother. Reginald reminds her of God’s love and suffering on her behalf, and Pam responds, “If he loved me, he’d let me see my boy.” In other words, Pam is appealing to a certain definition of love, a love that does whatever the beloved wants, especially if she has suffered.

Now, it’s important to get straight on this situation. Pam really has objectively suffered. Her beloved son Michael was ripped from her through death. And her pain didn’t cease with the loss of Michael. After his death, she lived for his memory and continued to feel the pain of his loss, even as she learned to “expect no sympathy” from her husband and daughter who, in her mind, didn’t truly care for Michael or for her. That’s her lived and experienced reality as a bereaved mother.

But notice how her brother Reginald diagnoses her suffering. The truth is that her high and holy mother-love was actually tyrannical. Living only for Michael’s memory was a mistake (and, according to Reginald, she knows it). Her husband and daughter loved Michael and only rebelled against Pam’s attempts to dominate them with her sorrows. Her insistence on clinging to the past was, in fact, “the wrong way to deal with a sorrow.”

Wrong Way to Deal with Pain

Pam’s response to Reginald’s correction is telling. “You are heartless. Everyone is heartless.” And then, sarcastically, “Oh, of course. I’m wrong. Everything I say or do is wrong, according to you.” In other words, here we see Pam attempting to use her suffering (both real and imagined) as a way to get what she wants from Reginald. In her grief, she will sulk and pout in order to elicit compassion from her brother. But then, we see a key interaction as Pam erupts at Reginald and at God.

“I hate your religion and I hate and despise your God. I believe in a God of love.”

“And yet, Pam, you have no love at this moment for your own mother or for me.”

“Oh, I see! That’s the trouble, is it? Really, Reginald! The idea of your being hurt because. . .”

“Lord love you!” said the Spirit with a great laugh. “You needn’t bother about that! Don’t you know that you can’t hurt anyone in this country?”

The Ghost was silent and open-mouthed for a moment; more wilted, I thought, by this re-assurance than by anything else that had been said. (103–104)

In this moment, Pam realizes that she can no longer use her suffering to hurt and manipulate those who love her. A weapon has been taken out of her hand.

Love Measured by Misery

But Lewis’s most extended display of this danger occurs at the end of the book in the conversation between Sarah Smith and the ghost who was her husband Frank. When they first meet, Frank acts as though he’s concerned about the misery of his wife in his absence. He wears his compassion on his sleeve.

However, as he discovers that she has not been miserable in his absence, he grows offended. He contemplates overlooking the offense, but wonders whether she’ll notice his sacrifice (he remembers the time on earth when she had not noticed that he allowed her the use of the last stamp even though he needed to mail a letter himself). Thus, he persists in attempting to comfort her in her misery, and then is frustrated to discover that there are no miseries in heaven.

It becomes clear through the remainder of the conversation that he views her misery as a measure of her love for him. He can only imagine a love that desperately needs him in order to be happy, and which he can manipulate to get his way.

Emotional Blackmail

Frank resists all attempts by Sarah to draw him out of his selfishness and instead attempts to awaken guilt in her by threatening to return to the misery of hell. He paints a picture of himself back in the “cold and the gloom, the lonely, lonely streets.” When she says, “Don’t talk like that,” he seizes on what he thinks is her grief and guilt. “Ah, you can’t bear it. . . . You must be sheltered. Grim realities must be kept out of your sight. You who can be happy without me. . . . You say, don’t. Don’t tell you. Don’t make you unhappy.”

But Sarah quickly corrects him. She doesn’t tell him to stop because she can’t handle the grief. She tells him to stop acting for his own sake. And then she describes Frank’s besetting sin, the sin that he must turn away from if he is to be saved.

[Stop] using pity, other people’s pity, in the wrong way. We have all done it a bit on earth, you know. Pity was meant to be a spur that drives joy to help misery. But it can be used the wrong way round. It can be used for a kind of blackmailing. Those who choose misery can hold joy up to ransom, by pity.

You see, I know now. Even as a child you did it. Instead of saying you were sorry, you went and sulked in the attic . . . because you knew that sooner or later one of your sisters would say, “I can’t bear to think of him sitting up there alone, crying.” You used their pity to blackmail them, and they gave in in the end. And afterwards, when we were married . . . oh, it doesn’t matter, if only you will stop it. (131–132)

Sarah’s joy is now invulnerable to Frank’s manipulations. Her love and joy is no longer at the mercy of his frowns and sighs. He can no longer hurt her, because she is in Love, and she cannot love a lie. In the end, Frank rejects her calls to come out of his sulky selfishness and vanishes back to the Gray Town.

Weaponized Pity and True Compassion

Now, Lewis knows that his description of the invulnerability of joy will be shocking to his readers. After Sarah and her entourage leave, he asks his guide, George MacDonald, “Is it really tolerable that she should be untouched by his misery, even his self-made misery?”

MacDonald presses through the apparent compassion and mercy of the question to point out the underlying reality. What lies beneath the desire for Sarah to be touched by Frank’s misery is “the demand of the loveless and the self-imprisoned that they should be allowed to blackmail the universe: that till they consent to be happy (on their own terms) no one else shall taste joy: that theirs should be the final power; that hell should be able to veto heaven” (135).

And then the narrator asks the question that is central for us: “Dare one say that pity [compassion] should ever die?”⁠ MacDonald wisely says that we must distinguish between the action of pity and the passion of pity. The passion of pity leads men to concede what should not be conceded. We surrender the truth out of misguided pity and compassion for the hurting. Or we flatter others rather than speak the truth. Men have used the passion of pity to cheat women out of their virginity, using hang-dog looks to manipulate their lovers into the backseat of cars (and then to conceal the sin out of pity for their reputation). As we saw earlier in Pam’s interaction with Reginald, pity and compassion can be wielded as a weapon against good-hearted people.

On the other hand, the action of pity, true compassion, is a weapon for the sons of light. It will descend from the highest to the lowest place, no matter the cost. It effects transformation, bringing light into the darkness. But, significantly, true compassion will not impose on good the tyranny of evil, no matter how many cunning tears hell cries. True compassion will not lie — it will not call blue yellow to please those who insist on keeping their jaundice. It will not turn a garden into a dung heap because some people can’t abide the smell of roses.

What Love Must Say

Now, Lewis knew that many would be offended by his portrayals in these scenes. He knew that some would accuse him of being inhuman and pitiless, of attacking the holiest and best things. And so, after witnessing the interaction between Pam and Reginald, the narrator asks MacDonald, “But could one dare — could one have the face — to go to a bereaved mother, in her misery — when one’s not bereaved oneself?” MacDonald’s response is crucial.

No, no, son, that’s no office of yours. You’re not a good enough man for that. When your own heart’s been broken it will be time for you to think of talking. But someone must say in general what’s been unsaid among you this many a year: that love, as mortals understand the word, isn’t enough. Every natural love will rise again and live forever in this country: but none will rise again until it has been buried.

This is what Lewis is doing: attempting to say in general what many are afraid to say. But it’s cruel not to say it, and the absence of such truth-telling is “why sorrows that used to purify now only fester.” And then MacDonald insists on the same truth that we saw in The Four Loves.

But you and I must be clear. There is but one good; that is God. Everything else is good when it looks to him and bad when it turns from him. And the higher and mightier it is in the natural order, the more demoniac it will be if it rebels. It’s not out of bad mice or bad fleas you make demons, but out of bad archangels. (105–106)

In other words, love — even love for the hurting and broken — becomes a demon the moment that it becomes a god.

Takeaways for Today

Now at this point, we may rightly ask what we should do with Lewis’s insight about the dangerous passion of pity? We might examine our subtle tendency to wield our afflictions (especially our minor afflictions) as tools of manipulation. It’s easy to magnify our inconveniences in order to elicit sympathy from those who love us, to make martyrs out of ourselves and send our loved ones on a guilt trip. The sulks are not only a danger for children.

Or we might consider the way that we can wield the suffering of others in the same manner. Compassion is a great and glorious good, a spur to joy to help those who are suffering. But the line between spurring joy to help misery and using the misery of others to steer the merciful is not always easy to see. The tyrannical mother did not recognize her tyranny. From the inside, her mother-love was holy, righteous, and good.

Nor do we always recognize when our compassion ceases to be compassion and instead becomes a subtle tool of emotional blackmail. But if Lewis is right that the highest and best things become demoniac when they begin to be gods, then we ought to be aware that compassion — which is one of the highest and best things — can also fall into this trap.

Compassion Ceases to Be a God

However, for myself, I think that the best application of Lewis’s insights comes from the solid Spirits in his story. They are full of love; indeed they are in Love himself. Compassion — what Lewis calls the action of pity — flows from them like streams of water from an inexhaustible fountain. To bring the heavenly picture down to earth, faithful compassion leans into the suffering of others, weeping with those who weep, genuinely joining the sorrowful in their grief, and then, when the time is right, taking action to relieve the pain.

But while compassion will leap from the heights of joy to the depths of sorrow in order to bring healing, even at great cost to itself, it will refuse to be steered by the manipulations of the afflicted (or their advocates). True compassion always reserves the right not to blaspheme.

Like Job, compassion can absorb the grief-driven accusations of a bereaved mother and refuse to curse God and die (Job 2:9–10). It refuses to concede what should not be conceded, even in the face of great human suffering. It refuses to flatter under the pressure of pity, but will insist on speaking the truth (or at least clinging to the truth, if wisdom directs that it’s not yet time to speak). It is willing to be called “heartless” in its pursuit of the true and lasting good of the afflicted. There is a holy stability and integrity to true compassion that has the paradoxical ability to move toward the hurting, without being swallowed by their grief.

Compassion ceases to be a demon when it ceases to be a god, and compassion becomes itself, in all of its glory, when it revels in the fact that God is God, merciful and gracious and abounding in steadfast love.