How Lewis Changed the Way I Worship

Small Talk — 2013 National Conference

The Romantic Rationalist: God, Life, and Imagination in the Work of C.S. Lewis

My topic for my 10 minute talk is How CS Lewis changed the way I worship. Let me explain right from the beginning that when I use this title, I’m not talking about style. I’m not saying that Lewis had any effect whatsoever on whether I prefer acoustic guitars to a Baldwin piano, or whether we sing traditional hymns versus contemporary songs.

Worship Reformed

My understanding of the nature of worship has been greatly affected by two individuals. The first one, appropriately, was John Piper; the second was CS Lewis. Piper helped me overcome what I now recognize as the blasphemous and dishonoring notion that in worship I could actually give to God something that he otherwise lacked. I always envisioned myself as God being in need of me — God being, in some sense, dependent upon my praise. I thought that I could come to him and, in my expressions of gratitude or my declarations of his greatness, could somehow make him feel better after having exhausted himself running the universe for a day or two; or by saying nice things about him, I thought I could make him greater than he was.

And I will never forget when I was alerted by John to the passage in Act 17 that I had read many times before but never connected with the reality of worship. In Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill, he says in chapter 17:24–25:

The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man . . .

And then came this incredible statement by the apostle:

Nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.

And I thought to myself, now, if it is actually true that God is not served by human hands as though he needed anything, what did I think I was doing when I worshiped him? Why was I worshiping him? The result of this challenge to my thinking was that I now understand that I am to come to get from God rather than to give; that I am to view him as the all-sufficient, infinitely resourceful supply of everything my heart needs, and that I glorify him most by receiving all that he is for me in Christ. So that’s how Piper initially transformed the way I worship.

A Word About Praising

But we’re here today to talk about how Lewis has affected it. They are very closely related. What Lewis helped me grasp is best explained by looking briefly at his own struggle with worship. If you all have never read this, I encourage you to do so. There is a chapter I recommend in Lewis’s book Reflections on the Psalms. I have my copy. It’s getting very old. It’s a very brittle, 1958 edition. And there is a chapter that is entitled “A Word About Praising”, and it was from this chapter that I learned the incredibly important lesson that not only was it permissible for me to enjoy God in worship; it was absolutely essential if I was to glorify him in a consummate way.

Let me explain how Lewis arrived at this conclusion and how he helped me. Lewis, as he read the Bible, and particularly the Psalms, was incredibly agitated by one thing. It just stuck in his craw. It was this incessant demand by God that we tell him how good he is. Lewis said, “I just couldn’t understand why God would continually come to me and command that I worship him and tell him how great he is.”

And so, Lewis wrote this, and I want to read this directly from the text. So you listen. Lewis said:

We all despise the man who demands continued assurance of his own virtue, intelligence or delightfulness. We despise still more the crowd of people around every dictator, every millionaire, every celebrity who gratifies that demand. This picture began to emerge in my mind that was ludicrous and horrible of God and of his worshipers.

The Psalms were especially troublesome in this way. “Praise the Lord.” “Oh, praise the Lord with me.” “Praise him.” Worse still was the statement put into God’s own mouth: “Whoever offers me thanks and praise, he honors me.” It was hideously like saying, “What I most want is to be told that I’m good and great.” It was extremely distressing. It made one think what one least wanted to think. Gratitude to God, reverence to him, obedience to him, I can understand that, but not this perpetual eulogy.

Is God Devoted to Himself or to Us?

I think what was hitting Lewis is the same thing that oftentimes would strike me. And that is that we don’t like to think of God as being completely and altogether devoted to himself. We want to think that God is man-centered, not God-centered. How can God love me if he’s so concerned with loving himself and the fame of his own name? But what Lewis did not see, and I’m reading again, is this:

In the process of being worshiped, God communicates his presence to men. It’s not the only way, but for many people, at many times, the fair beauty of the Lord is revealed chiefly, or only, while they worship him together.

Even in Judaism, the essence of the sacrifice was not really that men gave bulls and goats to God, but that by their so doing, God gave himself to men. In the central act of our own worship, of course, this is far clearer. There it is manifestly, even physically, God who gives and we who receive. The miserable idea that God should, in any sense, need or crave for our worship, like a vain woman wanting compliments, or a vain author presenting his new books to people who never met or heard of him, is implicitly answered by the words from Psalm 50:12: “If I be hungry, I won’t tell you.” Even if such an absurd deity could be conceived, he would hardly come to us, the lowest of rational creatures, to gratify his appetite.

And then in typical Lewis style, he says:

I don’t want my dog to bark approval of my books.

Worshiping a God with No Needs

So again, what Lewis was addressing was the very point that Piper had raised in my thinking, why do you worship a God who has no needs? Or even better still, how do you worship a God who is self-sufficient and cannot be served by human hands? And then Lewis made this remarkable discovery:

The most obvious fact about praise, whether of God or anything, strangely had escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, or approval, or the giving of honor. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise, unless shyness or the fear of boring others is deliberately brought in to check it.

He said:

The world rings with praise: lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, walker’s praising the countryside, players praising their favorite game . . .

And he goes on:

Except where intolerably adverse circumstances interfere, praise almost seems to be inner health made audible. I had not noticed either that just as men spontaneously praise whatever they value, so they spontaneously urge us to join them in praising it. Isn’t she lovely? Wasn’t it glorious? Don’t you think that magnificent? The psalmists, in telling everyone to praise God, are doing what all men do when they speak of what they care about.

God’s Love Manifest

So again, Lewis is touching here on how God’s love for us is manifest. What is the most loving thing that the creator of the universe can do for you and me? And Lewis’s answer was, “Give us of himself.” If God really loves me, then he’s going to give himself to me because obviously there is no greater, more glorious, more captivating being in all of creation. But he doesn’t stop there. He has to work to elicit from me praise of who he is.

Why? Because, as Lewis said, “all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise.” Here’s how he concludes:

I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment. It is appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are. The delight is incomplete until it is expressed.

Think about that. Your delight in God, my enjoyment of the greatest being in the universe, is incomplete, it’s hindered, it’s stunted, until it is expressed in worship. That is why God is constantly saying to us, “Worship me.” He is saying, “Give vent to your gratitude. Declare my greatness.” Lewis says:

It’s frustrating to have discovered a new author not to be able to tell anyone how good he is; to come suddenly at the turn of the road upon some mountain valley of unexpected grandeur, and then to have to keep silent because the people with you care for it no more than for a tin can in the ditch; to hear a good joke and find no one to share it with.

Fully to Enjoy, Fully to Glorify

And then he concludes with this statement:

If it were possible for a created soul — for you and me — fully to appreciate (that is, to love and delight in the worthiest object of all) and simultaneously at every moment to give this delight perfect expression, that soul would be in supreme beatitude. Therefore, to see what this doctrine really means, we must suppose ourselves to be in perfect love with God, drunk with, drowned in, dissolved by that delight, which far from remaining pent up within ourselves as incommunicable, flows out from us incessantly again in effortless and perfect expression. Our joy is no more separable from the praise in which it liberates and utters itself than the brightness a mirror receives is separable from the brightness it sheds.

The catechism says it best: man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. But we shall then know that these are the same thing. Fully to enjoy is to glorify. In commanding us to glorify him, God is inviting us to enjoy him.

How did Lewis change the way I worship? By showing me that God is saying to me, “Here I am, look at me, behold me, taste me, see me, enjoy me, derive satisfaction of all that I am for you in Jesus, and now bring that joy to consummation by declaring it outwardly in gratitude, celebration, praise, declaration, and honor.”

The only way that that isn’t God loving me is if there’s something more glorious than God that he can give me. It’s obvious that by God doing that he is seeking his own glory. But it is equally obvious that in doing that, he is loving me preeminently. That’s why Piper is so correct to say that God’s greatest glory is in our gladness in him. God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him. Thank you.