Mere Christianity | Book III, Chapter 9

C.S. Lewis | Mere Christianity
Book III | Christian Behavior
Chapter 9 | “Charity”

Question: What is Charity?

Answer: Charity is one of the “Theological” virtues, along with Faith and Hope. Part of Charity is forgiveness, which Lewis wrote about in an earlier chapter. The meaning of the word has changed over time so that it “now means simply what used to be called ‘alms’—that is, giving to the poor.” This is understandable since this is something a charitable person does. The problem is thinking that this is the whole meaning of charity, which is “Love, in the Christian sense.”

Q: How does love relate to our emotions?

A. The Christian understanding is that it doesn’t. “It is a state not of the feelings but of the will; that state of the will which we have naturally about ourselves, and must learn to have about other people.” It’s not liking ourselves, but “it means that we wish our own good.” In the same way, with our neighbors, charity is different from “liking or affection.” There is no sin or virtue in our feelings for others. It is what we do with those feelings that “is either sinful or virtuous.”

Q: What is the role of feelings in acts of charity?

A. Since “natural like or affection for people makes it easier to be ‘charitable’ towards them,” we should learn “to ‘like’ people as much as we can” in the same way that we learn to “like” exercise and certain foods. The liking is not charity, but “a help to it.” It makes it easier. We need to be careful that our natural liking of one person will lead us to be “uncharitable, or even unfair, to someone else.”

Q. What is”quite wrong” in terms of our feelings in acts of charity?

A. Thinking that feelings have to be manufactured. We have different personalities. Some of us have cooler temperaments. But that doesn’t excuse anyone from the opportunity or duty of learning charity. Lewis offers a great rule: “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did.” Why? Feelings often follow behavior. “When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.”

Lewis offers a caution related to our charity. Be careful of your motives. If you are following the law of charity with the idea of putting the other person in your debt or to earn their praise, you probably will be disappointed. The reason to do good to another person is because they are another person “made (like us) by God, and desiring [their] own happiness as we desire ours.” This is the correct motive.

Q. How are Christian and worldly charity different?

A. Christian charity may seem like “a very cold thing to people whose heads are full of sentimentality.” But the point is, for the Christian it’s not an act of affection “yet it leads to affection.” Worldly charity is giving to people you like. Christian charity is discovering you like the people you give to. Lewis brings in an opposite example from World War 2:

“This same spiritual law works terribly in the opposite direction. The Germans, perhaps, at first ill-treated the Jews because they hated them: afterwards they hated them much more because they had ill-treated them. The more cruel you are, the more you will hate; and the more you hate, the more cruel you will become—and so on in a vicious circle for ever.”

Q. How does compound interest factor into this?

A. This is a paragraph best left in Lewis’ own language, which is infused with the language of war:

“Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest good act today is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of. An apparently trivial indulgence in lust or anger today is the loss of a ridge or railway line or bridgehead from which the enemy may launch an attack otherwise impossible.”

Q. What happens when you find yourself without feelings of love for God?

A. It’s the same answer as with people: “Act as if you did. Do not sit trying to manufacture feelings. Ask yourself, ‘If I were sure that I loved God, what would I do?’ When you have found the answer, go and do it.”

Q. Why is it safer to think about God’s love for us rather than our love for him?

A. We can’t always have devout feelings. Besides, “feelings are not what God principally cares about.” Doing God’s will is an act of the will. When we try to do God’s will we are obeying the commandment, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God.” We cannot manufacture feelings for God, but he will give them to us “if He pleases.”

“The Great thing to remember is that, though our feelings come and go, His love for us does not. It is not wearied by our sins, or our indifference; and, therefore, it is quite relentless in its determination that we shall be cured of those sins, at whatever cost to us, at whatever cost to Him.”






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