A Response to C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves

While the English language has a single word to describe the vast notion of love, Greek divides love into four distinct types: Affection, Friendship, Eros, and Charity. In his book, The Four Loves, author and theologian C. S. Lewis elaborates on the essence of each of these varieties of love and uses love as an entry point for understanding the Christian message. What sets this book apart is that Lewis not only presents a compelling case for Christianity, but also offers ways for Christians themselves to grow. Lewis challenges Christians and non- Christians alike to love more intentionally by defining different categories in which to practice love, encouraging Christians to model their love after the example of Christ, and teaching the importance of gracefully receiving love in addition to giving it.

By revisiting the Greek to establish categories into which love can be divided, The Four Loves gives a framework for practicing love. Lewis illustrates examples of the beauty inherent in each love. Affection is care like a mother provides for her baby, Friendship is the camaraderie of those bound together by their mutual focus on a goal, Eros is the oneness desired by lovers, and Charity is providing for one in need without expecting any repayment. At the end of his exposition on each type of love, Lewis reveals the danger of treating any one type of natural love as ultimate, and presents the overarching necessity of God’s divine form of Charity.

Lewis sees God’s Charity not as an escape from the risk of loving things of the world, but as a reason to love people all the more. Lewis challenges Christians to emulate Christ’s example by loving in various ways. Lewis presents the message of St. Augustine, who, after the tragic loss of his best friend, urged his followers never to give their hearts to anyone or anything but God. After reading Lewis’s descriptions of the way that every type of mundane earthly love is prone to failure, it is easy to see how one might think it wise to agree with Augustine and to avoid the risk of loving people and things. In a sin-wrought world, God is the only trustworthy object of love. Yet, in response to Augustine and other Christians who use their trust in God as a way to hide from the rest of the world, Lewis poignantly points out that this behavior is far from Christian. Lewis says of Christ himself: “I am sure that His teaching was never meant to confirm my congenital preference for safe investments and limited liabilities…We follow One who wept over Jerusalem and at the grave of Lazarus.”[i] Christ, himself perfect and intimate with God the Father, came to a broken world to love people, even as they rejected him. Thus, in becoming more like Christ, Christians ought not isolate themselves, but love boldly and unconditionally— without expecting anything in return.

While Lewis critiques Christians who use God as a way to hide from the risk of loving people, this concept can also be understood from a non-Religious perspective. Any type of singular investment can blind you from other opportunities to love. Take, for example, a man who is very devoted to his work. Certainly, loving one’s profession is not a problem in itself. In fact, this man’s work allows him to serve his family by supporting them financially and, perhaps, to serve others at work as well. It becomes a problem, however, when the man works so much that he has no time or energy left for his family. Much as Augustine wanted to hide from the pain of the world by focusing solely on God, so this man’s obsessive love for his work can him from engaging in the other types of love. Giving unconditional love well requires intentionality.

Lewis makes evident his belief in the value of giving unconditional love, but he furthers his argument by positing that receiving love unconditionally is also vital. The idea of loving unconditionally is preached often, both in and out of the church, but the complimentary concept of receiving unconditional love is frequently omitted. While strictly pouring out love is reasonable for God, who is the source of all love, we as humans inevitably require the Charity of others at times. Unconditional love is something we need, but it is not always something we want, because it forces us to admit our helplessness. Lewis says, “We want to be loved for our cleverness, beauty, generosity, fairness, usefulness.”[ii] We also want to be able to reciprocate the kind deeds done for us. To illustrate this point, Lewis tells of a man who is struck down by a life-long disease and must depend on his wife for everything. Because of the situation, the wife must give and the man must take, with no expectation of the opposite ever being true. While the wife’s unconditional love is certainly admirable, “in such a case to receive is harder and perhaps more blessed than to give.”[iii] Certainly, learning to accept Charity gracefully is beautiful in any context, but what makes the reception of Charity so vital to the Christian is that all love from God is Charity. There is nothing you can give to God that He did not first give you. Utter dependence is the best we have to offer. Whereas giving unconditional love teaches us to be like God, accepting unconditional love teaches us to be loved by God, which is an equally important aspect of the Christian message.

While Lewis is right to mention the importance of both giving and receiving Charity, his message could be improved by including a more explicit explanation of how the two actions are connected. In the Bible, there are various mentions of how our love for one another ought to be founded upon God’s love for us. In 1 John, the author says, “We love because He first loved us. If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.”[iv] This verse echoes Lewis’ ideas in many ways; implicit in many of his examples are suggestions that loving people teaches us to love God, and being loved by God helps us to love people. Lewis shows that Christianity offers direction for loving people intentionally, but he could make it clearer that it also provides the motivation and strength for doing so.

By giving his reader a framework for thinking about love, and reasons to practice both the outpouring and reception of unconditional love, Lewis effectively makes a case for Christianity while also urging everyone to consider their beliefs and love more deeply. This is what sets The Four Loves apart. It gives the non-Christian reader a unique glimpse into the Christian mind and heart, presenting complex theological ideas in an easily accessible way. For anyone looking for an introduction to Christianity, for anyone looking to be challenged in his faith, or for anyone in between, The Four Loves is well worth the read.

 

i. C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 1960) 121.

ii. Lewis, 132.

iii. Lewis, 132.

iv. 1 John 4:19-20 (NASB).

 

Abby Thornburg ’15 is from Menlo Park, CA. She is a Mathematics major.

 

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