But love, in the Christian sense, does not mean an emotion. It is a state not of the emotions but of the will; that state of the will which we have naturally about ourselves, and must learn to have about other people. – C.S. Lewis 
In just two short sentences, C.S. Lewis strikes a hard blow against the understanding of love that runs wild in our current popular culture. Words like “will” and “learn” are words that rarely, if ever, crop up in any discussions about love. They sound so contrary to the spontaneous eruption of emotion and infatuation that our culture commonly associates with love, romantic love in particular. Love is supposed to be unconscious, unplanned, sometimes occurring against our will. And so we have the common trope of “forbidden” love, loves that the characters would not have chosen if they “could have helped it.” Romeo and Juliet are given a place of honor right behind the altar in the temple that has been built to Romance. Love cannot be learned, we scoff. That would make it something other than love. Spontaneity and the inability to be controlled have been engrafted into the very definition of love. It just…happens.
But this conception of the inner workings of love is a fairly new development and is foreign to the Christian teachings on love. Whenever we make our emotions the foundation of anything, we build on shifting sands. Emotions change, often more times within the same day than we can count. Emotions can be affected by internal and external factors, both physical and spiritual. The culture that has presented volatile, uncontrollable emotion as the essence of pure love is the same culture whose divorce rates are the highest in the history of the world, who slaughter thousands of the babies conceived in this emotion, who degrade women and despise the womb, who shame men into being either weak and effeminate or abusive and tyrannical. Our culture has built altars to Aphrodite on every street corner, dripping with the blood of innocents, whose priestesses smile, wiping their lips and saying “we have done no wrong.”
Another notion we get from novels and plays is that “falling in love” is something quite irresistible; something that just happens to one, like measles. And because they believe this, some married people throw up the sponge and give in when they find themselves attracted by a new acquaintance. But I am inclined to think that these irresistible passions are much rarer in real life than in books, at any rate when one is grown up. When we meet someone beautiful and clever and sympathetic, of course we ought, in one sense, to admire and love these good qualities. But is it not very largely in our own choice whether this love shall, or shall not, turn into what we call “being in love”? No doubt, if our minds are full of novels and plays and sentimental songs, and our bodies full of alcohol, we shall turn any love we feel into that kind of love: just as if you have a rut in your path all the rainwater will run into that rut, and if you wear blue spectacles everything you see will turn blue. But that will be our own fault. 
It is impossible to ignore the rut that has been formed in our idea of love even in Christian circles. We have not withstood the barrage of filthy rainwater poured down upon us from popular culture. The rut has grown large and deep—even the trickles of clean water that we do receive flow into this chasm. We must recover a biblical view of love. It is crucial and we will have to work at it. In our current culture, with the battles we are currently being called to fight, a strong biblical view of love is essential to any successful counter-attack. Christians cannot bow the knee at the altar of Aphrodite. She must be unveiled and all her travesties unmasked.
WILL & LEARN
Sharpen your battle axe for the first blow—aim for the right foot of the statue, the one called Irresistibility. This is the idea that our feelings cannot be controlled, that on experiencing the first glimmers of a romantic sort of feeling our duty as acolytes of Aphrodite demands our unquestioned loyalty—we must follow where she leads. But Lewis says that love, for Christians, is not a state of the emotions but of the will. The will is what enables us to choose between one thing and another. However, when choosing which desires to act upon, the will is confined to choosing between the desires we actually have and it will inevitably choose the strongest desire. But wait…doesn’t this mean that the will is actually subject to our desires, i.e. our emotions? Here is where an important distinction comes into play—that between our emotions and our desires.
After thinking about it for a few minutes, it becomes quite clear that our emotions and our desires cannot quite be the same thing, especially if the above statement is true—that our will always chooses our strongest desire. Here an example will be helpful. Your mother tells you to clean your room or you won’t get any dinner. You loathe and despise cleaning (which is how your room came to be in its current state in the first place). However, your desire to eat dinner is greater than your desire to avoid cleaning your room. Out come the mop and Windex. Now, does this decision (made by the will) have any bearing whatsoever on your emotions? We already saw that you hate cleaning—and you chose contrary to your emotions because of your desire to eat. However, your emotions at the moment could be anything but cheery. You still have to clean your room.
The point that I’m trying to make with this example is that our desires and our emotions are not the same thing. We can choose to act according to our greatest desire without necessarily being happy about it. Those whose greatest desire is always what makes them the happiest have simply revealed what their idol is and what has control over them—their own happiness no matter what.
Now, if the will always chooses the greatest desire in the heart, how do we change what the heart chooses? How, in other words, do we have any control whatsoever over our decisions? That man whose greatest desire is to fall in love with anyone whom he finds attractive—how will he prevent himself from acting on that desire? And the answer is that he won’t. Not until the contents of the heart have been changed. The will can only choose from what is present in the heart. If the heart is full of sour pickles, the will is not going to be able to choose an apple.
Let us assume, however, that there are good and godly desires that are present in the heart and they are at war with unholy and destructive ones. The whole process of sanctification is that process by which we learn how to desire the holy things more and the unholy less—and thus our will can be formed and shaped by the desires and we can then act accordingly. And in all this the emotions may or may not be on board with the desires. Most often they will be. Our emotions can be shaped and changed by many things—our desires, our will, and our actions. Choosing to act as if you love someone can lead to loving them in fact. “When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.” Our emotions can be trained. But they cannot be trained until we have subjugated them to a renewed will.
This leads to another stroke of the battle axe, this time at the left foot, the one called Spontaneity. The idea that love can be learned, that we can work on it and consciously seek to grow in it as in any other discipline—this idea strikes at the other supporting feature of our culture’s erroneous conception of what love is and should be. There are many facets to our culture’s dislike of this idea of working at and learning to love. Hard work, determination, discipline, faithfulness, steady plodding even after the glow is gone—these don’t sound very…well…romantic. The sudden glance across a crowded ballroom, the sweaty palms and starry eyes, hearts beating quickly, immediate attraction, and instantaneous connection would be nearly lost if we held to an idea of love as a discipline. The fact is that all of these, while making up the sum total of every chick flick ever produced, are indistinguishable from mere physical attraction. The “love at first sight” trope, while seemingly immensely popular, in fact has very little to do with what love actually is. There’s a reason why those movies all end right after the wedding. After the first bloom of May, who wants to watch the winds of October wither the plant before it can survive its first winter?
Despite all of this, we are called to love. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:37-40). If we spend any amount of time reading the Gospels, it must strike us that love is incredibly important. How then have we fallen so far from a biblical understanding of what love is? And how can we return to it? How do we learn to love and learn to love rightly? Before we can learn how to do something, we must first learn what that something is. You cannot learn to play the piano if you’ve never seen one in your entire life. We’ve already seen that our culture’s definition of love leaves a lot to be desired. With just two simple words, Lewis has already destroyed both legs of the statue of Aphrodite. All that really remains is to smash the remaining recognizable parts into dust and then scatter them to the wind.
Lewis understands human nature perhaps better than any author in the 20th century. He sees clearly and he is a master at dissecting motives. This understanding is combined with great wisdom. Because of this, some of Lewis’s fictional characters are among the most complex and compelling of any ever written. In exploring the theme of love in Lewis’s writings it is helpful and edifying to turn to his fiction as well as his philosophical and devotional works. For it is there that he gives flesh to both his idea of what love should look like and also what it looks like when it has been twisted and distorted almost beyond recognition. In learning what a thing is we must also talk about what it is not.
Evil, argued Augustine, is the privation of good. He is joined in this belief by Lewis and most of the history of Christianity. If God is the source of all being than any turning away from Him must itself, by definition, be a privation of being. To turn from God is to turn towards nothingness because in Him are all things—all truth and light and all creation. Satan cannot create anything new; he merely twists and corrupts that which has already been created by our good God. This is true for the physical universe as well as the spiritual realm. All sins, when considered carefully, are in fact twisted virtues. “…badness cannot succeed even in being bad in the same way in which goodness is good. Goodness is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness. And there must be something good first before it can be spoiled.” There must be some seed of some goodness or else there could be no sin at all—because it wouldn’t exist at all. In so far as there is any existence, there must be some part, no matter how small, that is not completely corrupted. Complete corruption results in dissolution. This is not to say that there is some positive good in everything—this is not the same thing as not being completely corrupted. Complete corruption must be distinguished from entire corruption. If I pour a drop of red food coloring in a clear glass of water, then the water turns completely red. There is not a bit of the water that you can point to and say “see that bit there? That bit isn’t red.” However, the water has not been entirely changed into food coloring. It’s still water. If it had been entirely changed into food coloring there would be no water left. And in our analogy that water is God-given existence. A corrupt, fallen, unrepentant man’s life may be completely corrupt—there is not a bit of it untouched by sin. But if his life were entirely corrupt, he would cease to exist. For life is God’s to give and sustain.
This is important to understand because the greatness and goodness of the object that has been corrupted is inversely proportional to the extent of the corruption. The greater and more “important” the object, the worse its corruption. Why has marriage fallen apart in our culture? Why does the battle rage on there? Because of its great importance, marriage is where the fight burns hottest. Marriage, the union between a man and a woman, is an image of Christ and His bride the Church. And what does Satan do to the things that he hates? He destroys their image. He has done that since the beginning—he hated God but the furthest his feeble arm could reach was to graffiti His image found in His creation. “So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Gen. 1:27). And now, the image of Christ and His bride is being destroyed in the attacks on marriage and gender in our current culture. If it wasn’t so glorious and magnificent and mysterious and beautiful, its corruptions wouldn’t be so disgusting and horrific and twisted. All sins and corruptions are displeasing to God. But we can’t pretend that they are all on an equal playing field. Impatience and gluttony are corruptions of true enjoyments of God’s creation. But that is not where the battle rages. Every last bit of the kingdom will be won by Christ. But the enemy doesn’t focus his fire on the woodsman’s hut. He is launching a full-scale attack on the main fortress.
“And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13). I hope that it is apparent where I am leading with this discussion of the nature of evil and corruptions. Love does not live in any small outlying village but she dwells near the throne of God Himself. God is love. But what does that mean? A correct understanding of love, in all of its forms and variations, is essential to our understanding of the nature of God Himself. How would someone who only understands love as it appears in overly romanticized garb in chick flicks and romantic comedies understand this verse? How could they come anywhere near to understanding the depth of the goodness of God? Love is vastly important. Her corruption has been a devastating loss to the kingdom of God. And her purification will be glorious indeed.
TEMPTATION and the FALL of LOVE: Perelandra
It appeared to be telling, with extreme beauty and pathos, a number of stories, and at first Ransom could not perceive any connecting link between them. They were all about women, but women who had apparently lived at different periods of the world’s history and in quite different circumstances [… ] At last it dawned upon him what all these stories were about. Each one of these women had stood forth alone and braved a terrible risk for her child, her lover, or her people. Each had been misunderstood, reviled, and persecuted: but each also magnificently vindicated by the event. The precise details were often not very easy to follow. Ransom had more than a suspicion that many of these noble pioneers had been what in ordinary terrestrial speech we call witches or perverts. But that was all in the background. What emerged from the stories was rather an image than an idea—the picture of the tall, slender form, unbowed though the world’s weight rested upon its shoulders, stepping forth fearless and friendless into the dark to do for others what those others forbade it to do yet needed to have done. 
This is a somewhat lengthy quotation but it does much to display one particular form that distorted love can take. Lewis often references this form in his writings and I think that this is because it is one of the most common and insidious forms that distorted love displays. It is subtle and cunning and the one who falls into it is generally blind to its true form. Where those on the outside can see its destructive power, those in its grip see only nobility, self-sacrifice, and tender affection. In this passage from Perelandra, the Un-man uses this distorted form of love to tempt the Green Lady towards disobedience, a temptation that comes dangerously close to working.
The two-edged sword of this temptation plays on the natural love and affection of Tinidril for her King and Maleldil as it also seeks to plant the tiny but destructive seeds of vanity in her heart. As the temptation goes on, Ransom sees that Tinidril’s main concern is still chiefly for her love for the King. “Shall I go and rest and play,” she asked, “while all this lies on our hands? Not till I am certain that there is no great deed to be done by me for the King and for the children of our children.” But Ransom also starts to see a creeping self-awareness come upon her. From his first meeting of the Green Lady, he had been struck by her regal splendor tempered with an almost child-like naiveté. Pride and vanity had no place in her countenance. But from the first meeting of Tinidril and the Un-man, he has been trying to introduce vanity into her heart. He shows her a mirror and how to see her own reflection. Where at first she is frightened by her own image, he subtly nudges her towards self-admiration. It is interesting to note the different approach that Lewis takes here to Milton in Paradise Lost. In telling the story of the creation of Eve, Milton pictures her waking up alone in a forest glade and one of the first things she sees upon waking is her own image in a pool. The parallels to Tinidril’s glimpse of her reflection are striking. But where Tinidril is frightened and startled, Eve is entranced. She is content in her own beauty and if a voice from heaven had not called her away, she may have stayed an eternity, gazing at her own reflection in that paradisal pool. When she sees Adam, she is not incredibly impressed: after the vision of her own beauty, she finds his masculine form not so pleasing in comparison. But where Milton introduces Eve’s vanity into her character from the start, Lewis has vanity implanted in Tinidril by the Un-man. Vanity is part of the temptation, part and parcel with the corruption itself.
Mixed with the response of genuine love and concern for the beloved, Ransom senses “the faintest touch of theatricality, the first hint of a self-admiring inclination to seize a grand rôle in the drama of her world. It was clear that the Un-man’s whole effort was to increase this element.” Why does the Un-man focus on this element in his two-pronged attack? Why not simply focus on deluding Tinidril into thinking that her love (already strong and obedient) demands this certain deed from her? The problem with this arises in the fact that the action he is driving her towards is in fact disobedience. It goes against an explicit command from her love and master. In her world, love demands obedience. In order to bypass this belief, the Un-Man needs to introduce vanity into her love—the belief that there is some great thing that she must overcome (disobedience) in order to achieve true nobility. “The external and, as it were, dramatic conception of the self was the enemy’s true aim.” The idea of sacrifice is made attractive by introducing a self-focus. This focus enables the suggestion that Maleldil actually desires her disobedience to become believable. He expects her to disobey in order to achieve a sort of noble self-sufficiency which she has only been able to understand through the introduction of vanity and self-knowledge. But in all of this, the core of true love is essential—it is the engine that drives the temptation.
As soon as vanity and self-admiration enter the picture, the desire for the beloved’s good becomes slightly blurred. It is now entangled with the desire of the lover to be seen as sacrificial, a desire tainted by vanity. There is no longer a pure desire for the loved one’s happiness but a mixed desire, a tainted desire. Granted, it is impossible in this fallen world for sinful human beings to have a perfectly unmixed love—a love that focuses purely on the “other.” However, we have all experienced loves that more closely approximate that purity and those that fall far short. The love of a mother for her child can quickly become suffocating and destructive—she sees herself in her daughter, living vicariously through her, trying to mold her into her own image, acting as the little god of her children, demanding complete and utter submission at every turn, and all in the name of “love” and “affection.” And if ever the child expresses a desire for a change, the charge of “you don’t really love me” flies from the lips like a bullet. This is ultimately self-love masquerading as other-love. Sacrifices are simply tools for entangling the object in feelings of debt and increasing our own feelings of superiority. The martyr card can then be played frequently. And at the end, when all the objects of love have fled the suffocating grasp of this demanding tyranny, the knowledge of ill-treatment and feelings of self-pity will be as a balm and comfort in this self-inflicted isolation.
Where vanity has made a habitation, true love will have shallow roots. Loving others as ourselves does not mean loving them as if they were us. Because they aren’t—they are other. We must indeed love them with the same kind of care and attention that we pay to our own well-being but that requires knowledge of their desires, their nature, and their personalities. We must place their desires on par with our own. That does not mean that their desires are the same as our own. Love of others does often require sacrifice. But it should be the true sacrifice of desiring the loved one’s good even when that means sacrificing our own desires. A “sacrifice” that masquerades as setting aside our own desires while simultaneously trampling over the happiness of others is no true sacrifice at all.
The desire to sacrifice that stems from self-admiration and vanity quickly leads to placing the will of the self over and above the will of God. As the Un-man’s temptation tactics display, the seeds of vanity quickly sprout thick roots that supplant any foundations of obedience that may exist. Obedience is not as glamorous or as attractive a theme for novels and legends as sacrifice and “noble” defiance in the name of love. We have trapped ourselves in a hall of mirrors – is it any wonder that we never see anyone but ourselves?
SUBMISSION of the WILL: Till We Have Faces
“I learned then how one can hate those one loves. My fingers were round her wrist in an instant, my other hand on her upper arm. We were struggling.”
In perhaps Lewis’s greatest work of fiction, Till We Have Faces, we have an example of how distorted love can destroy. The entire book is basically a study of the devouring and devastating power of corrupted love. Orual, the main character and narrator of the book, loves with a terrifying, destructive power. She loves people to death—in a very literal sense. Her love is possessive and tyrannical. She loves in order to have. And if she cannot have, then she grows frightening in her anger.
Christian love, either towards God or towards man, is an affair of the will. If we are trying to do His will we are obeying the commandment, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God.” He will give us feelings of love if He pleases. We cannot create them for ourselves, and we must not demand them as a right.
If Lewis is right, if true Christian love is a matter of submitting the will of the self to the will of God, then the distortion of true love is going to also involve the will. But rather than a submission of the will to God, the will becomes a tyrant, a despot that suffers no challengers. The will of the self must control not only the lover but the beloved. Orual sees her love for Psyche as the all-governing principle. It drives all of her actions and emotions. It consumes not only her own life but it tries to consume Psyche as well. In the story, Psyche is forcibly removed from Orual’s grasp and from the grasp of this despotic love. But when Orual is reunited with Psyche and finds her to be not only safe but happy, her response is anger. She found some sort of consolation in the fact that Psyche was either dead or at least as miserable as Orual in their parting. To find that she is healthy and happy is nearly unbearable. The love that Orual bears for Psyche is a love that demands complete submission to her own will and emotions. Psyche ceases to be other—she is not longer Psyche, but Orual herself. Orual has always basked in Psyche’s beauty and goodness as if it were her own. She loved her with such a consuming love that Psyche ceased to be her own person and became only an extension of Orual. That Psyche should have emotions and desires of her own that are different and separate from Orual’s is a thought that had not occurred to Orual. Psyche is Orual’s …just as Bardia and the Fox and anyone Orual loves. They are hers because they are her—they are extensions of her own self.
“To love and admire anything outside yourself is to take one step away from utter spiritual ruin; though we shall not be well so long as we love and admire anything more than we love and admire God.” The deep problem with loving anything in the way that Orual does, with all-consuming self-extension, is that it isn’t truly admiring something “outside ourselves” at all. It pretends to be virtuous and self-sacrificing—Orual puts herself through all sorts of discomforts for the “sake of Psyche.” But at its core, Orual’s love is as selfish as her entire life. Her will is king and she teeters on the edge of utter spiritual ruin for much of the book. Her love needs to be uprooted and killed before there can be any chance of resurrection and renewal. She must die before she dies—there is no chance after. The spring only comes after winter.
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.
Our culture is both being torn apart by our misunderstanding of the nature of love (for God, our neighbors, our families) as well as actively seeking to tear down any true understanding of love that it may happen to stumble upon. And in the Un-man’s strategic temptation of Tinidril we get a glimpse of why this may be—true love goes hand in hand with obedience, submission of the will to God, and trust in His goodness. True love forgets the self and seeks the loved object’s good and glory, all subject to the will of God. “Love is not an affectionate feeling,” says Lewis, “but a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good as far as it can be obtained.” When we are “self-forgetful” and delight in loving others with a love that seeks to obey God and that lays its life down for other people, this results in growing the kingdom of God and in being perfect, just as our Father in heaven is perfect (Matt. 5:48). Is it any wonder that we see this kind of love being attacked and distorted at every turn? We see the “love wins” hashtag used to justify every sort of abomination in the name of “tolerance” and “equality.” This is the sort of love that slaughters innocents on the altar of convenience, choice, and self. This love only cherishes people as extensions of ourselves. The creed of acceptance is in fact one of conformity and a sort of unity that squashes diversity. Love of the “other” as other has been lost.
The way to fight is to understand and see the problem first. What are we really fighting against and for? We are fighting for a biblical definition of love but this fight can only be successful if we first understand and embody that definition ourselves. We must first take the battle axe to the hall of mirrors that we are living in, shattering the sarcophagus of our self-idolatry. When we can see beyond ourselves, our aim will be better. And maybe, just maybe, our children will walk through the ruins of the fallen temple of Aphrodite, no longer remembering that it once had a name.
- C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Macmillan Publishing Company: New York, 1943), 115.
- Mere Christianity, 101.
- Ibid, 115.
- Mere Christianity, 116.
- Mere Christianity, 49.
- Lewis, Perelandra (Scribner: New York, 1944), 107.
- Ibid, 112.
- Perelandra, 113.
- Perelandra, 118.
- Lewis, Till We Have Faces (Harcourt: Orlando, FL, 1956), 127.
- Mere Christianity, 117.
- Mere Christianity, 113.
- Lewis, Till We Have Faces (Harcourt Books: Florida, 1956), 279.
- Lewis, The Great Divorce (HarperCollins: New York, 1946), 105.
- Lewis, God in the Dock in The Timeless Writings of C.S. Lewis (Inspirational Press: New York, 1970), 330.
More articles by Christiana Hale.
Christiana Hale graduated from New Saint Andrew’s College with a B.A. in Liberal Arts and Culture (Cum Laude, 2015) and with an M.A. in Theology & Letters (Summa Cum Laude, 2017). Her undergraduate thesis dissertation, “The Jovial Pilgrim,” on C. S. Lewis’s medievalism in the Space Trilogy was recognized as an “Outstanding Thesis” by New Saint Andrews College. Christiana teaches a class on the Fiction of C. S. Lewis, Shakespeare and Milton, and a writing tutorial service through Roman Roads Classroom.