Recently I came across a quote from C.S. Lewis’ famous sermon, The Weight of Glory. Although I knew a couple of quotes from the sermon, I hadn’t really read and digested the actual message. (You can read a synopsis here).
I thought it was fascinating, especially given how what Lewis says relates to things going on in the church the best part of a century later. He opens the sermon like this, and I think it’s worth quoting in full:
If you asked twenty good men to-day what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness. But if you asked almost any of the great Christians of old he would have replied, Love. You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance. The negative ideal of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point. I do not think this is the Christian virtue of Love. The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire. …
Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
The first thing I found fascinating was Lewis’ observation that we’ve substituted a negative for a positive – i.e., ‘unselfishness’ has been put in the place of ‘love’. It’s interesting that even back as far as the 1940s, this was happening: Christians were thinking about avoiding sin instead of positively loving others. I find it fascinating how this still applies across the church 80 years later – the Christian life is often portrayed in negative terms (avoidance of sin) rather than positive ones (loving God and loving others). This has been a hugely significant shift which seems to have almost happened without anyone really noticing. However, we’ve talked about all this before (most recently in my post about True Spirituality).
The second thing I found fascinating is Lewis’ talk of desire. We often talk about the Christian life as if it’s trying to avoid anything good in life! The old joke goes, “anything enjoyable in life is illegal, immoral or fattening”.
This seems to be a long way from the way that the Bible talks about the Christian life. For example, these words from Psalm 34:
Taste and see that the Lord is good;Psalm 34:8-10
blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.
Fear the Lord, you his holy people,
for those who fear him lack nothing.
The lions may grow weak and hungry,
but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.
Here, Psalm 34 encourages us to ‘taste and see that the Lord is good’ – that to take refuge in him is to be blessed. In other words, we find in God more than we find elsewhere. We find in the Lord a generosity and abundance which cannot be found outside him.
So how does this apply to Friend Zone?
The message that young people often get from the world is that they will be most happy when their lustful desires are fulfilled. In other words – true happiness is sexual fulfilment. Of course, this is an empty promise – but people believe it nonetheless.
Imagine a young person who believes this. Then imagine them being told that the path to life is actually to deny themselves and give up on the dream of sexual fulfilment – although they’ll get eternal life at the end. Does that sound like the kind of deal they would go for? I don’t think so. Not many, anyway.
On the other hand, imagine that same young person being told that there was something even better than sexual fulfilment – and that was knowing, serving and obeying the living God – “whose service is perfect freedom” (as the Book of Common Prayer puts it).
This is fundamental thing: ultimately I don’t think it works to tell people that they need to simply keep a lid on their desires. “Just bottle it up and you’ll be fine.” It makes the Christian life sound like simply an exercise in self-denial. Of course, self-denial is part of the Christian life, but – as Lewis pointed out – that isn’t the goal.
I think, by contrast, we should be proclaiming the message – and, indeed showing the world – that following Jesus actually leads to a greater and deeper fulfilment of our desires. Another Psalm says: “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4).
In other words, serving the Lord isn’t a life of drudgery or simply straining to keep a lid on our desires. Rather, God is able to so transform our desires that he can fulfill us in ways it’s hard to imagine.
This is why I think Friend Zone is important. Friend Zone is saying – friendship is good. In fact, friendship is something so good it’s worth forsaking a sexual relationship for – because friendship is a beautiful and wonderful thing in its own right. Whereas the world might say – the only relationship with a member of the opposite sex worth having is a sexual / romantic one – here we say there is something better.
And that is a message worth proclaiming.