Why We Do What We Do: C.S. Lewis on Motivation

Picking my favorite C.S. Lewis piece is like picking my favorite child. I can’t do it. I won’t. I love them all. But on any given day, one of them may be especially and noticeably good. Today, one is. It’s a sermon called “The Weight of Glory.”

Before I continue, let me say it’s silly and wrong that you are reading me and not Lewis right now. You should just get the collection in which “The Weight of Glory” appears and start reading.

That said, I do find that when I know what others have found in something, I get more out of it myself. So let me list three things I have learned from Lewis’ excellent sermon “The Weight of Glory.”

1. The proper reward of any activity is that activity itself in consummation.

Lewis’ sermon centers around a question: is it “mercenary” to desire heaven? Atheists wield this charge against Christians to this day. They claim moral superiority over Christians precisely because, they say, atheists don’t do what is right with any eternal end in view; they just do it because it’s right. Christians are only helping little old ladies across the street because they want the everlasting merit badge.

So Lewis opens with a question: Is the highest virtue love, securing good things for others; or is it unselfishness, going without those things ourselves? As a Christian, Lewis points directly to the former.

The New Testament offers “unblushing promises of reward” to those who love. And, Lewis says, we must not be embarrassed by this. We must not feel that these promises make us mercenaries, soldiers who fight not because they care about the cause but because they need a paycheck.

How do you discern, however, between a good motivation and a mercenary one? The guy who loves a girl gets married to her: is he a mercenary? The general who fights a battle gets a victory: is he a mercenary? Lewis answers with this profound line, one worth a lifetime of reflection:

The proper rewards are not simply tacked on to the activity for which they are given, but are the activity itself in consummation.

So let me try this.

  • The proper reward of dinner is dessert.
  • The proper reward of cleaning the bathroom is a clean bathroom for my loved ones.
  • The proper reward of reading a fiction book is enjoying the climax and resolution (and the prose along the way).
  • The proper reward of writing a good blog article is pleasing and edifying one’s readers.
  • The proper reward of going on a bike trip is arriving at one’s destination, whether that be a physical place or a desired state of physical health.
  • The proper reward of preaching a good sermon—this one is a little more complicated—is pleasing the God who inspired the biblical text along with building up or instructing or exhorting (depending on the passage) one’s audience.

Now, money may be paid to anyone doing any of the things I’ve just mentioned. And money can easily corrupt any of these things by displacing their proper respective motivations (God and mammon and all that).

But it need not. I’ve always felt that the one activity in the above list that I attempt most often (other than eating dinner), writing a good blog article, will only bring me financial reward as long as my motivation really is love for readers. Even successful non-Christian writers—I think of Nicholas Kristof at the New York Times—take an evident delight in serving and instructing their audiences.

It is essential for people who are told by their Lord that love is the highest virtue to probe their motivations on a regular basis. Which love is driving me right now? Be prepared to see your depravity.

  • I may be eating my Brussels sprouts because I love social media adulation for my weight loss.
  • I may be cleaning this bathroom because I love keeping a cleaner house than my mother-in-law-take-that-you-shrew.
  • I may be reading that fiction book because all the cool people are doing it.
  • I may be writing a blog article because I love stoking anger and division.
  • I may be going on a bike trip to get away from childcare responsibilities.
  • I may be preaching a sermon because I’m a “hireling” whose god is my belly and whose glory is my shame (John 10:12; Phil 3:19).

2. The proper reward of schooling is delight in the pleasures to which that schooling will give you access.

I once got a blog comment from a man who made obvious grammatical and punctuation errors in sentences that were already poor, gave frankly nonsensical arguments that nobody in the biblical studies field would make, and yet claimed an impressive series of academic titles as validation for his views.

I’ve run into an embarrassing number of pastors and Bible college professors who have diploma mill degrees. One of them not only advertised his ThD from such a mill but misspelled the name of the “school”!

These men, in my experience, often come from cultures in which this kind of title-grabbing is accepted practice (despite Matt 23:5–8); it isn’t solely their fault as individuals.

But I can say this: they are educational mercenaries, and the first person they’re cheating is themselves. They’re skipping to the perceived reward—an academic title and the honor they think it will bring—without performing the work that is the only actual path to the true reward (and as Jesus said, “they have their reward”). They are going through Bunyan’s By-Path Meadow. And they are missing out—and causing anyone under their influence to miss out—on the true rewards of education.

Lewis in “The Weight of Glory” could help them. He explores so insightfully the proper motivations of a student, the loves that ought to drive him or her. Indeed, how can schoolchildren possibly be motivated by love of the activity of spelling and grammar in consummation, namely good writing? Until they can write, they can’t know the pleasures writing brings. Until they can add, they can’t know the pleasures of tackling a knotty accounting problem. Schoolchildren can’t know what it’s like to enjoy the disciplines they’re studying until they achieve a mastery that may be many years off.

My little girl is learning how to read right now, and though she’s very bright, she’s at that tough phase when reading is all slog and no fun. She reads to me every day, and it sounds like the words are isolated from each other in her mind (“the. fat. cat. sat.”), not yet adding up to stories or even complete thoughts. How can she be motivated by the pleasures of reading if it is so preternaturally dull?

Lewis says, she can’t. Maybe grades and maternal threats will have to keep her going for now. But, ideally, she can take joy in the analogous pleasures available to her. She can delight in the audiobooks we buy her (she does) and in the many, many stories we read her (she does). As time passes, she will come to see that reading with her own two eyes gives her a very similar kind of delight, but an even better one, because her eyes can travel anywhere in English literature.

If we simply grant her an academic title in some misguided attempt to grant her self-esteem in her educational work (Hey, we went online and got you a sixth grade life-experience diploma for $19.99!), we’ll actually undermine her inchoate grasp of the only joys that will ever truly pull her along toward that bright day when reading is a pleasure in itself. As Lewis writes:

The schoolboy beginning Greek grammar cannot look forward to his adult enjoyment of Sophocles as a lover looks forward to marriage or a general to victory. He has to begin by working for marks, or to escape punishment, or to please his parents, or, at best, in the hope of a future good which he cannot at present imagine or desire. His position, therefore, bears a certain resemblance to that of the mercenary; the reward he is going to get will, in actual fact, be a natural or proper reward, but he will not know that till he has got it. Of course, he gets it gradually; enjoyment creeps in upon the mere drudgery, and nobody could point to a day or an hour when the one ceased and the other began. But it is just in so far as he approaches the reward that be becomes able to desire it for its own sake; indeed, the power of so desiring it is itself a preliminary reward.

3. Desire is itself a preliminary reward.

This third point is a common theme in Lewis: joy consists in the pleasure of anticipatory desire and not necessarily in having what one desires.

The pleasures of reading, of algebra, of science, of history—of all the academic disciplines and cultural domains—are all themselves foretastes of glory divine. They are Augustine’s uti, not his frui. They all work as a kind of end or telos, but as what Jonathan Edwards would call a “subordinate end,” not his “chief end.” The Christian’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

And this is the point Lewis is working toward with his mercenary and schoolboy discussions (it’s a mark of Lewis’ genius and depth that his illustrations are as rich and instructive as the substance of his argument):

The Christian, in relation to heaven, is in much the same position as this schoolboy. Those who have attained everlasting life in the vision of God doubtless know very well that it is no mere bribe, but the very consummation of their earthly discipleship; but we who have not yet attained it cannot know this in the same way, and cannot even begin to know it at all except by continuing to obey and finding the first reward of our obedience in our increasing power to desire the ultimate reward. Just in proportion as the desire grows, our fear lest it should be a mercenary desire will die away and finally be recognized as an absurdity. But probably this will not, for most of us, happen in a day; poetry replaces grammar, gospel replaces law, longing transforms obedience, as gradually as the tide lifts a grounded ship.

I just swoon when I read that paragraph: the ideas and the prose work together to provide a powerful picture. I pray that the tide of divine grace will lift my own faulty obedience and fill it with longing. I want love for God and neighbor to motivate me at all times. I want God to set my eyes on the ultimate prize, God himself.

If a transtemporal, transfinite good is our real destiny, then any other good on which our desire fixes must be in some degree fallacious, must bear at best only a symbolical relation to what will truly satisfy.

And yet this God-given desire, under the sun, is so fleeting. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. I take refuge in Christ’s blessing on those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness”: I don’t always have holy desires, but I want them. I want to want the truly good. Blessed am I.

Labor, love, and Greek accents

I’m writing to an audience of Bible nerds, or I wouldn’t use this illustration, but you’ll get it totally.

The last time I asked a teacher, “Why do I have to learn this stuff?,” I was 25 years old. I was in graduate school. My professor was attempting to teach us the extremely complicated rules for putting the proper accents on New Testament Greek words. And I didn’t ask with a third-grade whine in my voice. I asked because learning these rules was difficult, and I wanted to be motivated by the best motivation available. I wanted to set my eyes on the right (subordinate) prize.

I expected my teacher to tell me that my newfound knowledge of Greek accents would help me read my Bible more carefully and accurately. I was working to connect my learning to Christian things I was supposed to love. And that was indeed a small part of what he told me. Love for God’s word is one reason to study Greek accents.

But the main thing he said was, “This is just something everybody who wants to make a contribution in the field of New Testament studies has to learn.” That was a somewhat disappointing answer for me, but it was the right one.

True education inducts you into an ongoing conversation. It gives you the style and kind of argument, the cast of thinking, the stock of technical terms, that others in your field will find persuasive. This may sound a bit circular, for how then do fields change? But actually it’s humble and it’s loving; it’s acknowledging that the guild together knows more than you do individually, and it’s teaching you how to speak in such a way as to best connect with them. I learned Greek accents out of love for my neighbor.

Lewis helped me think this way, and he still does. He helps me get to the bottom of my desires and to ask God for grace to be motivated by the best loves in the best order. Indeed, why do I read Lewis? What’s the proper motivation for doing so? What is the activity of reading a writer so skilled and insightful in consummation? It’s being a communicator with greater skill and insight. I have a feeling some of my readers love the Lord and their own neighbors in such a way that Lewis’ skill and insight could be a help.

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“The Weight of Glory” is the first piece in a collection by that name, and it is available in the C.S. Lewis Collection—which happens to be 30% off until midnight September 24 (this Saturday).

Tomorrow, my favorite Lewis work will probably be Perelandra. Next week, The Screwtape Letters. You’ll likely have the same experience. Better get the whole collection. I use my copy all the time; it’s so convenient to search.

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Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as an Academic Editor at Lexham Press, the publishing imprint at Faithlife. His most recent book is Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible.