C.S. Lewis, in his book The Problem of Pain, has a chapter in which he details God’s ‘divine goodness,’ as he calls it. The chapter does not consist of ethereal thoughts about how God can be good, but instead focuses in on his love for his own, and how he lovingly views them as works of art. As typical of Lewis, his thoughts are profound and provoking, and therefore worth slowly reading. He writes,
“We are, not metaphorically but in very truth, a Divine work of art, something that God is making, and therefore something with which he will not be satisfied until it has a certain character. Here again we come up against what I have called the ‘intolerable compliment.’ Over a sketch made idly to amuse a child, an artist may not take much trouble: he may be content to let it go even thought it is not exactly as he meant it to be. But over the great picture of his life—the work which he loves, though in a different fashion, as intensely as a man loves a woman or a mother a child—he will take endless trouble—and would, doubtless, thereby give endless trouble to the picture if it were sentient. One can imagine a sentient picture, after being rubbed and scraped and recommenced for the tenth time, wishing that it were only a thumbnail sketch whose asking was over in a minute. In the same way, it is natural for us to wish that God had designed for us a less glorious and less arduous destiny; but then we are wishing not for more love, but less.”
Lewis is arguing that God’s commitment to leaving us not as we are is a sign of his love and commitment to us. When we are asking to be left alone, “we are wishing not for more love, but less.”
He continues later in the chapter,
“The Church is the Lord’s bride whom He so loves that in her no spot or wrinkle is endurable. For the truth which this analogy serves to emphasize is that Love, in its own nature demands the perfecting of the beloved; that that the mere ‘kindness’ which tolerates anything except suffering in its object is, in that respect, at the opposite pole from Love. When we fall in love with a woman, do we cease to care whether she is clean or dirty, fair or foul? Do we not rather then first begin to care...Love may, indeed, love the beloved when he beauty is lost: but not because it is lost. Love may forgive all infirmities and love still in spite of them: but Love cannot cease to will their removal.”
With this true definition of love set in place (a love which loves even beauty isn’t there, and yet which by definition must desire the betterment of the other), Lewis defines this aspect of God’s love for his people:
“When Christianity says that God loves man, it means that God loves man: not that He has ‘disinterested’, because really indifferent, concern for our welfare, but that, in awful and surprising truth, we are the objects of His love. You asked for a loving God: you have one.”
He continues later as a way of summary,
“We were made not primarily that we may love God (though we were made for that too) but that God may love us, that we may become objects in which the Divine love may rest ‘well pleased’. To ask that God’s love should be content with us as we are is to ask that God should cease to be God: because He is what He is, His love must, in the nature of things, be impeded and repelled by certain stains in our present character, and because He already love us He must labour to make us lovable.”
Then he concludes,
“We are bidden to ‘put on Christ’, to become like God. That is, whether we like it or not, God intends to give us what we need, not what we now think we want. Once more we are embarrassed by the intolerable compliment, by too much love, not too little...To be God—to be like God and to share His goodness in creaturely response—to be miserable—these are the only three alternatives. If we will not learn to eat the only food the universe grows—the only food that any possible universe can ever grow—then we must starve eternally.”
These are some insightful words. Lewis is right: God’s love—as it is true and deep love—is not content to leave us as we are. He loves us as we are, but love never wants to leave the person as they are. He desires our holiness, for our happiness and his honor. And as Lewis concludes in the last two sentences above, there is no other way to happiness. There are three options in the world: 1) to be God himself (which we cannot be), 2) to be like God, or 3) to be miserable. God, in his love, therefore seeks to make us more like him. This is his ‘intolerable compliment.’ This is his love.
Quotes from C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperCollins, 1940), 34-47.