Love at the Core :: C.S. Lewis and “Empty Love Tanks”

In a previous post, I pushed back against the suspicion some biblical counselors have of what they call an “empty love tank” psychology.  Presuming it to be some manifestation of humanistic psychology, it’s critiqued as too-positive a view of human nature.  The fear is understandable.  Psychology which errs in the empty love tank direction can lead to people seeing themselves as victims, and not as agents, actively sabotaging relationship with God and others.  I’ve seen this in the counseling world time and again, where a client will come in primed to blame Mom and Dad for failing to love him perfectly, thus setting him on a trajectory to depression and struggle.  I get the fear, and the reason for the corrective.  But it’s time for a path re-correction.

Perhaps, C.S. Lewis can continue to be one spiritual guide in this journey.  He once wrote: “All that you are…every fold and crease of your individuality was devised from all eternity to fit God as a glove fits a hand.  All that intimate particularity which you can hardly grasp yourself, much less communicate to your fellow creatures, is no mystery to him.  He made those ins and outs that he may fill them.  Then he gave your soul so curious a life because it is the key designed to unlock the door of all the myriad doors in him.”

This is Lewis’s “empty love tank.”  And our soul’s curiosity is its broken-but-not-ruined longing which points to the object of its longing – God Himself.

What is dangerous (to some) in this theology is that our love is unquenchable.  Our hearts ache.  “I cried when I was born and every day show why,” the country pastor and poet George Herbert once wrote.  Every parent knows the futility of attempting to fill that enormous love-tank.  It is impossible.  And every parent, at some point, begins to realize that the insatiable hunger in their child will seek satisfaction, in food, in relationships, in grades, in approval, in sex, in drink, and perhaps even in cutting, binging and purging, or other forms of self-violence.  The love tank scares the wits out of us.  Because we, too, continue to hunger without full satisfaction.

Of Lewis’s theology, one writer notes that the love he speaks of is not some “spongy emotion which self-indulgent man sometimes invents for his own pleasure.  It is the hard, painful, overwhelming love for which man has been grasping since the beginning of time.”  Lewis’s theology, you see, does not begin at The Fall.  It begins in eternity, in the Trinity, in the periochoretic dance of love experienced among God, Son, and Spirit, spilled over into Eden.  It begins in goodness, in the goodness of God.

It’s because Lewis has such a rich theology of Love that he can have such a well-developed theology of love-substitutes, or idols.  This is why The Weight of Glory is quoted over and again by preachers.  Yet, it is not merely a theological truth but an existential reality that Lewis speaks to, a subtle but real sense that he’s on to something very important when he speaks at the desire beneath our lust, our romantic relationships, our eating and drinking, our remembrances of nostalgic events, our late night conversations.

However, to merely name the idol and repent immediately, I’d suggest, misses the point.  Few would even suggest such a simplistic solution.  But some are not quite sure what more can be done other than continually repenting of our idols and believing the good news of the Gospel, that God forgives and loves beyond measure.  Let me take a step further, though.  Lewis would direct us to slow down at this point, to reflect, to allow our hearts time to warm to their deeper yearnings, to feel the love we profess.  Somehow, part of us is seeking to fit, hand-in-glove, into God.  Chesterton would argue that the sex addict is looking for God in the brothel.  Bill Wilson, the founder of AA, would argue that the alcoholic is seeking God in a bottle.  Every idolater, Lewis would argue, is longing, grasping for love, heartsick in its absence.  This is why idolatry is dis-ease.

Though we too easily settle for self-indulgent loves which bring about dis-ease, Lewis would have us longingly grasp for the deeper love.  On this side of heaven, however, this will only show as a taste, a moment, a whisper.  Therapy can’t cure us.  But, therapy isn’t meant to cure us.  It’s meant to point us toward Home, even if we don’t yet the have the words for Home (as is the case with the many non-believing clients I see).  Therapists are guides, maybe a few steps ahead in the journey only insofar as they’ve learned to follow the signposts ahead more consistently (for a time, perhaps…) or self-compassionately instead of pitching their tents.  And therapists who practice as I’m suggesting will never, ever be very popular among those looking for quick-fixes, whether in the form of theological band-aids or self-help remedies.  One may even leave therapy more dissatisfied…but gloriously dissatisfied.

Embracing this notion of a love tank (a metaphor I quite dislike, anyway) need not lead to a psychology of victimization.  In non-theistic perspectives, it will certainly lead to idolatry, to be sure.  But within a Christian framework, including a roadmap (the Script)  and a reliable Guide (both the Spirit and a wise friend/pastor/therapist), our deepest longings will set us on a quest for God, no doubt with many bumps and detours along the way.  It will not suffice to blame our parents, though they may hurt and disappoint us.  It will not suffice to try to drink our longings away, though we may numb them for a time.  It will not help to religiously master the way, because it will only exhaust us.  The way is slow.  The road is narrow.  But Lewis would say that if we listen carefully, God will be whispering in our longings, stirring our love toward its perfect fit.

(Please feel free to comment, to push back, to disagree, to tell stories, to say ‘Amen’, to lament…)

8 comments

  1. Good stuff, Chuck. And to pick up on my question from your earlier posting, one might construe the serpent’s comment to the woman, “Did God say . . .?” as an invitation to abandon the tension of longing, and to replace it with the security of mastery, “You shall be like Gods . . . .” Viewed through this lens, the fall then appears precisely as the avoidance of one’s creaturely location, including its inherent limitations which make longing unavoidable. Or to use Lewis’ metaphor from The Last Battle, there never ceases to be a “further up and further in” which calls us beyond ourselves. It is the longing for mastery and control which, in many contexts, represents the refusal to accept our creatureliness.

    1. I guess, in my mind, when you say “living the gospel” that means the same thing to me as “believing the gospel”. I don’t know how I could possibly “live the gospel” without believing it. And if I am true believing it – not just memorize scriptures and “knowing” it but deeply, through the power of the Spirit, having my soul awakened to the Love of Christ for me, the Satisfaction I find only in Him, and having those things as a ground…how could I not “live the gospel.”

      It does remind me of my struggle with anxiety. For years, I struggled with horrific anxiety. Not like “oh I’m worried about my job or I don’t like flying.” PARALYZING anxiety about a number of things. During that time I would talk about it in my women’s group and at CG and if one more person told me “have you prayed about it?” or “I’ve found memorizing the scripture about ‘be anxious about nothing’ helpful” , I would have punched someone out. Really really? Yes, I have multiple panic attacks a day and it’s NEVER occurred to me to pray about it. That was insightful people, thanks (sarcasm). So if that’s what we’re talking about when we say “when believing the gospel doesn’t work,” I’m with you. But I just feel like its coming off a little to adversarial. If we just try to talk about “love at the core” but throw out the crucifixion and resurrection then we are missing out an a HUGE part of the love story.

  2. ChucChuck, you have really been getting on the “believing the gospel” (http://www.drchuckdegroat.com/2011/04/when-believing-the-gospel-doesnt-work/) thing lately which doesn’t really make much sense to me. The way in which you keep talking about it, make it sound like you think “believing the gospel” isn’t the bottom line. Believing the Gospel IS the bottom line and the answer. It isn’t the END that is the problem but rather the MEANS. Is the best way to “believe the Gospel” to do a work book and memorize some scripture? Probably not. And yes, tweet-guilting people into “believing the gospel” more is also ineffective.

    In all these recent posts, it feels as though you are saying “believing the Gospel” and “love” are diametrically opposed. Quite the contrary, if I were able to today really believe the Gospel to the core of my being, what would I find there? Endless stores of love. I would find Love at the Core. I would find a Savior who couldn’t be more pleased with me (because of who He made me) and deep satisfaction in His love.

    I guess I don’t know why you keep bashing (it is coming off as bashing) “believing the Gospel” when really all of the things you are offering as an alternative are the Gospel. Maybe you can write a post called “Love – a better way to believe the Gospel”

    CPack

    1. I guess I feel similar. I was led through the Gospel-centered life study a while back and it had a formative impact on the way I view and think about sin and redemption. While I certainly don’t think that believing the Gospel is a magic wand that “cures” us from sin, I do think it helps us return to a true Love at the Core. Chesterton’s sex addicts and Wilson’s alcoholics are redeemed through the cross of Christ, and that happens by repenting and believing the Gospel.

      Great series, by the way. Incredibly thought-provoking and challenging.

  3. I would argue that “believing the gospel” isn’t the bottom line. Maybe “living the gospel”, but really the bottom line IS loving God and loving others. That’s how Jesus chooses to see it anyhow.

  4. Amen brother! This is good stuff. I’m a recovering addict of mastering the way and managing my image. Confronting this has been the best catalysts toward God since my conversion. The way is slow, but good. Thanks for taking the time to put your thoughts in writing. It’s been a blessing to contemplate it.

  5. Thank you CPack for elaborating…. that helped me to see what you were getting at a bit better. It surprised me to hear you say that you see “believing the gospel” and “living the gospel” are the same thing, b/c to me they seem very different. Words can hold such meaning often beyond what we first realize. I would challenge you to think about your choice to use the word “believe” and my choice to use the word “live”. There might be something there worth further thought.
    What I’d love to know is why you think that if “love is at the core” that somehow that means throwing out the crucifixion and resurrection? When I look at Jesus’ suffering and death I see perfect, self-sacrificing love. Without love, He would have just lifted himself off the cross. I’m missing something, I guess.

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