Lewis wants his theology to have practical uses. In discussing Charity in Mere Christianity, he says: “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did…. When you are behaving as if you loved someone you will presently come to love him” (p. 116). The reverse, he says, is also true. “The Germans, perhaps, at first ill-treated the Jews because they hated them; afterwards they hated them much more because they had ill-treated them” (p. 117). Why would behavior influence feeling in this way? Why would pretending to feel something lead to actually feeling it? Do you think this principle applies both to individuals and, as Lewis implies, to larger political groups and nations? Have you ever witnessed or experienced this phenomenon yourself?
In addition to being a great apologist, philosopher, and theologian, Lewis was a very fine ethicist who, like Aquinas before him, had a gift for borrowing ideas from Aristotle and presenting them in a way that is both compatible with Christianity and accessible to a wider audience. We acquire virtues, argues Aristotle in Book II, Chapter 1 of The Nicomachean Ethics, by practicing them. Just as we “become builders by building and lyre-players by playing the lyre,” so “we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.” Virtue, that is to say, is not an emotion but a quality of character gained by practicing just actions. Thus, a brave man is not someone who feels brave but who acts bravely even when he is afraid.
In the manner of Aquinas, Lewis extends Aristotle’s key distinction to the higher Christian virtue of love. Though many today think of love as a feeling, Lewis explains that true love is an action. We don’t exercise love by feeling loving thoughts; we exercise it by treating others in a loving way. Christian charity (love in Latin is “caritas”) does not mean feeling pity for the poor; it means helping them. Charity is not a burst of warm emotions; it is an act of will. When Christ commands us to love our enemies, he does not mean that we are to like them (that is, experience good feelings when we are with them). He means that we are to treat them in a loving way.
Now that sounds like a difficult thing to do, maybe even an impossible one. But it comes with a hidden reward. When we start treating people (even enemies) as if we loved them, we soon find ourselves experiencing warm emotions toward them. When the old ethicists taught that “virtue is its own reward,” they were not speaking in silly platitudes. Virtue is its own reward, for the more you practice virtue, the more you enjoy virtue. The more you treat people in a loving way, the more you will come to feel loving thoughts toward them.
The man who no longer loves his wife should begin to treat her as if he loves her; if he does, the feeling of love will return. (This process is powerfully dramatized in the film Fireproof.) Likewise, the woman who no longer respects her husband should being to treat him as if she respects him; if she does, the feeling of respect will return. I am aware that such a program will seem inauthentic to modern people who, like myself, have been strongly influenced by romanticism (and Hollywood films). Isn’t it phony and hypocritical to treat a wife or girlfriend as if you loved her? Don’t the feelings have to come first? They do not! We are built in such a way that our feelings follow our emotions and not vice versa.
The fact of the matter is that if we do something good to a person, we will come to love (or at least have a high regard for) that person. But beware: there is a dark side to this inbuilt link between action and emotion. If we do something evil to a person, we will come, in time, to hate and fear him. In Mere Christianity, which began as Broadcast Talks during WWII, Lewis offers a contemporary example of this terrible movement from evil actions to evil feelings: “The Germans, perhaps, at first ill-treated the Jews because they hated them; afterwards they hated them much more because they had ill-treated them.” American historian Edmund Morgan, in a groundbreaking book titled American Slavery, American Freedom, demonstrated that just such an insidious process occurred in the old South. Before the establishment of slavery, Southerners, in their private journals and letters, did not speak condescendingly of people because their skin was black. After slavery was established, however, they began to use racist language toward blacks. In other words, people did not enslave blacks because they hated them; quite to the contrary, they hated them because they had enslaved them.
Sad to say, the same scapegoating process occurs weekly in offices across America. A manager treats one of his workers in a cruel or unjust manner. Though one would think the manager would feel bad and start treating the abused worker in a kinder fashion, the opposite is more often the case. The manager comes to dislike, resent, and even hate the worker he abused.
Our feelings follow our actions. Until we come to realize that that is how we are made, we will have great difficulty growing into the kind of person God created us to be.