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C.S. Lewis with wife and dogPeople sometimes think of Christian morality as a straitjacket--as if God has given us arbitrary commands that we must keep in order to prove our devotion to him. Following God's instructions (especially in matters related to sexuality) requires us to sacrifice what we truly want, or to squelch our desires, in order to show God how much we love him. We are to give up what we want and obey him instead.

Reading through the collected letters of C. S. Lewis this year, I came across this gem in a letter from Lewis to his lifelong friend, Arthur Greeves, on September 12, 1933. Lewis was no stranger to lust and sexual temptation, and neither was Greeves, who experienced same-sex attraction.

But Lewis believed that the "Christian morality is arbitrary" perspective doesn't go deep enough. It doesn't consider what we really want. Neither does it deal with what God really wants. He uses his dog as an example:

"Supposing you are taking a dog on a lead through a turnstile or past a post. You know what happens (apart from his usual ceremonies in passing a post!). He tries to go to the wrong side and gets his head looped round the post. You see that he can't do it, and therefore pull him back. You pull him back because you want to enable him to go forward. He wants exactly the same thing--namely to go forward: for that very reason he resists your pull back, or, if he is an obedient dog, yields to it reluctantly as a matter of duty which seems to him to be quite in opposition to his own will: though in fact it is only by yielding to you that he will ever succeed in getting where he wants."

I wish I'd come across this illustration sooner, because I would have included it in This Is Our Time as an example of one of my book's main points--that underneath the myths we believe and the actions we perform are both longings and lies.

The dog believes the lie that the only way forward, the only way to get what it wants, is to push ahead. Lewis, the dog-owner, affirms the longing of the dog to go forward, but he must pull the dog back in order for it to actually make any progress.

Lewis Talks to His Dog

Next, Lewis explains what he would say to his dog, if suddenly it became a theologian and was frustrated by the owner's thwarting of its will:

'My dear dog, if by your will you mean what you really want to do, viz. to get forward along the road, I not only understand this desire but share it. Forward is exactly where I want you to go.

'If by your will, on the other hand, you mean your will to pull against the collar and try to force yourself forward in a direction which is no use--why I understand it of course: but just because I understand it (and the whole situation, which you don't understand) I cannot possibly share it. In fact the more I sympathize with your real wish--that is, the wish to get on--the less can I sympathize (in the sense of 'share' or 'agree with') your resistance to the collar: for I see that this is actually rendering the attainment of your real wish impossible.'

God Shares Our Ultimate Desire

Lewis applies this parable to our own situation. As human beings, we long for happiness, yet believe the lies that lead to evil actions:

God not only understands but shares the desire which is at the root of all my evil--the desire for complete and ecstatic happiness. He made me for no other purpose than to enjoy it. But He knows, and I do not, how it can be really and permanently attained. He knows that most of my personal attempts to reach it are actually putting it further and further out of my reach. With these therefore He cannot sympathize or 'agree': His sympathy with my real will makes that impossible. (He may pity my misdirected struggles, but that is another matter.)

So, over against the person who says, "I must squelch my desires, out of duty to God" Lewis says, No, God actually shares your ultimate desire. He is redirecting your path so you can actually find that joy you long for.

And over against the person who says, "God affirms me as I am and sympathizes with all my desires," Lewis would say, No. Because God affirms your ultimate desire, he must categorically reject your sinful actions and desires, for they will forever keep you from what you really want.

The Longing for Joy and the Lie of Sin

What's the takeaway? First, Lewis says we can look back at our history and see there is a God-given longing behind many of our sinful actions.

“I may always feel looking back on any past sin that in the very heart of my evil passion there was something that God approves and wants me to feel not less but more. Take a sin of Lust. The overwhelming thirst for rapture was good and even divine: it has not got to be unsaid (so to speak) and recanted.”

But now Lewis exposes the lie: the idea that giving into your sinful, illicit lust will fulfill that longing:

“But [the thirst] will never be quenched as I tried to quench it. If I refrain--if I submit to the collar and come round the right side of the lamp-post--God will be guiding me quickly as He can to where I shall get what I really wanted all the time.”

The Gracious, Ruthless God

Second, Lewis says this parable applies to future temptation, and helps us understand why we should expect God to be ruthless in condemning our sin:

“When we are thinking of a sin in the future, i.e. when we are tempted, we must remember that just because God wants for us what we really want and knows the only way to get it, therefore He must, in a sense, be quite ruthless towards sin.

“He is not like a human authority who can be begged off or caught in an indulgent mood. The more He loves you the more determined He must be to pull you back from your way which leads nowhere into His way which leads you where you want to God. Hence MacDonald's words 'The all-punishing, all-pardoning Father'.”

It is impossible to appeal to God's "love" in order to affirm you in your lusts. God cannot and will not affirm your sinful desires and actions because to do so would make it impossible for you to know true joy.

So what should you do when you fall into sin? Ask for forgiveness and redirection.

“You may go the wrong way again, and again He may forgive you: as the dog's master may extricate the dog after he has tied the whole lead round the lamp-post. But there is no hope in the end of getting where you want to go except by going God's way.”

Longings and Lies in Our Lust

This parable about the dog helps us see both the longings and the lies in the world's understanding of sexuality, and it smashes the idea that God wants to kill our joy or obliterate all our desires. Far from it! Instead, Lewis believes that God pulls back the collar precisely because He wants us to find the delight we crave, in Him:

“I think one may be quite rid of the old haunting suspicion--which raises its head in every temptation--that there is something else than God, some other country into which He forbids us to trespass--some kind of delight which He 'doesn't appreciate' or just chooses to forbid, but which would be real delight if only we were allowed to get it. The thing just isn't there. Whatever we desire is either what God is trying to give us as quickly as He can, or else a false picture of what He is trying to give us--a false picture which would not attract us for a moment if we saw the real thing.

“God knows what we want, even in our vilest acts. He is longing to give it to us. He is not looking on from the outside at some new 'taste' or 'separate desire of our own.' Only because he has laid up real goods for us to desire are we able to go wrong by snatching at them in greedy, misdirected ways. . . .

“Thus you may well feel that God understands our temptations--understands them a great deal more than we do. But don't forget MacDonald again--’Only God understands evil and hates it.’ Only the dog's master knows how useless it is to try to get on with the lead knotted around the lamppost. This is why we must be prepared to find God implacably and immovably forbidding what may seem to us very small and trivial things.”

God understands our temptations. He knows our hearts better than we do. He sympathizes with our ignorant attempts to find joy apart from him. But in his great love, he refuses to affirm us in our misdirected ways. To do so would be to abandon us to the leash and lamppost, where we would strangle ourselves.


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7 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis Talks to a Dog About Lust”

  1. Tom Jump says:

    Comment 1: the dog and the post

    “Supposing you are taking a dog on a lead through a turnstile or past a post. You know what happens (apart from his usual ceremonies in passing a post!). He tries to go to the wrong side and gets his head looped round the post. You see that he can’t do it, and therefore pull him back. You pull him back because you want to enable him to go forward. He wants exactly the same thing – namely to go forward: for that very reason he resists your pull back, or, if he is an obedient dog, yields to it reluctantly as a matter of duty which seems to him to be quite in opposition to his own will: though in fact it is only by yielding to you that he will ever succeed in getting where he wants.”

    That last sentence is false because you could also remove the leash and then the dog could walk around the post all it wanted and then go forward at its leisure without being pulled back.

    The only reason humans are justified in using leash’s is because of the restrictive nature of our reality which we do not have control over requires us to make protective barriers, god doesn’t have that excuse because he is all powerful meaning the rules and restrictions placed on us in this world are, in fact, arbitrary.

    Apologists use these analogies all the time but they always ignore one obvious solution, god is the problem because he created the environment that results in this conflict of interests. Every possible analogy apologists can come up with can be answered in an alternative way placing the burden on god to change the environment to suit the needs of the ones in it.

    OH but then the dog could then get hit by a car you say? Again, the same principle can be applied and god could make cars inter dimensional and so when they are driving they can’t hit anything. Or he could make cars fly, or give us teleportation technology so we don’t need cars, etc… the burden is on the creator of the world not the inhabitants of it.

    Comment 2: Lewis explanation to the dog

    “My dear dog, if by your will you mean what you really want to do, viz. to get forward along the road, I not only understand this desire but share it. Forward is exactly where I want you to go.

    ‘If by your will, on the other hand, you mean your will to pull against the collar and try to force yourself forward in a direction which is no use – why I understand it of course: but just because I understand it (and the whole situation, which you don’t understand) I cannot possibly share it. In fact the more I sympathize with your real wish – that is, the wish to get on – the less can I sympathize (in the sense of ‘share’ or ‘agree with’) your resistance to the collar: for I see that this is actually rendering the attainment of your real wish impossible.”

    Even though Lewis sees this as a conversation between a caring owner and a faithful counterpart that is not necessarily the case, because not everyone wants to be a faithful counterpart. From the perspective of the non believing ‘dogs’ this is a conversation between SAW and his victim who is trapped in an Rube Goldberg-esque deathtrap where if you do not obey, regardless of how much suffering obeying causes you, then you will be caused more suffering.

    If even one such person exists in this world that god has created then god has committed a gravely immoral act by not immediately freeing this person and placing them in a world where they find comfort and he is therefore as morally culpable as SAW who entraps his victims against their will.

    This response and the world we live in are more akin to this SAW movie where if you break gods arbitrary rules and don’t play the game the way he wanted, regardless of the suffering it causes us, then you will experience more suffering. That makes god the immoral one not us… how can you blame the people in the SAW movie for not playing by the rules laid out against their will by an immoral dictator? Even if you are a willing participant, not everyone is and so the immoral dictator is morally wrong for forcing anyone into this game against their will.

    The dog should not have the problem of wearing leash that restricts its ability to walk around the post, and the leash should not be required because cars should not be able to hit people, or dogs. The fault of this entire situation is due to the one who created this Rube Goldberg-esque deathtrap.

  2. Mason says:

    Trevin what volume of collected letters is this letter contained?
    Thx

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      Volume 2.

  3. peter says:

    thank you

  4. Kerry says:

    What a fantastic read, thank you! Lewis was such a wonderful man, a gift.

  5. Ron says:

    What I find ironic is that Man has put God on a leash. Instead of us being the dog and God being the leash holder who is pulling us to the right side of the pole, we have turned it around to where we are the leash holder and God is the dog and we are pulling Him to our side of the pole. Otherwise, a very thoughtful and helpful illustration. Thank you.

  6. William Duncan says:

    Thank you for your efforts to share these treasures of the past and how applicable they are today as we are bombarded by the world’s attempts to draw us away to pleasures that are unattainable.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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