Our present situation brings to remembrance an important lecture given by C. S. Lewis in October of 1939. The lecture, “Learning in War-Time”* was delivered to a crowd of Oxford undergraduates questioning the purpose of education and learning in general in the midst of a world war. Lewis was himself an ex-soldier and was believed to be the right man to put things in the right perspective—and indeed he was.
Lewis draws in his undergraduates, and us, with several questions:
What is the use of beginning a task which we have so little chance of finishing? Or, even if we ourselves should happen not to be interrupted by death or military service, why should we—indeed how can we—continue to take an interest in this placid occupation when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance? Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns? (47)
Lewis is addressing the question, “Why pursue education in the midst of a war?” Although, we are not at war with another country, make no mistake, we are at war. The enemy in the current case is not a nation state outfitted in military gear flying a flag. Our enemy is a silent killer—a killer that makes no judgments about gender, ethnicity, or social class. In recent days Queen Elizabeth II said the world faces an “enemy that brings death, not in terrifying bombing raids, but in the ordinary encounters of people transmitting a dangerous pathogen.” We are at war with an enemy that seeks to kill from the inside, that seeks to systematically infect and destroy us cell-by-cell. Make no mistake about it, we are at war with COVID-19.
“War creates no absolutely new situation; it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice” (49), says Lewis. Here’s the main thrust of Lewis’ lecture: war time helps us to see something that was there all along—our fragility. James put it starkly, “For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14). Lewis is reminding us that war time doesn't make the words of James true—wartime enables us to see and feel the words of James anew.
In Lewis’ context he is arguing for learning to continue in wartime. He is arguing for the academy to stay open—for the progression of intellectualism. By way of application, Lewis offers three mental exercises to serve as defenses against three war-time enemies. I believe these are valuable for us to consider in our current context, and I offer them to you with some thoughts of my own. I write this not as an argument for the academy to stay open (although, I believe it should). Rather, I write this, as a war-time Christian, for the progression of your faith.
The enemy of distraction. (Lewis calls this excitement.)
Oh, how the news rages! A new press conference, a new graphic, a new post, new test results, and on and on. Face it, we are distracted. And, if we are not careful, this enemy will prove to make us an immensely unproductive people. Lewis says, “The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavorable” (60). The apostle Paul put it this way, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of your time, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:15–16).
Church, there is no “favorable” time; there are no “good days.”
We are at war and we have been at war
We are at war with our flesh and the schemes of the devil (Eph. 6:11). As the distractions of life press in, let us hear Paul’s remedy:
And do not be drunk with wine, for that is debauchery [i.e., don’t waste your time with frivolous things], but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Eph. 5:18–21)
The enemy of future joy. (Lewis call this frustration.)
True, we will experience joy in the future. However, this enemy rises when we project our joy into the future. Doing this leaves us more than ineffective, it leaves us shielded from God’s daily mercies. It blinds us from the daily strength to which God calls us to be tethered. Lewis reminds us that Jesus commanded us to ask for “daily” bread. I’m sure you’ve seen a dog chase his own tail. This is what you do when you assign your joy to the future. Recall the words of the Psalmist, “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Ps. 118:24).
If you have assigned your joy to peace time,
you might be waiting a long time
Reel in your joy; rejoice and be glad!
The enemy of fear.
I think Lewis is most poignant on this point, “There is no question of death or life for any of us, only a question of this death or of that” (61). What does COVID-19 do to death? Does it make it more frequent? Certainly not. One hundred percent of us die! Yet, COVID-19 does do something to death—it brings it front and center. COVID-19 moves the subject of death from the background to the foreground.
This crisis allows us all to see something we too often overlook: our mortality
We are given the antidote for fear in 1 John 4:18: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” The antidote for fear is love—and, not just any love, but love offered by one who has already experienced the pangs of death.
Church, when COVID-19 rears its ugly head, when the enemy of distraction calls, when you are tempted to push your joy out of the present and into the future, when fear pollutes your every thought—look to Christ. Look to the one who was without distraction, who was full of joy, and who was without fear. The fourth verse of a favorite hymn, In Christ Alone, sums it up well:
No guilt in life, no fear in death,
This is the power of Christ in me.
From life's first cry to final breath,
Jesus commands my destiny.
No power of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand.
Till He returns or calls me home
Here in the power of Christ I'll stand.
Editor's Note: For more on honoring God in trying times, see our free guide: Suffering Well.
*[Lewis, C. S., “Learning in War-Time” in The Weight of Glory (New York: HarperCollins), 2001.]