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CS Lewis on Lust

Last Updated: October 28, 2020

Luke Gilkerson
Luke Gilkerson

Luke Gilkerson has a BA in Philosophy and Religious Studies and an MA in Religion. He is the author of Your Brain on Porn and The Talk: 7 Lessons to Introduce Your Child to Biblical Sexuality. Luke and his wife Trisha blog at IntoxicatedOnLife.com

The writings of CS Lewis have had an astounding impact on Christian thought. Personally, I have found both his apologetic writings and his fiction inspiring, at times being deeply moved by his wise words.

Lewis is not well-known for writing about the subject of lust, but he did write a compelling allegory that mentions this vice in The Great Divorce. It is worth reading.

At first reading this book will probably seem strange. The characters in the story find themselves on a bus, first traveling through hell, and then to the foothills of heaven. These characters, upon exiting the bus (in “the high countries”) find that they are transparent, more like ghosts, and that the world of heaven is, in some way, “more real” than anything they’ve ever experienced. Colors are more vivid. Space itself seems larger. The smallest objects are very heavy. The story is full of symbolism and imagery.

The travelers have a chance to interact with the people of heaven for a while, angelic people clothed in light. Lewis overhears many conversations, one by one.

In one instance, one of the ghostly travelers is approached by an angel, and a moving conversation ensues. Read the entire account here.

I saw coming towards us a Ghost who carried something on his shoulder. Like all the Ghosts, he was unsubstantial, but they differed from one another as smokes differ. Some had been whitish; this one was dark and oily. What sat on his shoulder was a little red lizard, and it was twitching its tail like a whip and whispering things in his ear. As we caught sight of him he turned his head to the reptile with a snarl of impatience. “Shut up, I tell you!” he said. It wagged its tail and continued to whisper to him. He ceased snarling, and presently began to smile. Then be turned and started to limp westward, away from the mountains.

“Off so soon?” said a voice.

The speaker was more or less human in shape but larger than a man, and so bright that I could hardly look at him. His presence smote on my eyes and on my body too (for there was heat coming from him as well as light) like the morning sun at the beginning of a tyrannous summer day.

“Yes. I’m off,” said the Ghost. “Thanks for all your hospitality. But it’s no good, you see. I told this little chap,” (here he indicated the lizard), “that he’d have to be quiet if he came—which he insisted on doing. Of course his stuff won’t do here: I realise that. But he won’t stop. I shall just have to go home.”

‘Would you like me to make him quiet?” said the flaming Spirit—an angel, as I now understood.

“Of course I would,” said the Ghost.

“Then I will kill him,” said the Angel, taking a step forward.

“Oh-ah-look out! You’re burning me. Keep away,” said the Ghost, retreating.

“Don’t you want him killed?”

“You didn’t say anything about killing him at first. I hardly meant to bother you with anything so drastic as that.”

“It’s the only way,” said the Angel, whose burning hands were now very close to the lizard. “Shall I kill it?”

“Well, that’s a further question. I’m quite open to consider it, but it’s a new point, isn’t it? I mean, for the moment I was only thinking about silencing it because up here—well, it’s so damned embarrassing.”

“May I kill it?”

“Well, there’s time to discuss that later.”

“There is no time. May I kill it?”

“Please, I never meant to be such a nuisance. Please—really—don’t bother. Look! It’s gone to sleep of its own accord. I’m sure it’ll be all right now. Thanks ever so much.”

“May I kill it?”

“Honestly, I don’t think there’s the slightest necessity for that. I’m sure I shall be able to keep it in order now. I think the gradual process would be far better than killing it.”

“The gradual process is of no use at all.”

“Don’t you think so? Well, I’ll think over what you’ve said very carefully. I honestly will. In fact I’d let you kill it now, but as a matter of fact I’m not feeling frightfully well today. It would be silly to do it now. I’d need to be in good health for the operation. Some other day, perhaps.”

“There is no other day. All days are present now.”

“Get back! You’re burning me. How can I tell you to kill it? You’d kill me if you did.”

“It is not so.”

“Why, you’re hurting me now.”

“I never said it wouldn’t hurt you. I said it wouldn’t kill you.”

“Oh, I know. You think I’m a coward. But it isn’t that. Really it isn’t. I say! Let me run back by tonight’s bus and get an opinion from my own doctor. I’ll come again the first moment I can.”

“This moment contains all moments.”

“Why are you torturing me? You are jeering at me. How can I let you tear me to pieces? If you wanted to help me, why didn’t you kill the damned thing without asking me—before I knew? It would be all over by now if you had.”

“I cannot kill it against your will. It is impossible. Have I your permission?”

The Angel’s hands were almost closed on the Lizard, but not quite. Then the Lizard began chattering to the Ghost so loud that even I could hear what it was saying.

“Be careful,” it said. “He can do what he says. He can kill me. One fatal word from you and he will! Then you’ll be without me for ever and ever. It’s not natural. How could you live? You’d be only a sort of ghost, not a real man as you are now. He doesn’t understand. He’s only a cold, bloodless abstract thing. It may be natural for him, but it isn’t for us. Yes, yes. I know there are no real pleasures now, only dreams. But aren’t they better than nothing? And I’ll be so good. I admit I’ve sometimes gone too far in the past, but I promise I won’t do it again. I’ll give you nothing but really nice dreams—all sweet and fresh and almost innocent. You might say, quite innocent . . .”

“Have I your permission?” said the Angel to the Ghost.

“I know it will kill me.”

“It won’t. But supposing it did?”

“You’re right. It would be better to be dead than to live with this creature.”

“Then I may?”

“Damn and blast you! Go on can’t you? Get it over. Do what you like,” bellowed the Ghost: but ended, whimpering, “God help me. God help me.”

Next moment the Ghost gave a scream of agony such as I never heard on Earth. The Burning One closed his crimson grip on the reptile: twisted it, while it bit and writhed, and then flung it, broken backed, on the turf.

“Ow! That’s done for me,” gasped the Ghost, reeling backwards.

For a moment I could make out nothing distinctly. Then I saw, between me and the nearest bush, unmistakably solid but growing every moment solider, the upper arm and the shoulder of a man. Then, brighter still and stronger, the legs and hands. The neck and golden head materialized while I watched, and if my attention had not wavered I should have seen the actual completing of a man—an immense man, naked, not much smaller than the Angel. What distracted me was the fact that at the same moment something seemed to be happening to the Lizard. At first I thought the operation had failed. So far from dying, the creature was still struggling and even growing bigger as it struggled. And as it grew it changed. Its hinder parts grew rounder. The tail, still flickering, became a tail of hair that flickered between huge and glossy buttocks. Suddenly I started back, rubbing my eyes. What stood before me was the greatest stallion I have ever seen, silvery white but with mane and tail of gold. It was smooth and shining, rippled with swells of flesh and muscle, whinnying and stamping with its hoofs. At each stamp the land shook and the trees dindled.

The new-made man turned and clapped the new horse’s neck. It nosed his bright body. Horse and master breathed each into the other’s nostrils. The man turned from it, flung himself at the feet of the Burning One, and embraced them. When he rose I thought his face shone with tears, but it may have been only the liquid love and brightness (one cannot distinguish them in that country) which flowed from him. I had not long to think about it. In joyous haste the young man leaped upon the horse’s back. Turning in his seat he waved a farewell, then nudged the stallion with his heels. They were off before I well knew what was happening. There was riding if you like! I came out as quickly as I could from among the bushes to follow them with my eyes; but already they were only like a shooting star far off on the green plain, and soon among the foothills of the mountains. Then, still like a star, I saw them winding up, scaling what seemed impossible steeps, and quicker every moment, till near the dim brow of the landscape, so high that I must strain my neck to see them, they vanished, bright themselves, into the rose-brightness of that everlasting morning.

In this breathtaking scene the ghost’s gripping sin is transformed into a white stallion that transports him to the mountain of God. Later in the book Lewis’ guide tells him that in order to go to the mountain one must not be noble or the best they can be: they must undergo a death. Then what is raised to life out of the ashes of that death is something beautiful:

What is a lizard compared to a stallion? Lust is a poor, weak, whimpering, whispering thing compared with that richness and energy of desire which will arise when lust has been killed.

Because we worship a God of resurrection, we can be sure that when we surrender our basest and most twisted sins, that He will kill them and raise from them a new person. Those once-twisted passions will not merely be untwisted, going back to their original purposes. They will become a source of joy.

  • Comments on: CS Lewis on Lust
    1. I love C.S. Lewis. His book, “A Grief Observed” about his wife’s passing was a great encouragement to me during the death of my father. One image that reading that passage conjured up for me was that of the character “Smeagol” in Lord of the Rings. Pornography, or any obsession, for that matter, corrupts all logic and reason. All too often, even in my own life, have I seen my sin rationalize its survival in me for yet one more day.

      Thank you for posting!

    2. Amy

      This excerpt from Lewis is brilliant, as are most of his writings; thank you for sharing it. It’s a gift from God, that desire in man’s heart, for purity and integrity. I’ve read many of his books, but not “The Great Divorce”. I’ll have to put it on my list now.

      I agree with the comment above, with regard to Smeagol from LOTR. Here we have such a vivid example of the icy grip of addiction and its unfortunate conclusion when the will yields to destruction.

      May God bless the work you are doing at Covenant Eyes. You have my prayers & utmost respect.

    3. Rob

      Oh for death and resurection. I’ve been such a fool thinking I could keep the lizard on my shoulder. Yes, I want it killed…I am willing to die as well. Just free me to be the man God has choosen and made me to be. No more wasted time and energy that God intended to be spent on his kingdom and will. I am grateful for Lewis and his many great works. Lord I will with your strength guard my heart’s desires for from them flow the issues of life.

      From the comment above, I hate Smeagol partly because parts of his character I see in the dark struggles with sin in my own life. What I love is the innocence of Frodo and, when fallen, his determination to repent and go forward.

    4. MMM

      I think you shouldn’t phrase it so that the “Ghost’s gripping sin is transformed into a white stallion”. Lewis’ intent is that the original stallion is returned to its own nature after having been transformed into a lizard! It gives a wrong conception of one’s soul’s desires to think that their lizard form was ever their reality. The ultimate fount of desire is always pure, because it always springs from a natural longing for love and kind touch that should have been fulfilled but wasn’t – either because no one touched us at all, or because we were touched in the wrong way. We are wounded in earliest childhood through the unkindness and misuse we experience from other people, and then later from the unkindness and manipulation we ourselves force upon others when trying dimly to ‘get our own back’.

      It is important to pity one’s lizard instead of hating it, because ultimately, what it is asking for is always love, no matter in how wrong a way it asks. When it asks in sadistic, cruel ways, we must not obey it – we must protect others, and ourselves, from it, but we should still listen to what it says, since it is at the same time a message indicating where the original horse has been imprisoned. Don’t do anything cruel, but don’t hate the desire you feel. Pity it instead, and try to find a way to bring it the love it really needs. Remember that the lizard form – a dragon form – is a form of self defense from some danger that is or has been real enough.

      Therefore, dealing with it is not just a matter of ‘killing’ it, for it has come into existence for the purpose of self preservation. It is more important to search and find for the cause of the need to turn dragon-like.

      If there is still a threat in the vicinity, no wonder that a person fears opening his heart to the vulnerable feelings of a horse’s sensitive nature, and prefers to seek his loving – emotional and physical – contact with others in an armoured, and even cruel, way.

      On the other hand, once the threat is really removed – and the person dares to believe that he is safe – then the lizard will cast off its skin on its own initiative, and the horse will return.

      I am not sure Lewis’ rather violent angel asking so bluntly and conveying the sense of hurry (‘now-or-never!’) is the best image of how we are healed from such hurt.

      It is true, though, that when met with the offer of true love and care from someone, a person is put in this frightening, and seemingly ‘violent’ situation of choice – he actually has to take a chance and trust this encounter, and this can feel like stepping over a precipice (‘dying’). And if he dares, then yes, the lizard may be killed and transformed. But I think the image is dangerous, because it may mislead people to think they can affect this process all alone, just by ‘willing’ it (killing the lizard off without there being any offer of love in the vicinity to bring the horse back to life).
      But without the presence of a saviour, there may be death only, but no resurrection. And one cannot just ‘will’ the presence of the saviour oneself. Here, we are powerless without the direct help from another – be this a loving human being, an angel or God.

      As long as one is in this situation, one is therefore best advised to treat the lizard as an animal or child rather than as a devil. We don’t let children control our lives or direct our actions, but we also don’t condemn them. Speak with it, comfort it, pity it, don’t fear it even when it speaks nasty things. Your soul is stronger than the nastiness, if you can find pity in you for it – if you can look at it openly and be understanding of it, because it is ultimately a cry for help and an expression of pain.

      • Luke Gilkerson

        @MMM – My comment about the lizard being transformed into the stallion was simply meant to summarize what happened in the narrative. In this narrative Lewis does not delve into how the lizard became a lizard in the first place. I was trying to not go beyond what Lewis wrote here in this text, mostly letting the text speak for itself.

        I completely agree with you that underneath the lizard’s sadistic exterior and cunning temptations is something springing from longings given to us by God (in our pre-fallen state). The answer is not simply to repress the desire. We must bring it to God Himself and ask Him to transform it into the thing it was meant to be (like the Ghost did in Lewis’ narrative).

        However, I do think we should “kill” our sinful desires (Romans 8:13) because they are not merely natural longings beings expressed in twisted ways. They are, in fact, themselves sinful longings. Lewis himself said, when thinking of the state of our sexual instincts, “I think it is everything to be ashamed of” (Mere Christianity). This is because our sin is not merely sinful expressions of pure longings, but sinful expressions of depraved desires. Lewis’ narrative seems to indicate as much: the way the lizard is transformed into the stallion is not by coddling and pitying him, but by killing him and then resurrecting him as a new creature.

        I found your comment intriguing: “The ultimate fount of desire is always pure, because it always springs from a natural longing for love and kind touch that should have been fulfilled but wasn’t – either because no one touched us at all, or because we were touched in the wrong way.” Your comment gets at one of the oldest dialogues between Christian doctrine and psycho-dynamic psychology: Are we fundamentally deprived or fundamentally depraved? To clarify: Is there really such a thing as “neutral” desires that become frustrated and twisted by deprivation (i.e. not being loved the right way)? Or are our desires basically depraved, and in the context of a life lived in a world that is deprivational, we realize that depravity?

        Personally, I believe the latter, but I believe so because I think the Bible reveals this about our sinful natures.

        To clarify: I do think that often people are emotionally and psychologically wounded in their lives, which has a great effect on the directions they take in life. But if they were not already fundamentally depraved, with a bent towards idolizing their needs, wants, and desires, these emotional wounds would never have this sinful effect. They would treat the woundedness differently.

        Of course, we should never belittle the wounds of our childhood as if they don’t matter, but we should never use them to justify our idolizing of our desire to be loved. Yes, we should explore how our wounds explain our own particular “style” of sinning, but we should never conclude that our desire to be loved in the first place was merely a “natural” longing. Yes, it was a longing probably created by God in our first parents, but before the fall that desire was also subservient to the desire to glorify and worship God above all else. Since the fall, it is our nature to idolize our “need for love” as an all-important thing, and this itself must be repented of and killed.

        The good news is that God also resurrects the image of God in us through our union with the resurrected Christ (Colossians 3:1-4,10). This means, among other things, God will transform our desire for love into someone beautiful.

      • michael adamonis

        The lizard is a bad one. You don’t “talk” to it. It is not good disguised as evil. It is evil disguised as a “cute” lizard. It is like a cancer. Must be “violently” dealt with. True, the lizard cannot “force” the man to do the things it tells him to. But because of it’s proximity (on his shoulder), it is very hard to ignore. And it won’t be “satisfied” until it gets it’s way. No, you do not talk to it. Or ignore it hoping it will go away. Even the archangel Michael did not “argue” with the devil, he said the lord rebuke you. The Lord (by His grace) is the only one who can deal with it. Of course God may use a human means towards the end goal (the death of the lizard). Now that the lizard is dead, the man can be all he is meant to be!

    5. David Frazier

      @Luke – “Lewis himself said, when thinking of the state of our sexual instincts, “I think it is everything to be ashamed of” (Mere Christianity). This is because our sin is not merely sinful expressions of pure longings, but sinful expressions of depraved desires….”

      –Way to go Luke. Humanistic reasoning is dangerous to the Spirit at work in us. I believe G.K. Chesterton gives insight into this. “A man who has gone mad is said to have lost all reason. But in fact he has lost all BUT his reason.”

      @Luke – “Your comment gets at one of the oldest dialogues between Christian doctrine and psycho-dynamic psychology: Are we fundamentally deprived or fundamentally depraved?”

      –In the timeless classic, The Christian in Complete Armor,” William Gurnall writes, “It is really not too difficult for a proclaiming Christian to call himself a sinner. But it is ultimately unbearable for that same self-proclaiming Christian to say “In my heart, I am a hostile enemy to God!”

      No more lullabies!

    6. JD Larson

      C. S. Lewis has saved so many people from death – both death of sin and death of asceticism. Today he saved me from sin. I couldn’t stop thinking of and listening to my “lizard,” as C. S. Lewis has said, but now I can see again the reality of Truth, Life, and Peace just waiting for me beyond my blindness. Thank you, Jack!

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