Living in Wartime

February 17, 2022 at 11:56 PM

As for you brothers, do not grow weary in doing good.’”

-2 Thessalonians 3:13


Occasionally the Wordsmiths like to bring to your attention old writings that deserve fresh eyes. This week, we cast light on a forgotten gem that was written in the early days of World War II. Imagine with me the mounting tension across the globe as a German invasion of Poland loomed. Consider the reality when that possibility became a reality on September 1, 1939. Just two days later, France and Britain declared war on Germany, making it official: Wartime had come.

In our present day, it is not a stretch to consider the fears and anxieties that wartime threat brings. We too live in a time where invasion of a European country looms. Closer to home, it seems as though it is a time when our country is at war with itself (after all, the government act tabled this week was once called ‘The War Measures Act’). Thus, dusting off a wartime piece is appropriate. And, when that piece is written by one of the finest wordsmiths of the past 100 years – C.S. Lewis – then we can anticipate we will gain insight and help. Let us then engage in a brief walkthrough of his sermon-turned-essay: Learning in Wartime.

The fall of 1939 was a time when many questioned the purpose and need for continuing to do many of the regular things of life. In other words, how can we turn our attention to anything other than the war? How can we focus when war looms? How can we live normally, let alone learn normally, when threats abound? Lewis’ response to this question was to remind humanity that they have always been under threat. All that wartime does is bring that to the foreground. Hear the Oxford professor in his own words:

The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life.” [1]

Yes, history confirms that. Behind every veil of “peace,” is the lurking reality of “war.” Even the most “tranquil” of periods, have contained periods of fret, alarm and crisis. So war is not new. In the west, we just have developed a really good system of living as if nothing ‘bad’ was ever afoot. The past two years have revealed this powerfully. War was always there, all that this virus has accomplished is to amplify and accentuate the reality of it.

What’s more, humanity has always gone on and “lived life” in spite of lurking emergency. Human beings have always been engaged in activity – even in the most dire of times. Lewis reminds us that it's not IF we will engage in activity, but for WHOM we will engage. Do we do all that we do for ourselves? Or, do we do all that we do to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31)? We live, learn, and yes, even laugh in spite of the very worst of times – because God enables us to, calls us to, and is glorified when we “live” in spite of difficulty.

Lewis ends the writing practically, identifying “three enemies” that threaten our ability to live rightly in wartime, and conversely “three exercises” to combat them:


Self-Control over Excitement

Excitement, of course, is not just a positive emotion. Yes, it can stem from a positive reality (the proximity of something you have been looking forward to), but also it can stem from a reality that is not so gleeful. Consider the “excitement” that recent headlines create? You read them, and then, you cannot stop thinking about them. Such excitement creates a sort of paralysis. “How can I go on with today’s errands (you muse to yourself) when the world is about to blow up?” You have responsibilities and duties to tend to today – but you are far too consumed with news developments to get to them. “I will get to those when the conditions are more favourable,” you might say. In response, Lewis offers this:

There are always plenty of rivals to our work. We are always falling in love or quarrelling, looking for jobs or fearing to lose them, getting ill and recovering, following public affairs. If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly they seek it while the conditions are still unfavourable. Favourable conditions never come.[2]

We must gain control of our excitement. In Christ, that is no fruitless endeavour. Remember, the Apostle Paul identified self-control as a necessity for the young-in-the-faith, yet indulgent Cretans (Titus 1:12). He then went on to command self-control to older men (Titus 2:2) and to younger men (Titus 2:6[3]), and that the older women not only live restrained (Titus 2:3), but they are then to teach that self-control to the younger women (Titus 2:5). Christian, in Christ you can control your excitement. Set your mind on things that are above, not on things that are on earth (Colossians 3:2).


Finish over Frustration

The temptation is strong in crisis to leave much unfinished. Endeavours are dropped midway, plans are forgotten and work abandoned. All of this stunted output flowing from the frustrated cry: “What’s the point?” Indeed, fixations on the deteriorating world around you cannot help but lead to that sizing up, done with our own eyes. Yes, we forsake the present for the “what ifs” of the future. The professor reminds us of our Christian identity here:

A more Christian attitude, which can be attained at any age, is that of leaving futurity in God’s hands. We may as well, for God will certainly retain it whether we leave it to Him or not. Never, in peace or war, commit your virtue or your happiness to the future. Happy work is best done by the man who takes his long-term plans somewhat lightly and works from moment to moment “as to the Lord.” It is only our daily bread that we are encouraged to ask for.[4] The present is the only time in which any duty can be done or any grace received.[5]

To be clear, Lewis is not saying never commit your hope to the future. That we do Christian (Hebrews 11:1[6]). What he is saying is that to pin our happiness (our present well-being) on the future finds no root in the words of our Lord. What Christ does say is that the 24 hours you are living today has it's own trouble (Matthew 6:34). And our present troubles never have been – nor ever will be – enough to warrant shutting down our daily efforts. No, Christian; we finish our labours, always with tomorrow unknown. Until our Lord returns, life always goes on, and ought to all the more with those whose ultimate future is secure.


Wisdom over Fear

So much has been said about the present fear and the devastating effects of living with the fear of death. Little is left to be said. Fear has been the dominant emotion these past two years. Ironically, fear of death has caused people to stop living. Here, Lewis offers a forgotten weapon against fear: wisdom. Consider his own wisdom here carefully:

There is no question of death or life for any of us; only a question of this death or of that – of a machine gun bullet now or a cancer forty years later. What does war do to death? It certainly does not make it more frequent: 100 per cent of us die, and the percentage cannot be increased.[7]

All of us die. That is not in debate. We die at different times and in different ways, yes; but we all die. It is the wise man, like the psalmist, that numbers his days and considers the fleeing nature of life (Psalm 39:4, 90:3-4, 144:4). As Lewis adds: “war makes death real to us.” Our forefathers considered the “blessings” of being reminded of death, and we must too. He ends with this insight:

In ordinary times only a wise man can realize [that we are all doomed to die]. Now, the stupidest of us knows. We see unmistakably the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and must come to terms with it. If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent safety satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned and not a moment too soon.[8]

Wisdom combats such folly. This world, this life and our days are temporary. A life lived knows that.


Living in This Time

Living these past two years, or living today in light of enacted wartime measures, is no different to living in all times. We contain our excitement with self-control and fix our eyes and mind on Christ. We finish our responsibilities and duties well, without surrendering to the frustration of a future out of our control. And Christian, we live wisely, not fearfully. We number, and thank God for, each one of our days. We can thank the old professor for these “exercises,” as we continue living in wartime.

[1] Lewis, C. S. Learning in Wartime. A sermon preached in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford, October 22nd, 1939, pg. 1.

[2] Lewis, Living in Wartime, pg. 5.

[3] Note that self-control is the only characteristic commanded for the Cretan young men.

[4] Footnote not in original; see Matthew 6:11.

[5] Lewis, Living in Wartime, pg. 6.

[6] Consider the eschatological hope derived from the faithful in Hebrews 11 – those saints gone before us who looked to the future.

[7] Lewis, Living in Wartime, pg.6

[8] Ibid.