A final discussion of Mere Christianity

This is the final installment of our reading of C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity over at www.challies.com. Our reading for this week was Sections 7-11 in Book 4: Beyond Personality: or First Steps in the Doctrine of the Trinity. I’ve decided not to participate in the next reading group as I’ve got some other things I really need to focus on. The reading of Lewis has had a profound impact on me in ways I’m not able to express right now, and has played an unexpected role in an unexpected need to change the direction of my studies for a while. It's lengthy, but here goes:

7. Let’s Pretend

In this section Lewis describes what he feels pretty much sums up what it is to live a Christian life, what Scripture refers to as “putting on Christ”. He starts unexpectedly with the Lord’s Prayer – likely because it is one most of his listeners would be familiar with:

“When you say the Lord’s prayer, you refer to God as “Our Father”. When you do that, you are ‘dressing up as Christ’. If you like, you are pretending. Because, of course, the moment you realize what the words mean, you realize that you are not a son of God. You are not a being like the Son of God, whose will and interests are at one with those of the Father: you are a bundle of self-centered fears, hope, greeds, jealousies, and self-conceit, all doomed to death. So that, in a way, this dressing up as Christ is a piece of outrageous cheek. But the odd thing is that He has ordered us to do it.”
“Why? What is the good of pretending to be what you are not? Well, even on the human level, you know, there are two kinds of pretending. There is a bad kind,where the pretence is there instead of the real thing….But there is also a good kind, where the pretence leads up to the real thing. When you are not feeling particularly friendly but you know you ought to be, the best thing you can do,very often is to put on a friendly manner and behave as if you were a nicer person than you actually are…Very often the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already.”

But, in “putting on Christ” we are not simply asking “what would Jesus do?” and then trying to do it. Rather:
“It is not a question of a good man who died two thousand years ago. It is a living Man, still as much a man as you, and still as much God as He was when He created the world, really coming and interfering with your very self; killing the old natural self in you and replacing it with the kind of self He has. At first, only for moments. Then for longer periods. Finally, if all goes well, turning you permanently into a different sort of thing; into a new little Christ, a being which, in its own small way, has the same kind of life as God; which shares in His power, joy, knowledge and eternity. And soon we make two other discoveries.”

“1) We begin to notice, besides our particular sinful acts, our sinfulness; begin to be alarmed not only about what we do, but about what we are…surely what a man does when he taken off his guard is the best evidence for what sort of a man he is? Surely what pops out before the man has time to put on a disguise is the truth? If there are rats in a cellar you are most likely to see them if you go in very suddenly. But the suddenness does not create the rats: it only prevents them from hiding. In the same way the suddenness of the provocation does not make me an ill-tempered man: it only shows me what an ill-tempered man I am.”

I would add, from personal experience, that alcohol, depression, PMS, and difficult circumstances in general can have that same effect of bringing to the surface what is already lurking beneath. They do not change who we are, rather they reveal who we are.

“Now that cellar is out of reach of my conscious will. I can to some extent control my acts: I have no direct control over my temperament. And if…what we are matters even more than what we do – if, indeed, what we do matters chiefly as evidence of what we are - then it follows that the change which I most need to undergo is a change that my own direct, voluntary efforts cannot bring about. And this applies to my good actions too. How many of them were done for the right motive?…I cannot, by direct moral effort, give myself new motives. After the first few steps in the Christian life we realize that everything which really needs to be done in our souls can be done only by God.”

I’ve tried and tried to change certain things about my temperament. I want to be warmer, less timid, less arrogant and judgmental, and have set about scolding and lecturing myself, condemning myself and wallowing in guilt over my inability to bring about deep personality change. None of these things have done any good. Any growth I’ve seen has been at the hand of God, bringing about change slowly and inexplicably as I trust Him and His Word.

And what follows is lovely:
“2) I have been talking as if it were we who did everything. In reality, of course, it is God who does everything. We, at most, allow it to be done to us. In a sense you might even say it is God who does the pretending….God looks at you as if you were a little Christ: Christ stands beside you to turn you into one….Is not how the higher thing always raises the lower? A mother teaches her baby to talk by talking to it as if it understood long before it really does.”

8. Is Christianity Hard or Easy?
Here Lewis wants us to understand how it is that this “putting on Christ” is the whole of the Christian life. In this section he aims to “point out how it differs from ordinary ideas of ‘morality’ and ‘being good’.”
“The ordinary idea folks have, and see if you haven’t thought this way yourself, is that you take ‘morality’ or ‘good behavior’ and tack it on to our lives, trying to live by them, giving up what seems bad and trying to do what is considered good. But we are hoping the whole time that when all the demands have been met, the poor natural self will still have some chance, and some time, to get on with its own life and do what it likes…. Because we are still taking our natural self as the starting point…. As long as we are thinking that way, one or another of two results is likely to follow. Either we give up trying to be good or else we become very unhappy indeed.”
On the contrary,
“The Christian way is different: harder and easier. Christ says ‘Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work; I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good…I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours….. The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self – all your wishes and precautions –to Christ. But it is far easier than what we are all trying to do instead. For what we are trying to do is to remain what we call ‘ourselves,’ to keep personal happiness as our great aim in life, and yet at the same time be ‘good.’ We are all trying to let our mind and heart go their own way – centered on money or pleasure or ambition – and hoping, in spite of this, to behave honestly and chastely and humbly. And that is exactly what Christ warned us you could not do. As He said, a thistle cannot produce figs.”

So as Lewis says, “Laziness means more work in the long run” and “The cowardly thing is also the most dangerous thing.” And the real problem for the Christian is first thing every morning. Boy can I attest to the truth of that! Certainly that is why Christ tells us we need to take up our cross daily. I’ll let Lewis describe my mornings:
“All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job every morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger,stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind…When He said,‘Be perfect,’ He meant it. He meant that we must go in for the full treatment. It is hard; but the sort of compromise we are all hankering after is harder – in fact, it is impossible.”

Oh how, I wish I’d listened to Lewis when I read him the first time. I could have saved decades of regrets!!

He then brings the Church into the discussion and sweeps us up with fairy-tale imagery into a brief but vivid vision of God’s majestic purposes in Creation. Much as...
“The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life…the Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time. God became Man for no other purpose. It is even doubtful, you know, whether the whole universe was created for any other purpose. It says in the Bible that the whole universe was made for Christ and that everything is to be gathered together in Him.”

“What we have been told is how we men can be drawn into Christ – can become part of that wonderful present which the young Prince of the universe wants to offer to His Father – that present which is Himself and therefore us in Him. It is the only thing we were made for. And there are strange exciting hints in the Bible that when we are drawn in, a great many other things in Nature will begin to come right. The bad dream will be over; it will be morning.”
Wow, doesn’t your heart cry out to be a part of that? Isn’t it amazing to think that, in Christ, you are?

9. Counting the Cost

Lewis found that after giving the last “talk” he met with quite a bit of objection to the statement of Christ: “Be ye perfect.” People took it to mean that we have to make ourselves perfect in order for God to help us. (A funny thing to think, since it is exactly our imperfection that is our problem!) He goes on to explain, “I think He meant ‘The only help I will give is help to become perfect. You may want something less: but I will give you nothing less." Well, I’d never have come up with that on my own, but I think Lewis is on to something here. He uses the illustration from a toothache in his childhood. He would not want to tell his mother his tooth hurt, because he knew it would involve a trip to the dentist, and that the dentist would not leave well enough alone. He’d start poking around and find all sorts of things wrong. And so Lewis likens turning to Christ to going to the dentist (cringe – from the fairy tale to the dentist chair – if that isn’t just like the Christian life!): “Our Lord is like the dentists. If you give Him an inch, He will take an ell…but if once you call Him in, He will give you the full treatment…That is why He warned people to ‘count the cost’ before becoming Christians. ‘Make no mistake,’ He says, ‘if you let me, I will make you perfect. The moment you put yourself in My hands, that is what you are in for...I will never rest, nor let you rest, until you are literally perfect.” (You may have noticed the ellipses are hiding all the bits about free-will. That’s because I’ve noticed through my lifetime that God has many ways of getting my will to agree with His. So I’m finding the point’s a bit moot.)

But lest we be overwhelmed by this trip to the Dentist of our souls, so to speak, Lewis reminds us that God will not be overly harsh, and that He will leave with us the Holy Spirit. He will not leave us comfortless:
“this Helper who will, in the long run, be satisfied with nothing less than absolute perfection, will also be delighted with the first feeble, stumbling effort you make tomorrow to do the simplest duty…every father is pleased at the baby’s first attempt to walk: no father would be satisfied with anything less than a firm, free, manly walk in a grown-up son. In the same way, he said, ‘God is easy to please, but hard to satisfy.’…God’s demand for perfection need not discourage you in the least in your present attempts to be good, or even in you present failures. Each time you fall He will pick you up again….He is beginning to guide you [to] absolute perfection; and no power in the whole universe,except yourself, can prevent Him from taking you to that goal.”
Now, with all that I take some exception to only two words: the very pregnant, “except yourself”. I understand the point he is making. And from our existential perspective I agree, we do hinder God’s work, and interfere and slow things down; but only in the sense that process of working the clay delays a potter in his goal having completed vessels. What I’m saying is, that from God’s perspective, I believe there is no thwarting at all. I suspect to Him it’s like the difference between calling things into existence “magically” - if you’ll pardon the expression – and forming them with His “hands” as a potter forms clay. He could have done the former, no doubt, but that is not what He wanted to do. He wanted to invest Himself, if you will, in these vessels. There is certainly a sense in which the clay resists (and it certainly does not form itself); but this part of what it is to work with clay. He knows that – having created the clay after all. And that is the medium and method with which He has chosen to create man. He expects this resistance and rather than being hindered by it, He is masterful in using it to form the perfect intended object. (Remember, “He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it”. Remember that He is the “Author and Finisher of our faith”.)

And, as he so rightly says:
“…the question is not what we intended ourselves to be, but what He intended us to be when He made us… He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command… He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess,dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though of course, on a smaller scale) his own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful; but that is what we are in for.”
– a bright stainless mirror reflecting the glory of God. That is just what it means to be the “image of God”, a perfect reflection of His glory. What an amazing future awaits us!

10. Nice People or New Men

Lewis seeks at this point to explain why all Christians are not obviously nicer than all non-Christians. First we must understand that not everyone claiming to be a Christian is one:
“If conversion to Christianity make no improvement in a man’s outward actions – if he continues to be just as snobbish or spiteful or envious or ambitious as he was before – then I think we must suspect that his ‘conversion’ was largely imaginary; and after one’s original conversion, every time one thinks one has made an advance that is the test to apply. Fine feelings, new insights, greater interest in ‘religion’ mean nothing unless they make our actual behavior better…. In that sense the outer world is quite right to judge Christianity by its results. Christ told us to judge by results. A tree is known by its fruit.”

However, it is illogical, Lewis asserts (and I agree) to demand “not merely that each man’s life should improve if he becomes a Christian”, but “that they should see the whole world neatly divided into two camps – Christian and non-Christian – and that all people in the first camp at any given moment should be obviously nicer than all the people in the second.”

He gives several reasons for objecting to this idea:

The first is a reason I take issue with on a few levels. I will put his reasons out there, but refrain from dissecting them here. Let me merely assert before I do, that a person either is a true, born-again Christian or not, and cannot not become one apart from the message of the Gospel of Christ. I will agree there are those who profess to be Christians and are not – and never were (and some of those who are false may yet become true!). That said, I’ll let Lewis speak: “There are people (a great many of them) who are slowly ceasing to be Christians but who still call themselves by that name: some of them are clergymen. There are other people who are slowly becoming Christians though they do not yet call themselves so.” And here is the one bit I reject outright, because it is unambiguously un-scriptural: “There are people in other religions who are being led by God’s secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity, and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it.”

I find his next reason more reasonable:
“If Christianity is true then it ought to follow a) That any Christian will be nicer than the same person would be if he were not a Christian. b) That any man who becomes a Christian will be nicer than he was before.” In other words each person has a different temperament “as a result of natural causes and early upbringing…Christianity professes to put both temperaments under new management…”

His third reason goes deeper.
“We have been talking, in fact…as if Christianity was something nasty people needed and nice ones could afford to do without; and as if niceness was all that God demanded.” He goes on to explain (using the protracted illustration of a nasty-by-nature Miss Bates and a placid by nature man named Dick) that any natural niceness a person has is a gift to that person:

“We must…not be surprised if we find among the Christians some people who are still nasty. There is even, when you come to think it over, a reason why nasty people might be expected to turn to Christ in greater numbers than nice ones. That was what
people objected to about Christ during His life on earth: He seemed to attract
‘such awful people.’ That is what people still object to, and always will. Do
you not see why? Christ said ‘Blessed are the poor’ and ‘How hard it is for the
rich to enter the Kingdom…do not His words also apply to another kind of riches
and poverty?….Often people who have all these natural kinds of goodness cannot
be brought to recognize their need for Christ at all until, one day, the natural
goodness lets them down and their self-satisfaction is shattered.”

“It is very different for the nasty people – the little, low, timid, warped,
thin-blooded, lonely people, or the passionate, sensual, unbalanced people. If
they make any attempt at goodness at all, they learn, in double quick time, that
they need help. It is Christ or nothing for them. It is taking up the cross and
following – or else despair. They are the lost sheep; He came specially to find
them… They are the ‘awful set’ he goes about with – and of course the Pharisees
say still, as they said from the first, ‘If there were anything in Christianity those people would not be Christians.”

“There is a warning or an encouragement here for every one of us. If you are a nice person – if virtue comes easily to you – beware! Much is expected from those to whom much is given.If you mistake for you own merits what are really God’s gifts to you through nature, and if you are contented with simply being nice, you are still a rebel and all those gifts will only make your fall more terrible, and your corruption more complicated, your bad example more disastrous. The Devil was an archangel

And here is something we can certainly afford to keep in mind as we seek to influence the politics of our nations:
“A world of nice people, content in their own niceness, looking not further,turned away from God, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world – and might even be more difficult to save.

“For mere improvement is no redemption, though redemption always improves people even here and now and will, in the end, improve them to a degree we cannot yet imagine. God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man.”
We must never forget that it is only the gospel that will bring real and lasting change – to individuals and nations.

11. The New Men

We end with the chapter that gets everyone up in arms. Oddly, though, it hasn’t had that effect on me. I’m rather strangely impressed. Perhaps I can help you to see why. Here Lewis discusses evolution as a given. He doesn’t question it except to mention in passing that some folks don’t agree with it. But, after all, long before Darwin there have been those who held to the Day-Age theory, the most notable of whom is Augustine. No, rather than dicker about evolution, he transcends it. He uses it to point to Christ! Imagine that. (Though I would argue that at minimum Man must be regarded as a special and unique creation, and that there was a literal Adam, I will not take this time to debate the matter. Plenty of others have filled volumes doing that. Lewis doesn’t speak to that one way or the other.) He accepts evolution, seeing it as the means God used to create, and that God was sovereign over the entire process. He took the commonly held belief, and instead of questioning it, used its crooked finger to point straight to Christ. He knows that many people, remember, He’s addressing unbelievers here, are wondering what the next step in evolution will be: “People see (or at any rate they think they see) men developing greater brains and getting greater mastery over nature. And because they think the stream is flowing in that direction, they imagine it will keep on flowing in that direction.” But Lewis takes a surprising position: “I should expect Evolution itself as a method of producing change, will be superseded. I should not be surprised if, when the thing happened, very few people noticed that it was happening. Now, if you care to talk in these terms, the Christian view is precisely that the Next Step has already appeared. And it is really new. It is not a change from brainy men to brainier men: it is a change that goes off in a totally different direction – a change from being creatures of God, to being sons of God. The first instance appeared in Palestine two thousand years ago. In a sense, the change is not ‘Evolution’ at all, because it is not something arising out of the natural process of events but something coming into nature from outside. But that is what I should expect.”

He goes on to list several other ways in which this New Step differs from all the previous ones, but I won’t go into those here, mainly since I find them odd, unhelpful, and better at explaining the differences between animal life and human life than the differences between the old man and the new (though on some level fallen man does seem at times to have an awful lot in common with brute beasts!). Though I must admit it is masterful the way he uses even evolution to point to Christ, his argument really suffers in his neglect to show man as a special creation of God – in the image of God – as opposed to something developing into something God can use.

This would certainly be a disappointing note to end the book with. Thankfully he changes tone at the last moment and leaves us with some thoughts we can all Yes and Amen:

On what “new men” (Christians) are like:
“Their very voices and faces are different from ours; stronger, quieter,happier, more radiant…They will not be very like the idea of ‘religious people which you have formed from your general reading. They do not draw attention to themselves. You tend to think that you are being kind to them when they are really being kind to you. They love you more than other men do, but they need you less.”

But, he explains, one must not get the idea this means all Christians are alike. The new life is like shining a light, or adding salt:

“…you and I know that the light will in fact bring out , or show up, how
different they are.”

“…the real effect of salt is…So far from killing the taste of the egg and the tripe and the cabbage, it actually brings it out.They do not show their real taste till you have added the salt.”

“It is no good trying to ‘be myself’ without Him. The more I resist Him and try to live on my own, the more I become dominated by my own heredity and upbringing and
surroundings and natural desires. In fact what I so proudly call ‘Myself’ becomes merely the meeting place for trains of events which I never started and which I cannot stop. What I call ‘My wishes’ become merely the desire thrown up by my physical organism or pumped into me by other men’s thoughts or even suggested to me by devils…Propaganda will be the real origin of what I regard as my own personal political ideals….It is when I turn to Christ, when I give myself up to His Personality, that I first begin to have a real personality of my own. Sameness is to be found most among the most ‘natural’ men, not among those who surrender to Christ. How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been: how gloriously different are the saints.”

And lest after all this talk we go after Christ with a mind to bettering our personalities, he warns,
“…you must not got to Him for the sake of that. As long as your own personality is what you are bothering about you are not going to Him at all. The very first step is to try to forget about the self altogether… Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him and with Him everything else thrown in.”

And so I bid farewell to Lewis for the time being. He has challenged me, perplexed me, and ministered to me. Who’d have thought I could learn so much and be so blessed by someone I disagree with so often and so heartily! As he says in the closing paragraphs, being Christians does not make us more alike! We are as different as can be, yet we are indwelled by the same Spirit. I’ve learned much about the grace of God from this time. And I’m off to study nothing but grace and the love of God until I’m saturated.


jennie said…
Good stuff, Laurie. God is good, isn't He, to use what we least expected to shine His light into our hearts and motives?

I love C.S. Lewis. When I think about the ones we'll meet and fellowship with in the New Earth I'm filled with much anticipation and longing.
jeri said…
The above is what always happens when I use the family desktop and don't check to see who's logged in!! :)
Anonymous said…
I'm trying to catch up on many things so I confess I only scanned this post but here's one thing I caught

"I’ve tried and tried to change certain things about my temperament. I want to be warmer, less timid, less arrogant and judgmental, and have set about scolding and lecturing myself, condemning myself and wallowing in guilt over my inability to bring about deep personality change. None of these things have done any good. Any growth I’ve seen has been at the hand of God, bringing about change slowly and inexplicably as I trust Him and His Word."

You will look back one day and realize just how far you have come, and of course, shudder at the thought of some of things you did and said along the way. This is something I struggle with, but, if Jesus is willing to forgive us, surely we must forgive ourselves.
God bless,
Laurie M. said…
Yes we must. It is quite prideful really to refuse His forgiveness. I think we (I) sometimes cling to the guilt as a sort of penance - feeling somehow that we will be more deserving of grace (Hah!) if we've grovelled and been miserably sorry. In a weird way, the misery helps even to feel more "spiritual" - "oh, oh, how I haaate my sin".
Scott said…
Thanks Laurie for the review and notes. I especially appreciated your comments on Lewis and Evolution and how you still find the gem in Lewis' words without being sidetracked with his acceptance of Evolution by default.

I believe and maybe you meant this, that Augustine held the world to be around 6000 years old, and that he interpreted the six days allegorically because he held that creation happened instantaneously. Kind of a "why should it take six days for God to create the world" position and therefore the six days were understood by him as allegorical. So Augustine is no friend really to an evolutionistic age of the earth view.
Laurie M. said…
Thanks for reading, and for your comments.
My main point with Augustine is to remind people that one need not hold to the literal 6 24 hour days of creation to be taken seriously as a Christian, and that there are Christians throughout the ages who have not held that view. I think the minimum one should come away from the Genesis account with is: that God created this earth (likely in stages), that man was created specially and uniquely in God's image, that Adam and Eve were real historic individuals, and that God was pleased with His handiwork - "it was very good." (Since Lewis did not state where he stood on the bit about the creation of man, I did not dicker with him. If he'd stated that Adam and Eve were allegorical figures, or some such, I'd have had to take issue with him, and my attitude may have been different.)

The creation account specifically rules out atheism (Rom. 1); but it's language is such that, even before evolution was posited, believing folks have interpreted it in other ways than just 6 literal days.

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