They wrestled with important intellectual concepts. They explained the nuances behind scriptural terms. They gave context to the faith I was learning to live by. But most of the books did not challenge me to live better or help me to see God at work around me. Then I heard Ralph Earle preach on living a holy life. To illustrate the profound change God intends to work in our lives, he read a small passage from The Great Divorce, by C.S. Lewis. It culminated with the insight,
There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’1
That sounded intriguing, so I checked the book out of the library. Thus began my relationship with C.S. Lewis, an author who has taught me about God, while challenging me to be a better disciple, and through his writing expounding deep, Christian truths in ways that bring them to life in my life.
One of the first Christian truths I saw explicated in Lewis was the doctrine of the Trinity. The Trinity is hard enough for adults to wrap their minds around, but my third-grade Sunday School teacher tried to teach us that Jesus was actually God. I just knew that she was mistaken. While I later accepted the Trinity as a valid Christian doctrine, Lewis’s Mere Christianity gave me several new ways of grasping the possibilities, if not the reality itself. The chapter on “Making and Begetting” helped with the idea of “eternally begotten.” Most human explanations of the Trinity have seemed contrived to me, at best. But “The Three-Personal God” chapter included several new ideas, and the multi-dimensional approach finally gave me a handle on “Three, yet One.”
In that same chapter, Lewis challenged me to do more than understand God intellectually.
He explained, “The instrument through which you see God is your whole self. And if a man’s self is not kept clean and bright, his glimpse of God will be blurred—like the Moon seen through a dirty telescope.”2
Lewis addressed common problems as well; the “law of Undulation” was explained in The Screwtape Letters.3 Try as we might, there will be times when we don’t feel very spiritual. Without turning from God at all, we will sometimes feel alone or even abandoned. In the eighth chapter, Screwtape explains that humanity is subject to emotional ups and downs. This may be very plain to mature Christians, but it was an eye-opening moment for me as a new believer.
Lewis helped me understand what my pastor and teachers had been trying to say: depending on my emotions to define my Christian commitment would lead to defeat. Instead, my commitment had to be to follow Jesus, no matter how I was feeling at the time. “[Hell’s] cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do [God’s] will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”4
Lewis’s Miracles helped me see God constantly at work in our world. Since I’d already read his science fiction book, Out of the Silent Planet, I understood the concept of a spiritual struggle. His companion book, That Hideous Strength, showed how truth could be twisted if good people were silenced or ignored. With the background of the fictional accounts, I was ready to perceive the Christian worldview. Reading Miracles helped me to understand the significance of the Incarnation. Finally, even though Lewis was not a Nazarene, his understanding of God’s plans certainly includes transformation for each individual. In a powerful sermon utilizing Lewis’ writing, Ralph Earle highlighted the story of the lizard becoming a stallion from The Great Divorce.5 Chapter seven of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (part of the Narnia collection) includes a practical description of removing the old self so that the new can live.6 Both these are excellent descriptions of God challenging us to trust him to make us new. And Mere Christianity, part 3, chapter 9, says:
If we let Him—for we can prevent Him, if we choose— 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 . . . 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. Nothing less. He meant what He said.7
Lewis describes transformational holiness as well as any author I’ve read. Sometimes he uses straight text (as above), and sometimes he uses fictional characters to demonstrate God’s work. But holiness people have little to “weed out” when learning from C.S. Lewis.
Once I started reading Lewis, I started buying everything he had written. In addition to helping my understanding of Christian truths, his illustrations or even casual remarks opened my eyes to additional realities.
When explaining the dangers of treating our beliefs as “just feelings,” Lewis cited an example of natural beauty from a passage in Coleridge. In the opening pages of The Abolition of Man, Lewis takes it for granted that awe is the correct response to God’s creation.8 And then he carefully shows how this is the logical, reasonable, and proper way to approach the world. Abolition also includes a great comparative section on the similarity of ethical systems across the planet. But the almost accidental inclusion of the Coleridge discussion has broadened my entire worldview.
God in the Dock is a posthumous collection of essays, letters, and articles that Lewis never developed into full books. His attitudes toward the Christian life are demonstrated well. But Bulverism, chapter 1 of part 3, is an excellent read for times like those I’m living through right now. (We’ve recently passed the U.S. midterm election campaign.) This little chapter gives the principle behind many political attacks:
Some day I am going to write the biography of… Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father— who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third—‘Oh you say that because you are a man.’ ‘At that moment,’ E. Bulver assures us, ‘there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet.’9
Lewis applies Bulverism to arguments for and against Christianity, and proves it to be a very weak weapon indeed. Perhaps my belief in God is wish fulfillment, but in the same way your atheism may be a way not to acknowledge your own fears. Citing each other’s psychological state has not gotten us one step closer to understanding whether Christianity is true. And now, thanks to Ezekiel Bulver, I look beyond the “blame game” in election ads to see if anyone is actually arguing about the truth.
And that brings me to my greatest appreciation for the writings of C.S. Lewis: in every book, he keeps bringing me back to “What is actually true?”
It is no good wondering if Christianity will help society or not. We are not Christians because the church is a great social institution. We follow Jesus because we believe his claims to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life. If those claims are false, we would be foolish to build our lives upon them, and we would be wrong to urge others to do so.
But if what Jesus said about the world is true, if the road is narrow and hard to find, if the way to joy is surrender, if loving God and others is the key to life, then we owe it to ourselves to accept his offer and to join his kingdom. And if he is correct, that no one comes to the Father except through him, then we owe it to our friends, family, and neighbors (and we know how broadly he defined “neighbors”) to invite them into the kingdom as well. But because of that “law of Undulation,” my attention wavers. I need to be reminded of the truths about God. I need to spend time alone with him and read his word. And, as I advised my son, it is very helpful to see what other Christians have learned about God and his world. C.S. Lewis is one of the Christians I turn to regularly. His ability to explain and to apply truth helps me focus on the important realities. Jesus lived, died, and was raised to life, and I am invited to join in his work today. There will be temptations, but only those that others have faced, and victory is offered, as I allow the Holy Spirit to transform me.
DALE E. JONES, an ordained elder, serves as director of the Nazarene Research Center in Lenexa, KS
1C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 72
2Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1960), 144
3Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 37-41
4Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, 40
5Lewis, The Great Divorce, 96-102
6Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 470-476
7Lewis, Mere Christianity, 174-175
8Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1973), 25
9Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972), 271-275