A Counselor Reflects on Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
“Thus, in one sense the road back to God is a road of moral effort, of trying harder and harder. But in another sense it is not trying that is ever going to bring us home. All this trying leads up to the vital moment at which you turn to God and say, ‘You must do this. I can’t.’ Do not, I implore you, start asking yourselves, ‘Have I reached that moment?’ Do not sit down and start watching your own mind to see if it is coming along. That puts a man quite on the wrong track (p. 146).” Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
So, should we “try harder” to please God? Lewis’ answer seems to be, “Yes, try as hard as you can, until you realize you are utterly incapable. Then use that realization to bring you to humble reliance upon God. But never attempt to measure your reliance upon God, because it will mutate to passivity or pride. The result of unmeasured reliance will be a consistent humble effort.”
Even restating Lewis’ logic makes it feel like a contradiction or as if it is making something simple too complex. But each step in the journey proves absolutely necessary.
Phase One: Try Until You Fail. Until we prove we can’t, we will always wonder if we could. This was true for me in every athletic venture I have ever attempted as a teenager. It is true of every cooking show I watch as a grown man. The parallel breaks down, however, because my athletic prowess and cooking aptitude far exceed my ability to live a holy life.
Phase Two: Rely Fully On God. Desperation is only bad if all you have is yourself. If you are desperate and able to rely on God, then that is called humility, brokenness, or the essence of gospel-living. This is what we will spend the rest of our life trying to maintain. But how do we “keep doing” what we “could never do”?
Phase Three: Refuse to Measure Reliance. We usually start by dissecting how we came to reliance. We want to know what we prayed, what books we read, how we came to humility, who influenced us, how we interacted with people, and the answer to other similar questions.
There is a problem with dissecting something. The “something” always dies. This is especially true of relational experiences like romance, comedy, or our walk with God. When we start defining how to (active verb) rely on (passive verb) God we have asked a question with internal contradiction.
Or, as Lewis says, if we ask, “Have I reached that moment?” (point in time question) when faith is about a living relationship (continuous activity), our question has led us away from living in reliance.
Phase Four: Discover Restful Work or Humble Striving. So the result is that phase one proves to us our inadequacy, phase two frees us from the guilt our failure deserves, phase three prevents us from taking the first u-turn back to our old life, so that in phase four we experience what God always intended.
Read Genesis 1:26-31 in light of this reflection. Consider the task given to Adam (and soon to be Eve). Have dominion over the whole earth. Take care of it all; every bird, fish, animal, and plant. While you’re at it, multiply and fill the whole earth. Start first thing tomorrow by resting all day (2:1-3).
God was prescribing restful work; work that recognized Adam’s full reliance upon God, but that was diligent enough to merit the word “work.” This was the beauty of effort before sin created distance between God and man. It is the gospel (phase two) that restores us to phase four if we will admit phase one and avoid phase three.