A Counselor Reflects on Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
“Very often what God first helps us towards is not the virtue itself but just this power of always trying again. For however important chastity (or courage, or truthfulness, or any other virtue) may be, this process trains us in habits of the soul which are more important still. It cures our illusions about ourselves and teaches us to depend on God. We learn, on the one hand, that we cannot trust ourselves even in our best moments, and, on the other, that we need not despair even in our worst, for our failures are forgiven (p. 98).” Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
The first half of this quote alone would be moralism. C.S. Lewis is on the brink of saying that God’s message to struggling people is, “Try harder! Don’t give up! Can’t never could! Keep falling forward! Get knocked down six times, get up seven!” During the first sentence God started to sound like my sports coaches.
The second half of this quote alone would be permissiveness. C.S. Lewis almost makes God sound like a grandmother talking to her grandchildren, “No matter what you do I’ll love you. It’s alright, child, just know I know you didn’t mean to. We all do things we’re not proud of, but let’s just not think about that right now.”
Both halves together represent the power and freedom of the Gospel and hinge on the phrases “we cannot trust ourselves even in our best moments” and “we need not despair even in our worst.”
It is in our best moments that we creep towards moralism (the belief that Jesus came to teach us how to be good and the Bible is where we find the best recipe for being good). This is the equivalent of saying that God came to earth to die in our place so that we would no longer need God once we “understood and applied” what Jesus said before He died.
When we reinterpret the desire and emotional freedom God places within us to continue after we fail as our own “trying harder,” we have called His gift our accomplishment. We become like the 3 year old child who gives a gift to his parent and says, “Look what I bought for you with my money.” The parent may appreciate the gift, but the child totally doesn’t get it.
The child may feel a sense of genuine sacrifice that is real and praiseworthy, but the money was not something he “earned.” When we act on God’s grace drawing us towards His character and our freedom, we may genuinely strive with an effort against our sin that is real and commended by God, but it is with His strength that we strive.
It is in our worst moments that we retreat to permissiveness. We want God to “understand” that “we are only human” and that “everyone makes mistakes.” We conceptualize God as excusing our sin (a much more arbitrary and scary response, in the long run) rather than forgiving it (a consistent disposition that gives long-term confidence).
It is forgiveness that forces us to acknowledge the full weight of the sin to which we have fallen and gives us the grace-based confidence to get up each time. It is forgiveness that ultimately allows us to take our eyes off of ourselves (measuring our best and worst moments) so that we can fix our eyes on the One of such love and excellence that we are compelled forward whether we fall to or hurdle a given temptation to sin. We become like a child running to his parent after a long absence. Falling or running is irrelevant to reaching whose image we bear and voice we know (John 10:1-18).