A Counselor Reflects on Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
“‘Niceness’ – wholesome, integrated personality – is an excellent thing. We must try by every medical, educational, economic, and political means in our power to produce a world where as many people as possible grow up ‘nice’; just as we must try to produce a world where all have plenty to eat. But we must not suppose that even if we succeeded in making everyone nice we should have saved their souls… For mere improvement is not redemption, though redemption always improves people (p. 215-216).” Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
All squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares. That is the same logic that Lewis using when he says: redemption produces improvement, but not all improvement is redemptive. That would mean there are some forms of “better” that are “fool’s gold” if we are relying on our performance as assurance that we are right with God.
But let’s slow down and take the journey as Lewis lays it out. There are many ways to help people enjoy life more and to increase the quality of their relationships. Education provides more effective ways to approach life and improves the quality of conversations. The medical field reduces the interference of pain and disease. A good economy provides opportunities to pursue dreams. Politics should ensure safety and equality of opportunity between people.
But let’s assume, for the sake of intellectual honesty, we lived in a country with excellent education, good medicine, a growing economy, and a just government; would that resolve the greatest challenges that face individuals and society – crime, selfishness, laziness, family neglect, prejudice, etc…?
In various times throughout human history there have been civilizations that thrived in most of these areas, but they have all failed to make people good. No civilization has eliminated addiction, abuse, or manipulation. No education system has implanted motivation where it was lacking. No health system can curb people’s intent to live in unhealthy ways.
These things can increase a culture’s “average life expectancy” and sometimes produce cultural trends that show the more grievous expressions of sin (i.e., violent crime) are decreasing. But they cannot make individual souls or families whole. They cannot replace the despair of impending death with the hope of eternal life.
I agree with Lewis. We should do everything we morally can at the civic, scientific, and educational levels to enrich culture and the life of every person within that culture. But we must also recognize that better will be woefully insufficient without redemption.
Something must radically change within a person, before changes in his/her environment will have the effect we all know is needed. People need the new heart Christ offers (Ezek. 36:26) in order for positive changes culture offers to take root. Otherwise the soil of our heart is rocky and short term good works are choked out by the cares of our world and the selfishness of our nature (Luke 8:4-15).
So as we teach, govern, care, counsel, or in any other way seek to enrich the lives of those around us, let us remember we are doing a good thing. But let us do these good things as opportunities to leverage these relationships for the purpose of sharing the ultimate thing – the gospel. In that way, we can help people improve their life (in whatever way our vocation helps others improve their life) without creating the false hope/pressure that their hope is in their ability to improve.