A Counselor Reflects on Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

“You can be good for the sake of goodness; you cannot be bad for the mere sake of badness. You can do a kind action when you are not feeling kind and when it gives you no pleasure, simply because kindness is right; but no one ever did a cruel action simply because cruelty is wrong—only because cruelty was pleasant or useful to him. In other words badness cannot succeed even in being bad in the same way in which goodness is good (p. 42).” Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

I don’t like it when my heroes in the faith don’t get along. I’m afraid I have run up against just such a case in this quote. Compare the quote above from C.S. Lewis with an excerpt from Augustine of Hippo’s testimony in his Confessions. Augustine is speaking of his stealing pears from a local farmer when he did not like pears.

“I became evil for no reason. I had no motive for my wickedness except wickedness itself. It was foul, and I loved it. I loved the self-destruction, I loved my fall, not the object for which I had fallen but my fall itself. My depraved soul leaped down from your firmament to ruin. I was seeking not to gain anything by shameful means, but shame for its own sake (II, 4).”

I believe, as best I can understand it, that Augustine is speaking personally while Lewis is speaking philosophically. Augustine is stating that his actions were actually wicked and an accurate depiction of the condition of his heart. Lewis is stating that evil requires good in order to exist; there must a “good” to distort in order for evil to have any meaning.

Practically, I believe both points very relevant and must be help in tandem to be effectively applied. When we sin we do evil and it reveals our heart. If our confession (little “c” because most of us do not do our confessions as a historic book manuscript) take less responsibility than Augustine’s confession, then we lose the sense in which all sin is actual rebellion against God (Psalm 51:4; James 4:4).

At the same time, if we are going to learn from our sin, then we must identify the “good” thing that distorted and deceitfully charmed our willing hearts. Rarely (Lewis says never) do we sin in the direct pursuit of evil and destruction. We sin in the name of a “good” cause and we become blinded to anything but our cause.

A quick case study might be in order. A parent is angry with the poor performance of their child on homework. This anger expresses itself in a “mildly” demeaning monologue masked as an inspirational speech.

Augustine would counsel this parent by echoing Jesus in Matthew 5:21-22. The parent’s anger reveals that grades have become more important than honoring their own child. This is damnable. For the parent to skirt around the issue as less than a violation of God’s sacred trust of caring for this child is denial, blame-shifting, or excuse making (all echoes of Genesis 3:9-13). Augustine calls for brokenness.

Lewis would counsel this parent by echoing Jesus in Luke 6:45. The parent’s anger reveals a heart that has become won by things of lesser importance and placing second things first destroys everything. This question must be asked, “What is it that has won your heart and how can we help you give it its actual importance?” Lewis calls for humble, honest insight.

Hopefully, we can see how both Lewis’ and Augustine’s quotes can get along. After all, I am a counselor and don’t like conflict. The question for the reader is this, “When you sin do you take responsibility like Augustine and examine yourself like Lewis?”