C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, and the Christian Life

Some absolute gems from the C. S. Lewis classic:

As a fairly new Christian I was introduced to the great Christian apologist C. S. Lewis almost 50 years ago. Soon I had bought nearly all of his books and I devoured them eagerly. Millions of other people have also been greatly helped by his writings.

In the past few days I have bought a number of his books over again, and that for several reasons. One, many of my older copies are almost falling apart from so much usage. They are quite old and well worn. Also, I do like to highlight the important bits.

But with an author like Lewis, that means just about every other sentence is underlined in ink or highlighted with a yellow marker. Most of these volumes now look like colouring books! To read a new, unmarked copy is almost like reading Lewis for the very first time. Not quite of course, because so much of it is so very familiar, but still, it is nice to read his books afresh, and see if different things stand out from past readings.

So during the last few days I have reread his Miracles, The Problem of Pain, and Mere Christianity, with more to follow. I may do an irregular series, offering choice quotes from these classic volumes. There is never a shortage of great quotes to be found therein.

Mere Christianity of course originated as a series of radio broadcast talks in 1941. The BBC asked Lewis to give these talks to help out a war-weary England. You can see more on the background of this here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2009/08/30/cs-lewis-wartime-and-britain/

Lewis made use of terminology from the great Puritan Richard Baxter when he spoke of “mere Christianity.” He wanted to focus on those core teachings that all believers could agree on, while not looking at more divisive sectarian concerns.

The book begins with an apologetic emphasis, looking at the bigger questions about the existence of God and so on. But it ends up with some very practical, even devotional, emphases concerning the Christian life. Here I want to share a few quotes from the last four chapters of the book.

“The Christian way is different: harder and easier. Christ says ‘Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. I don’t want to drill the tooth, or crown it, or stop it, but to have it out. Hand over the natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked – the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours’.”

“The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is the hand over of your whole self – all your wishes and precautions – to Christ. But it is far easier than what we all are trying to do instead. For what we are trying to do is remain what we call ‘our­selves,’ to keep per­son­al hap­pi­ness as our great aim in life, and yet at the same time be ‘good.’ We are all try­ing to let our mind and heart go their own way – cen­tred on mon­ey or plea­sure or ambi­tion – and hop­ing, in spite of this, to behave hon­est­ly and chaste­ly and humbly. And that is what Christ warned us you could not do. As He said, a this­tle can­not pro­duce figs. If I am a field that con­tains noth­ing but grass-seed, I can­not pro­duce wheat. Cut­ting the grass may keep it short: but I shall still pro­duce grass and no wheat. If I want to pro­duce wheat, the change must go deep­er than the sur­face. I must be ploughed up and re-sown.”

“I find I must borrow yet another parable from George MacDonald. Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently he starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of — throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself. The command Be ye perfect is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command. He said (in the Bible) that we were ‘gods’ and He is going to make good His words. 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, a 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 (though, of course, on a smaller scale) 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.”

“Do not misunderstand me. Of course God regards a nasty nature as a bad and deplorable thing. And, of course, He regards a nice nature as a good thing – good like bread, or sunshine, or water. But these are the good things which He gives and we receive. He created Dick’s sound nerves and good digestion, and there is plenty more where they came from. It costs God nothing, so far as we know, to create nice things: but to convert rebellious wills cost His crucifixion. And because they are wills they can – in nice people just as much as in nasty ones – refuse His request. And then, because that niceness in Dick was merely part of nature, it will all go to pieces in the end. Nature herself will all pass away. Natural causes come together in Dick to make a pleasant psychological pattern, just as they come together in a sunset to make a pleasant pattern of colours. Presently (for that is how nature works) they will fall apart again and the pattern in both cases will disappear. Dick has had the chance to turn (or rather, to allow God to turn) that momentary pattern into the beauty of an eternal spirit: and he has not taken it. There is a paradox here. As long as Dick does not turn to God, he thinks his niceness is his own, and just as long as he thinks that, it is not his own. It is when Dick realises that his niceness is not his own but a gift from God, and when he offers it back to God – it is just then that it begins to be really his own. For now Dick is beginning to take a share in his own creation. The only things we can keep are the things we freely give to God. What we try to keep for ourselves is just what we are sure to lose.”

Image of Mere Christianity
Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis (Author), Kathleen Norris (Foreword) Amazon logo

“There is either a warning or an encouragement here for every one of us. If you are a nice person – if virtue comes easily to you – beware! Much is expected from those to whom much is given. If you mistake for your own merits what are really God’s gifts to you through nature, and if you are contented with simply being nice, you are still a rebel: and all those gifts will only make your fall more terrible, your corruption more complicated, your bad example more disastrous. The Devil was an archangel once; his natural gifts were as far above yours as yours are above those of a chimpanzee.”

“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. A world of nice people, content in their own niceness, looking no further, turned away from God, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world – and might be even more difficult to save. For mere improvement is not redemption, though redemption always improves people even here and now and will, in the end, improve them to a degree we cannot yet imagine. God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man. It is not like teaching a horse to jump better and better but like turning a horse into a winged creature. Of course, once it has got its wings, it will soar over fences which could never have been jumped and thus beat the natural horse at its own game. But there may be a period, while the wings are just beginning to grow, when it cannot do so: and at that stage the lumps on the shoulders – no one could tell by looking at them that they are going to be wings – may even give it an awkward appearance.”

“The more we let what we now call ‘ourselves’ out of the way and let Him take us over, the more truly ourselves we become. There is so much of Him that millions and millions of ‘little Christs,’ all different, will still be too few to express Him fully. He made them all. He invented – as an author invents characters in a novel – all the different men that you and I were intended to be. In that sense our real selves are all waiting for us in Him. It is no good trying to ‘be myself’ without Him. The more I resist Him and try to live on my own, the more I become dominated by my own heredity and upbringing and surroundings and natural desires.”

“The principle runs through all life from top to bottom. Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favorite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fiber of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will ever be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.”

I offer these quotes not so that you might think you now have all you need to read from the great man, but to encourage you to get his books and read them all the way through. And if you already have them, pull them off the shelves and give them another read. You will be glad you did!

[1981 words]

8 Replies to “C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, and the Christian Life”

  1. Bill, I look forward to meeting C S Lewis one day and thanking him from the bottom of my heart for writing Mere Christianity. I read it in April 1982, a questioning agnostic at the beginning and somehow an excited new Christian towards the end of it. Lewis explained and proved Christianity without mentioning the Bible which was exactly what I needed at the time. I returned the book to the woman who’d lent it to me and I asked her: What do I do now? She suggested I begin reading the Bible and I pulled a face…”oh it’s so boring” I said. She suggested beginning with John and reluctantly I did….and I began to fall in love with my wonderful Saviour! A love that has continued and grown to this day. I realise now of course that it wasn’t just Mere Christianity but the Holy Spirit in my life and in my friend’s idea to lend me the book.

  2. Great tribute to Lewis. Thank you Bill. These are some of my favorites quotes from Mere Christianity. I read it as a 19 year old, as well as the New Testament. With my Anglican upbringing, and the words of BCP ingrained in my thoughts – I got saved in a powerful way. Lewis writing was like an outside-looking-in view of Christian theology as it begins with philosophical and moral questions to arrive at that ‘shocking conclusion’ and dispenses the essence of the application of Christ to our lives. All done without quoting Scripture directly –

  3. Wonderful – praise God!

    Thank you, Bill, for reminding us of these pearls – and thank you C.S. Lewis.

    Powerful challenges!

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