Mere Christianity 18: Faith

Now we have come to the close of the section on Christian behavior.  In the final two chapters of this section, Lewis treats the virtue of faith on two different levels.  The first is simply belief in a set of statements about the world, specifically those statements which Christianity makes about the world.

At first blush, this does not appear to be much of a virtue at all.  The assumption is that people are rational beings who will go on believing something until they find some compelling reason to not believe it anymore and to believe something else in its place.  But the truth is that we are not creatures ruled by reason; this is seen in the patient who knows the power of anesthetics but fears that the doctors will cut him up before he is properly under, or the woman who is afraid to drive on a high bridge over a river even though she knows it to be perfectly safe.  Thus the virtue of faith at this level lies not so much in accepting a certain set of propositions, but in holding on to what reason has accepted in spite of the moods and feelings that rise up against it.

It is not at all uncommon for Christians to encounter profoundly tragic circumstances in life when it seems to all the world as if God is not there and everything they believed is not true after all.  Or else Christians may find themselves in situations where it would be awfully convenient if the things which they believe were not really true.  (Such as when they move to the big city and see all their friends going out, getting drunk, and shacking up on the weekends, or when they find themselves working in industries where it is common practice to engage in some form of deception to improve the bottom line.)  In either of these cases–when your life circumstances cause you to question whether God is there at all, or when you find yourself in situations where it would be awfully convenient if Christianity were not true–then it becomes a virtue to go on believing that Christianity is true.

This virtue must be trained.  We must be intentional about keeping what we as Christians have accepted in front of us constantly, in some form or another.  It does not automatically remain alive inside of us; it must be fed.  This is true in other areas of life as well; recently the pastor of our church cited an email from the CEO of Starbucks who was profoundly concerned that his company had lost its original vision as an example of the principle that the natural tendency of any sort of vision is to drift and we must be intentional about making it stick.  The same applies to faith.  That is why Christians are so big on going to church, daily prayer and/or Bible reading; all of these disciplines are necessary in order to make our faith stick.  Very few Christians are reasoned out of their faith by honest argument; most simply drift away.

That is the first level of faith which Lewis speaks of.  Lewis begins to speak of the second by going back to the virtue of humility.  The first step toward acquiring this virtue is to admit that one is proud.  Now Lewis adds another step–to make some serious attempt to practice the Christian virtues on your own.  Not just for a few days, but for a seriously long stretch, say 8 to 10 weeks.  Things usually go swimmingly for the first week or so, but by the time six weeks have gone by you will have found out some things about yourself.  First, that if you make any serious attempt to practice the Christian virtues on a long-term basis you will fail.  Then, that even if you could succeed you would not be giving God anything He does not already have.

Those of you who are of a Lutheran or Reformed bent will recognize this as the old Law-Gospel tension, which goes something like this:  So you want to get right with God?  Here’s what you do:  Keep all of His commandments.  Here they are, now try and do it.  Can’t do it?  Oh–here comes the Gospel to the rescue!!!  Christ already did it for you.  Just believe in Him and all He has done for you, and all will be good.

Now we cannot…discover our failure to keep God’s law except by trying our very hardest (and then failing).  Unless we really try, whatever we say there will always be at the back of our minds the idea that if we try harder next time we shall succeed in being completely good.  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.  When the most important things in our life happen we quite often do not know, at the moment, what is going on.  A man does not always say to himself, “Hullo!  I’m growing up.”  It is often only when he looks back that he realises what has happened and recognises it as what people call “growing up.”…As well, the thing I am talking of now may not happen to every one in a sudden flash–as it did to St. Paul or Bunyan:  it may be so gradual that no one could ever point to a particular hour or even a particular year.  And what matters is the nature of the change in itself, not how we feel while it is happening.  It is the change from being confident about our own efforts to the state in which we despair of doing anything for ourselves and leave it to God.

And now comes Lewis’s presentation of the Gospel, which is the clearest you will find anywhere in the book.

I know the words “leave it to God” can be misunderstood, but they must stay for the moment.  The sense in which a Christian leaves it to God is that he puts all his trust in Christ:  trusts that Christ will somehow share with him the perfect human obedience which He carried out from His birth to His crucifixion:  that Christ will make the man more like Himself and, in a sense, make good his deficiencies.  In Christian language, He will share His “sonship” with us, will make us, like Himself, “Sons of God”….If you like to put it that way, Christ offers something for nothing:  He even offers everything for nothing.  In a sense, the whole Christian life consists in accepting that very remarkable offer.

Now Lewis goes on to address two common pitfalls with regard to this kind of faith.  The first is to say that good works are all that matters, and the other is to say that faith is all that matters.  The answer to the first is that good actions done for an ulterior motive, as if Heaven were something that could be bought, are not good actions at all but merely commercial speculations.  The answer to the second is that if what one calls “faith” in Christ does not involve paying any attention to what He said about living a holy life, then it is not true faith at all.  Lewis takes us to Philippians 2:12-13, which ties these two ideas together in one sentence.

The Bible really seems to clinch the matter when it puts the two things together into one amazing sentence.  The first half is, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling”–which looks as if everything depended on us and our good actions:  but the second half goes on, “For it is God who worketh in you”–which looks as if God did everything and we nothing.  I am afraid that is the sort of thing we come up against in Christianity.  I am puzzled, but I am not surprised.  You see, we are now trying to understand, and to separate into water-tight compartments, what exactly God does and what man does when God and man are working together.  And, of course, we begin by thinking it is like two men working together, so that you could say, “He did this bit and I did that.”  But this way of thinking breaks down.  God is not like that.  He is inside you as well as outside:  even if we could understand who did what, I do not think human language could express it.  In the attempt to express it different Churches say different things.  But you will find that even those who insist most strongly on the importance of good actions tell you you need Faith; and even those who insist most strongly on Faith tell you to do good actions.

Lewis closes out the chapter and the section by stating that at first blush it seems that Christianity is all about rules and moral obligations.  But anyone who has been a Christian for any length of time will tell you that Christianity leads you very quickly out of that into something much greater that we can only catch the faintest glimpse of from this world.

One has a glimpse of a country where they do not talk of those things, except perhaps as a joke.  Every one there is filled full with what we should call goodness as a mirror is filled with light.  But they do not call it goodness.  They do not call it anything.  They are not thinking of it.  They are too busy looking at the source from which it comes.  But this is near the stage where the road passes over the rim of our world.  No one’s eyes can see very far beyond that:  lots of people’s eyes can see further than mine.