In the previous chapter Lewis asked the question “Is Christianity hard or easy?” He said that Christianity is all about surrendering everything inside of us to Christ, and this is hard. But in the long run it is a whole lot easier than this business which most of us are trying to pull off–to indulge our natural, selfish, sinful desires and still turn out as good people. In this chapter Lewis considers the command “Be perfect” (or “Be ye perfect” in the old King James).
Most of us shy away from this because it seems an impossible order. And it is, for us as humans acting on our own strength. If the whole Christian life depended upon our being perfect, our position would be hopeless. But Christ is there to help us.
And that is the only help He will give us. He will not help us to simply become better people; the only help He will give us is to become perfect. This may–and in all probability it will–be a long, arduous, and painful process, but that is exactly what we are in for and nothing less.
Lewis likens this to when he was growing up and he would have a toothache. He would not tell his mother about it unless it was serious. Not because he doubted that she would give him medicine for it. She would–but then she would take him to the dentist. And once those dentists start digging around in your mouth they start doing things to all sorts of other teeth that have nothing to do with the tooth that is actually hurting. (Some of you can probably relate to this.) This is because the dentist is not concerned with simply stopping the pain; instead he wants to fix your mouth so that everything will be right.
Many people shrink back from perfection because they think it is a conceited thing to aspire to. Shouldn’t it be enough to aspire to be an ordinary, decent person, and for that to be the extent of what you desire for God to transform you into? Not so, says Lewis. The mistake here is that it doesn’t matter what kind of creatures we want to be; what matters is what God wants us to be and what He created us to be. God is the artist and we are simply His work. He knows what He intends to make us into. To shrink back from this is not humility, it is laziness and cowardice.
The other side of this is that while God is not satisfied with anything less than perfection in us, He is pleased when we make our first feeble attempts to move in that direction. Lewis cites George MacDonald’s illustration that every father is pleased when his baby boy takes his first faltering steps when learning how to walk, but satisfied with nothing less than the steady, solid walk of a man. “God is easy to please, but hard to satisfy.”
Lewis ties both these ideas together like this:
On the one hand we must never imagine that our own unaided efforts can be relied on to carry us even through the next twenty-four hours as “decent” people. If He does not support us, not one of us is safe from some gross sin. On the other hand, no possible degree of holiness or heroism which has ever been recorded of the greatest saints is beyond what He is determined to produce in every one of us in the end. The job will not be completed in this life: but He means to get us as far as possible before death.
(Here Lewis tips his hand as to the fact that he believes in purgatory. For those of you who don’t know, purgatory is part of Catholic (and Eastern Orthodox, I think, but I’m not fully certain about that) belief. It is a place where most people who are ultimately bound for Heaven go immediately after death, where the soul undergoes a process of purification and formation into the image of Christ prior to entry into Heaven. Granted there is little if anything in the Bible to support the concept of purgatory, but then the Bible says very little about what happens to the soul from the time immediately after death to the time that Christ returns at the end to judge all things. The upshot is that Catholics believe that everyone goes to Heaven or Hell after death, but some who are going to Heaven take longer to get there.)
Lewis then borrows another illustration from George MacDonald to reiterate what the spiritual transformation process is like. It is like an old house that is bought and repaired. At first the owner does things that make sense, like fixing the plumbing and stopping up the leaks in the roof. This is fine with the house, because those repairs needed to be made anyway. But then things start to get crazy. The owner builds out a couple of new wings, adds new floors and balconies and courtyards, runs up towers and turrets. The house does not understand what is going on. It was fine to remain just as a simple cottage. But the owner wanted to turn it into a palace.
Lewis ties it all together at the end like this:
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, 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.