Mere Christianity 27: Nice People or New Men

We are now only two chapters away from the end of Mere Christianity.  We are in the section called “Beyond Personality”, in which Lewis discusses what a God who is beyond personality looks like and how we as humans can engage with a God who is beyond personality and experience that life which is beyond personality.  Along the way, Lewis answers a number of common questions and objections, and in this chapter Lewis tackles the question:  “If Christianity is true why are not all Christians obviously nicer than all non-Christians?”

What lies behind this question?  There are two possibilities, one reasonable and the other not so reasonable.  The first is that if Christianity is real then there is an expectation that it ought to be able to change lives, and that we ought to be able to see at least some evidence of this in the behavior of people who identify themselves as Christians.  Indeed, Jesus Himself told us that we would know whether or not someone is truly a Christian by their fruit–that is, by the difference that it makes upon their outward behavior.  If being a Christian has truly made no difference upon the outward behavior of one who identifies himself as such, then there is reason to doubt whether or not he is really a Christian at all.

The second, which is not so reasonable, is the idea that the world is clearly divided into two camps:  people who are 100 percent Christian, and people who are 100 percent non-Christian.  And the people in the Christian camp are without fail going to be nicer than the people in the non-Christian camp.  Many non-Christians hold this expectation, and love to cite examples of Christian misbehavior as evidence to discredit Christianity.  Many evangelicals are among the worst offenders of those who hold this expectation.  They love to say that people are either in or out, saved or not saved, that there is no such thing as “almost saved”.  (I wrote about this in an earlier post.)  And they love to say that Christians are morally superior people (because of the power of God) who can keep the commandments and live moral lives better than people who do not believe.  (I also wrote about this earlier.)

But this expectation is unreasonable, for several reasons.  First, very few people are 100 percent Christian or 100 percent non-Christian.  The vast majority of us are somewhere in between.  Many people in church who call themselves Christian are actually in a process of slowly and gradually drifting away in their hearts.  At the same time there are many non-Christians who are in a process of slowly being drawn to Christ, even though they may not know it or be willing to admit it yet.  (This is why it is totally wrong to say that almost saved is totally lost.)  Also there are many people in other religions who are drawn to the parts of their religion which are consistent with Christianity while deemphasizing the rest, even though they may still profess to believe the rest as well.

Second, it is simply not fair to compare Christians as a whole with non-Christians as a whole, or even to compare an individual Christian with an individual non-Christian.  The question to ask is not whether such-and-such Christian is nicer than such-and-such non-Christian, but whether such-and-such Christian is nicer than he or she would have been if he or she never became a Christian.  Temperament is just a natural part of our disposition which has nothing whatsoever to do with anything we do.  In other words, some people are naturally nice and others are naturally not nice.  If a person is naturally not nice, then it’s a miracle if they are able to be nice at all.  If a person is naturally nice, then there’s no telling how much nicer they might be able to be if they let God have His way.  Think of it like factories:  one factory may be so outdated and decrepit that it’s a wonder that it produces anything at all, while another may be so advanced and up-to-date that it’s a wonder it doesn’t produce much more than it does.  If God has His way, both factories will be placed under new management which will maximize the productivity of each, and eventually the one with outdated equipment will have all its machinery replaced and brought up to standard.

Third, this is problematic because it may lead people to think Christianity is something which only not-nice people need, and which nice people do not need.  The problem with this is that human temperament is not due to any choices which we make.  God can just as easily create a nice person, or change a not-so-nice person into a nice person.  But both the nice person and the not-so-nice person have wills, which they must surrender to God but are perfectly free to choose not to.  Many nice people fall into the trap of thinking that their niceness is their own, and that they don’t need God to help them to be nice.  But this is a trap, because like all other things in nature, their niceness is temporary.  And it is only if they freely offer it to God that they have a chance to see it become permanent.

Making people nice does not cause them to be redeemed, though being redeemed may cause people to become nicer.  A world full of nice people is not automatically saved; in fact it may be much harder to save than a world full of not-so-nice people.  Because the not-so-nice people have no illusions about the whole thing.  After any serious attempt to be nice they realize that they can’t pull it off no matter how hard they try, and thus their only two options are to turn to Christ or to despair completely.  For this reason, one should not be surprised to see the world of Christianity filled with not-so-nice people:  they are the ones who know they need Christ, while the nice people do not think they need Him at all.

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.

But if you are a poor creature–poisoned by a wretched up-bringing in some house full of vulgar jealousies and senseless quarrels–saddled, by no choice of your own, with some loathsome sexual perversion–nagged day in and day out by an inferiority complex that makes you snap at your best friends–do not despair.  He knows all about it.  You are one of the poor whom He blessed.  He knows what a wretched machine you are trying to drive.  Keep on.  Do what you can.  One day (perhaps in another world, but perhaps far sooner than that) he will fling it on the scrapheap and give you a new one.  And then you may astonish us all–not least yourself:  for you have learned your driving in a hard school.  (Some of the last will be first and some of the first will be last.)

But it is important to not dwell too long on this question.  God came to produce new men, not better men of the old kind.  It is easy to try to discredit Christianity by comparing some Christian who is not nice with a nice person who is not a Christian.  But this is only evading the issue.

What can you ever really know of other people’s souls–of their temptations, their opportunities, their struggles?  One soul in the whole creation you do know:  and it is the only one whose fate is placed in your hands.  If there is a God, you are, in a sense, alone with Him.  You cannot put Him off with speculations about your next door neighbours or memories of what you have read in books.  What will all that chatter and hearsay count (will you even be able to remember it?) when the anaesthetic fog which we call “nature” or “the real world” fades away and the Presence in which you have always stood becomes palpable, immediate, and unavoidable?