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Key insights from

Mere Christianity

By C.S. Lewis

What you'll learn

C.S. Lewis was one of the most beloved Christian authors of the twentieth century. In this best-selling classic, Lewis's aim was to articulate and defend the fundamental beliefs that are common to all Christians. He begins with arguments for God's existence, then turns to the basics of Christian doctrine. To ensure he was speaking on behalf of Christians across denominational lines, Lewis sent the original script to four clergymen (Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic) inviting their critique. The result is the presentation of a common, or “mere” Christianity.


Read on for key insights from Mere Christianity.

1. There is a moral dimension to reality that points in God’s direction.

When people argue, they often make implicit appeals to a standard of behavior that they expect the other person to know about. For example, they’ll say things like, “That’s not fair!” or “You should have known better!” Without question, we all expect each other to behave a certain way. And whenever we argue, attempts are made to hold each other accountable. Of course, instead of denying that there is a moral standard when we’re accused of violating it, we invariably claim that we haven’t really violated it after all, or we make up some kind of excuse for our behavior. Such responses only underscore the point—there is a standard of behavior above and beyond our personal preferences, and each of us knows it.

Just as physical objects are governed by the law of gravity, so man’s behavior is governed by the law of morality. The key difference is that man has a choice to either obey or disobey the moral law. Nevertheless, we have all failed to consistently practice the kind of behavior we expect from others.

The fact that we all know the moral law (and break it, anyway) serves as a striking indication of what reality is really like. There is a moral dimension to the universe that one wouldn’t expect unless something like Christian theism is true.

2. Christianity becomes relevant the moment we realize that our bad behavior puts us at odds with our good creator.

We are not completely in the dark regarding the source of the moral law. Whoever is behind it has, at least in part, revealed himself to us. For example, the universe he’s created tells us that he’s a great artist. It also indicates that he may not be our friend, for the universe is a rather hostile, dangerous place. The other clue comes from our conscience—the moral law within each of us tells us that the creator of the universe is keenly interested in our behavior. He designed us to know the difference between right and wrong, and he expects us to act accordingly.

This leaves us with a very serious concern: If the universe we inhabit is governed by a moral law, and that moral law was instituted by a good and powerful creator, then aren’t we doing ourselves a great disservice whenever we violate it? Aren’t we putting ourselves at odds with our own maker? Christianity becomes relevant the moment we come to this realization.

3. Without some standard of good, there’d be no such thing as bad.

There is much that is bad and seemingly meaningless in the universe. And, incredibly, the universe has produced creatures who are aware of this. There are only two views that address these facts. One is the Christian view, which says that the world used to be good but has since gone bad. The other is dualism, which says the universe is a sort of battlefield where the powers of good and evil wage war against each other. But there is a problem with dualism: any appeal to a standard by which the powers of good and evil could be judged must assume a source for that standard, and this source would have to be of a higher order than either power. This points us to the real God.

Without a real God, dualism must have a bad power who prefers evil for its own sake. But in real life, we do not find people who are drawn to what is bad just because it is bad. We can be kind when we don’t feel like it, simply because it is the right thing to do. But no one has ever been cruel just because being cruel is wrong. This makes sense when we consider what badness is. Badness is always the pursuit of some good thing—whether it be money or sex or power—in an inappropriate or excessive way. Unlike goodness, badness doesn’t exist on its own, in its own right. It can only be understood as the absence of goodness, or a distortion of something good. Normal sexuality, for example, is simply itself, while sadism is a perversion of normal sexuality.

4. If Jesus wasn’t God incarnate, then he was either a fraud or a madman.

Jesus made some radical, shocking claims that no on else had ever dared to make. He claimed to forgive sins, to have always existed, and that he would one day judge the whole world. At the same time, he also claimed to be humble and meek.

There aren’t many explanations for Jesus’ radical self-understanding. If he wasn’t God incarnate, then he was either a fraud or a madman. The people who try to say Jesus was a good moral teacher simply don’t realize their foolishness. We’re forced to either take him at his word, or brand him a liar. We must either worship him or reject him. There’s no middle ground from which he can be viewed as a good moral teacher. His radical self-understanding precludes that possibility.

5. Only a bad man needs to repent, but only a good man can actually do it.

Because we’ve sinned, we’ve separated ourselves from God. We’ve accrued a debt that needs to be paid. The problem is that we’re unable to pay it. Being imperfect sinners, we’re incapable of the perfect repentance that’s required in order to put us right with God. While a bad man is the only type of man who needs to repent, a good man is the only type of man who can actually do it.

It is this predicament which Jesus came to resolve for us. As a man, he was able to live, suffer and die—and as God, he was perfect and righteous. While undeserving of punishment, he was the only one who could atone for our sins on our behalf. He was the righteous replacement who could do for us what we could never do for ourselves.

6. The sins of the flesh are the least of all sins.

Christianity emphasizes the importance of chastity and faithfulness. If you aren’t married, you’re to abstain from sex. If you are married, you’re to remain faithful to your spouse. We’re expected to restrain ourselves from giving in to our natural sexual instincts and impulses. This view of sexuality is unpopular, to say the least. But does that make it incorrect?

Sex is for procreation, just as food is for nourishment. But sex has become an unhealthy obsession. Imagine if people lusted after food the way they lust after dancers in a strip club. Imagine if people paid to see food slowly uncovered on a platter, the way they pay to see women get undressed. It would obviously be unnatural to obsess over food in that way. So why don’t we think of our sexual obsession as being unnatural? The popularity of strip clubs suggests that our sex instinct is broken.

But sexual sins are not the worst of all sins. In fact, the sins of the flesh are the least of all sins. Far more egregious are sins of the spirit.

7. Pride is the greatest sin of all because it keeps us looking down on others when we should be looking up.

There are many grave sins that displease God, but there is no sin greater than pride. It was pride that made the devil into an enemy of God, and it will make us enemies of him, too. A proud man is not merely in need of improvement—rather, he is in need of a complete overhaul. A proud man is the complete opposite of what he should be.

If you want to try and gauge how proud you are, think about how much it bothers you when people don’t treat you the way you want to be treated. If other people get more praise than you, does it bother you? How about if you’re belittled? Pride is fiercely competitive. It isn’t content to merely have something, but to have more of it than others. The problem is this: when we’re proudly looking down on others, we can’t help but lose sight of what’s above us. This is why proud men can never hope to know God. 

Pride also manages to quietly work its way into our spiritual lives. We often think we’re making improvements by getting over our vices, but if in doing so we become proud of our efforts, we’re actually taking a step backward. Being proud of your spiritual accomplishments is, in itself, a great spiritual failure.

8. God intends that we should love and forgive others the way we love and forgive ourselves.

Forgiveness sounds wonderful as a concept, but putting it into practice is always difficult. The best way to learn how to forgive is to start small. Forgive your wife, or friends, or parents for something they’ve recently done to upset you.

In Christian circles, you’ll often hear an instruction to, “hate the sin, but not the sinner.” At first, this seems absurd. How do you hate what a man does without hating the man? But it’s actually not that difficult once you come to realize that this is precisely how we behave with respect to ourselves. We often sin in terrible, shameful ways, and yet we go on loving ourselves, anyway. What God asks of us is that we simply extend this same loving attitude to others. In doing so, we’re not excusing their sin—we’re just not using it as an excuse for withholding love and forgiveness.

9. You will begin to love God and others by simply acting as if you already do.

Love is not a feeling that must be manufactured but a matter of the will that must be acted upon. It is the natural state of mind that we have toward ourselves and that we must learn to have toward others. 

So, rather than wait to “feel” love for your neighbor, act as though you love him already. When you do this, you’ll be surprised at how quickly and easily you develop a genuine love for him. Christian love, when acted upon, leads to affection. This is why the little decisions we make every day are so important.

And what are we to do when we are told to love God? The answer is the same. Rather than try to manufacture a feeling, ask yourself, “If I truly loved God, what would I do?” When you determine the answer, go and do it. If we are obeying God’s commandments, we will find ourselves loving him.

10. Despite what you may think, Christianity isn’t about rules and guilt—it actually leads us away from all that.

The road back to God is one of moral effort, of trying harder. But there is a point at which we realize that all of our trying will never truly accomplish the task. That’s when we turn to God and confess, “You must do this, I can’t.” Instead of continuing a futile effort, we put our trust in Christ, believing that He will impart His perfect obedience to us. In Christ, we find everything for nothing. The whole of the Christian experience consists of receiving this remarkable offer.

This does not mean that we stop trying to be obedient or righteous in God’s eyes, but it does mean that we begin trying in a new way. Not in order to be saved, but because God has already begun the process of saving us. Not in the hope of getting into heaven as a reward for our efforts, but because the light of heaven is already in us. Thus, while Christianity seems at first to be all about rules and guilt and virtue, it actually leads us away from all that.

11. God doesn’t want us to become perfect before he will help us; he wants to help us become perfect.

Some people think that when the Lord said, “Be perfect,” he meant, “Unless you are perfect I will not help you.” Since none of us can be perfect, that would put us in a hopeless situation. It seems better to take Him to mean, “The help I’m offering you is to be perfect. I will give you nothing less.”

In this sense, going to God is like going to the dentist. We may go to Him to deaden the pain so we can sleep, but we will not get what we want out of Him without also having our teeth permanently fixed. That’s why the Bible warns us to “count the cost” before becoming a Christian. There is going to be suffering and weariness on the road to righteousness, but Jesus will not rest—nor let us rest—until we’ve reached the end of our journey to perfection.

The job will not be finished in this life, but God intends to get us as far along as possible before death. So the Christian must not be surprised when he encounters illnesses, or financial difficulties, or temptation. God will force us into situations where we will have to be braver, or more patient, or more loving than we’ve ever been before. At times we will wonder if what is happening is necessary, but that is only because we can’t see over the horizon. What God has in store for us is greater than we could ever imagine.

12. The people who have the biggest impact in this world are focused on heaven, not earth.

Hope is looking forward to the world to come, but that doesn’t mean we should fall into escapism or indifference about this life. Christian history demonstrates that those who have had the biggest impact on the present world are those who have been the most committed to the next. Focus on heaven and you get earth, as well; focus on earth and you get neither.

Unfortunately, we are trained and educated to fix our minds on this world. It is, therefore, not surprising that most of us struggle to really want heaven. But there remains in all of us an underlying desire for heaven that often goes unrecognized. The feelings that are stirred by a first love, the intrigue at the thought of starting a great journey, and the thrill of beginning studies on a subject that really interests us are all longings that eventually fade. But Christianity tells us that we are not given desires unless a satisfaction for those desires exists. If we feel hunger, food will satisfy us. If we feel tired, sleep will satisfy us. If we feel a desire that nothing in this world will satisfy—if we experience an insatiable longing—then there must be something beyond this world to meet our desire. We are, in fact, longing for heaven in such moments, and the Christian teaching is that our longing will one day be satisfied.

Endnotes

These insights are just an introduction. If you're ready to dive deeper, pick up a copy of Mere Christianity here. And since we get a commission on every sale, your purchase will help keep this newsletter free

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