C. S. Lewis on ‘Bad Christians’ and the Raw Material God Works With

Towards the end of Mere Christianity, where he discusses the impact that Christian faith should actually have in one’s life, C. S. Lewis draws attention to a very important point, and one which provides a compelling defence against the oft-heard argument that Christianity can’t be true because there are so many bad Christians. This argument does indeed have some truth to it – if Christianity is true, and the grace of God can transform people’s lives, we should expect to see some evidence of this in the sort of behaviour we find coming from individual Christians. However, it is also true that a good deal of Christians don’t actually practise what they preach, do not pick up their cross daily and allow their wills to be converted to Christ – their faith remains either a mere intellectual assent or a nominal affiliation for the purposes of identity.

With respect to this point – that, as Chesterton said, Christianity has not been tried and found wanting, but has barely been tried at all – one cannot therefore judge the truth of Christianity on the fact that a lot of people either find it too much of a challenge and prefer to stick with the various comforts and routines they have gotten used to, or that in countries with a Christian heritage a lot of people who identify with Christianity never actually undergo any sort of conversion to Christ. Lewis makes a different sort of counter to the ‘bad Christians’ argument though, which is that we do not all start from the same place – God has to work with a vastly differing range of personalities, and so the ‘raw material’ that He starts with must be factored in when assessing the end results:

Christian Miss Bates may have an unkinder tongue than unbelieving Dick Firkin. That, by itself, does not tell us whether Christianity works. The question what Miss Bates’ tongue would be like if she were not a Christian and what Dick’s would be like if he became one. Miss Bates and Dick, as a result of natural causes and early upbringing, have certain temperaments: Christianity professes to put both temperaments under new management if they will allow it to do so. What you have a right to ask is whether that management, if allowed to take over, improves the concern. Everyone knows that what is being managed in Dick Firkin’s case is much “nicer” than what is being managed in Miss Bates’. That is not the point. To judge the management of a factory, you must consider not only the output but the plant. Considering the plant at Factory A it may be a wonder that it turns out anything at all; considering the first-class outfit at Factory B its output, though high, may be a great deal lower than it ought to be…

…But if we left it at that, it would sound as though Christ’s only aim was to pull Miss Bates up to the same level on which Dick had been all along. We have been talking, in fact, as if Dick were all right; as if Christianity was something nasty people needed and nice ones could afford to do without; and as if niceness was all that God demanded. But this would be a fatal mistake. The truth is that in God’s eyes Dick Firkin needs “saving” every bit as much as Miss Bates. In one sense (I will explain what sense in a moment) niceness hardly comes into the question.

Mere Christianity (1982), pp.175-176, Fount Paperbacks.

            At times of the year such as Advent and Lent, when we make a concerted effort to focus on purification of the will, on readying ourselves to remember the great acts of God and receive His graces anew, it is very easy to become dispirited – we realise just how little progress we seem to have made and become downhearted at how selfish, greedy, lustful and proud we still are. But we often neglect to remember where we started off, and that, compared to ten years (or even ten months) ago, we might (and, if we are steadfast in our devotions, usually will) have changed in ways that, for us, are significant. Just because we are not like Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, this does not mean the grace of God is not operative and effective in our lives; and this is something that it is just as important for us to remember as it is for the critic of Christianity.

In the second paragraph quoted above though, Lewis alludes to a further point that is worth remembering – that, whilst authentic faith should indeed produce fruit in our lives, salvation is not about ‘niceness’, and that the ‘good atheist’ needs saving just as much as the ‘bad Christian’. In fact, Lewis argues, those whose ‘raw material’ consists of a good upbringing, a stable temperament and keen conscience may be more in need of salvation than those with obvious faults – the latter awakens one to our need for redemption, whereas the former state can lull us into a state of self-sufficiency such that we are unable to hear the voice of God:

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 give freely to God. What we try to keep for ourselves is just what we are sure to lose.

We must not, therefore, be surprised if we find among the Christians some people who are still nasty. There is even, when you come to think it over, a reason why nasty people might be expected to turn to Christ in greater numbers than nice ones. That was what people objected to about Christ during His life on earth: He seemed to attract such “awful people”. That is what people still object to and always will. Do you not see why? Christ said “Blessed are the poor” and “How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom,” and no doubt He primarily meant the economically rich and economically poor. But do not His words also apply to another kind of riches and poverty? One of the dangers of having a lot of money is that you may be quite satisfied with the kinds of happiness money can give and so fail to realise your need for God. If everything seems to come simply by signing cheques, you may forget that you are at every moment totally dependent on God. Now quite plainly, natural gifts carry with them a similar danger…

…“Why drag God into it?” you may ask. A certain level of good conduct comes fairly easily to you. You are not one of those wretched creatures who are always being tripped up by sex, or dipsomania, or nervousness, or bad temper. Everyone says you are a nice chap and (between ourselves) you agree with them. You are quite likely to believe that all this niceness is your own doing: and you may easily not feel the need for any better kind of goodness. Often people who have all these natural kinds of goodness cannot be brought to recognise their need for Christ at all until, one day, the natural goodness lets them down and their self-satisfaction is shattered…

…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.

ibid, pp.178-181.

            Why drag God into it? This sums up the attitude of the self-sufficient man described by Lewis above, but also perhaps describes one of the underlying assumptions that the proponent of the ‘bad Christians’ argument is beholden to – namely that they are quite happy getting along with life, and all that stuff about God and ultimate meaning is a hindrance to doing things on their own terms. In other words, the argument that reasons from bad behaviour amongst Christians to the falsity of Christianity itself is a means of distracting from the question of whether Christianity is objectively true or not – because if it is, then we have to change our lives, and that means all of us.

As Lewis says, this is not really about morality – the good conscience and good works that flow from faith are, whilst very important, secondary to the conversion of heart effected by God and the ongoing conversion of our wills to His. He is trying to ‘turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind, but to produce a new kind of man’, and, quite frankly, a good deal of us do not want this – as I argued (via Karl Barth) in another post, our desire to be left alone by God is more of a hindrance to faith (and more destructive of it when it exists) than we would commonly like to admit. I’m getting on fine with my (good and respectable, we implicitly add) life, so why drag God into it?

Furthermore, this point can be extended to those Christians in traditions that repudiate the necessity of the sacraments. They too will argue that they see people in churches where the sacraments are offered and received, and do not see those people as being any better Christians than they are. This is of course something very difficult to prove either way (though the lives of the saints are a most excellent defence against the critique), but the point no doubt has some validity – we all know of people (most of all ourselves) who regularly communicate and yet whose behaviour is often put to shame by people without the benefit of sacraments (or sometimes without any faith at all). Once again we are led to wonder whether there is any truth to this sacramental business if we can’t see the immediate effects in people’s lives.

However, Lewis’ points about ‘raw material’ and the true end of sanctification are again relevant – we do not know what kind of person God is working with in each case, and the point of the sacraments is not primarily to generate ‘niceness’ but to unite us to Christ at a deeper level, changing us from creatures into His children. One might be able to be a good and even holy person without the sacraments, but the objective truth is that without them you are missing out on the fullness of all God wants to offer you, and that what He wants for you is primarily to draw you closer to Him, not just to make you good. Similarly, being a Christian at all doesn’t guarantee goodness – it should make us better than we are already, but first of all it is about relationship with a God who wants to save our souls, and in the process make us happier and more glorious than we can ever imagine.


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