Becoming like Christ
Regular columnist James Knight considers what it means to become like Christ and, helped by CS Lewis, describes aspects of that journey.
Lots of writing has had a huge impact on my life - particularly in the fields of philosophy, economics, politics, literature, science and, most pertinent here, theology. Here I want to talk about a particular chapter in C.S Lewis's Mere Christianity called Let's Pretend, that I recall at the time (nearly 20 years ago,) made a significant impression on my journey of exploration into Christianity, and was perhaps the piece of writing that shone the most light on the bridge between the Christian faith in theory and the Christian relationship in practice.
The Christian faith in theory is about what we believe to be true and factual. The Christian relationship in practice is about how we live our life and whether we put God at the heart of it. C.S Lewis's chapter Let's Pretend does a wonderful job of helping to take what one might practically believe (or start to believe) is true and turn it into a life-changing first step on the road to faith.
Lewis starts the chapter with a fairy-tale about someone who had to wear a mask; a mask which made him look much nicer than he really was. He had to wear it for a year. And when he took it off he found his own face had grown to fit it. He was now really beautiful. What had begun as disguise had become a reality. C.S Lewis invites us to attempt to wear the mask of Christ in order to start to become more like Him, and in doing so start to see the powerful truth of Christianity. He begins with quite a direct invite:
"If you are interested enough to have read thus far you are probably interested enough to make a shot at saying your prayers and, whatever else you say, you will probably say the Lord's Prayer. The very first words are Our Father. Do you now see what those words mean? They mean quite frankly, that you are putting yourself in the place of a son of God. To put it bluntly, you are dressing up as Christ. If you like, you are pretending.
“Because, of course, the moment you realise what the words mean, you realise that you are not a son of God. You are not being like The Son of God, whose will and interests are at one with those of the Father: you are a bundle of self-centred fears, hopes, greeds, jealousies, and self-conceit, all doomed to death. So that, in a way, this dressing up as Christ is a piece of outrageous cheek. But the odd thing is that He has ordered us to do it."
Lewis then goes on with a lovely passage about the practical benefits of pretending to be better than you are:
"What is the good of pretending to be what you are not? Well, even on the human level, you know, there are two kinds of pretending. There is a bad kind, where the pretence is there instead of the real thing; as when a man pretends he is going to help you instead of really helping you.
“But there is also a good kind, where the pretence leads up to the real thing. When you are not feeling particularly friendly but know you ought to be, the best thing you can do, very often, is to put on a friendly manner and behave as if you were a nicer person than you actually are. And in a few minutes, as we have all noticed, you will be really feeling friendlier than you were. Very often the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already."
What I started to learn when considering this in relation to Christ is not just how when pretending to be like Him it becomes less of a pretence. It's also the case, or it was for me, that the more I pretended to be like Christ the more I started to realise the vast distance between God's goodness and ordinary human morality. It was then that I came to see that Jesus was no mere man - that the standards He set for us are so unattainable that they very much feel like they are from God. Lewis puts it like this:
"The Christ Himself, the Son of God who is man (just like you) and God (just like His Father) is actually at your side and is already at that moment beginning to turn your pretence into a reality. This is not merely a fancy way of saying that your conscience is telling you what to do. If you simply ask your conscience, you get one result: if you remember that you are dressing up as Christ, you get a different one.
“There are lots of things which your conscience might not call definitely wrong (specially things in your mind), but which you will see at once you cannot go on doing if you are seriously trying to be like Christ. For you are no longer thinking simply about right and wrong; you are trying to catch the good infection from a Person. The real Son of God is at your side. He is beginning to turn you into the same kind of thing as Himself."
This is what the New Testament means by "being born again"; and "putting on Christ"; and about Christ "being formed in us"; and about our coming to "have the mind of Christ." - what starts as a pretence to be like Him, a bit like how a student tries to be like a teacher to master a particular subject, turns into something supernatural where the real Person of Christ is actually changing you from the inside. The same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead and created the whole universe lives in us.
And in becoming little Christs we start to learn not just our true state of being forgiven sinners, but also the fallen-ness from which we needed saving in the first place. In understanding our perfect God's goodness we begin to be astounded at how sinful we really are, and how much our outward appearances mask our real nature. Lewis puts it in a way we can all relate to:
"When I come to my evening prayers and try to reckon up the sins of the day, nine times out of ten the most obvious one is some sin against charity; I have sulked or snapped or sneered or snubbed or stormed. And the excuse that immediately springs to my mind is that the provocation was so sudden and unexpected: I was caught off my guard, I had not time to collect myself. Now that may be an extenuating circumstance as regards those particular acts: they would obviously be worse if they had been deliberate and premeditated.
"On the other hand, surely what a man does when he is taken off his guard is the best evidence for what sort of a man he is? Surely what pops out before the man has time to put on a disguise is the truth? If there are rats in a cellar you are most likely to see them if you go in very suddenly. But the suddenness does not create the rats: it only prevents them from hiding. In the same way the suddenness of the provocation does not make me an ill-tempered man: it only shows me what an ill-tempered man I am. The rats are always there in the cellar, but if you go in shouting and noisily they will have taken cover before you switch on the light."
I suppose, although He was not like us in that He was without sin, there is a sense in which by becoming a human, Christ pretended a little bit to be like us to live in conditions that would enable Him to suffer and die like us. And that act, underpinned by God's goodness, is what it means to live under grace, with Christ turning us gradually into sons of God through His power.
I daresay this seems quite a peculiar thing to get your head around - but is it really that surprising? - after all, the greater thing is what brings the less great thing up to its level; teachers do it to students, parents to their children, and likewise, Christ to His creation.
The image above is courtesy of https://pixabay.com
James Knight is a local government officer based in Norwich, and is a regular columnist for Christian community websites Network Norfolk and Network Ipswich. He also blogs regularly as ‘The Philosophical Muser’, and contributes articles to UK think tanks The Adam Smith Institute and The Institute of Economic Affairs, as well as the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (LICC).
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