10 April 1944
I sometimes feel appalled at the thought of the sum total of human misery all over the world at the present moment: the millions parted, fretting, wasting in unprofitable days -- quite apart from torture, pain, death, bereavement, injustice. If anguish were visible, almost the whole of this benighted planet would be enveloped in a dense dark vapor, shrouded from the amazed vision of the heavens! And the products of it all will be mainly evil -- historically considered. But the historic version is, of course, not the only one. All things and all deeds have a value in themselves, apart from their "causes" and "effects." No man can estimate what is really happening sub specie aeternitatis (from the perspective of eternity). All we do know, and that to a large extent by direct experience, is that evil labors with vast power and perpetual success -- in vain: preparing always the soil for unexpected good to sprout in.
--J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014), 76.
I stumbled upon this quote while reading an article about the sales of religious books in America. Religious books are big business. In the United States, sales revenues recently reached around $500 million per year. About 50 million religious books are sold each year, both fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary; many of them during the holidays. Maybe you will find one waiting for you under your Christmas tree! But with so many books to choose from, how do you know which ones have value? What would you say is the best “Christian” book of all time? InterVarsity Christian Fellowship an inter-denominational, evangelical Christian campus ministry founded in 1941, tried to figure this out a few years ago. Their Emerging Scholars Network had a "Best Christian Book of All Time Tournament," and the final four turned out to be:
The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis.
Confessions by Saint Augustine.
Sixty-five years ago, one book on this list changed conversations about God and what it means to be a Christian. It was C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity.
Mere Christianity was published for the first time in 1952, and it was not even written as a book. During the darkest days of World War II, akin to when J.R.R. Tolkien wrote to his son, Lewis prepared four sets of radio talks on basic Christianity.
These talks evolved into the book Mere Christianity. Since its first publication the book's popularity has only grown; between 2001 and 2016, it sold 3.5 million copies in English alone. For many Christians, Mere Christianity is their favorite religious book in addition to the Bible.
Why? One church historian, George Marsden said, “Lewis was determined to present only the timeless truths of Christianity rather than the latest theological or cultural fashions." The book is Lewis’ attempt to explain and defend "the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times."
Timeless truths. Basic beliefs. Common convictions. Mere Christianity.
What better time than this third Sunday in Advent to consider one theologians basic understanding of Jesus? Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians provides Scripture verses, because in this letter Paul is trying to do a similar thing.
Through these verses Paul is determined to present timeless truths, and to explain and defend the common ground of the Christian faith. Paul is not interested in creating a distinctively Thessalonian Christian; Paul wants to help people to be merely Christian.
Paul begins with three imperatives: "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances" (vv. 16-18).
These simple-sounding requirements are not easy to fulfill. -- illnesses, the loss of relationships, national and world events, personal disappointments of all kinds.
Maybe we would understand if Paul said, "rejoice often" ... "pray regularly" ... and "give thanks whenever good things happen."
This is not what Paul says. This apostle says that we are to rejoice, pray and give thanks constantly, regardless of the present circumstances of our lives, and how we evaluate them.
Paul is able to say and do this because he is focused more on God and on Jesus than on himself.
In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis offers a similar perspective. Lewis does his best to stand aside and point toward God rather than toward any current situation in his personal life.
By opening ourselves to God's love in Jesus, we are able to love one another. By trusting God to be at work in every situation, we are able to, as Paul says, "rejoice always, pray without ceasing [and] give thanks in all circumstances" (vv. 16-18).
C.S. Lewis reminds us as well that, “All of this comes from God, who gives us the ability to love and rejoice and pray and give thanks. When you teach a child writing you hold its hand while it forms the letters: that is, it forms the letters because you are forming them. The same is true for God -- we love because God loves, and God holds our hand while we do it."
Being focused more on God and trusting God to work through us is the first step in being "merely" Christian. "Give up yourself," writes Lewis, "and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favorite wishes every day ... and you will find eternal life." As Jesus (himself) said, "Those who lose their life for my sake will find it" (Matthew 10:39).
The second simple truth Paul teaches concerns Christian behavior: "Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil" (vv. 19-22).
A person who is "merely" Christian is open to the power of the Spirit of God, blowing where it will and doing the work of transformation. Lewis is clear that, "becoming Christian isn't an improvement but a transformation, like a horse becoming a Pegasus."
In the magazine Leadership Journal (Summer 2012), Gordon MacDonald wrote an article on "How to spot a transformed Christian." The article suggested genuine followers of Jesus do not look different from the general population, but they share common characteristics that are signs of inner changes. One of the most important is a passion for reconciliation.
"They bring people together," writes MacDonald. "They hate war, violence, contentiousness, division caused by race, economics, gender and ideology. They believe that being peaceable and making peace trumps all other efforts in one's lifetime."
Do you recall these lines in Robert Frost's poem? "Something there is that doesn't love a wall"?
There where it is we do not need the wall: He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbors'. Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
'Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know What I was walling in or walling out, And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall, That wants it down.'
Followers of Jesus are good examples of the "something" that doesn't love a wall. They are motivated into action whenever they see a wall. MacDonald says that they take action in the community when they see "dividing walls that separate people, each of whom was made uniquely and loved by God."
Transformed Christians "do not despise the words of prophets" (v. 20) – for example prophets such as Zechariah, who says, "These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another, render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace" (8:16).
People who are "merely" Christian tend to behave in a particular way. Instead of quenching the Spirit, they let it fill them and transform them. Rather than tumbling into evil with the culture or crowd, they hold fast to what is good. Listening to the words of the prophets, they work for peace, justice, and reconciliation. Paul and
Lewis explain this is how followers of Jesus wait for "the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ" (v. 23).
The coming of Jesus
Advent is a time of waiting and preparation, focusing on the birth of Jesus and the birth of the kin-dom of God revealed in Christ. The celebration of the first birth at Christmas gives us a chance to "rejoice always, pray without ceasing [and] give thanks in all circumstances" (vv. 16-18) as we await and endeavor to live into the second.
Jesus’ life of love and service shows us exactly how to "hold fast to what is good [and] abstain from every form of evil" (vv. 21-22).
With the help of God, we can be "merely" Christian this Advent season and beyond. Let’s close this message with a simple practice that may be helpful. Take out a pen/pencil and write down the answer these three simple questions:
For what are you rejoicing?
For what are you praying?
For what are you giving thanks.
Keep these answers as a reminder.
More C.S. Lewis quotations:
"I didn't go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don't recommend Christianity."
"True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less."
"No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good."
"Aim at Heaven and you will get Earth 'thrown in': aim at Earth and you will get neither."
"Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition is gone, pride is gone."
"Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important."