In Oxford, England, in 1920, two young scholars were having tea, discussing the intellectual questions of their day, tentatively building a friendship. Leo, the slightly older of the two, made a comment that referred to God. His new friend Jack shouted at him, berating him for holding such a concept: “You take too many things for granted. You can’t start with God. I don’t accept God!”
Another day, when the two friends were discussing their experience in France in the First World War, Jack again boasted about his lack of faith in God. Answering a question about whether he had been frightened in France, he said, “All the time, but I never sank so low as to pray.”
Leo reflected later that Jack “lived in an enclosed world with rigid walls built by his logic and intelligence, and trespassers would be prosecuted.”
Jack was, at 20 years old, a hardened unbeliever, ready to shout down those who subscribed to such childish ideas as God and faith. Jack’s unbelief was a badge of honour. Jack’s unbelief was a sign of his own intellectual strength.
Jack, you should know, was a man known to most of us today as C.S. Lewis.
To a great number of Christians, C.S. Lewis is a hero. His books, with their plain-spoken prose and common sense thinking, have been a huge help in aiding many to a deeper grasp of the faith. His famous work The Screwtape Letters imaginatively probes into the particular types of temptations the devil might know we are especially vulnerable to; Mere Christianity has given confidence to many that Christianity rests on firm intellectual foundations; A Grief Observed sensitively explores the emotions of a bereaved believer; and I could go on. On so many subjects, Lewis has proved to be a useful guide to modern Christians.
Most of his readers know Lewis’ story well enough to know that his conversion to the faith came well into adulthood, when he was around thirty years old. Many will remember that Lewis had previously been an atheist. Yet while reading Philip and Carol Zaleski’s The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings, a new biography of Lewis and some of his good friends, I was struck again with the contrast between Lewis before and Lewis after. (The sketches above come from the Zaleskis’ book.)
When we read a Christian writer, or listen to a Christian pastor, it’s all too easy to imagine that these people fell out of heaven the way they are, as fully convinced believers who have never known the questions of life or the doubts and trials of everyone else. We consider that they are not quite real people, but rather machines programmed to spout pious words. We think they are different than the rest of us. Somehow this allows us to disregard their words. We hear them not as fellow human beings who have found in Christ the true meaning of life but as people who have been sheltered or live in a bubble away from the real world.
Knowing what we know of Lewis, through his books, it’s jarring to think of him with the attitude revealed in these stories of arrogant unbelief. But God can change hearts that are far away from him and transform minds (even strong minds) that are hardened against him. The work of conversion is something we should never underestimate. God can change people. God can change us.
The book of Acts relates the story of Paul, another Christian leader whose early life never gave the slightest hint at the work he would later undertake. Paul (then known as Saul) spent his years as a younger adult persecuting Christians, making his violent rounds with a ruthlessness that is shocking in the man who would be responsible for half the books in our New Testament. And yet the Lord reached him, not only seeing into Paul’s heart but changing it completely. Paul the one-time crusader against Christians would later gladly call himself the “slave of Christ.”
We need reminders like this. We need to know that God can change lives. He has done it in the past and he’ll do it in the future. He can do it in the people in whom we might least expect to see such a change. People like Paul. People like Jack.
People like me. People like you. For we need conversion too. Even if we’ve already come to know the Lord Jesus as the Saviour that he truly is for me and for you, there is always more of our life to be turned over to him. There are always more walls to break down, more protective layers that need to be softened. To remember that God can change people like Paul and people like Jack is to remember that God can change someone like me.
The work of transformation is never over until we meet the Lord face to face in glory. God is always at work on his people, and he will bring this work to completion on that final day (Philippians 1:6). Until then, we continue to turn to him in hope and prayer, knowing that one day the work will be complete and eager to start living into that day in the present.