How much of myself must I give?
The ordinary idea which we all have before we become Christians is this. We take as a starting point our ordinary self with its various desires and interests. We then admit that something else – call it “morality” or “decent behaviour,” or “the good of society” – has claims on this self: claims which interfere with its own desires. What we mean by “being good” is giving in to these claims. Some of the things the ordinary self wanted to do turn out to be what we call “wrong:” well, we must give them up. Other things, which the self did not want to do, turn out to be what we call “right:” well, we shall have to do them. But we are hoping all the time that when all the demands have been met, the poor natural self will still have some chance, and some time, to get on with its own life and do what it likes. In fact, we are very like an honest man paying his taxes. He pays them all right, but he does hope that there will be enough left over for him to live on. Because we are still taking our natural self as the starting point.
Giving up or becoming unhappy
As long as we are thinking that way, one or other of two results is likely to follow. Either we give up trying to be good, or else we become very unhappy indeed. For, make no mistake: if you are really going to try to meet all the demands made on the natural self, it will not have enough left over to live on. The more you obey your conscience, the more your conscience will demand of you. And your natural self, which is thus being starved and hampered and worried at every turn, trying to be good, or else become one of those people who, as they say, “live for others” but always in a discontented, grumbling way – always wondering why the others do not notice it more and always making a martyr of yourself. And once you have become that, you will be a far greater pest to anyone who has to live with you than you would have been if you had remained frankly selfish.
Harder and easier
The Christian way is different: harder, and easier. Christ says “Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. I don’t want to drill the tooth, or crown it, or stop it, but to have it out. Hand over the natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked – the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.”
Both harder and easier than what we are all trying to do. You have noticed, I expect, that Christ Himself sometimes describes the Christian way as very hard, sometimes as very easy. He says, “Take up your Cross”—in other words, it is like going to be beaten to death in a concentration camp. Next minute he says, "My yoke is easy and my burden light." He means both. And one can just see why both are true.
The almost impossible thing
…The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self – all your wishes and precautions – to Christ. But it is far easier than what we are all trying to do instead. For what we are trying to do is to remain what we call “ourselves,” to keep personal happiness as our great aim in life, and yet at the same time be “good.” We are all trying to let our mind and heart go their own way – centred on money or pleasure or ambition – and hoping, in spite of this to behave honestly and chastely and humbly.
And that is exactly what Christ warned us you could not do. As he said, a thistle cannot produce figs. If I am a field that contains nothing but grass-seed, I cannot produce wheat. Cutting the grass may keep it short: but I shall still produce grass and no wheat. If I want to produce wheat, the change must go deeper than the surface. I must be ploughed up and re-sown.
From C S Lewis's Mere Christianity, Book 4, Chapter 8, first published in Great Britain by Geoffrey Bles 1952, © C.S. Lewis Pre Ltd 1942