What does God require of people? How can God’s high standard be reached?
C. S. Lewis argues that God calls you to be virtuous, and he explains how you can answer this call. He describes his conception of God’s high moral standard and how you must submit yourself to God to pursue it. He also explains how this decision will change you and why your intentions matter.
Read more to understand the importance of submitting yourself to God and what difference it makes.
God’s High Moral Standard
Lewis writes that, if moral laws are created by the highest power in the universe, this puts humanity in a terrifying position. Since moral laws are often broken, we have reason to believe that the highest power in the universe dislikes our actions. Lewis argues that you ought to be worried—even afraid. However, this worry should inspire you, not to hide from God and moral laws, but rather to try to align your conduct with these moral laws. Your best response to this fear lies in finding the courage to commit yourself to a more virtuous life. (This really entails a decision to submit yourself to God, which Lewis explains later in this discussion.)
Lewis considers this no easy task. If God’s moral laws are truly objective then they permit little leniency and few exceptions. Since you have no control over what is right and wrong, you can’t decide to exempt yourself from certain rules, nor can you decide when your circumstances merit an exception or when the rules’ standards apply. Therefore, the work of being virtuous is never done.
(Shortform note: Research supports the idea that a person’s perception of God’s moral standard can influence their behavior. One study found that people who believe in a wrathful, punishing God are less likely to cheat on an academic test than those who believe in a kind, forgiving God. This supports Lewis’s contention that a God with a high, rigid moral standard may serve as a greater spur to moral action than one with a lenient moral standard.)
God’s Standard Requires Submission
Lewis argues that becoming a moral person requires submitting your will to God. Because you did not create the moral laws, your impulses, goals, and desires may not be aligned with them. Therefore, in moments where your will is in conflict with moral law, you must give in. When you give in to a will that conflicts with your own, you are surrendering and placing your trust in a higher power.
(Shortform note: Many Christian thinkers agree with Lewis that following God’s laws requires surrender. Rick Warren (The Purpose Driven Life) takes this a step further, arguing that God not only has a set of moral laws—he also has a plan for each human’s life. Warren contends that God created you and all your attributes for achieving a unique purpose in this world. Therefore, submitting yourself to God not only changes you into a more virtuous person, but it also sends you down the road to achieving your life’s ultimate purpose.)
Submission Results in Transformation
Because you are surrendering your will, becoming virtuous will inevitably require you to become a different person than who you would have become without God. Lewis provides three reasons why.
1. As you strive to become virtuous, you will become more aware of morality. The effort to make moral choices will force you to spend more time thinking about right and wrong, thereby developing your capacity for moral thought. This will lead to becoming more aware of new opportunities to make moral choices.
2. Becoming more aware of right and wrong strengthens your moral conscience, leading it to hold you to a higher standard of conduct. Therefore your conscience will begin making more demands of you.
3. Once your conscience demands more from you, you will confront all your vices, not just some of them. Your moral awareness will naturally spread into new areas of your life where you hadn’t previously considered the morality of your choices.
|Cultivating Virtue as a “Feedback Loop”|
Systems analysts would describe Lewis’s process of moral development as a feedback loop. In Thinking In Systems, Donella H. Meadows describes two types of feedback loops, stabilizing feedback loops, and self-reinforcing ones.
A stabilizing feedback loop regulates itself to stay within certain boundaries, like a thermostat that cools a house when it’s too warm and warms a house when it’s too cool.
A reinforcing feedback loop moves in one direction, and can just keep spiraling bigger and bigger. For example, population growth is a reinforcing feedback loop: the more people reproduce, the more people will be able to reproduce in the next generation.
We can understand Lewis’s description of virtue as a reinforcing feedback loop. As you practice virtue, you will become more aware of opportunities to continue practicing virtue, allowing you to spiral upward. This means that even a small step towards virtue can have enormous effects on your character in the long run, by setting you on a virtuous path.
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Here's what you'll find in our full Mere Christianity summary:
- A look at the objective nature of morality
- What it means to surrender yourself to God's moral law
- What Christ means to Christian practice and how to follow his example