On of the great challenges of Christianity is that God wants humans to be perfect; indeed, the Bible tells us, “Be ye perfect.” Some have criticized Christianity on the grounds that perfection is an unrealistic goal, and that it’s unfair for God to punish humans when they fail to be perfect. To clarify the issue, Lewis recalls being a child and getting toothaches. Whenever this happened, Lewis was afraid to tell his mother. He know that she would give him an aspirin for the pain (which he wanted), but also that she would take him to the dentist to cure his toothaches permanently (which Lewis didn’t want at all). For Lewis, the Christian directive, “be ye perfect,” is not a challenge, but a simple statement of fact. If humans agree to believe in Christ, then Christ will make them perfect. The problem is that most people are afraid of becoming perfect—they don’t want to change their old lives or give up on their favorite sins. Like Lewis with his toothache, most people want to cure a couple of their sins, but they don’t want the “full treatment.”
In response to the criticism that Christianity makes unrealistic demands by telling human beings to “be perfect,” Lewis argues that it is possible, but very challenging (and only with God’s help), to eventually be perfect. Like children who don’t want to go to the dentist, most people simply don’t want to be perfect—their self-interest and apathy compel them to continue their bad habits and sinful ways. Achieving perfection, or at least committing to strive for it, can be frightening, even painful.
It is possible for any human being to become perfect by worshipping Jesus Christ—but most humans are unwilling to commit to the “full treatment” of religion. Humans might think that the purpose of Christianity is to make then into “nice, decent people,” but in fact, Christianity goes much further—it aims to make people into saints. It might seem arrogant to aspire to become a saint, but in fact, a good Christian should aspire to nothing less.
The stereotypical representation of a “good Christian” is a nice, cheerful, pleasant person. However, Lewis argues that a truly good Christian is much more wonderful: a good Christian is “saintly” (a somewhat difficult concept that Lewis will define in the rest of the chapter).
The path to salvation can be difficult. Just when people think that Christianity has cured their smaller sins, they realize how sinful they really are and begin to despair. Lewis cites the author George MacDonald, who argued that people are like living houses, and God is like the man who rebuilds them. At first, a house might understand how it’s being rebuilt. But eventually, the man will begin knocking down walls and tearing out pipes—hurting the house enormously. Gradually, the house realizes that it’s being converted from a tiny cottage into a palace, just as a human is converted into a divine being.
George MacDonald was a major influence on Lewis: like Lewis, MacDonald was a highly educated scholar and theologian who also wrote a series of highly successful fantasy books. Lewis cites MacDonald when writing about the difficulty of achieving salvation. Even if salvation is the most wonderful thing in the universe, people are still frightened of it because they don’t want to abandon their old, selfish lives.
In all, the commandment, “Be ye perfect” isn’t just “idealistic gas.” It’s an order for humans to trust in God’s authority, sacrificing their short-term happiness, and even enduring a great deal of pain, so that in the long run they can experience salvation.
Ultimately, human beings can attain perfection and sainthood: but in order to do so, they must be willing to sacrifice their desires, their instincts of self-preservation, and their entire ways of life.