A Summary of C.S. Lewis’s perspective on the Theological Virtues (Faith, Hope, Love) in Mere Christianity (Book II, chapters 9-12)
Lewis begins his discussion of Charity with reference to his chapter on Forgiveness, which he calls “a part of Charity” (129). He notes that while man consider charity as “alms,” the giving of money to the poor constitutes only part of Charity. The central quality of Charity Lewis calls, “’Love, in the Christian sense,’” which characterizes a state of the will rather than of the emotions. What we like or do not like are not Charity (though they may aid or detract from Charity). Charity desires the good or happiness of others as much as one’s own, and it must be cultivated through habitual actions that put others first, whether or not one feels like doing so. Loving, like hating, increases itself—the more one does acts of love, the more one finds he does love the object of his loving action; and the more one does acts of hate, the more one finds he does hate object of his hating action.
Lewis defines hope as, “a continual looking forward to the eternal world,” remarking that, perhaps paradoxically, such thinking makes men far more useful in the present world (134). He cites history for examples that show that the most heavenly-minded Christians did the most worldly good. The principle runs this way: “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither” (134). Lewis then anticipates his famous “argument from desire,” by observing how often people have desires beyond what any earthy goods can satisfy. He says there are three possible responses to such desires: 1) The Fool’s Way, 2) The Way of the Disillusioned ‘Sensible Man,’ and 3) The Christian Way. The Fool’s way blames the earthly goods for his dissatisfaction and spends all of his energy moving from one pleasure to the next, always seeking after what nothing he seeks can provide. The Sensible Man’s way denies the longing as false and tries to find contentment in the lesser pleasures earth provides. Whereas the Fool runs up a lengthy account of disappointments, the Sensible Man avoids small disappointments, but still misses out on the true satisfaction Reality affords. The Christian way believes it is man’s nature to desire things beyond this world because he was made for another—the natural desire for otherworldly pleasure is evidence of the reality beyond this life. All of the Scriptural imagery for heaven constitute earthly expressions for the inexpressible treasures of Heaven: music indicates the ecstasy and infinity of Heaven; crows, our share of God’s splendor, power, and joy in Heaven; gold, the timelessness and preciousness of Heaven.
Lewis devotes two chapters to Faith, since there are two senses of the word. The first involves belief, or acceptance of the truth of the doctrines of Christianity. The nature of this acceptance constitutes virtue, because it clings to the truth against the sense, emotions, and moods that make unbelief easier or more comfortable. A man may “have faith” in a surgeon’s skill, yet feel afraid when he must go under the knife. His faith shows itself strong when he chooses to quiet his fear in response to his reason’s acceptance of the truth. Faith then, like Charity, requires habituation—a continual effort at overcoming emotions and moods to the contrary. The second kind of Faith pertains to this habituation, since the revelation of faith, or the strengthening of faith, requires that one battle against temptation. Giving in to temptation does show temptation’s strength, but only through resistance does one test the strength of temptation. Since Jesus alone resisted all temptation, he alone knows temptation’s full strength, and it is only in striving to overcome temptation that we discover that God alone possesses the power to resist, and that He freely provides that power to those who seek it. One cannot know how much one needs faith until one tries to be good and fails, and one only understands how much one’s good depends upon God when one’s failure leads one to confess one’s utter dependence upon God for faith and works. In short, one cannot possess great faith without exhibiting great moral effort, yet one cannot achieve great moral effort without the help of God received by faith.