Letter to My Goddaughter

Dear Grace,

I wish your godfather and I could be there for your confirmation next Sunday, but it looks like this letter will have to do instead (not that I could be any more eloquent in person). I feel rather like C. S. Lewis when he was writing to his goddaughter Sarah on the occasion of her confirmation: it’s hard to know what tone to adopt. On the one hand there’s the real, serious Christian godmother; on the other hand, there’s the fairy godmother, which seems a bit more fun.

But I don’t have much in the way of magic: the best I can offer you is the wisdom I’ve learned from authors like C. S. Lewis on what it means to live the Christian life—which is both serious and fun, in all the best ways.

Since the first book I ever gave you was Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, it seems appropriate that I introduce you to another of his writings on the occasion of your confirmation. It’s called Mere Christianity, and it lays out (better than most other books I’ve read) what your godfather and I believe is at stake in the Christian life. In short, we do not want you to grow up merely to be a nice citizen—though I’m sure that’s what you hear from most of the adults in your life. Being nice is not Christianity. Rather, as Lewis says, Christianity means becoming an entirely new person, cutting away the old life and taking on the new life of Christ. That’s what is at stake next Sunday in your confirmation.

It’s quite possible that you’ve heard otherwise. Perhaps many loving adults have told you that confirmation is simply about church membership, or that it will look good on your college application. Don’t believe them for a moment. Remember Eustace turning into a dragon in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader? And how much it hurt to become a real boy again, to have Aslan tear the scales off his body? Confirmation is part of the tearing.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Lewis explains the Christian life so much better than I can, but of course I don’t expect you to read all of Mere Christianity by next Sunday. So here are some of the highlights in a nutshell.

In the first part of the book, Lewis explains how human beings—across cultures and centuries—have appealed to a universal Moral Law that determines right and wrong behavior. No doubt you’ve seen the Moral Law at work in your friends at school: even if they profess to not believe in God or anything, they will still say, “Hey, that’s not fair!” when someone takes their lunch food. But where did they get the idea of right and wrong? Lewis says that all humans are created with a conscience, or what philosophers call a sense of the “natural law.” And if there’s a “natural law” there must be a Law-giver; if there is a standard, there must be Someone who created the standard, who will hold us accountable to it. Christians know that Someone as God. It doesn’t take much to recognize that all of us, in some manner or other, have fallen short of that standard. So what must be done?

Next Lewis discusses “Christian belief,” which he believes is the only sufficient answer to the question above. The answer to the problem of sin (of falling short of the Moral Law) comes from the Christian understanding of salvation through God in Christ.

First, Christians believe that the universe is at war: there is good and evil, but good and evil are not parallel powers. Evil is fallen goodness, a rebellion against God.

Second, humans have joined in that rebellion, to our peril.

Third, God has responded by giving humankind (i) a conscience, which lets us know we are in the wrong; (ii) the good myths in every culture that haunt us with hints of who God is; (iii) the history of God’s relationship with the Jewish people (as in the Old Testament); and (iv) God’s Son, Jesus Christ, who through his life, death and resurrection made it possible for us to lay down our arms and join the winning side. Finally, Christians believe we are to respond to Christ’s offer in three ways: (1) baptism, (2) belief, and (3) Holy Communion. (Confirmation is part of a broader rite of Christian initiation that begins with baptism and includes the other elements too.) This is how we join the winning side, the side of life—of divine life. Now you’re beginning to see why Christianity is not just about becoming “nice!”

The third section of Lewis’s book discusses “Christian behavior,” or the question of what happens once we rebels have laid down our arms and joined God’s side. Here Lewis gets into discussions of morality and the virtues, which you’ve no doubt heard more about than any other topics on the Christian life. For some reason we adults seem to think that the best way to equip young people for a life of faith is to give you a series of topical lessons on moral issues like sex or lying or drug abuse. In fact, you might have thought (from the way you’ve been taught in Sunday School and youth group) that that’s all Christianity is about. Well, don’t believe it. Yes, knowing about the virtues is important. But you can’t just know about them. You must practice them. Otherwise, why expect that you’ll suddenly be virtuous at a party when the moment of critical decision-making comes? Please forgive your elders: we’re doing our best. We have forgotten that the most important way to teach you about the virtues is to be virtuous ourselves.

Pray for us.

Lewis means well in his section on Christian behavior, but I hope you will read his fourth and final section most thoroughly of all. In this section he lays out what is truly at stake in the Christian life, which is that we become like Christ, the second person of the Trinity, who participates in the divine life of the Father from before all time—and by being connected with Christ we can become connected to that divine life too. It sounds complicated, but it’s really quite simple. Lewis uses the example of toy soldiers made of tin who meet a toy soldier who has become real, who is made of flesh. Because that one soldier has become real, we too can become real. Christ’s divine life is like a “good infection” in the human race: whatever he’s got (as I’ve said elsewhere), it’s contagious. That’s why we need to draw close to him every day, battling all the other impulses that come flying at us—especially first thing in the morning. We are to become more and more like Jesus with every thought, every decision, every small and large movement in our lives. Lewis says it’s like playing dress-up: we are putting on Christ so that one day we might be like Christ. As I said before, this has nothing to do with being slighter nicer than we were before. It’s about becoming entirely new people.

Remember the Halloween that you dressed up as a princess and I dressed up as your fairy godmother, complete with wings and a wand? Well, the Christian life is something like that. We put on the outward behaviors of the kind of people we want to become—in this case, we want to be like Jesus—and those outward behaviors gradually begin to change us on the inside. Eventually, one day, you really will be a princess—a daughter of the King, inside and out. And I really will be the godmother your parents asked me to be for you. Until then, we must pray for each other.

I am
your affectionate godmother,

Sarah

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Sarah Arthur is a consultant to the Northern Michigan C. S. Lewis Festival (www.cslewisfestival.org) and the author of numerous youth resources, including The God-Hungry Imagination: The Art of Storytelling for Postmodern Youth Ministry (Upper Room Books, 2007). She is presently completing graduate studies at Duke Divinity School in Durham, NC. She can be reached at www.saraharthur.com.

Note: C. S. Lewis’s letter to his goddaughter Sarah, 3 April 1949, can be found in C. S. Lewis Letters to Children, edited by Lyle W. Dorsett and Marjorie Lamp Mead (A Touchstone Book by Simon & Schuster, 1985).

 

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