Recently, a friend shared the following The Gospel Coalition post on my Instagram feed:
“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.’” — C.S. Lewis
This quote from Mere Christianity apparently circulates frequently on Christian social media. It’s been decades since I have read Mere Christianity, so the context of this particular quote escapes me. But that is, in fact, the point. This quote is assertively used in isolation by mainstream evangelical platforms. The sans-context shock value seems to be its intent.
C.S. Lewis just might be the most quoted modern voice in evangelical Christian platforms. His theological legacy rivals that of the Apostle Paul. Posting C.S. Lewis quotes have become a signal that the source is steeped in a tradition of apologetics that need no vetting. If Lewis said it, it is beyond debate; dare I say “gospel.”
Now understand, I’m a long time C. S. Lewis fan and read more than a dozen of his books. The Narnia series both opened up my childhood imagination and helped shape the very foundation of my faith. In my mind, Aslan and God were synonymous and the allegorical fantasy series accomplished what it set out to do. It demonstrated the path of divine allegiance through adventures that tested the character’s faith.
But something about this quote gutted me.
I had a visceral response to it that wouldn’t shake by scrolling to the next batch of memes, hot “news” takes, and TikToks. Like a blood stain on a crisp white t-shirt that demands attention, the words “torment” and “kill” distracted me from the message of devotion intended by the quote.
Certainly the hyperbolic metaphor that relishes murder over sadism is in stark contrast to Jesus’ ministry which was anchored in healing diseased bodies and spiritual wounds. Even the logic is structured around the would be disciple’s expectation of torture, with the morbid comfort of divine murder. Most disturbing is that this violent language of intent is put in the first person point of view, the mouth of Christ himself. The same Christ who said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).
Ignoring conventional wisdom warning against social media religious debate, I posted the following response to Lewis’ quote on The Gospel Coalition:
“Powerful and deadly [skull emoji] Imago Dei would never kill itself. We are made in the image of the divine who created our unique gifts and desires. Christ literally came to bring life. This kind of argument relies on a kind shock and zeal that creates more spiritual shameful anxiety than spiritual freedom. Sorry C.S. You have wisdom but you are not the 5th gospel.”
It wasn’t well received. The pushback was predictable: from comments quoting scripture such as “deny yourself and take up the cross” to whataboutism metaphors such as “crucifying the flesh.” To be fair, the defenders of the quote were reasonable and scripturally accurate. The Christian path, like many faiths, includes a dichotomy of healing and suffering.
Undeniably, the language of self-violence is present in scripture and used generously by the church in the name of purifying our “sinful” nature. And yet, John the Baptist practiced the profoundly peaceful cleansing ritual of baptism to symbolize a new beginning. Even the warrior king David’s prayer for God to “cleanse me with hyssop” communicates the message of purification without the language of self-violence. But the imagery of an herbal bath is rarely used in the American church pulpit. Instead, we are more often conditioned to view our faith in terms of the violent metaphor of crucifixion and imagery of martial loyalty.
Take, for example, the early cultivation of the language of war I learned before I could even read in Sunday School. One song describing the Christian commitment was even sung in military cadence with coordinating charades. The lyrics depict stark warlike imagery that incorporate military body language to playfully illustrate the verses. Perhaps it’s familiar:
I may never march in the infantry
Ride in the cavalry
Shoot the artillery
I may never fly o’er the enemy
But I’m in the Lord’s army
I can’t tell you how many times I got up and sang that fun interactive sing-along in Sunday school, VBS, and summer camp. I also couldn’t tell back then how the repetitive military imagery would normalize braiding lyrics of battle with language of faith.
And that’s just the Kid’s Bop version. Revisit the lyrics of the powerful abolitionist anthem “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” where God’s “terrible swift sword” meets “fiery gospel.” Written during an actual war to free enslaved, brutalized, and lynched people, this language is in keeping with the literal context of a brutal war fought for justice. But singing it today, far from its civil war context, becomes another anthem validating the metaphorical “Army of God” fighting the hypothetical persecution complex narrative the modern-day American church seeks to wage.
Why is the language of war repeated, shared, and celebrated in the church?
How has military and conquest become a central repeated metaphor of the gospel — literally translated “good news”?
How has language of violence, suffering, pain, torture, and even divine murder (according to C.S. Lewis) become a normalized metaphorical language of our faith?
Is it possible that conditioned language steeped in violent imagery creates a perspective that justifies and celebrates violence in the name of God?
Is it any wonder the evangelical church is culturally aligned with gun culture, military glorification, and authoritarianism?
The lexicon of war is rooted in hierarchy, aggression, weaponry, military strategy, and battles. This language is pervasive in the evangelical pulpit from mild sports metaphors to historical battle illustrations. Indeed, one of the single most used sermon illustrations is the “Armor of God” passage in Ephesians 6. It is taught in Sunday School, themed in VBS, heck, I even bought my kids a life-sized costume complete with the helmet of salvation and the sword of the spirit.
Do you know what wasn’t available in the children’s Bible bookstore? A feet washing kit. And yet, Jesus doesn’t just mention feet washing as a hyperbolic metaphor, he literally undresses, wraps a towel around his waist, and washes the disciples’ feet the night before his own actual crucifixion. And then? He directs them to do the same. Not as a pulpit metaphor, not as a figure of speech, but as a matter of practicing the kind of radical humility and true equanimity the love of Christ exemplifies.
“Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.” (John 13:14-16)
The man we habitually call the “King of Kings” insisted on being a “Servant of Servants.”
Without question, death is an important metaphor in faith. But so is life. We too often forget the balm of Psalm 23 (“He leads me beside the still waters, he restores my soul”), and we focus on Galatians 5’s invitation to “crucify the flesh.” We are so desensitized to the graphic imagery of the crucifixion that we are immune to the recoiled responses of those seeking a faith of healing, not crucifixion.
We would do well to communicate the love of Christ with restorative language that welcomes healing rather than violent language that threatens suffering. Certainly Jesus himself invites us repeatedly into the language of love: love neighbors, love enemies, love self, bless others, do good, turn the cheek, lend without expectation, show mercy, give and forgive.
We have just as many scriptures validating the peaceful, restorative, healing love of God. Most ironically this is found in the repentant Psalm 51 of the warrior king himself, David:
“Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
so that sinners will turn back to you.”
This language of love, nurturing, restoration is absent any violent imagery in this Psalm of repentance. The only sacrifice offered is the broken spirit David brings to God — not to kill or torture, but to heal and restore. In fact, it is this very language of love he notes that will actually draw others to God’s love, not the language of blood sacrifice.
Why is it that our modern church culture identifies faith with the language of pain, aggression, and domination more so than with nurturing peace and equality? Perhaps the linguistic indoctrination of a faith “warrior” reflects and perpetuates a culture bent toward the certainty of power that war protects instead of the risk of peace that love offers. The human condition vacillates between the capacity for destruction and creation. Micah 4 offers wisdom to reconcile our bent toward aggression by literally refashioning weapons of war into garden tools.
“They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.
Everyone will sit under their own vine
and under their own fig tree,
and no one will make them afraid,
for the Lord Almighty has spoken.”
This literal vision of converting the destructive energy of human nature into a creative energy profoundly leads us back to the garden, under the fig tree we once dressed ourselves in shame. It is in the garden, not the battlefield, where we will experience the true peace of divine union. In the same way, we can convert our language of war into a language of love. We just have to embrace the language of baptism, creation, and restoration.
Let us then speak the truth in love, not war.