Posted in book reviews, reflections

To BE it, DO it: Thoughts from C.S. Lewis

What comes first, being or doing?  In an age conversant with genetics, the answer seems obvious. What one does often reflects what one first isby constitution at birth. For example, in our family, men have a distinctive shuffle, what someone has dubbed the “Crofford walk.” We hunch our shoulders slightly, and walk with purpose. Strangely, even male members of the Crofford clan who have grown up apart on different coasts in the United States share this conspicuous genetic trait.

But how often do we consider whether the formula can be reversed? Rather than being determining doing, can doing shape being?

C.S. Lewis tackled this question in his celebrated 1952 collection, Mere Christianity. The series of radio broadcasts included a fascinating chapter titled “Let’s Pretend.” The broader question he addressed is what it means to be a Christian. Lewis came at his topic indirectly, using an example of a man who is unfriendly (p. 188):

When you are not feeling particularly friendly but know you ought to be, the best thing you can do, very often, is to put on a friendly manner and behave as if you were a nicer person than you actually are. And in a few minutes, as we have all noticed, you will be really feeling friendlier than you were. Very often the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already.

One might summarize Lewis’ argument in this way: To BE it, DO it.

In 1976, marathoner Frank Shorter inspired me by winning a silver medal at the summer Olympics held in Montreal. To that point in my life, I had never run competitively. My mom took me to the store, bought me some Nike trainers, and I hit the pavement. The first night, I ran only 1/2 mile, but little by little I grew stronger and faster. That fall, I tried out for the cross-country team and made it. My second year, I lettered in the sport. At the beginning of the whole venture, I could have said: “I’m not a runner, so I can’t run.” But wouldn’t that be getting it all backwards? Rather, because I ran, I became a runner. Doing preceded being.

Jesus understood this well. He did not demand from his listeners a mystical experience that would magically transform them into his disciples. His call was simple, a call to action, a call to do. To Peter and the rest of the twelve, he simply said: “Follow me.” As they followed him over three years along the dusty trails of Nazareth and Judea, persistent and determined action transformed their inward being. They were eyewitnesses to an amazing individual who did holy things, selfless actions that bespoke a selfless person, who of course, was much more.

Likewise, in early 18th century England, John Wesley performed charitable acts from childhood. However, in his mid-thirties, he came to realize that for all his outward works, he still had no inner peace. Wesley concluded that despite all that he had done, he was not yet a person of faith. He wondered whether he should keep preaching. He put the question to a Moravian friend, Peter Böhler. One might have expected him to give the usual Moravian advice to “be still,” which was a version of the “being precedes doing” philosophy. Instead, Böhler recommended the opposite: “Preach faith till you have, and then because you have it, you will preach faith.” Doing preceded being.

John Wesley would put this same “doing precedes being” methodology into practice when he organized Methodists into societies and “classes” (small groups). He never required that an individual who responded to his preaching say “I am a Christian” before allowing him or her to join a Methodist class. Instead, he put doing first, asking them: “Are you fleeing the wrath to come?” If they were willing to affirm at least that much, they could join the class. Assurance of salvation (i.e. self-recognition of being a Christian) came later, as they participated in class discussions and in practical ministry, such as distributing relief to the poor or visiting prisoners. Wesley even believed that partaking of communion (doing) could lead a person to a conviction of adoption as God’s child (being). For both Wesley and early Methodists, action was the first step on the road to becoming.

In other areas of life, the same doing-being sequence can be found. The philosophy of “we become what we do” still works in the 21st century. The Boy Scouts have long put it into practice. All those merit badges point to a not-so-hidden worldview, namely, to produce an admirable young man, put him to work doing admirable things. Judges testify to this persuasion every time they sentence a person to community service. Ideally, this is not a balancing of the “scales of justice,” a mere canceling out of bad deeds by performing good deeds. Rather, by doing things for others, it is hoped that a wrongdoer will in some sense be morally transformed. It is reform school without the walls.

C.S. Lewis would agree with this approach. In a chapter on “Charity,” he asserted (p. 131): “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbour; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.”  In other words, to be a loving person, do loving things.

Will determined doing always transform being? Surely it would be too categorical to argue that this is unfailingly the case, yet C.S. Lewis’ thoughts are a helpful reminder that actions repeatedly performed can and often do shape us, for better or for worse.  As the old Sunday School song says, “Be careful little hands what you do.” What we do, we just might become.


Greg is interested in many topics, including theology, philosophy, and science.

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