It has been over fifty-two years since the death of the man who has most shaped my imagination and faith: Clive Staples Lewis. Lewis is one of the most influential authors of the 20th century; and his writings, both fiction and nonfiction, continue to shape Evangelical Christianity to this day.
Though Lewis’s apologetical and nonfiction works have engaged my faith more than any single author, it is his Chronicles of Narnia that has had the most impact on my understanding of God. In the midst of all of the wonderful storytelling that is The Chronicles of Narnia, one scene from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader has done more to help my understanding of what it means to follow Christ than any sermon, book, or class that I have ever taken.
The scene involves Eustace, a nasty little boy whom everyone hates. Eustace is selfish, mean, quick-tempered, and positively horrific in his treatment of other people (which sounds a lot like me sometimes). Despite this, Eustace finds himself on a ship in the magical land of Narnia. While on this adventure, the crew of the Dawn Treader dock on an island, and Eustace wanders into a cave filled with treasure. Eustace immediately decides that this treasure will make him rich, and with his newfound power he will seek revenge on any and everyone who has ever slighted him.
What Eustace does not realize is that the treasure is actually the hoard of a dragon (which all treasures in caves are — come on, Eustace; read a book!). He falls asleep on the treasure and wakes up to find himself transformed into a horrific dragon. Immediately the gravity of the situation is made evident to him. He cannot go back to the ship. He will be left on the island all by himself to live out his days as a terrible monster with a treasure that is utterly useless.
Eventually, the great king of Narnia, Aslan the Lion, appears (as Aslan is apt to do) and leads Eustace to a pool of clean water where he orders him to strip down and jump in. Eustace realizes that Aslan means for him to shed his dragon skin, and begins to scratch off the scales. To his horror, he realizes that there is nothing but more dragon skin underneath. Aslan eventually tells the boy that he must be allowed to dig even deeper. Eustace later recounts to the crew what exactly happened:
I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now… The very first tear he made was so deep that I though it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt…Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off- just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt- and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobby-looking than the others had been… Then he caught hold of me…and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment…Then I saw…I’d been turned into a boy again.
I must admit that when I first read that as a child the impact of the passage was lost on me. However, the older I have gotten, the more this passage tears at my heart like Aslan tore at Eustace.
I am a man of many vices. I am arrogant, lazy, high-strung, and quick tempered. I lash out too quickly and too harshly. In essence, I am Eustace. Eustace was unable to shed his dragon skin because he was physically incapable of going deep enough: to the source of the problem. It was only when Aslan took his mighty claws and ripped the flesh from bones was Eustace able to be made right.
The Gospel truth in this work of fiction makes me weep every time I read it. Consider these passages of Scripture:
“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal 2:20)
“And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)
“And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (Gal 5:24)
“For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” (Mark 8:25)
Jesus beckons his followers, not to scratch their sins away, but to die in their pursuit of holiness. When we attempt to solve our shortcomings on our own, we are doing nothing more than scratching the scales off of our bodies, like Eustace did. When we lie down, prostrate before our king, and allow His mighty claws to tear away at our fleshly, earthly desires, then and only then will we see change in our lives.
And it hurts. Oh, does it hurt. To have who you are, with all your shortcomings, ripped from your bones. To have your every flaw exposed in the light of holiness. But as Eustace exclaims later in the scene, “It became perfectly delicious.” When my sin is exposed in light of the vast expanse of God’s holiness, I begin to understand just how grace works. The pain of that tearing pales in comparison to the “perfectly delicious” grace that we are given from God.
And so, C. S. Lewis has invited me to pray the most painful and redemptive prayer I have ever prayed: “Tear into me, O Lord.”