A recent documentary concerning the issue of nutrition and physical health made several interesting points. One of its initially startling claims is that doctors do not really produce health. About the best they can do is remove some barriers that impede and stand in the way of health. What actually produces health is the properly functioning body—a healthy immune system, a body, properly treated and fed, doing what it was meant to do.
This is most clearly seen when it comes to chronic diseases. Doctors and pharmaceutical companies cannot fix such problems; the best they can do is provide medicines that help alleviate and manage certain symptoms and make life more comfortable for the patient, even while the affliction persists.
Although medical practitioners are rather limited in what they are able to do, the body is remarkably resilient in its ability to ward off diseases, recover from various injuries, and heal itself. This is why proper nutrition and exercise are so important, because they enable the body to do what it does best. Chronically undernourished or sedentary bodies eventually become impaired in their ability to perform their proper functions.
The point of the documentary was well made: there is a crucial difference between genuine health, on the one hand, and merely treating conditions, on the other, however much a blessing the latter can be. Another fitting analogy would be the distinction between pulling out a dandelion versus killing its root.
A similar distinction holds in the arena of morality. One option is merely to deal with symptoms, settling for marginal moral improvements, avoiding hurtful consequences by our actions. True achievement of integrity, virtue, and holiness, though, requires considerably more. In light of what seem to be some deeply entrenched patterns of selfishness and moral weakness endemic to the human condition, however, we need profound resources to meet the moral demand and effect the needed change in our character.
Benjamin Franklin once tried to do this on his own, setting himself to the formidable task of achieving moral perfection. In “Arriving at Perfection,” an excerpt from his Autobiography, he wrote about his plans to conquer all imperfections that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead him into, but “I soon found I had undertaken a task of more difficulty than I had imagined. While my care was employ’d in guarding against one fault, I was often surprised by another; habit took the advantage of inattention; inclination was sometimes too strong for reason.”
C. S. Lewis once wrote that there are two facts that are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in: First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the law of Nature; they break it.
Immanuel Kant, similarly, recognized an exacting moral demand and a correlative inability on the part of human beings to meet such a demand, at least without some sort of outside assistance. Kantian “moral faith” includes two convictions: first, that the moral life is possible, and, second, that a life of true happiness must be a moral life, that morality and happiness must converge. Regarding the first point, is radical moral transformation possible after all? Can we be transformed?
Perhaps as a vestige of his Lutheran upbringing, Kant was quite sure that human beings have a deep moral problem, a tendency to be curved inward on themselves, an intractable ethical taint, a deeply flawed moral disposition in need of a revolution. Kant saw clearly that the moral demand on us is very high, while also recognizing that we have a natural propensity not to follow it.
In both Kant and Lewis, the suggestion seems to be not just that we happen to fail to meet the moral demand, but that our failure is inevitable. We have a problem, one too deep for us to solve on our own.
But there’s hope. Christianity says the needed resources for transformation are available. Although we can’t meet the moral demand on our own, God himself has made it possible, if we but submit and allow Him to do it through us. It will require a painful process, but it is possible.
Having started his book Mere Christianity with talk of the moral gap between what we are and what ought to be, Lewis then explained his reason for doing so, and his explanation is a telling one. The passage is his concluding paragraph of Book 1:
My reason was that Christianity simply does not make sense until you have faced the sort of facts I have been describing. Christianity tells people to repent and promises them forgiveness. … It is after you have realized that there is a real Moral Law, and a Power behind the law, and that you have broken that law and put yourself wrong with that Power—it is after all this, and not a moment sooner, that Christianity begins to talk. When you know you are sick, you will listen to the doctor. When you have realized that our position is nearly desperate you will begin to understand what the Christians are talking about. They offer an explanation of how we got into our present state of both hating goodness and loving it. They offer an explanation of how God can be this impersonal mind at the back of the Moral Law and yet also a Person. They tell you how the demands of this law, which you and I cannot meet, have been met on our behalf, how God Himself becomes a man to save man from the disapproval of God.
God can do more than merely ameliorate the symptoms of our chronic moral malady. In the face of our urgent need to become not just better men, but new men, for a revolution of the will, for radical moral transformation, the death and resurrection of Christ is indeed “good news.”
Dr. David Baggett is Professor of Apologetics at Liberty University Baptist Theological Seminary, a Distinguished Senior Fellow with the Liberty University Center for Apologetics and Cultural Engagement, and Executive Editor of MoralApologetics.com. He is the author of numerous articles dealing with ethics, philosophy of religion, philosophy and popular culture, and philosophical theology. He has written or edited about ten books, including Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality (Oxford University Press), with Jerry L. Walls, which won Christianity Today’s 2012 Best Book in Apologetics/Evangelism. Its sequel, God and Cosmos: Moral Truth and Human Meaning, will be published in 2016.
 Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, p. 38. Available online: http://www.ushistory.org/franklin/autobiography/page38.htm.
 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, in The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002), p. 18.