“Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.” — C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
Often when we speak about theosis, we speak as though we are somehow in control of the process. But, that is not really what is happening. What is really happening is that we are giving permission to God to work with our lives in such a way that we become good. Yes, I am using an old-fashioned term when I say “good.” But, it is a term worth using, as in good or bad. We (I) regularly assume that we know what it means to be good. Or to carry the metaphor out, we think we have the correct blueprints and have the knowledge necessary to rebuild ourselves in the image of Christ. The reality is otherwise.
In fact, here is the reality. Part of becoming a Christian is the admission that it is not bad enough that we have not lived up to expectations, but that we do not even correctly know the blueprint that we are supposed to be using as our building plan. Theosis is not our finally correctly applying the blueprints that God has for our lives. To use a very bad metaphor, theosis is the process of allowing the wrecking crew to come into our lives in order to reconstruct many parts of our lives, even parts that we thought were working correctly, so that we might have a true, good, and holy relationship with God and with our fellow-man. In other words, so that we might grow into the image of Christ. Our job is to open the door and to cooperate with the wrecking group. We seek the Holy Spirit in order both to be changed and to have the strength to allow us to be changed.
There is a passage from C.S. Lewis’ book The Voyage of the Dawn Treader that well expresses part of the work that Our Lord has to do in us. The passage speaks of initial salvation and baptism, but it is not a bad image for theosis either. Is is a rather long quote, but well worth it. A boy, Eustace, has been greedy and has been turned into a dragon. He wants to go back to being a human boy, but he has a problem. The problem is that he cannot change back by himself. If you have not read the series, Aslan is a lion who represents Jesus Christ in the world of the C.S. Lewis series. The quote comes from when Aslan becomes directly involved in helping Eustace to change back:
So I started scratching myself and my scales began coming off all over the place. And then I scratched a little deeper and, instead of just scales coming off here and there, my whole skin started peeling off beautifully, like it does after an illness, or as if I was a banana. In a minute or two I just stepped out of it. I could see it lying there beside me, looking rather nasty. It was a most lovely feeling. So I started to go down into the well for my bathe.
“But just as I was going to put my feet into the water I looked down and saw that they were all hard and rough and wrinkled and scaly just as they had been before. Oh, that’s all right, said I, it only means I had another smaller suit on underneath the first one, and I’ll have to get out of it too. So I scratched and tore again and this under skin peeled off beautifully and out I stepped and left it lying beside the other one and went down to the well for my bathe.
“Well, exactly the same thing happened again. And I thought to myself, oh dear, however many skins have I got to take off? For I was longing to bathe my leg. So I scratched away for the third time and got off a third skin, just like the two others, and stepped out of it. But as soon as I looked at myself in the water I knew it had been no good.
“Then the lion said—but I don’t know if it spoke—You will have to let me undress you. I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.
“The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know—if you’ve ever picked the scab of a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away.”
“I know exactly what you mean,” said Edmund.
“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 knobbly looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me—I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on—and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again. You’d think me simply phony if I told you how I felt about my own arms. I know they’ve no muscle and are pretty mouldy compared with Caspian’s, but I was so glad to see them.
“After a bit the lion took me out and dressed me——”
The process of theosis is hard to explain. One metaphor is the one used in the earlier Lewis quote, that of building a house. It is a good metaphor, since Saint Paul also uses it. But, another equally good one is the second metaphor, that of taking off an evil knobbly dragon skin that has come as a result of our sin. We use metaphors because theosis is hard to explain. But, it is easy to say that it is a process in which God is, and must be, in charge. Theosis is a deep mystery, but it is as easy (and as hard) as letting the lion take off our knobbly dragon skin.
“The Christian does not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because He loves us.” — C.S. Lewis