C. S. Lewis, described by some as the “patron saint of American evangelicals,” is a very quotable writer, and evangelical Christians love to invoke him in sermons, social media posts, and casual conversation. However, you cannot always believe what you read. Expressions credited to him on social media or through google searches aren’t always actually found in his writings. Over the last several years, William O’Flaherty has collected a growing list (over 70 at last count) of quotations attributed to Lewis that will be the focus of an upcoming book, The Misquotable C.S. Lewis, to be published by Wipf and Stock in mid-2018. While uncovering the questionable quotations, he discovered not all of them are the same type of misquote. While most are sayings falsely attributed to Lewis, a few are very close to what he actually said but are worded incorrectly and some are simply removed from their context, leading to misunderstanding.
These are O’Flaherty’s ten most common Lewis misquotes:
10. "Getting over a painful experience is much like crossing monkey bars—let go to move forward.”
This is one of those motivational quotations that encourages a person to keep going despite his or her circumstances. Presently it is not known who created it. A variation is referenced in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Think Possible. That version reads, “Getting over a painful experience is much like crossing monkey bars. You have to let go at some point in order to move forward.” In the book, it is credited to “Author Unknown.” Having Lewis’s name associated with this expression likely makes it more noticeable. After all, if someone as great as Lewis said it, then you might be more likely to read it and/or believe it. Trouble is, you cannot find Lewis ever using the words “monkey bars” in any of his published writings.
9. “Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.”
Part of “doing the right thing” should be checking sources of quotations. For this particular expression, there are several similar sayings, but nothing in Lewis. “Do the right thing when no one is looking.” is part of the title of a blog post from 2015 from Vickie Milazzo, who is the president of an organization that does legal nurse consulting. Another possible origin for this phrase is a 2003 book from Charles Marshall entitled Shattering the Glass Slipper, where you find two statements: “Integrity is doing the right thing when you don’t have to—when no one else is looking or will ever know—when there will be no congratulations or recognition for having done so.” Then a little later Marshall succinctly writes, “Integrity is doing the right thing no matter what it costs you.” Marshall does not state that he is referring to another author for either statement, indicating the words are Marshall’s not Lewis’s. A third possible origin for this misquote comes from a speech that was given by J. C. Watts at the 1996 Republican National Convention. A transcript of it reports he said, “I’ve got a pretty simple definition of character. It’s simply doing what’s right when nobody’s looking. For too long, for too long, for too long we’ve gotten by in a society that says the only thing right is to get by, and the only thing wrong is to get caught.”
8.“Experience that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God, do you learn.”
Maybe you can close your eyes and picture Lewis saying these words? Unfortunately, it is not Lewis, but Anthony Hopkins, reading his line from the script of the 1993 movie Shadowlands. But even that is not quite right. The version usually found online (as given in this list) actually does not quote the movie correctly. The “real” fake quotation is “Experience is a brutal teacher. But you learn. My God, you learn.” The misquotations don’t end there. In early 2017 this line was misquoted yet again. The fictional character Mike Baxter (played by Tim Allen) in Last Man Standing says, “C. S. Lewis said, ‘Experience is a brutal teacher. But you'll learn, by God, you'll learn.’” Not Lewis and not even the right wording.
7.“There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”
Some might disagree that this quotation should be on the list since it is actually very, very close to what Lewis did write. Removing the words, “far, far,” from the above quotation matches what Lewis originally wrote in a letter to Mary Willis Shelburne on June 17, 1963. However, what Lewis meant when he wrote these words is not apparent when taken out of context. Those not familiar with the letter might think Lewis is telling us to not worry about present difficulties and look to the future. However, if you read the entire letter you find Lewis is challenging Miss Shelburne about her fear of dying, “Can you not see death as the friend and deliverer?” At the close of the same paragraph, he states, “Has this world been so kind to you that you should leave it with regret?” followed immediately by the quoted (or misquoted) expression.
6.“Children are not a distraction from more important work. They are the most important work.”
Early in Lewis’s life, before he wrote Narnia, he admitted that he did not like children (in a letter to his friend Arthur Greeves). While there don’t seem to be any later comments that say he changed his mind, he did reply back to kids who wrote to him about his Narnia stories. Whatever his thoughts on children, Lewis is not the author of the above statement. You can occasionally find the real author, John Trainer, credited in a few places. in late December 2012, Trainer confirmed via Facebook that he first came up with this expression.
5. “Be sure that the patient remains completely fixated on politics. Arguments, political gossip, and obsessing on the faults of people they have never met serves…”
Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters is a perennial favorite that has spawned many imitators. This quotation (and there is more to it) begins with the words, “My Dear Wormwood.” However, you will not find this material in The Screwtape Letters. It seems some well-meaning person was a fan of the book and tried to write something in honor of Lewis and did not want to take credit.
4.“You are never too old to set another goal or dream a new dream.”
Associating Lewis with this quote might be from the mistaken belief that Lewis only became famous later in life, after The Chronicles of Narnia were published. However, you will not locate these words in any of his writings. Lewis was already famous because of the bestselling The Screwtape Letters from about ten years prior to the first children’s story. In fact, he landed on the cover of Time five years after Screwtape was published. This expression comes from Les Brown, a motivational speaker whose website claims he is the author of the saying.
3.“Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less.”
People usually attribute this expression to Mere Christianity. Lewis did address the topic of humility within that title, but he did not write anything quite so pithy. These exact words are actually found in Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life, in the material from Day 19 on “Cultivating Community” (from the 2002 edition). In that chapter, Warren does not mention Lewis, even though he does in other places. So, while this does summarize Lewis’s thoughts from Mere Christianity, Warren never even suggests they are adapted from it.
2. “You don't have a soul. You are a Soul. You have a body.”
Lewis never wrote those words, but he did admire the person who originally wrote them—or at least something very similar. George MacDonald penned a close variation of this saying in Annals of a Quiet Neighbourhood (1867). In the 28th chapter, we find a comment about “the great mistake of teaching children that they have souls.” It goes on to say that “they ought to be taught that they have bodies, and that their bodies die; while they themselves live on.” Years later, in 1892, an article appeared in The British Friend where MacDonald is quoted as saying, “Never tell a child … you have a soul. Teach him, you are a soul; you have a body.”
1. “I believe in Christ like I believe in the sun. Not because I can see it, but by it, I can see everything else.”
The most misquoted line from Lewis. These are certainly great words, but they aren’t quite what Lewis actually wrote. They are close though. Not including punctuation, there are eight differences between this and Lewis’s original. The correct version comes from an essay entitled “Is Theology Poetry?” found in The Weight of Glory. The actual statement Lewis wrote is, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it, I see everything else.”
William O’Flaherty is an in-home family therapist, author, and owner of the website essentialcslewis.com. His latest book is C.S. Lewis Goes to Hell: A Companion and Study Guide to The Screwtape Letters (Winged Lion Press, 2016).