I actually ended up reading all of The Screwtape Letters, but in this post I’m only going to be reflecting on letter XII, Screwtape’s letter on encouraging the outward practice of the Christian life while inwardly turning the “patient” more and more towards seeking after his own worldly desires and away from seeking God.
In the letter, Screwtape warns Wormwood, a younger, less experienced devil, to be patient in his tempting, and not try to hurry his victim into huge, spectacular sins. If the man deviates too far from how he knows a Christian should act, he may realize that he has begun to drift into sin and repent. Instead, he encourages Wormwood to keep presenting him with small, seemingly innocent sins—talking lightly and loosely with his non-Christian friends, for example, or neglecting to pray. Slowly but surely, these small sins will add up to a larger and larger change in what the man thinks and how he lives, until he is finally and permanently lost to Hell. As Screwtape says, “the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
If that’s not blood-curdlingly scary, I don’t know what is.
The key in keeping the man from repenting is that all his “small” sins will create in him a “vague, uneasy feeling that he hasn’t been doing very well lately,” while at the same time he still believes, because of his outward habits, that his “spiritual state is much the same as it was six weeks ago.” This guilt will essentially drive a wedge between him and God. Where six weeks ago he was eager to confess his sins, eager to spend time in prayer and worship, now he is unable to think about any of those things without embarrassment, and, consequently, does them only superficially and with great reluctance. Though he still attends church, he is unable to concentrate and learn anything through the sermon or participate in Christian fellowship. He gladly accepts any excuse to abandon his prayers. In effect, his faith becomes empty, a hollow shell of practices that lacks any substance or conviction. He is a true Christian no longer, but simply an outwardly religious man.
How many times have I felt that same vague uneasiness, and let it push me away from God? Or, rather, let it convince me that I should push God away from me, with resolutions to improve my behavior. When I have something better to report, I’ll pray again. When I’ve stopped disrespecting my family, when I’ve tamed my rampant pride, when I’ve started reading scripture regularly, then I’ll come back. The problem is that my resolutions are impossible to keep—I can’t accomplish even those small things without constant prayer for God’s help and encouragement. And, at the same time, all of those well-intentioned efforts are directed inwards, towards myself. Most of the Screwtape letters are devoted to listing all the ways in which a person can be made to think about him or herself rather than others. Getting caught up in your own sense of failure and brokenness is just as selfish as being puffed up with a sense of your own power and perfection. Repentance—throwing yourself on God’s mercy without any thought of “self-improvement”—is the only solution to both.