Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight.

At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more.

When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death,

and when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.

~C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

Thursday, January 13, 2011

On The Screwtape Letters, Letter XII

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.


  1. Great reflections :) Have you had the chance to listen to the recent theatrical recordings? Andy Serkis does the voice of Screwtape--it's chilling! I highly recommend them (Focus produced it). I'm glad you read them all--some great material in there to ponder and digest :)

  2. I might be very interested in listening to those eventually, but not right now. I read the entire Screwtape Letters yesterday, mostly yesterday evening, and, though they were very well-written and worth reading, I don't want to do so again right away. In the introduction, Lewis says that writing the letters gave him a sort of "spiritual cramp"; reading them did almost the same thing to me. The ending is such a horrifying glimpse of pure evil. It reminded me a bit of That Hideous Strength (though it's been a while since I read that one) and of 1984. I wonder if Lewis read Orwell?

    By the way, my prof has posted some fun pictures of my class on his blog, Narniabound, which I added to my blog list on the right. :)

  3. I don't know if Lewis read Orwell (I'm still searching) but Orwell read Lewis, though I'm sad to say that he appears to have completely missed the entire point! Check out this: http://www.lewisiana.nl/orwell/

  4. yes, it appears Lewis did read Orwell--and from the sounds of things, they would not have done well together in a room--though this quote made me smile: Lewis was the more generous critic, not just because he was a more generous and liberal man, but because he could accept Orwell's observations on society, while Orwell could not accept Lewis's faith, which deeply challenged his materialism and irreligion. (David Mills)

  5. and can I just say how CREEPY it is that your classroom is almost identical to a room I took several science classes in at my university? Down to the tables and the window in the corner, not to mention the cinderblock wall...and when did you cut your hair?? Love ya!

  6. Wow--that could be the start of a really interesting research project/ comparative essay. >:-3 (Get it? It's a guy with a curly mustache hatching an evil plot.) Thanks for looking that up!

    That is a bit creepy, Nia. And have you not seen a picture of me since moot? I got my hair cut shorter after I came back from moot and before I went off to college. Most recently, I had a haircut a couple of weeks ago, over winter break. :P Love you too!