Fiction has a way of showing us things that would otherwise go unnoticed. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I recently completed C.S. Lewis’ classic work The Screwtape Letters for the first time. I can honestly say, within the pages of this book, I’ve learned lessons that may save my life.
Lewis’ satirical apologetic has been on my to-read list for as long as I can remember, but I’ve put it off time and again over the years. For some reason, perhaps the prompting of the Holy Spirit, I decided to pick up my copy a few weeks ago. My only regret is that I didn’t do so sooner.
In The Screwtape Letters, Lewis offers us one side of a conversation between two demons as they correspond by sending letters back and forth. We only read the words of Screwtape, a veteran and distinguished human tempter. He writes to his nephew Wormwood, who is a novice in the trade of temptation, attempting to mentor him as Wormwood seeks to secure his first human soul for the purpose of eternal torment.
Entering another world
This wasn’t a book I could read quickly. Most days I limited myself to only a chapter or two alongside my daily Bible reading. And I’m glad I did. Taking the slow walk through Lewis’ imagined world of diabolical ventriloquism taught me to see things I have—at my own peril—ignored for too long.
Lewis’ words literally take you to another world. As I read, I entered a place my mind had not wandered since I was just a child—the dreadful world of spiritual darkness. “I’m a modern man in the modern age. We don’t see or hear tell of demons because those are vestiges of the old world.” Or so I tell myself. Not since I was a boy have I dedicated any real thought (or imagination) to the schemes of the Devil, the existence of demons, or the realities that lie within such a dark and menacing world.
Of course, as a Christian who believes the Bible, I have no problem believing the accounts of Jesus and his disciples encountering people who really were possessed by demons. But, I now realize I had been writing this off as merely a thing of the past. My rationale was simple: the Devil is smart and knows that any apparent manifestation of demons would upset the modern zeitgeist of skepticism. I still think this is true. Probably the biggest mistake the enemy could make in the age of secularism and unbelief is to plainly reveal the spirit world. And this is true, so far as it goes. But it was also the genesis of my very real problem.
A dangerous mistake
Here is my error. For years, I’ve been assuming the absence of visible demonic activity also guaranteed there was no such activity to speak of. I’ve been functionally, and sometimes literally, assuming the Devil isn’t at work today. Instead of wrestling with “powers and principalities,” I was content to chalk all of that up to bad luck or human nature or something else. And here Lewis offers a remarkable course correction.
Through the voice of Screwtape, Lewis sets forth plausible scenarios chronicling the very “schemes of the Devil” I had so blindly ignored. On page after page, Lewis exposes the subtle nature of temptation and manipulation which the enemy employs against Christians, including me, every day.
Take for instance his words on pleasure. Screwtape notes that any pleasure in its healthy and natural form is actually a gift to humanity from God (whom Screwtape also appropriately refers to as “the Enemy”). To Wormwood, Screwtape remarks,
. . . encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden. Hence we always try to work away from the natural condition of any pleasure to that in which it is least natural, least redolent of its Maker, and least pleasurable. An ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula. (44)
How many times have I sought a corrupted pleasure, oblivious to my willing cooperation with the Devil’s ploy? And this is not all. In a later chapter, Lewis points out the manner in which the Devil might use Christianity itself against us. As Screwtape advises Wormwood, “make men treat Christianity as a means.” Aware that God refuses to be used as a convenience, the expert tempter urges his nephew to lead the human to value Christianity, not for its end, but for what it might produce: “‘Believe this not because it is true, but for some other reason.’ That’s the game.”
I’ve succumbed to this temptation. More importantly, there are people around me right now who are trapped in this very lie, and until recently I did not recognize its root. Reading each chapter, again and again I felt the sting of this conviction.
As I return the book to its shelf, I walk away with deep gratitude and heightened awareness. Lewis has become for me a tutor in the craft of spiritual warfare. Due to his effective instruction, I am no longer blind to the work of the enemy. I suspect many Christians are like I was, either blissfully unaware of our involvement in this conflict, or greeting the subject with little more than a casual dismissal. To myself, and those like me, let us remember Lewis’ warning:
“Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” (61)
On the subject of spiritual warfare, Lewis is a helpful guide. I’ll remember what he taught: There is an enemy. He seeks my destruction. And this is war.
Reflecting on writing The Screwtape Letters, Lewis remarked, “Though I had never written anything more easily, I never wrote with less enjoyment.” The moral universe of Screwtape thrust him into an environment of “dust, grit, thirst, and itch.” And he could only stay there so long. “It almost smothered me before I was done.”
C.S. Lewis allowed his mind to enter such a world in order to awaken those like me out of our spiritual stupor. I commend his work to you, with eyes opened wide.