The Screwtape Letters is a novel by C. S. Lewis that was first published in 1942. Screwtape is a senior devil writing to a junior devil, his nephew, Wormwood, on how best to tempt a man, called only “the Patient”, into sin and eventually, into Hell. The Patient is living in the UK during the second World War. He has allegedly made a profession of faith and regularly attends church. He is most likely in his mid-thirties and he lives with his mother, who happens to be a difficult woman. As the story unfolds the Patient makes new non-Christian friends and falls in love with a godly Christian girl.
In most of the discussions I have had with people, it seems to me that many people see the book as a helpful insight into how to combat the temptations the devil throws at us. There is nothing necessarily wrong with reading the book that way. In fact, that was the what I took away when I read it for the first time. But after a second reading, I realised that is probably not what Lewis expected the reader to do with the book
I think Lewis essentially wrote this book as a way addressing theological issues in am engaging manner. The complex challenge Lewis puts before us is to extract from the pen of Screwtape the key lessons we think Lewis is teaching, against the backdrop of a fictional story told through a demonic character. That form of reading moves us beyond the descriptive to a place where we must read between the lines of what is written and extract tangible theological lessons to guide our daily living.
To read the book this way requires us to assume that Screwtape in some way reflects Lewis’ theology, without sharing his language or motives. That is to say, in Screwtape Letters, I believe Lewis is putting his theology in the mouth of the devil. That is what makes Screwtape quite innovative and at the same time very demanding for reflective reader.. It requires careful readings to distinguish the theological meat of Lewis from the bones of Satan. Let’s put this approach to the test with a few questions.
How do we relate to God?
The most important question we can ask of any author is, ‘what do they teach us about who we are as human beings and how relate to the God who created us?’ According to Lewis’ Screwtape human beings are created with a “free will”. This libertarian free will is vital if we are to genuinely love God. In the 17th letter, Screwtape says to Wormwood:
“...their free will is the problem of problems, [it is] the secret behind the Enemy’s nonsense about “Love”. How it does so is no problem at all; for the Enemy does not foresee the humans making their free contributions in a future, but sees them doing so in His unbounded Now. And obviously to watch a man doing something is not to make him do it”
In the 8th letter Screwtape argues that human beings go through peaks and troughs. This how God has designed us in order that we may relate to him as “free” individuals. It is in the troughs that we experience and demonstrate true love for God, uncompelled by His grace or power:
You must have often wondered why the Enemy does not make more use of His power to be sensibly present to human souls in any degree He chooses and at any moment. But you now see that the Irresistible and the Indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of His scheme forbids Him to use. Merely to over-ride a human will (as His felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for Him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo. For His ignoble idea is to eat the cake and have it; the creatures are to be one with Him, but yet themselves; merely to cancel them, or assimilate them, will not serve. He is prepared to do a little over-riding at the beginning. He will set them off with communications of His presence which, though faint, seem great to them, with emotional sweetness, and easy conquest over temptation.
A closer reading of Screwtape, reveals that Lewis has a theology that fails to take total depravity seriously and rejects God’s irresistible grace. Lewis believes human beings can ultimately reject advances from God, which of course flies in the face of biblical data where we see the power of God irresistibly conquering human rejection.
Now Lewis is partly correct that God does not act through human beings in such a way that he dissolves our humanity. But God does in fact ultimately move the human will to serve his sovereignty. purposes. God works in the human will in such a way that he willingly moves it to do that which he has purposed it to do, or it would not have done without his intervention. So whilst it is true in one sense people never go against their will, in another sense they are powerfully inclined to achieve the divine purposes in a way that is consistent with their particular natures. As Stephen Charnock notes in his discourse on divine providence:
God moves everything in his ordinary providence according to their particular natures. God moves everything ordinarily according to the nature he finds it in...Now, since God will govern his creature, I do not see how it can be otherwise, than according to the present nature of the creature, unless God be pleased to alter that nature. God forces no man against his nature; he does not force the will in conversion, but graciously and powerfully inclines it.
The other big problem I detected in this book is that Lewis seems to have a flawed doctrine of regeneration. Screwtape apparently believes a Christian can experience a second conversion, and presumably a third and fourth one. For Lewis, our salvation is not about God breathing life into spiritually dead souls. It is more of a process of us discovering Christ through human reason with just a little help from God along the way.
The problem of course is that if salvation begins with regeneration, as the Bible teaches, the whole premise of Screwtape Letters falls to pieces. Wormwood’s task can only take two possible routes. He could either be tasked with stopping God breathing new life into the Patient, which is utterly impossible. Alternatively, Screwtape can task Wormwood with the job of ensuring the Patient lives a unfruitful Christian life, after his regeneration, not with the view of sending him to Hell, but in simply rendering his life spiritually impotent.
What we have in the book is none of the above. We have a Wormwood who first tries to stop the Patient being converted. Which of course he cannot because our Lord Jesus clearly told Nicodemus, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). After Wormwood fails to convert the Patient, he is then given the task of deconverting the Patient and ensure he lands in Hell. Lewis’ unbiblical assumption is sadly that there is no such thing as the preservation of the saints.
How are we suppose to live before God?
Although there is plenty to disagree with C S Lewis’ about how we relate to God, the book does have some helpful reflections on how we are supposed to live before God. One of the pieces of wisdom I found helpful was C S Lewis’ emphasis that God wants Christians to have their hearts centred on him. God wants us to be “merely” Christian. Not to substitute our faith with some fashion with a Christian colouring – “Christian and social justice”, “Christianity And…”
Accordingly to Lewis, we are attracted to this hybrid Christianity because we are created with a union of change and permanence. The devil preys on our fallenness to exaggerate our longing for change. As human beings we desire absolute novelty, which Satan tries had to exaggerate in us. This exaggeration of novelty has the impact of diminishing pleasure and creating insatiable desire. Increasing novelty leads to diminishing returns. We become like addicts who cannot get enough. Lewis does not explore what makes this desire grow within us. Is it that God made us this way, or is this a function of social competition?
What is clear is that the desire for more is used by the devil to keep many from true and whole hearted trust in Jesus. When that that does not work, the devil works hard to corrupt any profession of faith. Throughout the ordeal, Satan’s goal is to encourage people to reinvent Jesus so that he is about that one thing they care about rather than the Gospel.
I think Lewis is right to warn us that as believers we must avoid making Jesus a convenience or staircase to our favourite objective or cause or idol. This is something God hates. But how do we resist this temptation?
Lewis believes that the greatest firewall against all temptations is to enjoy God given pleasures as real pleasures. Things that that we enjoy for their own sake without caring what other people about it. This of course raises the question on how enjoying such pleasures sits with the call of Jesus to deny ourselves. Lewis argues that the denial Jesus spoke about related to the denial of self-will in submission to God’s will. It is a not a swallowing of our character. Quite the opposite, when we deny or lose ourselves to God, God gives us back our true and distinct selves.
The point Lewis is making is that when we are wholly of God, we become more ourselves and more fulfilled. The Christian can truly enjoy many of the good things in life because we do not have to become slaves of our pleasures. If the sun is out and shining we can take delight in that thing as gift from God our creator. If tomorrow we go outside and discover that that it is all cloudy, we do not have to hold a pity party because we do not locate our hope in that thing. We can love life without worshipping life or becoming slaves of it. This not only insulates from falling prey to the soles of Satan, it also helps us live more joyful lives.
Lewis’ thought is a challenge to how many of us thinking about life. We live to promote ourselves. But Lewis is saying true distinctiveness is through denial of ourselves not in self-promotion of the self. We must give up control to Jesus because it is only in having more of Jesus that we find more of ourselves.
Our clamour for self-promotion is rooted in a deeper problem Lewis sees in all of us - the lack of true humility. According to Lewis, humility is self-forgetfulness. It is thinking ourselves less. It is turning from us and focusing more on others. Self-forgetfulness is being able to be genuinely pleased with ourselves, but equally pleased for others, and even content if our achievements were accomplished by others rather than us. It is self-love that loves others equally. Self-forgetfulness does not see other people as competitors. It gets us off the endless occupation with self-evaluation whether it reaches positive or negative conclusions. A true Christian is a person who is not obsessed with self. His focus is on God and others.
The other area in our personal life that C S Lewis wants us to pay close attention to is prayer. Lewis is concerned that much of what passes for prayer is no prayer at all. He observes that true prayer is the concentration of will and intelligence before God.
In this, 4th letter, Lewis notes that we we are helped in our prayers by the posture our bodies take. As embodied beings what positions our bodies take affect our souls. As we pray, we should seek to turn away from ourselves and unto Him. We must come trusting completely the real, external, and invisible presence of God with us. And ensure that we are completely naked before Him in our prayers. Giving ourselves to Him. Our prayers must be accompanied by regular self-examination and surrender before God.
Lewis believes there is a tendency in professing Christians in regarding conversion experience as only an inner life reality. This leads to little self-examination of how we are truly living before God, especially with respect to others. As a result our lives become riddle with hypocrisy by neglecting the obvious. The failure to repent in key areas means that even our praying simply serves to foster deeper hypocrisy. A vibrant prayer life needs to be accompanied by genuine self-examination and repentance of sin.
In our repentance we should not make room for ignoring the obvious. One particular sin, Lewis thinks that is ignored by professing Christians is glutton. Many of us think we are not gluttonous because we consume little. But what we forget is that we consume different kinds of things more than we should. We are slaves to variety. We are blinded into a false sense of spirituality where we care less about obvious sinful habits. For example, many of us care less about our physical health, as a result we overeat and never exercise.
According to Lewis at the heart of our failure to fight temptation is the lost vision of our ultimate destination. The devil and the world are focused on us being preoccupied with the affairs of this world rather focus on our eternal future in Heaven. Their goal is to make us earth bound. To makes us think that this world is all there is. Live for now. This is reflected in the pursuit of wealth and fame. And of course in our obsession with avoiding death at all costs.
In the 31st letter, Lewis reminds us that there is no need for us to live for this world or fear our impending death. Death is an extension of life. Death makes our final victory over temptation. It is the “final stripping, this complete cleansing”. It is our home coming. When we reunite without true family and dwell in His presence. That prospect of being with God must be at the heart of everything we do.
How should we think about ourselves?
For Lewis, the dominant aspect of our humanity is that we are creatures of time. This human experience of time means our lives are filled with uncertainty about the future which fills us with a mix of hope and fear. We often become anxious and concerned about what will happen to us rath than what we are in the present moment.
The antidote to fear and anxiety is to regard our fragility as part of God’s work in our lives to make us more like Jesus. We must recognise the sovereignty of God in our situation. God wants us to not be obsessed or anxious about the future. We should endeavour to be more with concerned with what God is doing today. Too much concern with tomorrow produces anxiety and makes us less grateful for God’s care for us today.
The other aspect of our experience of time means that we have a history. Lewis is quite keen to remind us that we should see ourselves as people who belong to a race that has a long history, and we should try to do what we can to learn from the past. In particular, there is tremendous value in reading and learning from old books. But we need to ensure that we read old books for the truth they contain not as an academic exercise.
The reading of these old books ensures that we are not cut from previous generations. We are allowing their wisdom to correct our errors. We are learning from their mistakes. We are increasing the pool of wisdom God has given to us.
How should we relate to the church?
Lewis does not offer a comprehensive theology of the church. But he does make some fascinating observations about some of the dangers Lewis saw the church facing during his time. Early on he says that what makes the church unique is that it brings people from different walks of life who all do not deserve to be part of the new family of God in Jesus. They have been drawn together purely by grace alone.
Therefore, for Lewis, the biggest threat to the church today is the attitude of many professing Christians that sees other people in the church as being part of the church on a different basis from them. There are many who feel being among God’s people is an act of great humility and condensation towards others, and by extension to God himself. This attitude is unchristian because it is devoid of a proper understanding and appreciation of the transforming grace of God in Jesus. According to the Lewis, the church is at its best when those present are there as people who feel not worthy to be part of the body of Christ.
Lewis’ concern about how people see themselves relative to others with the church takes us back to the problem of pride. One of his most powerful observations is that the biggest areas that Christina’s nee to cultivate humility in is in relation to our spirituality. We need to guard against is spiritual pride. Lewis believes that many Christians come to regard those outside their circle as not worth listening to and less entertaining. This spiritual pride says, “how different we Christians” and by the “we Christians”, they usually mean our group that really gets the bible – “our set”. If we were in charge life would be better for everyone.
The other manifestation of spiritual pride is in those who are forever church shopping. Lewis believes the devil tries to ensure that people are perpetually church shopping because this achieves three things. First, it turns them into a critic rather than be a student as God desires for us; secondly, it stops them from sitting consistently under teaching that would expose what they do not know; and, finally, it promotes a party spirit among churches and within a given church.
How should we relate to society?
Lewis believes the central moral battle in our society is between the Christian approach that regards things in terms of right and wrong. And the secular or utilitarian ethic that regards things in terms of what of what works and does not work. Within this context Lewis gives a few pointers on how we can navigate a society that sees things different.
First, we should see tragedies as opportunities to live for God rather than being swept with the doom and gloom of what is going on around us in. In the 5th letter, Lewis argues that Christians have no need to be disturbed by national tragedies like war. These tragedies are opportunities God uses to draw people to himself. They strip away “contented worldliness”. During national tragedies we are confronted with our mortalities and the need to live for something higher than our ourselves. This observation is especially important in our day as we face the challenging of living for God in a coronavirus world.
Secondly, we must avoid the danger of veering towards experiences in anything. The tendency for extremes has the danger of our position or social cause becoming the end and Christ becoming the means for that end. Where Christ is merely an auxiliary to our cause we have lost sigh of his Lordship. I found this observation especially timely today given the secular push for social justice, which is sadly turning otherwise faithful Christians into misguided social justice warriors.
Thirdly, we must be careful how we build friendship with non-believers. Any friendship that is not underpinned early on by clear witness that we are believers is likely to make us drift away from God. Our longing to be wanted may be difficult too difficult to resist if our boundaries are not drawn early and clearly. By the time we decide to stand firm for God, it may be too later. We are already captured.
Fourthly, we must guard ourselves against the crisis of sexuality in society. According to Lewis the problem in our society is that people try to separate sexuality from all that humanises. The secular view of sexuality ultimageky dehumanise love.
Related to this is, we must remember that the devil’s strategy is to ensure that our sexual desires are always misdirected. In in the case of women, the devil tries to turn them into boys – to pursue “boy” bodies in the name of health and nature. In case of men, his strategy is to take away the desire for marriage or used as agents to ruin marriage. If Lewis was writing today he would certainly have added that the devil is trying to turn men into women. One only needs to look at latest catwalk to see the proof of these things. The church needs to be ensure we do not fall into these deadly traps.
Finally, we must resist the pressure to regard everything as “ours”. There a fibrous root in all of us that desires to possess everything, including God. This hunger to possess is driven by human pride and the propensity to confuse the different forms of ownership in our lives. The hunger to possess will ultimately never be satisfied because God owns everything.
A final word...
So there we have it. The Screwtape Letters is a complex book. Lewis’s soteriology is more than misguided, it robs Christians of the true comfort of the grace of God that is ours in Christ Jesus. For this reason, I can’t recommend the book to to any Christian. However, for believers who are spiritually mature, those able to see truth from error, the book does contain some perpetrating observations abojt the secular culture around us.