The Screwtape Letters is a classic work from C. S. Lewis, author of the popular Chronicles of Narnia series. Being a classic—I haven’t actually read it all yet. But, I’ve seen the play—twice! (I hope that counts for something.) I am, of course, referring to masterful theatrical adaptation produced and directed by Max McLean. I was blown away the first time I saw the play so the following night I took a pen and notepad and scribbled down the lines from the play that impressed me most. Yes, in the dark!
To unlock the power of The Screwtape Letters, most people end up having to approach it as a kind of “reverse devotional.” That’s because Uncle Screwtape is a senior devil advising a junior devil, Wormwood, how to oppose a young human in his pursuit of God. Not exactly what you’d find in Our Daily Bread for today. It is written from the devil’s perspective so “Our Father” would refer to Satan and “The Enemy” would refer to God.
C.S. Lewis’ own warning in the preface of the book is probably helpful at this point: “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors…”
Below are three big takeaways from the play (and therefore, the book).
“A healthy dose of ‘real life’ was enough”
Uncle Screwtape recounts an incident when he himself is contending for the “train of thought” of an atheist. As the atheist begins to seriously consider the truth of Christianity, Screwtape simply influences him to delay his quest until after a break for lunch. Once outside on this break however, the progressive distractions of the world are enough to derail the atheist’s discovery of truth—forever.
Seemingly harmless and legitimate activities often stifle your pursuit of God. Whether you are on the outside looking in or already on the inside and desiring to deepen your relationship with the Lord, determine to spend less time distracted by the façade of “real life” and engage your mind with present and future realities of eternal life.
The Bible says, “Soldiers don’t get tied up in the affairs of civilian life, for then they cannot please the officer who enlisted them” (2 Timothy 2:4).
Screwtape later remarks, “It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out” (p. 12). The battle is raging for influence over your mind. What you believe largely influences the way you behave. “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think…” (Romans 12:2).
“A vaguely devotional mood in which real concentration of will and intelligence have no part”
The human has discovered the power of prayer. Screwtape’s advice is to ensure that the young man never takes prayer seriously—never concentrates and always lacks deliberate thought. The goal is to keep him parroting the prayers of his childhood. Those empty words will give him a sense of spiritual fulfilment.
Guard your prayer life! Keep it consistent (1 Thessalonians 5:17) and meaningful (Psalm 119:145). Prayer is hard and the Lord provides plenty of incentive for struggling Christians:
“But when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private. Then your Father, who sees everything, will reward you” (Matthew 6:6).
“Then if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sins and restore their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14).
Don’t just walk around feeling holy; be holy! (1 Peter 1:16)
“An ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula”
Because his life is in a bit of a slump, Wormwood thinks the young man’s Christianity is dying away. Screwtape’s advice is to use this low point (trough) to tempt the human to give in to sexually immoral behavior. He argues that when a person is depressed, disappointed or just feeling quite dull and dreary overall, they are more likely to confuse any affection they receive with “being in love” (p. 25). It is more likely to get a man to deathly drunk when he is depressed than when he is merry.
God made the pleasures, the devil has corrupted the pleasures by tempting mankind to indulge in pleasures “at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden.” (p. 26)
The Bible warns that many people live as pagans and are “headed for destruction. Their god is their appetite, they brag about shameful things, and they think only about this life here on earth.” (Philippians 3:19)
Don’t live for pleasure; live for the God who created the pleasures. Choose the Giver over the gifts!