Our lives are more corruption-prone than we think they are. It’s incredible how the Devil can use our inability to recognize our true spiritual situation to gradually whittle away at us until we are eternally his. Such is the subject matter of The Screwtape Letters, Lewis’ fictional documentation of letters from a senior demon, Screwtape, to his junior tempter nephew, Wormwood, who is in charge of his first human “patient” and seeking advice from his experienced uncle. The downright ordinariness of the patient’s life and the subtle angles from which the devils act on it come together to create a truly disturbing description of the Hell’s methods, and Lewis helps us to draw our attention to some of these ways.
Although we generally seek refuge from such demons by ostensibly following Christ and communing with other fellow Christians, Lewis points out that we can still be up to our ears in sin without even realizing it. In Letter XII, Screwtape’s main tool of choice is the “dim uneasiness” that comes after having lived the Christian life for some time. He says something rather astonishing to Wormwood, that he is “almost glad to hear that your patient is still a churchgoer and a communicant.” It would seem intuitive that Hell would want to extract humans from the church as quickly as possible in order to remove that field in which “the Enemy” (God) can act, but Lewis argues that the church can be the demons’ battle ground, too. Screwtape says that “as long as [the patient] retains the habits of a Christian he can still be made to think of himself as one”; in other words, he must trick himself into believing he is still favorable in God’s eyes, but actually be gradually turning away from Him. The patient can focus on the awkwardness of someone’s hat or look condescendingly on others, as Screwtape suggests in earlier letters, and miss out on the real point of being in church altogether. This sort of subconscious behavior can cause our faith life to plateau, and bring us into a state of oblivious indifference that our “tempters” can use.
The grave danger of this situation is that if it goes unexamined, it could turn from a plateau into a flatline. We can be so unaware of our “dim uneasiness” – the humdrum spiritual state that the patient is in – that we do not even call it into question. This is precisely what Screwtape prescribes, since “if it gets too strong it may wake him up and spoil the whole game.” Thus, we can wallow in our mediocrity until it numbs our desire to engage in spiritual nourishment.
We can even develop an aversion to the thought of our religious practices or of God Himself. This can then cause a downward spiral; since we will replace the thought of Christ with anything on hand, the tempter can supply useless, time-consuming ideas that we can entertain for hours if not days. “Now you will find him opening his arms to you and almost begging you to distract his purpose and benumb his heart,” says Screwtape. I think Lewis’ power of insight is at its peak here, because so often I find myself hiding God in the recesses of my mind, hoping that He will not need to be brought forward, and all of this just for the sake of not wanting to think about it. It’s painful to think about Him, it’s almost infuriating, because you always know that He is there and that you should be engaging Him, but the will is not there.
Thus, we waste our time and our lives covering God up with “anything or nothing” due to our longing for distraction. We then ultimately realize (and, alas, maybe too late) that “I spent most of my life doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.” It is against this squandering of life that we need to be on our guard against, even in seemingly safe environments like a Bible study group or church.
For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. (Paul in Romans 7:15-24)