The previous (first) letter from Screwtape was sort of an introduction to demonic influence on human life and behavior. It seems, then, Screwtape Letter 2 is an expounding work about guarding a new “convert” from saving faith or at least meaningful growth in their faith.
Our human friend that Screwtape is coaching his nephew wormwood to manipulate has “become a Christian.” Contextually it would seem that the “patient” has not actually given Himself fully to the Lord yet but is still dating ideas of faith and religion. Perhaps he answered an altar call and prayed a prayer but his heart has not yet changed.
I do not expect demons to understand these things, but they do not seem to care. In their language the man has become a Christian and yet all is not yet lost. We could have a discussion about Lewis’ viewpoint on soteriology, but for the sake of this commentary I shall assume the man has become a Christian only by professing and not actually in his heart.
One should also remember Lewis’ words in the introduction to the book, “readers are to remember that the devil is a liar. Not everything that Screwtape says should be assumed to be true even from his own angle.” Demons are deceitful, and surely even self-deceitful. They are capable of any and every sort of perversion and bending of the truth.
Creatures of Habit
“All the habits of the patient, both mental and bodily, are still in our favour.”
Habit is indeed a monster. People examining their current thoughts and lifestyle in light of adopting a new religion or philosophy have several challenges to overcome. Of course, some merely stuff a type of “individual” syncretism into their spiritual diet. Others, though, have to actually think about their habits and how they must change if adopting a new lifestyle.
Even if one has already been plunged into New Life given by the Lord, old habits disappointingly continue to haunt us despite our new spiritual nature. I’m sure that’s why it is so easy to fall back into our previous way of life, question our salvation, and then continue to live as if nothing interesting or life-changing has happened.
Too many people get disappointed or angry with God for not speaking to them when in fact they refuse to pause and listen. Before we come to faith we often say things like “what should I do with my life?” As Christians we tend to say the same thing with a spiritual spin: “what does God want me to do with my life?” Essentially it’s the same question with a twist. Instead of listening to God, watching for where He is working, and joining in His work, we are obsessed with going our own special way.
Church: The Devil’s Ally?
Lewis is bold when from Screwtape’s perspective he says that the Church is actually a tool to be put to good use by demonic influence. He does give the clarification of not meaning the Universal Church of Christ, but rather the human idea of a church congregation as an institution. A useful clarification both for a demon in training and the casual/new believer.
Screwtape again harps on emphasizing the disappointment of the ordinary working in tandem with high yet ambiguous expectations. My favorite quote in this letter is about how easy it is for people to find church uncomfortable and strange: “Provided that any of those neighbors sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous.”
How many people move on from a congregation or the entire church for variously trite reasons? The dress code is too lax or too strict; the worship music is too traditional or too noisy; the sermons are too free or too extreme; the people are too judgemental or too casual. But Screwtape says “never let him ask what he expected them to look like. Keep everything hazy in his mind now…”
And then comes (or doesn’t come) the “anticlimax.” One becomes a Christian, begins to attend church, and then what? We seem to be filled with an inescapable desire for something more when we already have all that Christ promises through our relationship with Him. When we are in fellowship with one another we should have reached the pinnacle of edification, yet we are often left expecting more from men’s luncheons or the single’s Sunday School class.
Go It Alone
This letter has no lack of insightful zingers disguised as alleged carelessness projected at God. Screwtape is under the impression that God just barely walks with us and whispers to us while offering as little assistance as possible. Of course it would seem that way to him when us Christians are so prone to believe it ourselves! Screwtape says that God ‘refuses to carry’ his followers in principle of them being his free lovers.
Again, we could enter into a discussion on soteriology, or we could simply agree that Screwtape is intentionally twisting God’s nature. Of course most of us can probably relate to what Screwtape says because of the small shred of truth in it that most convincing lies have. I believe we often feel alone in things because we refuse to submit to Him or deal with things in the way that He tells us to.
Then comes a telling warning from Screwtape to Wormwood: “If once they get through this initial dryness successfully, they become much less dependent on emotion and therefore much harder to tempt.” In other words once baby Christians overcome the disappointment of the reality of being in fellowship with fellow sinners; once they are weaned off milk and begin to eat meat (Hebrews 5:12-14).
Mature Christians will realize that there are some people within their faith who are actually ridiculous and hold ridiculous beliefs. They know about the out-of-tune singing, the squeaky boots, the double chins, the odd clothes, and they have learned not to be phased by any of it. They have even learned there are hypocrites, adulterers, backsliders, two-faced men among them, and their faith is not swayed.
Screwtape’s idea is keeping you from ever getting to this place. If you are a new Christian, are you determined to get to a point in your faith where it is sustained by God alone and no longer by milk? If you are an experienced Christian, what can you do to help new Christians get to this point? If you are not a Christian, can you admit and respect that many of the reasons and reservations people have against the church are trite factors largely based on vague jargon?
Leave a comment and let me know what you think about this letter or my response to it. We’ll continue this in chapter 3…