Screwtape Letter 3: Spiritual Warfare in Relationships

Photo of a woman crying into a cloth and looking out of a windowI’m excited to talk about this chapter because I have such experience with it’s subject matter.

Up to now we’ve talked about demonic influence on someone’s thoughts and habits, but now we begin to explore in more detail how relationships are brought into the mix. Spiritual warfare in relationships is no joke.

Note: this post is part of a series. You might want to read the introduction to Screwtape Letters first. This post is about chapter 3, click here for chapter 2, or click here for chapter 1.

“When two humans have lived together for many years it usually happens that each has tones of voice and expressions of face which are almost unendurably irritating to the other.”

In most cases you can probably change ‘several years’ to ‘six months’ and multiply the complexities of the situation by adding more people into the mix. Even a person’s gait, breathing, eating, or presence can become irksome. One might have a desire to stay away from home (if you consider it a home at all) and have a certain dread before going there or even leaving your room while there.

People don’t usually notice this happening but eventually find themselves in a relationship years down the line with someone they barely know (or want to know) anymore. And this doesn’t just apply to romantic relationships. In the Screwtape Letters, this relationship is between a man (the “patient”) and his mother.

Where Did it Go Wrong?

Sometimes when we have relationships that are less-than-ideal we then wonder when things started to get out of hand. In the worst of cases, though, there is no single event or action that can be mended, repented of, forgiven, and progressed from. Screwtape advises Wormwood to encourage “daily pinpricks.”

“Death by papercut” is a great metaphor because you never know which tiny wound really did the trick. It makes relational problems so much more difficult to identify and even more difficult to heal. A clear, gaping wound obviously needs to be prioritized. But when we end up with thousands of tiny bruises to procrastinate it becomes difficult to identify the root of the problem.

“Neglect of the obvious” is another good phrase here. Screwtape says the patient should be able to practice prayer and self examination without even realizing his own faults in the relationship. By reverse engineering we can deduct that self-examination is a key defense. We must ask the Lord to search our hearts and find fault in us so that He may refine and purify us (Psalm 139:23-24). And we need to be intimate with God for this to happen.

We might have an instinct of thinking we first must stop the daily pinpricks. But that only comes second to knowing how and when these pinpricks are occurring in the first place. Action is never the first step, but analysis. Specifically, analysis through prayer and reflection. Even Jesus said there are some demons that can only be driven out through prayer (Mark 9:14-29, Matthew 17:14-21, Luke 9:37-42).

Useless Prayers

Oh how we must learn to fear and hate useless and lifeless religious practices. How often do we as Christians pray for someone’s soul or salvation without praying for their struggles or feelings? The state of their soul is what is truly important, right? After all, if only they had a relationship with God… their problems would cease… right?

This is exactly what the enemy wants us to do. Forget about the immediate needs, desires, and situations of people. Turn them into projects for prayer and evangelism. But how to love thy neighbor as thyself is more than just praying for people’s salvation. Why do you think people ridicule and hate the cliche: “do you have a moment to talk about Jesus?” (Why are Christians so stupid?)

Because that question is not truly about meeting the spiritual and material needs of the lost. It is about the comfort of the supposed evangelist. They are seeking the comforting thought of another person going to heaven, or comfort of knowing they are evangelizing and doing God’s work. Usually it is naivety, but sometimes it is self-righteousness.

Screwtape points out that our thoughts of someone we are praying for are sometimes so convoluted and inaccurate that we are actually in a sense praying for someone who doesn’t even exist. We are praying for an imagined concept based off of a real person. Let’s reverse engineer again. What is our best defense against misunderstanding? Empathy and understanding. We must know how to pray.

A Perfect Case Study

The description of Screwtape’s goal for this relationship is a classic study on relational human toxicity. Double standards are the best tool for everything from domestic strife to workplace enmity to civil unrest.

Once this habit is well established you have the delightful situation of a human saying things with the express purpose of offending and yet having a grievance when offense is taken.

Lewis was such an astound observer of human behavior. It is no wonder he was a novelist. And yet it seems that this scenario is so on point that he cannot have simply observed this but lived it and felt it himself. If not, then he must have had an incredible amount of empathetic understanding.

Does any of this hit home with you? Most of us have dealt with toxic relationships in one place or another. What advice would you add for Wormwood? Comment below and let me know your ideas and experiences.


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