Studying the Bible with Brother Jack
Part II: Screwtape Letters; Peaks & Troughs
July 17, 2011
An introduction to Screwtape
We are in a short series looking at what the Bible through C. S. Lewis’ eyes, or “Brother Jack,” as I like to call him. Lewis had such a broad understanding of literature, philosophy, human nature, and the Bible that he saw things with great clarity.
Prayer/ Scripture reading: 1 Peter 5:6-11
Intro to Screwtape Letters
This week, we are learning from “The Screwtape Letter,” one of my favorite books of his. I reread it every couple of years and always walk away with new insight into my Christian life.
It is written as a collection of letters from one demon to another; everything is written from a twisted perspective: “Our Father Below” means Satan and “our Enemy” means God.
In the preface, Lewis talks about his symbolism, why there are no bat-winged demons or halls filled with fire:
“...my own choice of symbols depended, I suppose, on the temperament of the age. I like bats much better than bureaucrats. I live in the Managerial Age, a world of “admin.” The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid ‘dens of crime’ that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern.” (Preface)
The letters are written to Wormwood, a new tempter demon on his first assignment; a young non-Christian in London, on the eve of World War II. They are written by Screwtape, a high ranking department undersecretary.
Between the first and second letter, something dreadful happens:
My dear Wormwood,
I note with grave displeasure that your patient has become a Christian. Do not indulge the hope that you will escape the usual penalties; indeed, in your better moments, I trust you would hardly even wish to do so. In the meantime we must make the best of the situation. There is no need to despair; hundreds of these adult converts have been reclaimed after a brief sojourn in the Enemy’s camp and are now with us. All the habits of the patient, both mental and bodily, are still in our favour. (Chapter 2)
Over the next half-dozen letters, Screwtape suggests various tactics: Lure away from church, aggravate his relationship with his mom, use anxiety over the war to keep him from trusting God.
· By the eighth letter, Wormwood thinks he’s pulled it off:
The Law of Undulation
My Dear Wormwood,
So you “have great hopes that the patient’s religious phase is dying away”, have you? I always thought the Training College had gone to pieces since they put old Slubgob at the head of it, and now I am sure. Has no one ever told you about the law of Undulation?
Humans are amphibians - half spirit and half animal. (The Enemy’s determination to produce such a revolting hybrid was one of the things that determined Our Father to withdraw his support from Him.) As spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time. This means that while their spirit can be directed to an eternal object, their bodies, passions, and imaginations are in continual change, for to be in time means to change. Their nearest approach to constancy, therefore, is undulation - the repeated return to a level from which they repeatedly fall back, a series of troughs and peaks. If you had watched your patient carefully you would have seen this undulation in every department of his life - his interest in his work, his affection for his friends, his physical appetites, all go up and down. As long as he lives on earth periods of emotional and bodily richness and liveliness will alternate with periods of numbness and poverty. The dryness and dulness through which your patient is now going are not, as you fondly suppose, your workmanship; they are merely a natural phenomenon which will do us no good unless you make a good use of it. (Chapter 8)
Q Now think about that, doesn’t that explain the cycles of your life, the necessary ups and downs?
· A great vacation followed by being snappy and petty.
· A profound spiritual experience followed by sin.
· Excited about your work, then apathy.
· Looking forward to summer, then hating the heat.
To be human is to go through troughs and peaks. That is one of the key themes in Ecclesiastes: The temporariness of life, that everything is passing vapor.
Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: 2 a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, 3 a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, 4 a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, 5 a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain, 6 a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, 7 a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, 8 a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.
This too shall pass
The trick is that while we are in either the peaks or troughs, we think it will last forever. It is very difficult for us to step outside ourselves.
There is an old fable of a king who prone to these mood swings – when things were going well, he was on top of the world, filled with pride at his kingdom. But when things were going poorly, he sunk into despair and was paralyzed, unable to move forward.
He saw that his mood swings were destroying his kingdom, he called together his wise men for advice. After consulting together, they gave him a simple ring with 4 words carved in it: “This too shall pass.”
When things are going great, you think that should be normal and believe that something is wrong when life gets tough – this too shall pass.
On the other side, when you are down in the dumps: Your marriage is tough, you hate your job, God seems distant, and you can’t imagine it being any different – this too shall pass.
Q Are you on a peak or in a trough right now?
Q How long have you been in it?
Q How much longer do you objectively think you will be in it?
Steady yourself with that thought.
Good and bad
Here is the important thing to remember: The peaks are not good and the troughs bad. Certainly the peaks are more fun, but they both have potential to benefit us and to harm us.
· Both present an opportunity for growth and for temptation.
Danger of the peaks
When we are on top of the world, we feel invulnerable; we are doing great, nothing can touch us. One of my profs warned us, when we think we can’t fall we may be in the greatest danger:
1 Corinthians 10:12 12 So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!
The temptations of the peaks are unique. Pride and self-sufficiency becomes a major temptation.
I’ve been reading “Onward” by Howard Shultz. In the midst of Starbucks great success, the cracks in the foundation were ignored. It wasn’t until the economy began to dive that they saw just how far they had gotten from their vision.
· “Even a turkey can fly in a tornado.” Dave Ramsey
Q Are you in a peak?
Don’t mistake things going well for success. Don’t ignore the cracks.
Opportunity of peaks
But peaks have something going for them, aside from being more fun: Momentum. In the peak times, you have the energy and eagerness to do something.
Q Have you ever had to push a car to a gas station?
When you a nice little downward slope, that is not the time to ease off, but to pick up momentum for that last little hill before the gas station.
· Don’t waste that energy on building your Google+ account!
The good times are an opportunity not to coast, as we usually do, but an opportunity to prepare for the inevitable bad times.
· Evaluate your life, your mission.
· Evaluate your spiritual life, build spiritual habits.
· Try something new in your life.
Make use of this time, because “it too shall pass,” and when it passes, it can either leave you more or less prepared for the troughs and the attacks of the enemy.
· Cf. D-Day, getting as much supplies across before the storm.
But Screwtape wants to focus on how to use the troughs, “they do us no good unless you make a good use of it”:
In the first place I have always found that the Trough periods of the human undulation provide excellent opportunity for all sensual temptations, particularly those of sex. This may surprise you, because, of course, there is more physical energy, and therefore more potential appetite, at the Peak periods; but you must remember that the powers of resistance are then also at their highest. The health and spirits which you want to use in producing lust can also, alas, be very easily used for work or play or thought or innocuous merriment. The attack has a much better chance of success when the man’s whole inner world is drab and cold and empty...
It is the same with other desires of the flesh. You are much more likely to make your man a sound drunkard by pressing drink on him as an anodyne [painkiller] when he is dull and weary than by encouraging him to use it as a means of merriment among his friends when he is happy and expansive. (Chapter 9)
We’ve all heard the proverb, “Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop,” and perhaps smirked at it, but maybe they were right.
Q Does this scenario sound probable?
You’ve had a tough day at work, your marriage is lackluster, you’re worn, tired, and mildly depressed. Your spouse has gone to bed and you’re up surfing the internet, skimming Facebook.
You have a drink to “wind down.” Then maybe another. You don’t want to go to bed, so you keep clicking links, find yourself staring at the profile of an old flame, she’s online.
What can it hurt to say hi? It’s been long enough, what could possible go wrong? A lot. Affairs start that way.
Do you think I am being melodramatic? It is basically the story of a former pastor I know: A failing church, a disappointing marriage, and a Facebook connection.
The point is not “Facebook is bad,” it’s “be on guard during the empty troughs.” It is in these times that we can be in the greatest danger.
· David fell when he was moping around the castle instead of out leading his army.
The danger of the troughs is feel empty and are desperate for anything that can fill us up, and Wormwood stands there ready with some helpful suggestions.
Fighting the temptation
Q What should you do about it?
The most important step in fighting these temptations is simply recognizing that you are in a trough and are vulnerable. Just by acknowledging that fact, you are better equipped to fight it.
When Grace was born, we were told that baby’s immune system are weaker initially, so be careful. That became my job, my sacred duty. I couldn’t nurse, but I could make sure everyone could washing their hands. I had the hand sanitizer, and was on watch out for anyone sick.
If you know when your “immune system” is weak, then you know that you have to be more careful. You may not be able to watch the movies you normally do or surf on the internet or read a certain book.
The second thing to do is tell your spouse or a trusted friend; if you know that they know you are vulnerable, you’re less likely to do something stupid.
Here’s the surprising thing: the troughs are more than down times to endure, hoping to survive without falling into sin. They are one of God’s most important tools in building us into strong, joy-filled Christians:
Now it may surprise you to learn that in His efforts to get permanent possession of a soul, He relies on the troughs even more than on the peaks; some of His special favourites have gone through longer and deeper troughs than anyone else. The reason is this. To us a human is primarily food; our aim is the absorption of its will into ours, the increase of our own area of selfhood at its expense. But the obedience which the Enemy demands of men is quite a different thing. One must face the fact that all the talk about His love for men, and His service being perfect freedom, is not (as one would gladly believe) mere propaganda, but an appalling truth. He really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself - creatures, whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own, not because He has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His. We want cattle who can finally become food; He wants servants who can finally become sons. We want to suck in, He wants to give out. We are empty and would be filled; He is full and flows over. Our war aim is a world in which Our Father Below has drawn all other beings into himself: the Enemy wants a world full of beings united to Him but still distinct.
And that is where the troughs come in....He is prepared to do a little overriding 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. But He never allows this state of affairs to last long. Sooner or later He withdraws, if not in fact, at least from their conscious experience, all those supports and incentives. He leaves the creature to stand up on its own legs - to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish. It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be. Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best.... (Chapter 8)
Q For those of you who are married, do you remember your “what I have a done?” moment?
You wake up and think “What have I done?”. And we have that same moment whenever we start something new:
· When we quit the old job and start a new one.
· When we go back to school after many years.
· When we have kids.
It is the moment when all of the fairy tales fade away and we have to get to the work of this new thing. It is when our motivation goes from emotion to will.
· Without that switch, nothing can ever last – emotion primes the pump, but you quickly have to draw from the fuel tank.
And, as Lewis (through Screwtape) points out, this is one of the most important phases of our relationship with God, when we stop following him because he helps us or makes us feel good, but simply because he is God.
It would be a mistake to think that he really has deserted you or that it is all up to you:
Philippians 2:12-13 Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed – not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence – continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.
· God is still working in you, probably more than before, even if you cannot feel him.
Facing the troughs
Q How do we grow through the troughs?
I wish I could give you some magic key, read this passage, pray this prayer, and then God will feel close again. But by the very nature of it, that won’t work.
· Certainly examine yourself to make sure that there isn’t some sin separating you from God.
· Look at any possible physical explanations.
But more than anything, ask God for the strength to follow him, love him, and obey him, even when you utterly do not feel it.
Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger, than when a human, no longer desiring, but intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys...
Your affectionate uncle
The end of the story
Well, the patient weathers the trough, and Screwtape and Wormwood continue to try every trick in the book – sexual temptation, worldly friends (and this very nearly works), spiritual pride. But in the end:
My dear, my very dear, Wormwood, my poppet, my pigsnie,
How mistakenly now that all is lost you come whimpering to ask me whether the terms of affection in which I address you meant nothing from the beginning. Far from it! Rest assured, my love for you and your love for me are as like as two peas. I have always desired you, as you (pitiful fool) desired me. The difference is that I am the stronger. I think they will give you to me now; or a bit of you. Love you? Why, yes. As dainty a morsel as ever I grew fat on.
You have let a soul slip through your fingers. The howl of sharpened famine for that loss re-echoes at this moment through all the levels of the Kingdom of Noise down to the very Throne itself. It makes me mad to think of it. How well I know what happened at the instant when they snatched him from you! There was a sudden clearing of his eyes (was there not?) as he saw you for the first time, and recognised the part you had had in him and knew that you had it no longer. Just think (and let it be the beginning of your agony) what he felt at that moment; as if a scab had fallen from an old sore, as if he were emerging from a hideous, shell-like tetter, as if he shuffled off for good and all a defiled, wet, clinging garment. By Hell, it is misery enough to see them in their mortal days taking off dirtied and uncomfortable clothes and splashing in hot water and giving little grunts of pleasure - stretching their eased limbs. What, then, of this final stripping, this complete cleansing? The more one thinks about it, the worse it becomes. He got through so easily! No gradual misgivings, no doctor’s sentence, no nursing home, no operating theatre, no false hopes of life; sheer, instantaneous liberation. One moment it seemed to be all our world; the scream of bombs, the fall of houses, the stink and taste of high explosive on the lips and in the lungs, the feet burning with weariness, the heart cold with horrors, the brain reeling, the legs aching; next moment all this was gone, gone like a bad dream, never again to be of any account. Defeated, out-maneuvered fool! Did you mark how naturally - as if he’d been born for it - the earthborn vermin entered the new life? How all his doubts became, in the twinkling of an eye, ridiculous?
...As he saw you, he also saw Them. I know how it was. You reeled back dizzy and blinded, more hurt by them than he had ever been by bombs. The degradation of it! - that this thing of earth and slime could stand upright and converse with spirits before whom you, a spirit, could only cower.
...He saw not only Them; he saw Him. This animal, this thing begotten in a bed, could look on Him. What is blinding, suffocating fire to you, is now cool light to him, is clarity itself, and wears the form of a Man.
...Sometimes I am almost in despair. All that sustains me is the conviction that our Realism, our rejection (in the face of all temptations) of all silly nonsense and claptrap [of His love], must win in the end. Meanwhile, I have you to settle with. Most truly do I sign myself,
Your increasingly and ravenously affectionate uncle,
Screwtape (Chapter 31)
2 Corinthians 4:16-18 16 ¶ Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
· PPT: Please text Janna; service is almost over: 333-4505
Q & A