Behind enemy lines

Temptation in C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters

by Samuel Schuldheisz

In July 1939, with war on the horizon, the Polish Cipher Bureau gave British Military Intelligence years worth of cryptanalysis and deciphering techniques used to crack the legendary German Enigma cipher machine. Armed with this vital information and their own cipher device, named Ultra, the British began the war with the ability to decipher German military movements, tactics and strategy.

In July 1940, with war raging in the skies above Great Britain, C.S. Lewis began cracking a very different kind of enemy code: temptation from the tempter’s perspective. He had an inkling of an idea for a book eventually titled The Screwtape Letters. “The idea,” Lewis told his brother, Warren, “would be to give all the psychology of temptation from the other point of view.”[1]

C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters features a series of fictional letters written from a senior demon, Screwtape, to his nephew, Wormwood. The Screwtape Letters first appeared in May 1941 as a serial publication in The Guardian, a weekly Anglican newspaper. Eventually, all 31 letters were published in February 1942. Lewis skillfully used his fictional letters to take Christians behind enemy lines and glimpse the devil’s tactics and strategies.

Lewis did not intend The Screwtape Letters to replace Scripture, but to reinforce and reveal the teaching of Scriptures on the reality of temptation. He warned us: “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.”[2]

For Lewis, the battle against evil was not fictional but real. Screwtape is a murderer and a liar, just like Jesus says of the devil: “He is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). Screwtape behaves like a prowling lion, seeking to devour his so-called patients (1 Peter 5:8). Whereas God desires to give His free grace, life and peace in Jesus, Screwtape’s only desire is to steal, kill and destroy (John 10:10).

However, the devil and his demons are not God’s opposite. God has no opposites, C.S. Lewis reminds us. Not only that, Scripture proclaims Jesus has conquered sin, death and crushed the ancient serpent’s head on the cross.

Still, in this life, Satan lashes out with venomous, fiery darts of temptation, trying to drag us into destruction with him. In this, The Screwtape Letters are especially beneficial in our daily battle against temptation. Lewis helps us decipher many of the crafty ways the devil tries to tempt, mislead and deceive us into false belief, despair and other great shame and vice.

Screwtape begins by attacking the source of a Christian’s faith: “Keep his mind on the inner life” (p. 16). Satan loves to tempt the Christian to turn inward on ourselves. Scripture describes sin as being curved inward upon ourselves so that we do not fear, love and trust in God above all things. The devil tempts us to shift our eyes from Christ crucified to me, myself and I. In the fourth letter, Screwtape tells Wormwood to “keep them watching their own minds and trying to produce their own feelings there by the action of their own wills” (p. 21).

This temptation lands the Christian in one of two ditches, pride or despair. Satan is equally pleased by both. He uses pride and despair to trap us in a spiritual catch-22. On the one hand, we are tempted to boast in ourselves with that “strongest and most beautiful of vices — Spiritual pride” (p. 111). “Your patient has become humble,” observes Screwtape. “Have you drawn his attention to the fact?” The trick of this temptation is to catch the Christian thinking, “‘By Jove! I’m being humble,’ and almost immediately pride — pride at his own humility — will appear” (pp. 62–63).

On the other hand, Satan tempts us to despair of God’s forgiveness. Screwtape cleverly suggests that Wormwood tempt his patient to think “that in respect of the one vice which he really understands in its full depth of dishonor he cannot seek, nor credit, the Mercy” (p. 138).

Screwtape, like Satan, will use any means necessary to tempt us. For, Screwtape says:

“It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed, the safest road to Hell is the gradual one — the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts” (p. 56).

Screwtape’s temptations, like Satan’s, are designed to uproot, consume and destroy the Christian and our faith in Christ. God in His mercy, however, is always busy giving, nurturing and filling us with His life in Jesus crucified and risen for you. Screwtape writes, “We want cattle who can finally become food; He wants servants who can finally become sons. We are empty and would be filled; He is full and flows over” (p. 38).

Using his imagination, and the narrative irony of viewing temptation from Screwtape’s perspective, Lewis teaches Christians how to avoid temptation by telling us the story of spiritual warfare from a demon’s perspective. The Screwtape Letters are a spiritual and theological Ultra machine, a window into our daily struggle against the devil, the world and our sinful flesh, and a trustworthy cipher that unmasks Satan’s tricks, traps and temptations. And yet, as fierce as the warfare is, take heart. For us fights the Valiant One, Jesus. On the cross, Jesus won for you the decisive victory over sin, death and the devil and all his temptations.

The Rev. Samuel Schuldheisz serves Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church in Milton, Wash.

[1] C.S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, vol. 2, ed. Walter Hooper (New York: HarperSanFransisco, 2004), 426–27.

[2] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: MacMillan Publishing, 1977), 3.

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