Some of the most profound and thought-provoking lessons can come from reading satire, because satire often exposes exaggerated yet accurate political and/or social ills that inflict societies and cultures. One of my favorite pieces of satire is C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, a book written in letter format featuring instructions from a devil to his nephew, “Wormwood,” on ways to tempt and manipulate followers of Christ. This book, first published 76 years ago, remains a relevant read for understanding the temptations, both blatant and subtle, that followers of Christ face in the world.
Below are two subtle temptations addressed in The Screwtape Letters that continue to inflict Christians today.
Measuring faith (and God) by the outcomes of prayer
In The Screwtape Letters, the affectionate uncle, Screwtape, instructs Wormwood to teach his targeted Christian to estimate the value of each prayer by the outcomes of producing a desired feeling.
This temptation allows Christians to trust their own instincts and understanding, rather than surrendering to God through prayer. It turns prayer into a market-driven and results-oriented activity that is expected to create immediate gratification. This is an even greater temptation in a 21st century society where immediate gratification and results drive satisfaction and where patience seems obsolete. This is reflected in the increasing technological advances that have made deliveries, research, and communication more convenient, but less appreciated.
Furthermore, the temptation for Christians to lean on their own understanding in prayer is an individualistic mentality that contradicts Scripture. Rather than seeking immediate results, we must use prayer to discern God’s will for our lives, along with practicing the forgotten activities of waiting and stillness. Through prayer, He will speak to and through us and will guide us. Our desire to seek immediate outcomes through prayer can keep us from hearing God and knowing Him.
Making an idol of our national and political identities
One of the many identities that we as humans subscribe to is our nationality and, in many cases, our political affiliations. Much of our political identity can play a role in how we advocate for justice and our positions on critical issues. The challenge is that these identities, while necessary and useful, are often idols that take precedence over our identity that is found in Christ.
In The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape instructs Wormwood to teach his targeted Christian to treat his partisan leanings as an element of his religion. In this case, Christianity is valued because of the arguments it can produce in favor of a particular partisan agenda. This is evident in many of the arguments that the religious right or left produces today by using Christianity to advance agendas surrounding the military, social issues, and economic policies. The problem with this is that Christianity is viewed only as a means of advancing narrow 21st century American political arguments, rather than as a way of providing hope and justice for the world and a means of uplifting communities for Christ.
History shows that wherever Christianity is used as a means for political self-interests, the greed for power and resulting oppression become prevalent, as seen during European colonialism and American slavery. In our pursuit for justice, we Christians must avoid idolatry disguised as partisan nationalism—which hijacks Christian teachings and reduces them to political talking points.
The Screwtape Letters addresses many common temptations, including political idolatry and metric-based faith outcomes, that can stunt the growth of Christians—and produce false prophets who never end up truly knowing Christ. In our contemporary culture where partisan politics define one’s identity, even within our churches, and measurable outcomes determine success in personal and professional goals, these temptations must be acknowledged and challenged.
This timeless book by C.S. Lewis provides an understanding and analysis of the varying methods that Satan uses to keep Christians shallow in their faith and disconnected from God. As the Apostle Peter says in 1 Peter 5:8-9: “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. …”