13 min read

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis serves the purpose of challenging Christians of varying levels of maturity to greater fidelity, holiness, and perseverance in the midst of life’s toils, temptations, and trials. Certainly, there is the understanding that many of the temptations we face are the result of the works of spiritual darkness, which are indeed present in our world, although I suspect Lewis would acknowledge that many of the things that lead us astray are driven by our own lusts and sinful habits and don’t need much help from an external force.

To that end, the book is effective to remind, convict, and arm Christians for the task ahead. Overall, I found much to be convicted and encouraged by. To ignore the enemy’s methods and our own sinful inclinations is to our own peril.

Chapter 1

To keep a patient from falling into grace, distract him with “real life” and ensure he avoids lingering on the significant questions of meaning, purpose, etc.

Chapter 2

New converts still have the old habits working against them, and the temptation to disappointment as they encounter real Christians and the hard work of real life as a believer saved by grace.

Chapter 3

Poisoning our relationships and fruitfulness with others by amplifying their faults and minimizing our own.

Focusing on the inner state of mind, but without coming to terms with what’s really there:

Keep his mind on the inner life… Encourage this. Keep his mind off the most elementary duties by directing it to the most advanced and spiritual ones. Aggravate that most useful human characteristic, the horror and neglect of the obvious. (11)

Chapter 4

Distract from prayer at all costs, misdirect to “prayer-like” activities and a preoccupation with feelings.

Focus on the feelings prayer produces:

Teach them to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feelings; and never let them suspect how much success or failure of that kind depends on whether they are well or ill, fresh or tired, at the moment.(17)

Chapter 5

Better than the terror of war is to keep them from thinking of their mortality at all.

And how disastrous for us is the continual remembrance of death which war enforces. One of our best weapons, contented worldliness, is rendered useless. In wartime, not even a human can believe that he is going to live forever. (24)

Chapter 6

Stir up anxieties about the future, which prevent focus on present duty and trusting in present provision. Direct malice towards those nearby and charity towards those remote.

There is nothing like suspense and anxiety for barricading a human’s mind against the Enemy. He wants men to be concerned with what they do; our business is to keep them thinking about what will happen to them. (25)

The great thing is to direct the malice to his immediate neighbours whom he meets every day and to thrust his benevolence out to the remote circumference, to people he does not know. The malice thus becomes wholly real and the benevolence largely imaginary. (28)

Chapter 7

Better in the modern age to keep them not believing in demons. Lead into extremes in political causes such that religion becomes simply a part of the cause. Religiously devoted to something else.

When the humans disbelieve in our existence we lose all the pleasing results of direct terrorism and we make no magicians. On the other hand, when they believe in us, we cannot make them materialists and sceptics. At least, not yet. I have great hopes that we shall learn in due time how to emotionalise and mythologise their science to such an extent that what is, in effect, a belief in us (though not under that name) will creep in while the human mind remains closed to belief in the Enemy. (31)

This portrayal of science as sneaking in magic through the backdoor, and resulting in what ultimately amounts to demon worship is prescient.

Chapter 8

The dark night of the soul is actually a path towards deeper fellowship with God by means of obedience freely chosen.

Chapter 9

Exploit the spiritually dry times by tempting to sensuality, or by assuming that the earlier time was just a phase.

You are much more likely to make your man a sound drunkard by pressing drink on him as an anodyne when he is dull and wary than by encouraging him to use it as a means of merriment among his friends when he is happy and expansive. (44)

On the other hand, be careful, because pleasure is God’s creation:

Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s ground…it is His invention, not ours. He made the pleasures: all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one. (44)

Chapter 10

Unbelieving friendships tempt to leading a double life.

Chapter 11

The laughter of joy and fun are too close to heaven, but jokes and flippancy can deaden the intellect.

Chapter 12

The most successful path is by means of small sins and distractions that deaden the soul to God and keep him at a distance.

All humans at nearly all times have some such reluctance [thinking about the Enemy]; but when thinking of Him involves facing and intensifying a whole vague cloud of half-conscious guilt, this reluctance is increased tenfold. They hate every idea that suggests him, just as men in financial embarrassment hate the very sight of a passbook. In this state your patient will not omit, but he will increasingly dislike, his religious duties. He will think about them as little as he feels he decently can beforehand, and forget them as soon as possible when they are over. (58)

In many ways, our information-dense and entertainment-driven culture has deadened us and left us with Nothing:

Nothing is very strong: strong enough to steal away a man’s best years not in sweet sins but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why, in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that the man is only half aware of them, in drumming of fingers and kicking of heals, in whistling tunes that he does not like, or in the long dim labyrinth of reveries that have not even lust or ambition to give them a relish, but which, once chance association has started them, the creature is too weak and fuddled to shake off. (60)

Chapter 13

Real pleasures and real pains, the stuff that connects a man to his own soul and to his creator. Also, actively acting out repentance solidifies it.

Chapter 14

True virtue leads to an external focus on God and your neighbor, not the virtue itself. True humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.

By this virtue [Humility], as by all the others, our Enemy wants to turn the man’s attention away from self to Him, and to the man’s neighbours. (70)

The desired end of true humility:

The Enemy wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoince in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another. (71)

Chapter 15

Living in the present is the state of mind God wants us, tending to duty and gratitude of now, not anxious for the future or dwelling in the past.

In a word, the Future is, of all things, the least like eternity. It is the most completely temporal part of time - for the Past is frozen and no longer flows, and the Present is all lit up with eternal rays. Hence the encouragement we have given to all those schemes of thought such as Creative Evolution, Scientific Humanism, or Communism, which fix men’s affections on the Future, on the very core of temporality. (76)

Chapter 16

Factions and unbelieving clergy, or clergy who are stirred and motivated by something other than faith go a long way.

What to make of his argument for Anglican parishes?

In the first place the parochial organisation should always be attacked, because, being a unity of place and not of likings, it brings people of different classes and psychology together in the kind of unity the Enemy desires. The congregational principle, on the other hand, makes each church into a kind of club, and finally, if all goes well, into a coterie, or faction (81).

Chapter 17

The other side of gluttony being the picky, or delicate consumer, with the same result that their mind is always on their food.

But what do quantities matter, provided we can use a human belly and palate to produce querulousness, impatience, uncharitableness, and self-concern? (87)

Chapter 18

Convincing that “being in love” is requisite for marriage ensures that the institution is undermined. Love is a unity in plurality, the good of one to be the good of the other.

They regard the intention of loyalty to a partnership for mutual help, for the preservation of chastity, and for the transmission of life, as something lower than a storm of emotion. (97)

Chapter 19-20

Driving lusts towards a poor marriage is an easy way of inducing misery.

…our best weapon - the belief of ignorant humans, that there is no hope of getting rid of us except by yielding.

The fashions and tastes of the day can be very handy for undesirable marriages:

The aim is to guide each sex away from those members of the other with whom spiritually helpful, happy, and fertile marriages are most likely. Thus we have now for many centuries triumphed over nature to the extent of making certain secondary characteristics of the male (such as the beard) disagreeable to nearly all the females…As regards the male taste we have varied a good deal. At one time we have directed it to the statuesque and aristocratic type of beauty… At another, we have selected an exaggeratedly feminine type, faint and languishing…At present…we now teach men to like women whose bodies are scarcely distinguishable from those of boys. (107)

Chapter 21

A sense that I own my time can lead to great frustration and sin, despite how ridiculous the idea.

You must therefore zealously guard in his mind the curious assumption ‘my time is my own.’…The man can neither make, nor retain, one moment of time; it all comes to him by pure gift; he might as well regard the sun and moon as his chattels. (112)

Likewise, most types of ownership work this way.

The humans are always putting up claims to ownership which sound equally funny in Heaven and in Hell and we must keep them doing so. Much of the modern resistance to chastity comes from men’s belief that they ‘own’ their bodies - those vast and perilous estates, pulsating with the energy that made the worlds, in which they find themselves without their consent and from which they are ejected at the pleasure of Another! It is as if a royal child whom his father has places, for love’s sake, in titular command of some great province, under the real rule of wise counsellors, should come to fancy he really owns the cities… (113)

Chapter 22

The devils despise the fact that the Lord is in favor of pleasures and fills his whole world with them.

He’s a hedonist at heat. All those fasts and vigils and stakes and crosses are only a facade. Or only like foam on the seashore. Out at sea, out in His sea, there is pleasure, and more pleasure. (118)

Chapter 23

Encouraging corruption of a faith that cannot be removed, but distracting via historical Jesus studies based on conjecture and ignoring one part of the text for another.

Chapter 24

Use spiritual pride to trap a man into preferring the inner ring of Christians and considering himself apart of it by right.

Chapter 25

The horror of the same old thing - enshrine the desire for novelty. Likewise, fashion to steer the masses to focus on exactly the wrong thing than what is needed.

This demand is valuable in various ways. In the first place it diminishes pleasure while increasing desire. The pleasure of novelty is by its very nature more subject that any other to the law of diminishing returns. And continued novelty costs money, so that the desire for it spells avarice or unhappiness or both. (137)

On using fashions to focus on the wrong thing:

Thus we make it fashionable to expose the dangers of enthusiasm at the very moment when they are all really becoming worldly and lukewarm; a century later, when we are really making them all Byronic and drunk with emotion, the fashionable outcry is directly against the dangers of the mere ‘understanding’. (138)

Chapter 26

Leverage unselfishness as a means of fostering strife as each builds up resentment for how much they sacrifice for the other, disregarding true charity.

Chapter 27

Anything, even sin, that leads a man to actively pray can bring him closer to God. However, he can be willed into a false spirituality or tempted to think that his prayers don’t affect anything given God’s sovereignty.

When this or any other distraction, crosses his mind you ought to encourage him to thrust it away by sheer will power and to try to continue the normal prayer as if nothing happened; once he accepts the distraction as his present problem and lays that before the Enemy and make it the main theme of his prayers and endeavors, then so far from doing good, you have done harm. (147)

False spirituality is always to be encouraged. On the seemingly pious ground that ‘praise and communion with God is the true prayer,’ humans can often be lured into direct disobedience to the Enemy who (in His usual, flat, commonplace, uninteresting way) has definitely told them to pray for their daily bread and the recovery of their sick. (148)

Don’t worry about old books containing wisdom against this:

Only the learned read old books and we have now so dealt with the learned that they are of all men the least likely to acquire wisdom by doing so. We have done this by inculcating the Historical Point of view. The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it’s true. (150)

Chapter 28

Once a man is dead, he is out of reach of falling. Better to keep him alive long enough to temp into prosperity or worldliness. War and such drive a man to prayer and faith.

Chapter 29

Courage is the king of virtue, and while it can be distorted, it is only given by the Creator. However, cowardice is very valuable, likewise hate, which can lead to shame and despair. Key is the act of cowardice not the fear.

There is here a cruel dilemma before us. If we promoted justice and charity among men, we should be playing directly into the Enemy’s hands; but if we guide them to the opposite behavior, this sooner or later produces (for He permits it to produce) a war or revolution, and the undisguisable cowardice or courage that awakes thousands of men from moral stupor (161)

One of God’s motivations for creating a dangerous world, to bring moral issues into focus:

He sees as well as you do that courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means, at the highest point of reality. (161)

Chapter 30

Have him hope that his sufferings will end shortly so he will not commit to patient endurance. Use the sufferings to ignite an emotional attack on the faith.

Whatever he says, let his inner resolution be not to bear whatever comes to him, but to bear it for a reasonable period - and let the reasonable period be shorter than the trial is likely to last. It need not be much short; in attack on patience, chastity, and fortitude, the fun is to make the man yield just when relief was almost in sight. (167)