Sometime during the meeting, an unseen guest creeps past the doorkeepers and sits down in the back row. He chomps down on his cigar and blows puffs of contented smoke into the air. He smirks menacingly, for things are going well. The leader of the group, to awed amens, boasts of the breakthroughs he had as a young man. How things turned around when God humbled him. How he has learned to spend hours on his knees every day in deep contrition before God experiencing heavenly glory.
The leader raises his voice in passionate prayer, “Thank God I am a broken man!”
The crowd is stirred for therein is the secret, is it not? If only I could be more like that, they think. If only I could be rid of that damnable self. God only uses broken vessels, does he not? Then break me! Break me! Make me less and Jesus more. When will I get my breakthrough and be a vessel that God can use?
The unseen guest chuckles to himself as he removes a pen and sheet of paper from his briefcase. It is rare to see a group so self-preoccupied, he thinks.
Things are going well.
He jots down a note to his nephew Wormwood. This is not the first time that this junior demon has received correspondence from his Uncle Screwtape. As the others, this letter is full of corrections and advice: Did not Wormwood even notice that his patient, whom he is to keep from the enemy’s kingdom at all costs, is no longer making “grandiose promises of perpetual virtue”, but is simply looking for “the daily and hourly pittance [of grace] to meet the daily and hourly temptation”?
The unseen guest, astounded that his bumbling charge does not recognize that his patient is actually becoming humble, writes in bold stokes, “This is very bad.” He underlines it twice.
Screwtape thinks for a moment. That youthful demon doesn’t seem to know anything! How can he convey to his nephew the urgency that his patient must be kept from true humility at all costs? Screwtape returns to write:
“You must conceal from the patient the true end of Humility. Let him think of it not as self-forgetfulness but as a certain kind of opinion (namely, a low opinion) of his own talents and character.”
Screwtape sits back and listens to the speaker at the meeting: “It is the cross, dear friends, that is the secret. You must humble yourself under its mighty shadow. Amen? The Bible says that if a grain of wheat is put into the ground and dies, it bears much fruit. But, it is a travail, my friends. Paul says he travailed with the birth pangs of labor until Christ is fully formed in you. Thank God for the cross! Without the cross, there is no glory. Praise the Lord!”
The room is filled with rhythmical amens as Screwtape peers over the shoulder of a sister in front of him, her hair neatly covered and the joy lost from her face. She writes in her notebook, “I must go the way of the cross. Deliver me from pettiness! Deliver me from the self-life, always having my opinions and always wanting my way! I need to die to self in my relationships, in my job, in my unwillingness to submit to my roommates, in my desire to put myself forward.”
Screwtape’s spirits are renewed. He laughs aloud and takes a long, satisfying drag on his cigar as he continues writing to Wormwood, “Since what they are trying to believe may, in some cases, be manifest nonsense, they cannot succeed in believing it and we have the chance of keeping their minds endlessly revolving on themselves in an effort to achieve the impossible.”
His words are flowing now. It is all so simple and it is right there before him. The enemy wants humility and humility is self-forgetfulness. But, if Wormwood can make his patient believe it is something more - some state to achieve, some goal to pursue, some grand renunciation, some higher spirituality, some carrot that can never be reached, some lofty-lowly position that, if obtained, the angels would visit you in your study.
He looks around the room and smiles. Yes, Wormwood, like this! But that fool, Wormwood, he must be warned: “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 rejoice 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”.
Screwtape shudders at the thought of Christians being the best or the worst or somewhere in between, and simply thanking God, shrugging it off, and moving on. A disgusting thought! Christians are controlled most effectively when trapped in the web of self-preoccupation.
The demon writes, “The enemy’s whole effort, therefore, will be to get the man’s mind off the subject of his own value altogether. He would rather the man thought himself a great architect or a great poet and then forgot about it, than that he should spend much time and pains trying to think himself a bad one.”
Screwtape looks over at the sister in front of him. She is filled with despair. It seems that everywhere she looks, there is sin, sin, sin. Self, self, self. How do the others do it? How do those brothers who are always rejoicing keep themselves so encouraged? Are they hiding something? Or do I just not want what God wants? Oh God! I am such a sinner! I want to die! I want the cross! I want to travail! Help me, Jesus!
Screwtape finishes his letter, “Even of his sins the Enemy does not want him to think too much: once they are repented, the sooner the man turns his attention outward, the better the Enemy is pleased.”
A scowl forms on Screwtape's face as he signs his name, thinking about those horrid undeserving imps whom the enemy foolishly loves. They forthrightly confess their sins and then they stand up with their head held high and walk away whistling a song or thinking about a game of checkers. A disgusting image! He hates to end his letter this way, but it will have to do. Wormwood must understand the seriousness of the matter!
Screwtape puts the letter away and listens to the speaker.
“Thank God, dear friends, we can talk about the cross in this place. There are many places that if I preached like this, they would simply throw me out. Believe me, I have preached all around the world! But, over the years, sitting under this ministry, you have developed capacity. And I can preach to you in this way because you can handle it.”
Screwtape takes a long draw from his cigar, blows rings of smoke into the air and chuckles silently.
Things are going well.
All quotes in Screwtape’s correspondence are from The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, Chapter 14.