C.S. Lewis, Screwtape, and Christian Pride

Bibliophilist Society, C.S. Lewis

Dakota Smith

This is part one in our November series on C.S. Lewis’s epistolary novel The Screwtape Letters.

In his famous and acclaimed novel The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis addresses many ways that devils such as Screwtape use our flaws against us. Lewis’s compelling story provides us many Christian truths from the inverted (and diabolical) point of view of Screwtape—an arch-demon who writes a series of letters to his nephew and subordinate tempter, Wormwood. This is an effective way to convey Christian truths to those persons who are unchurched in basic theology, but Lewis has lessons for Christians as well. Lewis seems to have written The Screwtape Letters to also criticize the pride of many Christians, and show how their pride opens them up to temptation. Furthermore, Lewis shows Christians how they can transform their fallen pride into an undeniable and unapologetic love of God and others.

One overarching theme in these flaws is that pride draws Christians away from their relationships with God. In his letters, Screwtape mentions several ways that Wormwood can drag the patient away from the Enemy (God) by using the patient’s pride or exploiting any sense of humility that the patient may have gained from his relationship with the Enemy. Screwtape suggests exploiting the patient’s need for socializing and the need for an esteemed image in that society. Screwtape suggests that Wormwood make the patient think he is evaluating himself, when he is really ignoring evidence of his own faults and shifting any judgment towards the faults of others. Lewis writes how the patient deals with these temptations and how he overcomes them throughout his book.

Pride is first mentioned in The Screwtape Letters as a deterrent for the newly-converted patient. In Letter 2, Screwtape suggests to Wormwood that he make the patient see the flaws of his neighbors so that he believe their religion ridiculous.

When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like “the body of Christ” and the actual faces in the next pew. It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains. You may know one of them to be a great warrior on the Enemy’s side. No matter. Your patient, thanks to Our Father below, is a fool. Provided that any of those neighbours sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous….I have been writing hitherto on the assumption that the people in the next pew afford no rational ground for disappointment. Of course if they do—if the patient knows that the woman with the absurd hat is a fanatical bridge-player or the man with squeaky boots a miser and an extortioner—then your task is so much the easier. All you then have to do is to keep out of his mind the question “If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention?” You may ask whether it is possible to keep such an obvious thought from occurring even to a human mind. It is, Wormwood, it is! Handle him properly and it simply won’t come into his head. (Lewis 10-13)

By making this suggestion to the patient, Wormwood can keep him in the state of mind that he is showing great humility in going to church with these neighbors and therefore, building a favorable “credit-balance” with God. Letter 2 shows how devils can ruin the relationship of newly converted Christians and God in the beginning by instilling in them the pride that a true relationship with the Enemy combats. In his annotation notes, editor Paul McCusker references Lewis’s book Mere Christianity where Lewis argues that a man who makes claims and counterclaims with God is not in the right relationship with Him.

In Letter 3, the first evidence of true Christian pride is seen. Screwtape tells Wormwood to manipulate the patient’s new relationship with the Enemy by making any self-evaluation purely spiritual and overlooking his obvious flaws. While he is in this spiritual state of mind, Screwtape suggests that Wormwood shifts the patient’s focus to a concern for the soul of his mother.

[S]ince his ideas about her soul will be very crude and often erroneous, he will, in some degree, be praying for an imaginary person, and it will be your task to make that imaginary person daily less and less like the real mother—the sharp-tongued old lady at the breakfast table. In time, you may get the cleavage so wide that no thought or feeling from his prayers for the imagined mother will ever flow over into his treatment of the real one. I have had patients of my own so well in hand that they could be turned at a moment’s notice from impassioned prayer for a wife’s or son’s “soul” to beating or insulting the real wife or son without a qualm. (Lewis 17)

Of course, in this sense Screwtape doesn’t really mean the soul of the mother but rather her sins. By turning the patient’s attention to the sins of his mother, Wormwood can succeed in making the patient view all of her actions as he does her sins while simultaneously ignoring his own obvious flaws. The patient will now believe that because of his new spirituality, he is better than the sinners around him and he will treat them as such, which is a sad, but common, trap for many new Christians.

In Letter 4, Screwtape continues this idea of introspection. Screwtape instructs Wormwood to shift the patient’s focus to himself and the feelings he needs to feel when he prays so that any prayer is only prayed for the feeling he is trying to produce and not the strengthening of his relationship with the Enemy. McCusker references one of Lewis’ letters when he said we should “avoid introspection in prayer—I mean not to watch one’s own mind to see if it is in the right frame, but always to turn the attention outward to God” (Lewis 23).

After devils weave pride into a Christian’s relationships with God, they shift their attention to the people with whom Christians associate. In Letter 10, Screwtape congratulates Wormwood on the patient’s new acquaintances, a married couple who are rich, smart, and skeptical. Screwtape advises Wormwood to make use of this relationship by making the patient adopt the skepticism of the couple. By pretending to be like the couple, the patient will become like the couple with the proper manipulation of Wormwood. The patient will fall into the trap that is often set by society, where he pretends to be like the couple to avoid the ridicule of the couple.

The philosopher Henri Bergson puts these ideas in terms of laughter. Bergson views comedy as a social interaction where people want to be included in a joke instead of the one being laughed at. The patient is in a similar situation where he adopts the ideas and mannerisms of the couple so that he does not receive the ridicule of the couple. Screwtape explains how worldly ideas make it easier to kneel next to the “unworthy” grocer at Church because the grocer cannot possibly understand the worldly knowledge that the patient has ascertained. Here Lewis shows Christians that their pride can lead them to adopt worldly ideas that lead them away from a healthy relationship with God.

Worldly knowledge is not the only thing that makes pride grow in Christians, it is also the social normalities that they are surrounded by. In Letter 11, Screwtape goes more in depth on the matters of laughter. The patient’s current worldly friends function off of laughter. Their laughter covers up the flaws that should be evident to the patient. Here the patient’s pride results in yet another instant where the patient is drawn away from the Enemy. The patient’s worldly friends cover up their flaws with laughter so that any shame can be avoided because the once horrible action is now funny. Here Bergson’s idea of socialized laughter is seen yet again. The patient ignores what he knows should be right based off his religion so that he is not the sources of the laughter that his newly found friends enjoy so much. This comment on the patient’s pride because he is scared to be the source of any jokes. An idea by J. Michael Waller covers this idea by saying that ridicule can be used to criticize the prideful. Not only does this comment on the patient’s pride, but also on the humor of the time period. Robin Hemley says that to truly be a humorist a person must understand human follies. At the time the patient was around, his worldly friends glorified human follies instead of seeing them as they really were. This lack of understanding of human follies created an atmosphere where the patient could not see himself losing his Christian morals because his actions were either right or laughable in his new group of friends, as can be seen in Letter 12.

The best thing about God is that he will not sit idly by while the devils work in Christians lives. In Letter 13, the patient experiences a second conversion.

It seems to me that you take a great many pages to tell a very simple story. The long and the short of it is that you have let the man slip through your fingers. The situation is very grave, and I really see no reason why I should try to shield you from the consequences or your inefficiency. A repentance and renewal of what the other side call “grace” on the scale which you describe is a defeat of the first order. It amounts to a second conversion—and probably on a deeper level than the first. (Lewis 75)

Unfortunately, pride is such a strong weapon that Screwtape is able to intervene right after the Enemy does by manipulating the humility the patient gained in his second conversion. In Letter 14, Screwtape advises Wormwood to create pride from the patient’s newly found humility. Screwtape tells Wormwood to catch the patient when he is poor in spirit (McCusker defines “poor in spirit” as humility) and smuggle in the realization that he is being humble so that pride will appear. Screwtape advises Wormwood to manipulate the patient’s view of humility to where it is a low opinion of himself. This negative view of humility will make the patient avoid being humble and in turn become prideful. The Enemy wants all ‘patients’ to experience humility, not that they belittle themselves, but so they can recognize all creatures as glorious things. The Enemy combats the devil’s influence on Christians by reminding them that they are made by Him and that their attention should be shifted from introspection to Him.

In The Screwtape Letters, Lewis gives us many more examples of Christian pride such as the thought that all things related to a Christian are possessions, that a Christian’s time is his or her own, the self-gratification from compromising on plans, the belief that Christians are as good as their company, even if their company is far more spiritually advanced, and that experience in religion makes them better than others who are less religious or not religious at all. From these examples, it is evident that devils like Screwtape want Christians to exhibit pride. Lewis uses these examples to teach readers how to combat these attacks from devils. Lewis makes it evident where and how devils get into Christian lives, which, in turn, shows them how to avoid it. For example, by showing readers the impact self-reflection has on their prayers, Lewis encourages readers to focus their attention away from their surroundings and outward towards God.

In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis offers countless examples of how devils use pride to get in the way of a Christian’s relationship with God. Screwtape advises Wormwood on how to guide his patient away from the Enemy using pride and the exploitation of any humility the patient gains from his relationship with the Enemy.  The Screwtape Letters show readers that they need to focus their attention outward toward God and then humility will come naturally to replace the sinful pride that devils try to sneak into their lives. It shows readers that through all their temptations and worldly thoughts, God is there to guide them if they just turn their focus towards him.

(1). Bergson, Henri. “The Comic in General-the Comic Element in Forms and Movement- Expansive Force of the Comic.” Laughing Matters. Ed. Marvin Diogenes. Pearson Longman, 2009. Print.

(2). Hemley, Robert. “Relaxing the Rules of Reason.” Laughing Matters. Ed. Marvin Diogenes. Pearson Longman, 2009. Print.

(3). Lewis, C.S. The Screwtape Letters. Annotated and with an introduction by Paul McCusker, HarperOne, 2013. Print.

(4). Waller, J. Michael. “Ridicule: An Instrument in the War on Terrorism.” Laughing Matters. Ed. Marvin Diogenes. Pearson Longman, 2009. Print.