C.S. Lewis, Screwtape, and the Real Issue with Temptation

Bibliophilist Society, C.S. Lewis

Allison Kisiel

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

Temptation isn’t a concept that Christians should take lightly. Even nonbelievers need to understand what temptation is and how to fight against it. The problem is there are many questions about what temptation is and who it comes from. If temptation does not come from God, then who does it come from or what is the driving force behind it?

As C.S. Lewis shows in The Screwtape Letters, Satan cannot make us sin, but he has an easier time in tempting us to do bad because of our sinful nature. As Screwtape conveys to Wormwood, sensual temptations are commonly employed by Satan during our “trough periods.”

In the first place I have always found that the Trough periods of the human undulation provide excellent opportunity for all sensual temptations, particularly those of sex. This may surprise you, because, of course, there is more physical energy, and therefore more potential appetite, at the Peak periods; but you must remember that the powers of resistance are then also at their highest. The health and spirits which you want to use in producing lust can also, alas, be very easily used for work or play or thought or innocuous merriment. The attack has a much better chance of success when the man’s whole inner world is drab and cold and empty. And it is also to be noted that the Trough sexuality is subtly different in quality from that of the Peak—much less likely to lead to the milk and water phenomenon which the humans call “being in love”, much more easily drawn into perversions, much less contaminated by those generous and imaginative and even spiritual concomitants which often render human sexuality so disappointing. It is the same with other desires of the flesh. (Lewis 51)

As Lewis conveys, effective temptation often comes when we are weakest, which is why Screwtape urges Wormwood to strike here. Once we give in to that temptation, his job gets easier because our own human nature kicks in, and we take that temptation and make it into a habit that is difficult to break.

It should be noted that while sins of the flesh are bad, the worst are purely spiritual (Lewis 73). According to Paul McCusker who provides much scholarly commentary on the novel, Lewis also discusses this idea in his Mere Christianity when he argues that although it is better to be neither a carnal sinner nor a spiritual one, it is by far worse to be a spiritual sinner. Lewis argues that when we sin by the spirit, we are giving into the dark desires of the heart, which is much more detrimental to our “health” as Christians than giving into the dark desires of the flesh. Spiritual desires hit home in our soul, while those of the flesh are mostly affecting our body.

Using Screwtape, Lewis shows that Satan is not the main reason we sin, but he is an important factor. Screwtape encourages Wormwood to use many different approaches to push us towards sinning. One way he does this is by corrupting human humor and laughter, which by themselves are spiritually healthy. Lewis makes it clear that one bad or bawdy joke will not send us to Hell: the problem is the habit that bad and prideful humor can create in our spiritual being. Lewis calls this attitude flippancy.

Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour-plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy: it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it… (Lewis 67)

This “deadening of the intellect” produces something dangerous inside of us that is difficult to remedy after long periods of time, which is why Screwtape encourages Wormwood to use it to his advantage.

Throughout the novel Screwtape always twists everything for his purposes, using things and human qualities that God created to be good in order to plague the souls of the ‘patients’ so that we might be turned away from God (Lewis 131). Screwtape often reminds Wormwood that his job is not to teach but to “fuddle” or confuse us the patients so that they are blind to what is really going on (Lewis 33, 42). By confusing us, it is easier to manipulate our thoughts toward sinful actions, which is what tempting is. Although confusing us is important, a lot of his work is done by keeping things out of our heads (Lewis 23). By not letting us think about what the Godly choice is because of our sinful nature, our thoughts automatically go in the opposite direction of what God wants.

In The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape teaches Wormwood that another way to cause our downfall is through other people and our own pride.

While the Enemy…is drawing the young barbarian up to levels he could never otherwise have reached, you must make him feel that he is finding his own level—that these people are “his sort” and that, coming among them, he has come home. When he turns from them to other society he will find it dull; partly because almost any society within his reach is, in fact, much less entertaining, but still more because he will miss the enchantment of the young woman. You must teach him to mistake his contrast between the circle that delights and the circle that bores him for the contrast between Christians and unbelievers. He must be made to feel (he’d better not put it into words) “how different we Christians are”; and by “we Christians” he must really, but unknowingly, mean “my set”; and by “my set” he must mean not “The people who, in their charity and humility, have accepted me”, but “The people with whom I associate by right.” (Lewis 144)

Screwtape here talks about using two different groups of people—those who bore the patient and those who interest him. Screwtape suggests this in order to make the patient associate the thought of boring people, who are below him intellectually as nonbelievers and those that interest him, who are on an equal level of intellect as Christians. By doing this, Wormwood would be creating a sense of spiritual pride. The patient would start putting himself above other nonbelievers or even other Christians who bore him. Believing we are above someone else can lead us to neglect our neighbors because we think these duties beneath us. Therefore, it would no longer just be a pride situation; it would become a situation of not doing what Jesus called us to do as Christians—love His people.

Another point of hope for the patient is that he will become more capable of resisting the temptations of this life as he becomes less controlled by his emotions. Screwtape says that, eventually “they become much less dependent on emotion and therefore harder to tempt” (Lewis 12). Lewis shows us that if our daily lives are driven by whatever emotion or passion that we are feeling that day, it is much easier for Screwtape and his tempters to steer us into acting on one of our desires. However, if we don’t let our emotions dictate how we act, we are much less susceptible to our temptations.

Through all the temptation, God gives us hope. Lewis shows us that God actually protects us from a lot of the temptation that Screwtape and Wormwood try to throw at us (Lewis 167). Although God does not protect us from all of the temptations of life, Lewis’s novel calls something into question: How much worse would the temptation we encounter be if God didn’t protect us?

According to 1 Corinthians 10:13, “[God] will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so you can endure it.” This gives us hope and even peace that even when we are tempted, it will not be more than we can handle.

God gives us battles that we are more than capable of winning with His help. On top of finding peace in the fact our temptations could be much worse, we have the hope that if we focus on God’s love for us and His ability to freely forgive us, we can overcome the temptations we do face. If all we focus on is God’s love, then it is more difficult to see the temptations, which distracts us and will help us to get through the temptations we face in our daily lives.

(1). “BibleGateway.” BibleGateway.com: A searchable online Bible in over 150 versions and 50 languages., The Zondervan Corporation , 9 Sept. 2010, www,biblegateway.com. Web.

(2). Lewis, C.S The Screwtape letters: and Screwtape proposes a toast. HaperOne, An Imprint of HaperCollins Publishers, 2013. Print.