I’ve been teaching a Screwtape Letters class at a local church on Wednesday evenings. It’s one of the highlights of my week. Although I’ve read this wonderful C. S. Lewis book a number of times, this is the first time I’ve attempted to discuss it with a group paragraph by paragraph, and the interaction with members of the class over Lewis’s key points has been illuminating.
Nearly every paragraph offers some pearl of meditation that could conceivably fill up my blog posts every day, but I’ll go with this one today from letter #5 where Screwtape is warning Wormwood not to be too elated that a war is occurring. Wars don’t always lead one away from the Enemy [God]; rather, they can have results inimical to the purposes of Hell.
“Of course a war is entertaining. The immediate fear and suffering of the humans is a legitimate and pleasing refreshment for our myriads of toiling workers,” Screwtape begins. “But what permanent good does it do us unless we make use of it for bringing souls to Our Father Below?”
Therefore, he continues, “Let us . . . think rather how to use, than how to enjoy, this European war. For it has certain tendencies inherent in it which are, in themselves, by no means in our favour.”
How can war not be a delightful thing for the devils in Hell? Men killing other men; constant anxiety and hatred for others. What could possibly be the down side of this for those who want to destroy the souls of men?
We may hope for a good deal of cruelty and unchastity. But, if we are not careful, we shall see thousands turning in this tribulation to the Enemy, while tens of thousands who do not go so far as that will nevertheless have their attention diverted from themselves to values and causes which they believe to be higher than the self.
The underlying truth here is that God uses everything, even very awful circumstances, to get our attention. Those awful circumstances make us think more seriously about our eternal condition.
Consider too what undesirable deaths occur in wartime. Men are killed in places where they knew they might be killed and to which they go, if they are at all of the Enemy’s party, prepared.
That’s not what Hell wants. Screwtape then instructs Wormwood about the “ideal” situation that Hell desires for each human:
How much better for us if all humans died in costly nursing homes amid doctors who lie, nurses who lie, friends who lie, as we have trained them, promising life to the dying, encouraging the belief that sickness excuses every indulgence, and even, if our workers know their job, withholding all suggestion of a priest lest it should betray to the sick man his true condition!
Lewis nearly experienced that later. In July 1963, he went into a coma, and when he came out of it, neither the doctors nor the nurses would be honest about his condition. Walter Hooper had to fill him in on how serious it was, for which Lewis thanked him.
Screwtape concluded his commentary on war with this:
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 he is going to live forever.
Lewis, in an essay appropriately titled “Learning in War-Time,” observed,
War makes death real to us, and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past. They thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality. I am inclined to think they were right.
This doesn’t mean we should eagerly anticipate a war, or any terrible circumstance, simply for spiritual gain. Yet we need to constantly be aware, as Lewis notes, of our mortality, and welcome all worldly trials that remind us of it.