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Screwtape and the Cure of Souls


One of the highlights of my time with Chuck Colson was at a C. S. Lewis Foundation conference in Oxford and Cambridge marking the 100th birthday of C. S. Lewis. Chuck had the honor of delivering a keynote address, an honor I myself will have next summer.

We often talk about Lewis’ ideas in the realm of theological and cultural apologetics. But there’s another area where, for many Christians, his impact was even greater: the practice of the cure of souls, the ministry of instructing people in the life of grace and sanctification.

That’s the focus of one of his most famous books, “The Screwtape Letters.” The letters sent by Screwtape, a senior devil, to his nephew Wormwood, are really about the obstacles and pitfalls we Christians face in our relationship with God.

One of the clearest examples is Lewis’ treatment of the role of feelings in the Christian life. For example, Screwtape tells Wormwood that if he can’t keep his “patient” from praying, he should strive to ensure that he “[estimates] the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling.”

That’s because the emphasis on feelings leads us to turn our gaze away from God and toward ourselves.

Similarly, Screwtape rebukes Wormwood for thinking that the “patient’s” spiritual dry spell is evidence of a lack of faith. As he tells his diabolical apprentice, “It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that [the patient] is growing into the sort of creature [God] wants [him] to be.”

In the voice of Screwtape, Lewis describes the redemptive power of suffering and feelings of desolation in some of the most beautiful language he ever committed to paper: “[The Devil’s] cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will [that is, God’s will] looks round upon a universe from which every trace of [God] seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”

This is profound stuff, the stuff of life as most Christians actually live it. Lewis was nothing if not realistic about the challenges Christians face in the life of grace. He understood and explained that this life was a reclamation project, not a remodeling.

That’s because our capacity for self-deception is so great that God must resort to what Lewis once called a “severe mercy” to overcome it. And that’s the subject of his wonderful poem “As the Ruin Falls,” which I’d like you to hear:

All this is flashy rhetoric about loving you.
I never had a selfless thought since I was born.
I am mercenary and self-seeking through and through:
I want God, you, all friends, merely to serve my turn.

Peace, re-assurance, pleasure, are the goals I seek,
I cannot crawl one inch outside my proper skin:
I talk of love – a scholar’s parrot may talk Greek –
But, self-imprisoned, always end where I begin.

Only that now you have taught me (but how late) my lack.
I see the chasm. And everything you are was making
My heart into a bridge by which I might get back
From exile, and grow man. And now the bridge is breaking.

For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains
You give me are more precious than all other gains.

Teaching people to bless God as the ruin falls is the essence of the cure of souls, and is yet another reason to celebrate the life and work of C.S. Lewis.

Please come to BreakPoint.org, click on this commentary for more of C. S. Lewis. Of course we’ve got his books, “The Screwtape Letters” included, in our BreakPoint online store. And you may even want to check out a Screwtape parody I wrote on the topic of the DaVinci code.

BreakPoint is a Christian worldview ministry that seeks to build and resource a movement of Christians committed to living and defending Christian worldview in all areas of life. Begun by Chuck Colson in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. Today BreakPoint commentaries, co-hosted by Eric Metaxas and John Stonestreet, air daily on more than 1,200 outlets with an estimated weekly listening audience of eight million people. Feel free to contact us at BreakPoint.org where you can read and search answers to common questions.

Eric Metaxas is a co-host of BreakPoint Radio and a best-selling author whose biographies, children's books, and popular apologetics have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

Publication date: November 19, 2013

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