In Screwtape’s second letter, he recounts the unfortunate development that the “patient” has become a Christian. We might think of this as their complete defeat. They don’t, however, see it that way. The demons maintain hope that they can destroy this man’s soul. Let’s put the question of eternal security to the side: we might imagine that the demons don’t know for certain the state of one’s soul. Lewis’ reflects here on the peculiar dangers and temptations that may face a new convert, whether genuine or false.
First, Screwtape mentions how useful the Church itself is. (He makes a great point distinguishing the invisible Church, in its eternal purity and glory, from the visible Church on the ground.) The demons wish to lead the man to Hell, and there are people in the Church who will help. For example, the Church contains weirdos, inaccessible liturgies, bad songs, and annoying neighbors.
Screwtape’s strategy for Wormwood, then, is to make the patient focus on these rough edges. Particularly, he highlights the people. The Church is filled with unfinished saints, not to mention hypocrites and people who are just a little strange. As a new convert, then, Screwtape expects Wormwood can distract and trip up the patient by focusing his attention on them. To quote:
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.
This is a perennial temptation. We come to the Church with the expectation of what Christians should act, sound, and, yes, even look like. When people don’t match it, we mentally demote them. We tend to view them as less genuine, not as wise or serious or whatever as ourselves. By this we learn pride, the most destructive of vices.
In this case, the pride and critical spirit have a particular goal. Screwtape encourages, “Work hard, then, on the disappointment or anticlimax which is certainly coming to the patient during his first few weeks as a churchman.” The goal here is to build up disappointment and disillusionment with the Church. The hope is that this will lead the patient to call it quits. They want to create the attitude, “If God’s people are not what I think they should be, perhaps God isn’t worth it either.”
This is important in our day. We see a lot of disillusionment with the Church. We see left and right, for example, young evangelicals frustrated with the Church’s history on this or that issue, whether on race or sex or economics or what have you. Others are disappointed by theological shallowness, emotionalism, or biblical illiteracy. Causes of disappointment abound. Many apostatize. But those who endure to the end will be saved.
There are two things to learn from this. First, repent of our own critical spirits. The Church is a work in progress, just like ourselves. Whatever faults we have with our brothers, they could have as many for us. As Screwtape also says:
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!
If we are to stay away from the deadly dangers of pride, we need to repent and remember Paul’s words in Romans 14:4, “Who are you to judge another’s household servant? Before his own Lord he stands or falls. And he will stand, because the Lord is able to make him stand.” Don’t be overly critical. Don’t hate on the Church. Make peace, do your part, love the brethren, and correct what you can with humility.
As for the second lesson, we should learn to do what we can not to cause disillusionment. Listen to the disappointed. Watch out for common criticisms. Examine our hearts. We should not be causing our brothers to stumble. Be generous, be kind, be humble, be quick to listen, be slow to anger, be everything that you know an ideal Christian should be. By this light you may win your unbelieving neighbors and strengthen your fellow Christians. You might even keep them from giving up.