The Lost Screwtape Letter

For maximum benefit from this letter, read it in light of Jesus’ Parable of the Four Soils (Mark 4:3-20). The strategies Screwtape suggests are rooted in this Parable.

My Dear Wormwood,

You have failed to consider that there is more than one way to guarantee that your patient does not benefit from the constant flow of the Enemy’s teaching in his life. There are indeed many different ways to negate the effect of those ludicrous homilies and seemingly endless stream of Bible studies.

The most obvious plan of attack is to simply and quickly dispose of the word so that is has no real impact in your patient’s life. This is not nearly as difficult as you might think. There is a virtual cornucopia of ways to negate the impact of the Enemy’s word. The challenge is to know which one to employ at any given time.

The easiest way is to convince your patient that nothing of real significance is occurring when the preacher speaks. Because of your spiritual nature, you may find it hard to believe that your subject could so easily be convinced that he is merely participating in a human meeting with human goals. This assumption keeps him from taking anything said too seriously. If, even for a moment, he begins to recognize that the meetings he attends are, in reality, the subject of angelic awe and anticipation coupled with our own demonic attacks, he may actually consider the weightiness of the moment and pray for the Enemy’s intercession. And you personally know how this action—even when performed by the least of the Enemy’s people—disrupts our efforts. As it is, he remains, for the most part, blinded to this supernatural element.

If this does not work, try hard to keep your patient focused on the messenger rather than the message. This will surely cause him to think less of the word that is being taught. Allow him to amplify the preacher’s personality quirks and eccentricities out of proportion. This is easy to do, for our human subjects are quickly irritated by any abnormalities other than their own. Make sure that you don’t allow him to judge himself and his own quirks by the same standard he applies to the preacher or he may end up actually sympathizing with him. On top of this, continually seek to persuade him that his preacher is really attempting to overwhelm him with his great intellectual acumen, rather than love him with the highest regard for precision and compassion possible. He can then easily be led to view the preacher’s precision as dry dead intellectualism and the preacher’s conviction as bull-headed arrogance.

As you can see, the shortest and quickest route in convincing him to discard the message is to cause him to disrespect and thus disregard the messenger. And be warned of this: If he ever actually does begin to love the preacher for who he is and not merely because of what he does, our situation is nearly hopeless. If he begins to think that the messages he hears are really saturated in love, prayer, and concern and are ultimately intended for his benefit, he may really begin to listen intently. So do all you can to undermine the messenger.

You and I know of the power of the Enemy’s words, even from the lips of simple preachers. But our subject is not so spiritually attuned. He easily forgets that the Enemy loves to speak through common, frail vessels. Because of this, he often expects fireworks and amazing feats of brilliant exposition, while forgetting that the Enemy usually speaks through a still small voice (one that we can rarely hear ourselves, but our scientists are currently working on cracking this code). He really expects to see the equivalent of a Greek god delivering the Enemy’s word, but the Enemy gives him a short, overweight, balding man instead. It takes humans a long time to learn that the Enemy actually enjoys displaying his power through the ordinary. Until he learns this lesson, keep him focused on supernatural fireworks and he will have little patience for simple providences.

Never forget how much your patient’s unrealistic expectations can always be used to your advantage. Our media representatives have been filling his mind with an unattainable idea of what a perfect spokesman should look like. If his pastor spent all his time primping, pumping iron, and hiding his age through plastic surgery, then he might be able to attain to this lofty standard, but it would ultimately be at the expense of his message. That is why most pastors look like they are falling to pieces. Our Father’s agents are much more impressive, and quite effective, in steering people away from the Enemy’s idiotic plan to use the foolishness of preaching and the weakness of preachers to advance his cause. He could certainly use a few lessons from our P.R. department!

But, as hard as it is for me to admit, the Enemy’s crazy plan often ends up producing results. (We’ve researched this again and again to no avail. Our scientists have always concluded that brute power is what impresses, not sniveling weakness. The Enemy always seems to triumph, not because of his plan, but in spite of his plan!) What many of our subjects don’t realize is the great power of even a small glimpse of the Enemy’s plan and purpose through even the most frail human vessel. Even the worst sermon usually has some element that could thwart our purposes if it were taken seriously. Therefore, train your subject to write off a whole sermon because of one minor flaw—perhaps a misplaced word, an improper verb, or the wrong pronouncement of an archaic biblical term. This is the best way to take the whole tree down with a mere splinter.

Now, if your patient actually does listen to the preacher’s message, there is still time to snatch the word away. Convince him that what he has heard could never work in the “real world.” Use words like “impractical,” “illogical,” or even “inefficient” to describe what he has heard. Our subject actually thinks that he understands and comprehends the “real world” enough to know what does and doesn’t work. Little does he know that his view of the world is often so biased and distorted that it is practically impossible for the preacher’s word to take root. Interestingly enough, as unimpressive as the Enemy’s agents are, their words often truly strike at the heart of reality. If you are successful in convincing your patient of the “unworkableness” of the preacher’s message in the real world, your subject will remain in the world of his own illusions, which is no more real, yet much more comfortable and convenient, than the real world that we are quite aware of (and that the preacher often alludes to).

Even if he does come to embrace the true significance of what he has heard, all is still not lost. Just gently whisper this in his ear: “Your case is exceptional and thus you are exempt from responding to what you hear.” Take advantage of this universal scapegoat. Everybody thinks they deserve special treatment and your subject is no different. He is ready at the drop of a hat to excuse himself from anything that is uncomfortable or inefficient. Teach him to listen to sermons for other people and not himself. Comments like, “That sermon would be good for Joe to hear” or “I wonder what Bill would have thought of that message,” are the results of this successful diversionary tactic.

Curiously enough, the more advanced your subject becomes in the Enemy’s ways, the more easily you can distract him from truly listening. Encourage him to spend more time researching every message he hears before he applies it to himself. Convince him that this is to be a “good Berean” (nothing like a good dose of spiritual pride to prime the pump). Persuade him that, even though his pastor is well-meaning, he is certainly biased and thus unreliable. This is a great decoy, for your man rarely considers how biased he is himself. He honestly thinks he approaches things objectively. Of course, this also works from the other direction. Over time you can convince your patient that his pastor is just “too schooled” and that he doesn’t read the Scriptures rightly because of his education. Then you can introduce any crazy interpretation you want (the crazier the better—these fleshlings never tire of novel and sensationalistic interpretations). If you can successfully convince your subject that increased study leads to increased inability to handle the Scriptures accurately, then you have all but bagged your prey. He will be suspicious of further learning while simultaneously trying to learn further, but without the aid of scholarly references. Soon his religion (if he maintains it) will descend to mere folk religion, a mass of religious slogans and clichés that effectively hinder true understanding by creating the illusion of a “simple faith” unadulterated by the aid of higher learning. We, in his Infernal Majesty’s service, at least are aware of one thing—the Enemy’s ways are anything but simple! But, I digress.

The overall advantage of encouraging him to put a response on hold until he has studied the matter further is quite simple. (Oftentimes the best seductions are the most subtle. You will learn this over time. You young demons are always looking for the most sly and outrageous tactic, when actually, the simple ones are usually most effective.) Because he takes delight in the fact that he is a “Berean” you can introduce the direct thought, “I will certainly give this matter more consideration… later.” You can then encourage him to feel good that he intends to follow up someday, when the opportunity arises. Usually, you will find that over time, perhaps within the hour, you can divert your patient’s attention away from really studying the matter further. In doing this you can successfully use your patient’s good intentions to lead to no real actions.There is nothing better than good intentions. You know what the road to Hell is paved with!

In short, our initial strategy is quite simple: Anything you can do to get your patient to disregard the word is acceptable. If you are initially unsuccessful, all is not lost. Your patient’s initial reception of the word—especially if it involves high excitement and emotion—can still be twisted to fulfill our own miserific purposes, for we can always uses the trials that accompany a commitment to the Enemy for our own advantage.

Though the Enemy claims to use these trials for the good of his people (a claim we find extremely convoluted—he will say anything to make himself look good. At least our Father Below does not fill minds with such rot), we are quite aware of how we can manipulate these trials to destroy faith.

You can use your patient’s impulsiveness to your own advantage. Zeal, enthusiasm, and vigor are not completely destructive to our purposes. After all, zeal without knowledge aids our cause immensely and has been the basis for many of our greatest triumphs. Since impulsive people haven’t counted the cost nor thought too deeply about the implications of what they are getting into, we can usually convince them to turn away just as quickly as they initially responded. You see, their impulsiveness is helpful, rather than harmful, to our cause. And generally speaking, Christians are so excited to see any kind of response to the Enemy’s message that they often make a big deal out of what really may be no more than a passing fancy. Our Father Below loves to hear of the Enemy’s people presenting large numbers of these impulsive decisions as proof of the Enemy’s triumph. Little do they realize how they play into our hands! Believe me, there is nothing better than consuming a surprised soul who was certain he or she was safe from our grasp because of an impulsive decision made in the midst of excited fervor. They make the sweetest delicacies, for their shrieks are the most tortured.

So play on this impulsiveness. Take advantage of the “rule of unattainable expectations” by allowing your patient to fraternize with only new converts to the faith. Though their zeal may be potentially damaging to our cause, their lack of experience all but overcompensates for this. You know the kind I’m talking about—the ones who will speak in lofty idealized terms, persuading your patient to be “sold out” to Jesus. The higher they raise his expectations, the better. No one can live this kind of sold-out life with any real consistency. Your patient will quickly realize this and if he does not change his expectations, he will quickly abandon Christianity as a workable religion. Never forget, dear Wormwood, the truth that many of your patient’s comrades will do everything in their power to deny: Many start the Christian life, but few actually finish it. We know this for a fact. Many of our most delightful morsels are those who fit this bill.

Another route you can pursue to quickly short-circuit your patient’s newfound religion is to raise his expectations regarding the purpose of Christianity. Get him to think that embracing the faith will make his life fuller, happier, more comfortable, and more exciting. Convince him that any trouble he experiences is either a result of faithlessness, or proof that his experience was phony. The more he views his faith as a means to an end and not the end itself, the more he will pervert it. In other words, if he considers his Christianity the means to happiness, comfort, and excitement, and then he doesn’t receive these things, he will quickly abandon his faith, thinking that it doesn’t work. Little will he know that the Enemy never really promised these things in the first place.

Whatever you do, do not let him learn of the Enemy’s great truth of strength in weakness, or of how faith is strengthened by trials. Do not let him understand how the Enemy uses trials to purify and refine his follower’s faith. Make your patient believe that all trials are evidences of the Enemy’s lack of love, not of his love. I know it sounds crazy, but all our research has proved that the Enemy actually desires to purify his people’s faith (most likely, in order to keep them chained to his pathetic and empty promises of glory). We, on the other hand, desire to crush their faith. And to everyone’s surprise, we both use the same means to accomplish our different goals. This is where we have the upper hand. Few people suspect that sufferings, weakness, temptations and trials can actually be means to good and evidence of love. Once your patient has discovered this truth and embraced it, we lose a significant advantage. If your patient’s faith can take root in the hard soil of affliction, then our strategy must change, at least for the moment. Keep in mind, however, that each new affliction provides a new opportunity to undermine his faith. But I must be honest with you: we have found in our research that those who learn this lesson early, generally tend to retain it all their days, so that this temptation loses its power over time. Of course, there are exceptions—delightfully delicious exceptions at that—and that is what motivates us to use every opportunity to stir doubt and distrust whenever possible.

As I said, if suffering is accepted as proof of the Enemy’s love (and, oh, how ludicrous a thought this is) our strategy must change. If you cannot get your patient to reject the word, then you must now get him to neglect the word. One of the best ways to do this is by distracting him with the weight of daily concerns. Allow the pressures and anxieties of the “real world” to crowd out the word. This is far easier than you would think.

Our strategy here is simple: Always keep your subject thinking about what he doesn’t have and what he can’t control.

This is best accomplished by keeping your subject focused on the future. And make sure the future he imagines has no connections to the Enemy’s empty promises of eternal righteousness and endless pleasures. Instead, keep him living in a future of his own devising—a future largely composed of his own idols and illusions. For example, your patient is a single man. Keep him from taking advantage of his freedom by chaining him to a future of his own fantasy. Keep his mind, not on what he does have, but on what he doesn’t have. Don’t let him realize that he is wasting time fretting over things beyond his control. Fuel his fantasies (and thus his inability to deal with reality) with the wonderful phrase, “if only”: “If only I were married, I would be happy.” “If only I were having sex, I would be fulfilled.” “If only I had children, I would be satisfied.” The more you distance his fantasy from reality, the better you prevent him from doing anything significant in the present. By the way, the “if only” also works well if he ever marries. The moment he marries you can begin to whisper things like: “If only I had waited until I met the new girl at the office.” “If only I had known what this person was like, I would never have married her.” “If only I had stayed single” and so on. Nothing creates as much havoc as the powerful phrases “if only” and a constant focus on “what might have been.” Keeping him dissatisfied in the present by causing him to live in the future or in the past is the best way to effectively keep him from doing anything of real significance.

One last thought on this subject: As your subject fantasizes, make sure you raise his expectations so high that no one person could ever meet them. That way, if he ever does marry, you are almost assured of an eventual divorce—the weight of high expectations can always be used to our advantage. This raising of the expectations can also be used in his fantasies concerning the perfect job, perfect house, perfect vacation, perfect car, perfect church, perfect body, perfect life, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. Our Father Below takes special delight in the envy and bitterness such thinking produces! And these unfulfilled expectations are guaranteed to produce ingratitude, discontent, and doubt in your patient’s life.

Since your patient is an ambitious young man, you may also consider the power of money to keep him from the Enemy’s purposes. Never think lightly of the power of money. It is relatively easy to convince your patient that his problems are all centered around finances. Money can certainly buy many pleasures (although we know how little of value can truly be purchased with cash). Do your best to persuade your patient that financial security is the key to real success in life and that financial surplus is the root of all joys. Because of the Protestant work ethic, it is easy to paint this carnal desire with the brush of true godliness. Once this is settled in your patient’s mind, it is an easy jump to making the pursuit of money a priority in his life. With very little effort you can convince him that his desire for financial success is really a desire to honor the Enemy and that when he expends the majority of his effort in financial pursuit he is really pursuing the Enemy. This bait-and-switch tactic works wonderfully well. Of course, there is always a certain uneasiness that accompanies this incongruity. That is why most everyone who follows this course boasts of pursuing some noble goal other than the accumulation of wealth—like having the capacity to give to the church or missions—but ultimately the end result is the same. We have many here who have done this very thing. They realize all too late that the love of money is a fatal trap leading to certain destruction. It is particularly delightful to hear the shrieks of despair when they discover that all their efforts have resulted in nothing but loss.

Pleasure itself can also be a means to seduce your patient. Of course we all know that pleasure itself is not forbidden by the Enemy—indeed, he is the creator of all true pleasures. We haven’t been able to devise one real pleasure in spite of numerous attempts by our most brilliant scientists. That is why we must settle for perverting the pleasures the Enemy provides. Encourage your patient, then, to pursue pleasure as an end in itself. Once you have done this, whatever is pleasurable becomes his standard for determining what is right. If he embraces this as his motto, “If it feels good, do it” then we have him right where we want him. As long as he pursues pleasure in things rather than in the Enemy (and who could ever truly be pleased with him!), we are safe. The Enemy must always remain a means, rather than the end, of his pursuit. If the Enemy becomes the end, then your patient will be willing to do whatever it takes in order to reach this goal, even if it includes things that are not pleasurable. In doing this, he will be demonstrating that his greatest pleasure is a pleasure rooted in the Enemy. (Ah, this thought produces spasms of revulsion to course through my protoplasmic frame!) This kind of thinking will effectively annul all our efforts. Therefore, distort his pursuit of pleasure by a degree or so, and we have him in our clutches.

As you can see, it is the simple things in life that are our best instruments of destruction. There is no end to the amount of turmoil you can produce through just a few simple worries coupled with a dose of bitter fantasies wrapped in a blanket of forbidden pleasures. With a little finesse, you can so subtly keep your patient just a little off target that he will never know the life is being choked out of him. Oh, he may feel a little restless at times, wondering why things are not as they once were, but this will quickly fade if you pass before his eyes an overdue bill, a new exciting movie, or a voluptuous woman. Never underestimate the power of a few simple distractions. Truly, it is the simple things in life that bring most pleasure! Our Father Below is greatly pleased by such things. He takes delight in the fact that the reputation of the Enemy is completely undermined when his people are drawn away–not by great riches, fame, or fortune–but by simple distractions and common lusts.

Our working motto is this (and sadly, we must give a little credit to the Enemy for this one): No man can serve two masters. The human heart cannot belong to two all-absorbing objects at the same time. The fleshlings convince themselves that they can manage this, but that is merely their pride speaking. If we can simply distract them just a little, then we have them in our control. An arrow that is just a millimeter off will ultimately miss its target. Its trajectory is indeed affected by this small amount. A compass that is off one degree can lead to a cliff rather than to the desired oasis. The power of our temptations is in their subtlety, not in their obviousness. Satanism, pornography, and other such things are of value only for the small-minded. For the majority of human beings, we must be subtle. A slow destruction–like a slow roast–makes for the tenderest treats.

This slow and subtle strategy may seem to be a disadvantage, but it is really, perhaps, the best strategy of all. If you can get your patient to believe that he is showing proper respect for the word while not actually being influenced by the word, then you have him in your clutches.

In the final analysis, only one thing is devastating to our cause. It is not the reception of the word, excitement over the word, or even a holding to the word (as long as it is not single-minded). No, the thing that devastates our cause is what the Enemy calls “bearing fruit.”

We really don’t care if our subjects reject the Enemy’s word immediately, reject it later, or keep it but neglect it over time. All of these responses will serve our purposes quite nicely. But if fruit is born–if the word is not only received, but takes root in the heart, and results in actions in accord with the Enemy’s will–then all of our strategies come to nothing. Our great work can be destroyed in an instant when the word is received, held, and acted upon.

Therefore, Wormwood, you must do all you can to keep this from happening. I have shared some tried and true strategies with you. You can go far with these. But, ultimately, anything you can do to oppose this end will please our Father Below. Be creative. We have not even come close to exhausting the vast number of ways we can successfully hinder the Enemy’s word. For this reason (and many others that could be listed), we can be assured of final victory over the Enemy!

In closing, let me impart to you one subtle deception you may employ that has been found effective in test after test—one that you will find is as amusing as it is distracting. Get your patient to constantly argue with other Christians over whether it is possible to fall away from the faith, or have spurious conversions, or whether one can truly be saved and still live with a double-mind. Anything to get his mind away from single-minded devotion to the Enemy. This strategy has the double impact of not only distracting him from the real issue (that of perseverance and bearing fruit) but of also convincing him that these things are merely hypothetical situations—not only unlikely, but impossible situations that have no bearing in real life. This will lower his guard while simultaneously taking him farther from “real life” than he could possibly expect. Our cages are full of specimens who spent their whole lives debating these issues. Indeed, some are still convinced that they can’t possibly really be here. This still never fails to amuse me.

Your affectionate uncle,

Screwtape

© Richard J. Vincent, April 20, 2001

3 Responses to “The Lost Screwtape Letter”

  1. PK says:

    This letter was definitely impacting. We tend to overlook the various tactics Satan and his demons have to steal the Word of God from us. I see how we have taken the Word, church, and pastors for granted. We even go so far as to belittle the message and the messenger. I printed this letter off to share with my Bible study…I think this is something we all need to take into consideration and strive to walk in the knowledge of God, not only store it up in our minds-but in our hearts and let it produce fruit in our lives

  2. Jim Soto says:

    I read this article 13 years ago and I still think is very well written. It is a blessing.

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