Screwtape Letter #2: Conversion and Old Habits

In his second letter Screwtape notes that Wormwood’s patient has become a professing Christian, but tells his nephew not to give up hope.  Many have been turned away, he notes, by focusing on the flaws and peculiarities of Christians rather than on Christ himself.  As long as the patient somehow thinks of himself as a good person, he can easily be persuaded that those he sees in church are hypocrites because of their imperfections. Wormwood’s task: Make him disillusioned with the church by highlighting people he self-righteously thinks are strange or hypocritical.

In Chapter Two, Screwtape lays out a strategy for Wormwood to follow:

One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate. When he goes inside, he sees the local grocer with rather an oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shabby little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in very small print. When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbors whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbors. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like “the body of Christ” and the actual faces in the next pew. 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 neighbors 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.

How many times have you sat in church, looked around, and thought the same thing? Faith, if it’s honestly sought, demands to see the truth, even when the truth around you is not pretty. And no, the people attending church with you are not always pretty. Fortunately (for us all) it’s the condition of your soul and not your grooming that’s the key to salvation.

When you experience conversion, your call is to seek truth, beauty and goodness. That would be the Divine approach. The diabolical approach is rooted in old, familiar habits: to seek and notice the negative, the ugly, and the bad. We have to take off the old man, and put on the new in order to be changed. For example:

  • 2 Corinthians 5:17: Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.
  • Ephesians 4:24: … and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
  • Colossians 3:12-14: Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
  • 2 Corinthians 3:17-18: Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

Or, as the Navarre Bible – New Testament Expanded Edition puts it on page 721:

First, you have chosen to take off the “old” man (Adam) and to put on the new (Christ). That new man is truth itself, and He will help you in the breaking of the old habits you bring with you into your new life with Him. The Christian no longer has the “old nature”; he is no longer the “old” person who lived in the darkness of evil, but rather a “new” one, who should reflect God in his behavior: he lives in the light of the Lord, as a wise man, full of the Spirit, in the midst of the world. His family and social life, too, should reflect the fact that he is a new person. In order not to succumb to the power of evil that is present in the world, he must always be vigilant, to keep up the fight, using the weapons of the Spirit.

Wormwood’s patient has joined himself to the Body of Christ. By joining yourself to His Church you have also joined His Body. Christ is the head of the Body. You comprise the Body of Christ. (1 Corinthians 12:26)

By joining yourself to this “body” you are yet paradoxically free. How is this so?

Jesus Christ brought about your redemption. To “redeem” means to “set free”. You gained your freedom by joining his body. “God made us in Christ. So it is through Christ once again that he has formed us anew. We are his members; he our Head.” – Ambrosiaster, Epistle to the Ephesians 2.5.

So you have your freedom. You’re feeling great about things and excited for what this new life holds in the future. But after a short time you’ll begin to look around at the other members of the body who are seated in the pews around you. Old habits of comparing yourself to others die hard. You may recognize some of those Christians around you and begin to think to yourself: “Wait a minute! I know this guy’s a cheat. And her! She’s the biggest gossiping hypocrite in town. What am I doing here with these people?”

There is a question in this chapter that Screwtape strongly warned Wormwood to keep his patient from asking. Therefore I suggest that you consider asking it of yourself: “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?”

In other words, resist the temptation to compare yourself to others. Remember, you have “put off the old nature with its practices and have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” (Colossians 3:8-9)

"Church Pew with Worshippers" by Vincent van Gogh (1882)

“Church Pew with Worshippers” by Vincent van Gogh (1882)

So how do you avoid thinking or speaking ill of your peers in the pews? One way is keeping yourself immersed in the truth and humility. Remember, Christ is truth, and by keeping yourself in Him you can more easily ensure that you are not falling into the trap of slandering your neighbors.

Fabian Brusketwitz, the Bishop Emeritus of the Diocese of Lincoln told the following story on page 245 of his book A Shepherd Speaks:

Almost everyone remembers the saintly advice given to a gossiping woman who was struggling with her vice. She was told to cut open a pillow and let the feather fly out her window. Then the following week she was told to go out and gather them all up. Protesting that such a thing was impossible, she was then reminded that her gossip, wrecking the reputation of her neighbors, was like those feathers, spreading continuously and impossible to call back. Backbiting, slander, detraction, and calumny, as well as rash judgment, can be involved in gossip. In those kinds of sins, the readers and listeners (“enablers”) can share in the guilt of the gossiping persons themselves.

You must remain a sense of humility. Remember, “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)

Or as Lewis put it in Mere Christianity:

If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realise that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed. – Mere Christianity, Book III, Ch. 8

Faith, if it’s honestly sought, demands to see truth, even when the truth around you is not as pretty. Christ is still present among you in the Liturgy while in church. Keep in mind that the liturgy is a public work meaning it calls us to proclaim a living faith in participation with God. Just because those around you are not participating does not mean that you shouldn’t either.

Above all, remember well these words: To imitate the Father, love like the Son.

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