Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 9th March 2014
9 March 2014 at 10:00 am
The Venerable Dr Jane Hedges, Canon in Residence
There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.
This is what CS Lewis has to say in the preface to his book 'The Screwtape Letters'.
Towards the end of last year we unveiled a beautiful memorial to Lewis over in Poets' Corner, on the fiftieth anniversary of his death. During this month, as we make our journey through the season of Lent, I’m looking at just five of the many books he wrote – last week we began with Surprised by Joy in which he describes his conversion to Christianity and the struggles on the way; and in the three weeks ahead we’ll look at Mere Christianity, A Grief Observed and the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Today being the first Sunday of Lent, is traditionally the Sunday when the Church thinks about Jesus being tempted by the devil in the wilderness. Those of you staying to the Eucharist this morning will hear the account of these temptations as recorded by St Matthew in chapter 4 of his gospel.
Whether or not we ourselves believe in a personal devil as Matthew and the other gospel writers depict the presence of evil; we know from our own experience of life that as human beings we are subject to temptation and as a result fall into sin.
CS Lewis in an imaginative way in the Screwtape Letters looks at the subject of temptation through a series of letters written from a senior demon, Screwtape, to his nephew, a junior tempter called Wormwood.
So what is the setting of this book, what are the temptations that are highlighted, and how might Lewis’s dealing with this subject help us as we think about our relationship with God and the things which draw us away from him and hinder that relationship?
The main storyline in this book is Screwtape trying to assist Wormwood in securing the damnation of a recently converted Englishman who is referred to as the Patient. Screwtape gives Wormwood detailed advice on various methods of undermining faith and promoting sin in the Patient, interspersed with observations about human nature and the nature of God, who he refers to as the ENEMY.
In the thirty one letters he covers a whole range of subjects; the temptations he describes falling into particular groups.
There are those associated with personal relationships such as the Patient’s attitude towards his mother, the seduction of powerful or outwardly attractive people, the dilemmas associated with sexual desire and the trauma of falling in love.
Then there are those which affect the Patient’s relationship with God and here Lewis focusses on problems associated with prayer and dryness in the spiritual life, the trap of extremism, the tendency to false humility, and the pitfalls of spiritual elitism and looking down on others who hold different views from our own.
Another category of temptations are those associated with general human vulnerability and wider ethical issues. These include such things as attitudes to war, coping with feelings of fear, cowardice, malice, and despondency; the hurt caused by the inappropriate use of humour, the pitfalls of greed, selfishness, ill-temper, and peevishness; and the tendency of human beings to be obsessed by the past or the future rather than living in the present.
Just to give a taster of Lewis’s writing in this book, let’s hear a couple of short extracts from the letters. In the twenty-first letter, Screwtape writes on the subject of the patient’s peevishness and possessiveness:
My Dear Wormwood,
Now you will have noticed that nothing throws him into a passion so easily as to find a tract of time which he reckoned on having at his own disposal taken from him. It is the unexpected visitor (when he looked forward to a quiet evening), or a friend’s talkative wife (turning up when he looked forward to a tete-a-tete with the friend), that throw him out of gear…..
They anger him because he regards his time as his own and feels that it is being stolen. You must therefore zealously guard in his mind the curious assumption 'My time is my own'.
Screwtape carries on this theme throughout this particular letter focusing on that weakness amongst humans which makes us regard ourselves as 'owners' rather than seeing the world as belonging to God and our lives as a gift.
Although the Screwtape Letters are primarily about temptation, from time to time Lewis expresses his own understanding of the nature of God’s love and the threat this poses to the work of the Devil.
In the thirteenth letter, Screwtape expresses his complete contempt for human beings as he warns Wormwood what he’s up against in trying to draw the Patient away from God.
He writes of God, 'Remember always, that He really likes the little vermin, and sets an absurd value on the distinctiveness of every one of them. When He talks of their losing their selves, he only means abandoning the clamour of self-will; once they have done that, he really gives them back their personality, and boasts (I am afraid, sincerely) that when they are wholly His they will be more themselves than ever'.
The difference between the work of the devil and that of God is expressed succinctly in the eighth letter. Screwtape writes, 'We want to suck in, He wants to give out. We are empty and would be filled; He is full and flows over'.
So these imaginary letters express the real challenges which face human beings as we battle with our own sinfulness and selfishness and interact with other people and the world around us. I can’t say this book is an easy read, although when The Screwtape Letters was first published in 1942, it soon became a best seller and it’s certainly one of Lewis’s more popular works.
I began with the quotation from Lewis about the danger of either ignoring devils or becoming too interested in them. It seems to me that this is a healthy warning about our attitude to evil and temptation.
We can’t ignore it because there is evidence of it all around us and within us.
Yet it needs to be dealt with in the context of our belief in a God whose will is for our good, who forgives when we turn to him in repentance, and whose love is so strong that nothing can conquer it.
So as we make our journey through this Lent, let us all be prepared to think about the things which tempt us most – the ways in which we hurt other people most – the part we each play in making our world a cruel and unjust place.
But as we do that let us also look towards the cross – where God expressed his absolute love for his world and for each one of us as he made the ultimate sacrifice, and think of those words Lewis used to describe him, 'He is full and flows over'.