Posts Tagged ‘The Screwtape Letters’

Devotional Podcast #8: “What Are You Afraid Of?”

January 26, 2018

Have you noticed that the things that you fear today aren’t usually things that are happening today? Rather, they are things that might happen next week, next month, next year. Why is that? Yet Jesus says not to worry about anything beyond today. It seems clear to me, then, that our fear is a far bigger problem than the things that we’re afraid of.

Devotional Text: Matthew 6:34

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Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Friday, January 26, and this is Devotional Podcast number 8. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I bring you a new devotional on this channel.

You’re listening to the Beach Boys and their 1963 song “In My Room.” This came from the album Surfer Girl originally. I recorded this from their 1974 compilation album, Endless Summer, which reached number one on the Billboard album charts.

Recently, I was reading a college football blog, and the readers of this blog were arguing in the comments section—as they often do—about my team, the direction of the program, the coaching staff, the institution. And one of the commenters referred by name to another commenter with whom he disagreed—I’ll call him Jason—and said, “Last year, I remember that Jason said thus-and-so, but here’s why he’s been proven wrong.”

Well, that prompted Jason to come out of the woodwork and respond. He wrote, “Thank you for letting me live rent-free in your head for the past year!”

That was a pretty good putdown. Jason was saying, in so many words, “Yes, you may think I’m wrong, but whatever I said a year ago made such an impression on you, that you’ve been thinking about it ever since—stewing over it, letting yourself be bothered by it or angered by it. Therefore, I win the argument.”

But it got me thinking about the people that I allow to “live in my head rent-free.” Who are they and why do I give them such an exalted place of honor?

And usually, the people who “live in my head” are people I’m afraid of for some reason: For me, this is almost always in the professional sphere; my career: I’m often afraid of colleagues, or supervisors, or parishioners who I perceive don’t like me—I’m afraid of how they might judge me, what they might say about me, how they might influence the opinions of others.

I’m like Sally Field at the Academy Awards so many years ago. “You like me! You really, really like me!” I just want everybody to like me!

I know this is beyond silly; this is un-Christian. My only concern should be to please my Lord—and worry about how he judges me. But instead I worry about others. There are, I know, a host of very interesting reasons going back to my childhood why I struggle with this insecurity.

My point is, these are the people who I let “live in my head.”

I wish I could say I was afraid of bad and powerful men like Kim Jong-un, but, no… he rarely crosses my mind. The objects of my fear are much smaller and much more local.

But it’s not just people—I let things I worry about live there as well.

I’m not saying everyone is like me—you probably let other kinds of people other kinds of things live in your head. But I’m sure, like me, you do so out of fear.

One of C.S. Lewis’s masterpieces is The Screwtape Letters. It’s an imagined correspondence between a demon named Screwtape, a well-seasoned tempter of humans, and his nephew Wormwood, a so-called “junior tempter.” We only get to read Screwtape’s side of the correspondence. But we infer that Wormwood is seeking advice from his uncle on how to handle Wormwood’s “patient.” You see, in the world of The Screwtape Letters, each demon is assigned a human “patient”—more like a victim—and it’s that demon’s job to lead their victim away from God, and away from salvation through Christ, and toward hell. If their human ends up in hell, well… then that demon will be judged a success.

In one of Screwtape’s letters, he talks about how Wormwood can use his patient’s fear to his advantage. In this case, his patient is worried about being called up for military service. (The novel is set in World War II Britain.) It’s uncertain whether the patient will be drafted, so he feels a mixture of anxiety and suspense. Screwtape writes the following [emphasis mine]:

Your patient will, of course, have picked up the notion that he must submit with patience to the Enemy’s will. [Remember, the “Enemy” in this case is God.] What the Enemy means by this is primarily that he should accept with patience the tribulation which has actually been dealt out to him—the present anxiety and suspense. It is about this that he is to say “thy will be done”, and for the daily task of bearing this that the daily bread will be provided. It is your business to see that the patient never thinks of the present fear as his appointed cross, but only of the things he is afraid of. Let him regard them [that is, the things he is afraid of] as his crosses: let him forget that, since they are incompatible, they cannot all happen to him, and let him try to practise fortitude and patience to them all in advance. For real resignation, at the same moment, to a dozen different and hypothetical fates, is almost impossible, and the Enemy does not greatly assist those who are trying to attain it: resignation to present and actual suffering, even where that suffering consists of fear, is far easier and is usually helped by this direct action.[1]

Do you see Lewis’s point? The devil tries to focus our minds on the things that we’re afraid of—things that are waiting for us out there, in the uncertain future, where any number of fearful, undesirable things may happen to us—or not: because the future is unknowable. What we know for sure, right now, is that we’re afraid. Therefore, what what God wants us to focus on instead at this very moment—is the fear itself. That fear should be the thing occupying our prayers.

In other words, the anxiety that we’re feeling right now, as we think of possible future outcomes, is the problem; not the possible outcomes that are making us anxious.

Or put it this way: The fear is the problem; not the thing that’s making us afraid.

This is clear from Jesus’ teaching. “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matthew 6:34). Or as the New Living Translation puts it, “Today’s trouble is enough for today.” This also clear from the rest of scripture. As Paul writes in Philippians 4:6, “[D]o not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

Do you see the practical wisdom here?

What is making you unhappy todayright now… at this moment? It’s probably some “worst case scenario” that you fear will come to pass not today but at some point in the future—tomorrow, next week, next month.

Pray first about the fear that you’re experiencing right now. That fear is part of today’s trouble for which the Lord tells us to pray. You don’t yet know what tomorrow’s trouble is until you get there. But today’s trouble includes the fear that you’re experiencing. Pray about it! Your fear, as Lewis said above, is your “appointed cross” for today—not the thing that you’re afraid of.

Because, believe it or not, God doesn’t want you to be anxious… about anything… ever!

It’s not God’s will for you to worry. You’ll find out whether it’s God’s will for you to face that thing you’re afraid of when the time comes; at which point you can count on God’s giving you the grace you need to face it; but it’s definitely not God’s will for you to be afraid.

So pray that God will take away the fear. And listen to God’s Word—especially what it has to say about anxiety and fear. Start with Matthew 6:25-34.

1. C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (Westwood, NJ: Barbour and Co., 1961), 34-5.

Sermon 08-02-15: “Love Never Fails”

August 10, 2015

1 Corinthians sermon series graphic

1 Corinthians 13 is among the most beautiful poems about love ever written. It’s also countercultural today, since we often think of love in sentimental terms. Paul, by contrast, emphasizes that love is mostly action, not feeling. This is true not only when it comes to loving our neighbor, but also God. When you compare your own love to this poem, how do you measure up?

Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

[To listen on the go, click here to download an MP3.]

The following is my original sermon manuscript. The sermon as delivered may differ slightly.

Do you know what a “mondegreen” is? It’s a word that’s used to refer to song lyrics that are often misheard. So, for example, you know that love song by the Beatles, “Michelle”? Paul sings some of the words in French: “Michelle, my belle”—which means, “my beauty.” Then he says, “sont des mots qui vont très bien ensemble, très bien ensemble.” Which means, literally, “Michelle, ’my beauty,’ these are words that are well suited for one another.” Or, as he says in order to make it rhyme: “these are words that go together well.”

The problem is that “Sont des mots qui vont très bien ensemble” was often misheard as as “Some day monkey play piano song, play piano song.” Maybe that’s an extreme example, but we have a far more recent mondegreen: The song is “Blank Space,” on Taylor Swift’s most recent album. And the line is, “All the lonely Starbucks lovers/ They tell me I’m insane.” Or at least that’s what I and many others, including Taylor Swift’s own mother, thought she said. What she really said, however, was, “Got a long list of ex-lovers/ They tell me I’m insane.”

taylor_swiftThere are many other examples, which you can look up online. The point is, we do often mishear song lyrics.

Now… 1 Corinthians 13 isn’t a song, it is very lyrical, very poetic—surely the most famous poem about love in ancient literature, and one of the two or three most well-known passages of scripture alongside Psalm 23 and the Lord’s Prayer. And like a mondegreen, we have a problem hearing it correctly. We often treat 1 Corinthians 13 as if there aren’t twelve chapters preceding it and three chapters following it. My point is, Paul did not say, “Wouldn’t it be great to write a sweet poem about love right here in the middle of this letter. No, he’s writing these beautiful, powerful words about love to address the main problem that the Corinthian church was having: they were failing to love one another! Read the rest of this entry »

“The safest road to Hell is the gradual one”

December 4, 2013

grinch1

In The Screwtape Letters, the demon Screwtape warns his nephew to nurture his human patient’s burgeoning apostasy very slowly, lest he awaken within him a “sense of his real position” and cause him to repent. For that reason, small sins are often better than large ones.

You will say that these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.[†]

I’m thinking about this in relation to the Grinch, the subject of this Sunday’s “Reel Christmas” sermon. Why does the Whos happiness bother the Grinch so much? He complains about all the noise they make in their revelry, and he might have a point: For all we know, the Whos are inconsiderate neighbors. If they can’t keep the noise down, can they at least invite the Grinch to celebrate with them?

And we can sympathize with the Grinch for other reasons. After all, the humanoid Whos have one another for company. Except for his faithful, put-upon dog, he’s alone in the world. Where are the other Grinch-like creatures? It’s easy to imagine that he’s faced hardship, adversity, and injustice, which have helped to shape him into this creature. So let’s walk a mile in his shoes before we judge him too harshly.

Still, just think: some tiny seed of righteous indignation took root in his soul and blossomed into a devilish kind of anger. While it will soon motivate him to commit the “big” sin of stealing the Whos‘ Christmas presents, it started out small—small but sinful.

This resonates with me: As I’ve said on this blog and in a recent sermon, I’ve been coming to grips this year with the extent of my own anger. I used to wear it like a badge—like it was a wellspring of hidden strength. Now I see it for what it is: pure, ugly, destructive sin.

I am the Grinch.

† C.S. Lewis, “The Screwtape Letters,” in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 220.