The Wisdom of C.S. Lewis on Facing Life’s Trials
“The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s ‘own’, or ‘real’ life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life – the life God is sending one day by day: what one calls one’s ‘real life’ is a phantom of one’s own imagination.”
C.S. Lewis, (Spiritual Direction)
“God knows our situation; He will not judge us as if we had no difficulties to overcome. What matters is the sincerity and perseverance of our will to overcome them.”
C.S. Lewis, (Mere Christianity)
Screwtape’s Practical Advice for Dealing with the Present
What you should do is imagine all the bad things that could happen. Picture each awful possibility as you lie awake at 3 a.m., letting image after image flood your mind. Think about how you would bear it if you were sick from the coronavirus, or if COVID-19 struck someone you loved.
That’s what Screwtape would advise. A lot of people are looking for practical counsel at the present, and one excellent resource is a series of letters “written by Screwtape” and published by C. S. Lewis. Of course the author of The Screwtape Letters (which fell into Lewis’s hands sometime during the relentless Nazi bombing of London in 1940–1941), does not speak to our situation specifically. Screwtape said nothing about the coronavirus in his advice to his nephew Wormwood, a junior devil tasked with temping one particular human in the World War II era. Nevertheless, there is much to learn from the senior devil, and the lessons can be applied to our present situation.
For example, Screwtape has suggestions for what we might think about when we’re lying awake in bed at night. He tells Wormwood to encourage the human’s mind to run. “We want him to be in the maximum uncertainty, so that his mind will be filled with contradictory pictures of the future, every one of which arouses hope or fear.” Humans love to have “courage.” They like to imagine how they would “be strong” and exert control over the universe in lots of different hypothetical futures. “Let him forget,” Screwtape writes, “that, since they are incompatible, they cannot all happen to him, and let him try to practice fortitude and patience to them all in advance.”
Lewis, who was a rather old-fashioned Christian, tried to dissuade people from listening to this sage counsel. “Readers are advised to remember that the devil is a liar,” he wrote in the preface The Screwtape Letters in 1942. “Not everything that Screwtape says should be assumed to be true even from his own angle.”
Lewis would say that what we need to do in this situation is to “accept with patience the tribulation which has actually been dealt out to [us]—the present anxiety and suspense.” For him, the anxiety we feel about our future is our present cross. The Christian challenge is to take it up, like Jesus took up his cross. We should acknowledge our fear, ask God for help, and then to pray as Christ taught us, “Thy will be done.” When we do that, an amazing thing begins to happen. The power that fear holds over us, if not eliminated, is at least diminished, and we find the strength to carry on.
One only has to lay awake for an hour or two, though, mulling over the facts from that informative article on the first symptoms of COVID-19, to know that Screwtape’s advice is far more compelling. The choice between trusting prayer and sleepless worry is hardly a choice at all!
Author, GARY S. SELBY MARCH 26, 2020