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Monday, July 19, 2010

Week 2: The Screwtape Letters - Developing A Christian Perspective

"One of our best weapons, contented worldliness, is rendered useless.  In wartime not even a human can believe that he is going to live forever."  [Screwtape to Wormwood]

Letters 5 & 6 are written in response to the outbreak of WWII, an event bringing premature pleasure to young Wormwood and caution from his more experienced mentor.  Screwtape prefers the advantage of "contented worldliness," where men cocoon themselves inside sand castles to avoid the reality of death.  The tide of war, however, easily smashes through such flimsy defenses by bringing "the continual remembrance of death which war enforces."

The world's way is to avoid the issue of death, preferring to distract men away from the inevitable as an act of kindness.  From God's eternal perspective, however, it is no kindness!  For believers, death and subsequent judgment are motivating forces moving us to tell others of God's grace and provision. To the extent it doesn't do that may be an indication of how much of our culture's world-view has infiltrated our Christian world-view.

A biblical understanding of death helps those who have entrusted themselves to Christ to rest in the knowledge of their eternal hope.  Lillias Trotter, missionary to Muslim women in Algeria in the late 19th/early 20th centuries wrote, "Death is the gate of life. ... The Christian life is a process of deliverance out of one world into another." [Parables of the Cross, 1894]  Screwtape acknowledges that the "precise moment of terror, bereavement or physical pain" may result in human reason being "temporarily suspended."  But even in those painful moments, calling out to God results in His defense of the vulnerable.

To what extent has the world's desire to mask death had a negative effect upon your passion to be God's ambassador? [2 Cor. 5:20]  What steps can be taken to draw your focus back to God and eternity?

War also serves as a breeding ground for suspense, anxiety and fear.  God is concerned with your daily moment-by-moment walk of faith in the midst of circumstances, as you demonstrate reliance upon Him and  trust in His goodness and sovereignty.  "Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result/work, SO THAT [purpose] you may be perfect/spiritually mature and complete, lacking in nothing." [James 1:2-4]  That is, endurance through trials leads to becoming equipped with every grace and skill God knows you will need to serve Him best!  Tim recently noted that praying for the avoidance of trials is akin to asking God for spiritual immaturity.  In contrast, demons prefer trials would serve to cripple your effectiveness for God by keeping your mind focused upon what MIGHT happen, hoping you will become "focused on the fear itself," instead of on God and His greater purposes.

How does your approach to a trial affect the level of benefit you receive from it?  How is it possible to count trials as "joy", though the trial itself is far from "joyful"?  What can serve to strengthen you during such times?

"All extremes, except extreme devotion to the Enemy [i.e. God], are to be encouraged."
[Screwtape, Letter 7]

In Lewis' era the extremes were Pacifism and Patriotism. The human propensity to latch on to a "cause" instead of Christ has not changed.  Perhaps it appeals to our prideful sin nature; we become attracted to the idea of "me and God against the unenlightened."  We begin to believe that we are the only ones who "get it" and instead of fostering unity in our local assembly, we become like the Corinthians who fostered factions and divisions, thereby diminishing their church's effectiveness in the work of God.

God gifts each believer differently [1 Cor. 12:4-7] with the express intention that all will work together as one body comprised of various parts.  Periodically you find a believer who has turned his God-given gift into a "cause".  He naturally gravitates towards others similarly gifted and a "clique" soon forms.  Other believers, gifted differently, become viewed with disdain.  "I and my like-minded fellows get IT ... the rest of my assembly does not."  That kind of thinking should set off alarm bells! That kind of thinking brings disunity and weakens any local body of believers.

How can your God-given gifts and passions be used to build  up your local assembly?  How can unity be promoted?

Finally, Letter 8 deals with "undulation", the emotional ups and downs common to every spiritual walk. Humans, Screwtape informs Wormwood, have "periods of emotional and bodily richness and liveliness" alternating with periods of "numbness and poverty".  We experience days when we're on fire for the Lord and can easily see His hand at work. Then we have days we can't get out of our own way, prayers hardly reach the ceiling and it feels as if God is very far away.  Being emotional creatures, it can be a challenge to not allow our emotions to shape our knowledge of God or dictate our interaction with Him. Building our faith upon the roller coaster of our emotions is fatal to spiritual growth!

Screwtape, having broader knowledge, recognizes God's desire to help His children mature spiritually, to see them learn and apply insights gained. "It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be.  Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best."

"Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. ... By faith [Moses] left Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king; FOR he endured, as seeing Him who is unseen."  [Hebrews 11:1, 27]

How does walking by faith and not by emotion or sight affect your approach to the Christian graces [e.g. prayer, worship, studying God's Word, time spent with edifying believers, etc.]?  Where do you turn in Scripture for perspective during "trough" times?

[Week #1; Week #3]


Anonymous said...

My mother’s father was English, and Mom lived in England until her father died of cancer when she was nine. When World War II broke out, she remembers the air raid drills at school, and vividly remembers the trip in1939 to move to the U.S. on a cruise liner dodging the U boats (German submarines) on the way. This experience forever after affects her outlook against pacifism because of her experience with a justified war, while I have never had that kind of first hand experience. Either experience clearly affects how we view war, and it points out to me the importance as a Christian of taking our “political” views from Scripture, not from the world, or from our own personal experiences. Only God’s Word has and is The Truth.

I’ve been struck lately by the terminology that the world chooses to use for dying. For example, George Steinbrenner, the owner of the Yankees baseball team died recently. The term I heard repeatedly on TV about this was “he passed”, and “his passing”. Wouldn’t Screwtape be proud - what a clever euphemism for death, and so much less threatening! Passing from this life to the next sounds so much more appealing than death and judgment. But what does God say? “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). I choose to believe God, which means I strive not to use the terminology of the world regarding death.

In reading Letter 6 on fear, I couldn’t help calling to mind the saying “I love mankind, it’s people I can’t stand”. It so succinctly sums up Screwtape’s idea that benevolence should be “thrust out toward the remote circumference” and not to be practiced at home.

In the study guide, Debi asked what Bible passages have aided you in keeping your eye on God and eternity in the midst of a “dry time”. I have to say that I just love the whole book of Job for this. I marvel at the fact that in the midst of virtually every trial imaginable, Job was able to keep his faith. “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21). It gives me hope, because if God could enable Job to remain faithful through all of his trials, then surely He can and will do the same for me if I trust Him. And also, many of the psalms sound like me: “Complain, complain, complain complain, complain; but my heart will still choose to follow God because He is God.”

BethsMomToo said...

Susan... that's really interesting about your mother. I had no idea! I assume Lewis' remarks were made in response to the early days when there was so much controversy over the wisdom of Chamberlain's appeasement policy. [He was Prime Minister until 1940.] I suspect sentiments changed when England was attacked despite early efforts to avoid the war.

Anonymous said...

Oh yes, sentiments definitely changed in England once they were attacked. Then it became a time of "let's rally together against our enemy". Thinking abut World War II is a great example of how the culture of the day can impact the way one views the world and influences ones' thinking. In order to truly think biblically, we have to strain everything we think through the Word of God in order to filter out what is only cultural and not eternal truth.

BethsMomToo said...

Apparently it's a two-way conversation this week ... but you make a great point. A failure to truly think biblically can even reach into areas such as worship practices. Don't we sometimes cling to or avoid things because we have a notion it's biblical, when in fact it's not? It's good to guard against holding onto personal or cultural preferences as though they had been commanded at Sinai!

I've also realized you can get a much richer understanding of a literary work if you have some background knowledge of the time it was written in. And it gives a little perspective to the possible weight or non-weight of issues in our own time.

On the other hand, as I read works written long ago, I become aware that sin is ever present, no matter what the time. Man's sin nature is the same since the Fall. Certain works, such as Lewis, puritan writers, JC Ryle, Martyn Lloyd-Jones primarily address issues as current today as in their own time! Perhaps that's a good way to judge the value of an author! How many current Christian bestsellers will still be relevant in 50 years? 100 years? 400 years?

Anonymous said...

Better a two way conversation than one way!

I agree that it's helpful to read works (especially Christian works) from eras different from our own, because, as you say, it helps us to pay attention to filtering out the culture of that day from biblical truth (like the prevalence of sin).

I also find it interesting to read Christian writings from a different era to see what the prevailing battle of the day was. Clearly in our time, it's the battle for the truth as the culture around us has tried to turn everything into relativism and tolerance above all else.