In C.S. Lewis’ masterpiece, The Screwtape Letters, Lewis presents a series of correspondence from a master demon in the “lowerarchy” of hell to an apprentice demon who is assigned to tempt a particular man on earth. The whole book has a topsy-turvy feel to it. God is referred to as “the Enemy.” Satan is called “Our Father Below.” The whole book is like a course in human nature as seen from hell’s perspective: a “how to” course in exploiting human weakness in order to distract and manipulate someone away from a godly path.
In one chapter Screwtape tells his apprentice, Wormwood, about a particular strategy of temptation, and even speaks about how it pertains to lust:
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Our business is to get them away from the eternal, and from the Present. . . . It is far better to make them live in the Future. Biological necessity makes all their passion point in that direction already, so that thought about the Future inflames hope and fear. Also, it is unknown to them, that in making them think about it, we can make them think of unrealities. In a word, the Future is, of all things, the thing least like eternity. It is the most completely temporal part of time—for the Past is frozen and no longer flows, and the Present is all lit up with eternal rays. . . . Hence nearly all vices are rooted in the future. Gratitude looks to the past and love to the present; fear, avarice, lust, and ambition look ahead. Do not think lust an exception. When the present pleasure arrives, the sin (which alone interests us) is already over. The pleasure is just the part of the process which we regret and would exclude if we could do so without losing the sin . . .
To be sure, the Enemy wants men to think of the Future too—just so much as is necessary for now planning the acts of justice or charity which will probably be their duty tomorrow. The duty of planning the morrow’s work is today’s duty; though its material is borrowed from the future, the duty, like all duties, is in the Present. This is now straw splitting. He does not want men to give the Future their hearts, to place their treasure in it. We do. His ideal is a man who, having worked all day for the good of posterity (if that is his vocation), washes his mind of the whole subject, commits the issue to Heaven, and returns at once to the patience or gratitude demanded by the moment that is passing over him. But we want the man hag-ridden by the Future—haunted by visions of the imminent heaven or hell upon earth—ready to break the Enemy’s command in the present if by so doing we make him think he can attain the one or avert the other—dependent for his faith on the success or failure of schemes whose end he will not live to see. We want the whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end, never honest, nor king, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel wherewith to heap the altar of the future every real gift which is offered them in the Present.
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Screwtape’s devilish wisdom is insightful. He understands God’s goal is for us to be fixated on Eternity and the Present. To be focused on Eternity means, ultimately, to be fixated on God and on the eternal pleasures at His right hand. To be focused on the Present is to be concerned about how we can be obedient at this moment: this moment’s work of patience, thankfulness, charity, kindness, love, and selflessness.
Screwtape wants Wormwood to focus his patient on the Future, the place where nearly all vices are rooted. The Devil’s trap is to get us to place all of our happiness (our identity, our treasure, and our hope) in the possibilities of the Future, thus, creating for us a functional heaven-on-earth at which we aim. He also wants us to create a functional hell-on-earth, and then wants us to feel anxiety or fear over the possibility of seeing it some day.
Even lust is like this: The work of lust is done largely before the act of gratification. Lust looks forward to that possible gratification. Lust creates a fantasy world that leads one to pursue the gratification.
Thoughts for Reflection:
1. Have you set up a functional heaven for yourself? Next time you are at the grocery store, look at the magazine covers and see the many examples of heaven-on-earth our culture creates: having a beautiful body; celebrity fame and fortune; business success; sleeping with your “dream girl”; “I lost 50 pounds”; great vacation spots; new cars; a big house. Do you find yourself daydreaming about these things?
2. Have you set up a functional hell for yourself? What are you most afraid of happening or not happening? What do you complain about the most? (Often, our deepest frustrations will reveal what we value the most.) What is the one person or thing which, if taken from you, would ruin your life?
3. Would you say that you ‘live in the Present’? When you are working, talking, recreating, or traveling, what is on your mind? Is it what’s coming up next? Is it some future attainment? Or is it the situation at hand?
4. How could a struggle with lust be overcome by a more sincere effort to focus on the Present?