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Screwtape on Distraction


It’s Halloween season. The kids are putting on their costumes, begging for candy. The parents are sending them to bed and quietly stealing the best pieces out of their bags. (Twix? Yes, please!) Ghosts and goblins and witches decorate front lawns in every neighborhood. Most of this is innocent fun, but in our revelry we often forget that there really is a dark force at work in the world. The devil doesn’t have a pitchfork and a pointy tail, but he does exist and he aims to spread evil, suffering, sin, and death everywhere.

C.S. Lewis’ masterpiece The Screwtape Letters is an imaginative work of fiction that gets much closer to the truth than many tomes on theology proper. The book is a series of letters written from Screwtape, a senior-level demon, to his nephew Wormwood, a younger demon just starting out in the temptation business. In these letters, Screwtape dispenses advice to Wormwood on how to keep his “patient” (the Christian he has been assigned to tempt) distracted from his relationship with God. Screwtape’s advice rings as devilishly true today as ever.

…You will find that anything or nothing is sufficient to attract his wandering attention. You no longer need a good book, which he really likes, to keep him from his prayers or his work or his sleep; a column of advertisements in yesterday’s paper will do. …You can make him do nothing at all for long periods.

How much of your time is spent doing Nothing? And by this, I don’t mean the kid of restful peace that results from rejecting busyness. I mean the fruitless wasting of time spent staring at a screen, or the idleness of procrastination, or doing anything at all besides engaging with God. Our society is built to distract us from the things that truly matter, and it takes a certain strength of will to resist the temptation to “do nothing at all for long periods.” Screwtape tells Wormwood what happens if we fail to fight this temptation.

All the healthy and out-going activities which we want him to avoid can be inhibited and nothing given in return, so that at least he may say, as one of my own patients said on his arrival down here, ‘I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.’ The Christians describe the Enemy as one ‘without whom Nothing is strong’. And Nothing is very strong: strong enough to steal away a man’s best years not in sweet sins but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why. …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.

Why would the devil spend so much time and energy turning you into an evil person when getting you to stare at your phone for hours upon hours is just as effective? The devil doesn’t need to make you bad if he can keep you distracted. As Screwtape concludes, “The safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”

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