The Screwtape Letters and the Joy of Humility

ImageThis is the second of the responses written to the Screwtape Letters through the eyes of the angel delivering them to C.S. Lewis. The first is here. Enjoy!

Lewis has the letters, and is studying them now, from what I hear of the little news that makes it from the British front. I am currently stationed on guard duty, so I have quite a bit of free time to continue my study of the letters. I have been thinking about the fourteenth letter and the relationship between true humility and the devilish knock-off. It seems to me that dependence on present grace is the key to true humility, as the humans cannot fight temptations on their own. Screwtape’s efforts thus focus on turning the gaze of the man from God and his fellow-man toward himself. Not, mind you, how God is working in his life, or examinations of sin rooted in his heart for the purpose of killing it in repentance, but a turning that removes the eyes of the Christian from Christ to focus on himself. But like the outcome when one of the first disciples tried this upon the Galilean lake, the results of this kind of focus result in some form of a drowning. By looking at the case of the patient, it appears that the beginnings of the virtue of true humility in fallen men must always begin with the gift of repentance. The reason the devils were so afraid of the man’s repentance was because it had “none of those confident resolutions which marked his original conversion,” but depended upon grace in the present moment to avoid sin.” In other words, the repentance had such an aura of true humility that it made the man much more impervious to the devices of pride. Of course, as the man still possesses a sin nature, there is a struggle, and that is where the hope of the devils comes into play. Like Peter, if they can tempt him to take his eyes off of Christ, he will falter. I had some thoughts on the nature of one of these forms of temptation I found slightly amusing, and that led me to ponder the nature of laughter (in its rightly-ordered use) as a defense against pride, and a specific means of taking one’s eyes off of oneself. You see, when a man is being truly humble and realizes it, the chance for him to be prideful about his humility comes into play. Screwtape warns his protégé not to push this tactic too far for fear the man will catch on- and laugh. What purpose does laughter serve in temptation, but to expose the foolishness of sin, or to harden one in it? Used rightly, it will undoubtedly lead to the former. This is bad news for the devils, but good for us. I do not think this principle holds simply for resisting pride. The focus of laughter is to not take oneself too seriously, which also resists sins such as lust. Lewis himself caught on to this in his short work The Four Loves.

Man has held three views of his body. First there is that of the ascetic Pagans who called it the prison or the tomb of the soul …Then there are the Neo-Pagans, the nudists and the sufferers from the Dark Gods, to whom the body is glorious. But thirdly we have the view which St. Francis expressed by calling his body “Brother Ass.” All three may be – I am not sure – defensible; but give me St. Francis for my money. Ass is exquisitely right because no one in his senses can either revere or hate a donkey…There’s no living with it till we recognize that one of its functions in our lives is to play the part of a buffoon. Until some theory has sophisticated them, every man, woman, and child in the world knows this. The fact that we have bodies is the oldest joke there is.

In any case, the point is that laughter about one’s self seems to have a place discouraging vice and encouraging humility in those who partake of it in an ordinate way. The end goal of humility is to take one’s eyes off of themselves and look beyond, ultimately, unto God.

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