Screwtape on Humility

Name and Place for Tuesday, 13 January 2015


The Screwtape Letters is a satirical novel authored by C.S. Lewis, being drafted as a collection of letters from a senior demon named Screwtapscrewtape-letterse to his nephew, Wormwood, who is a lower-ranking demon in need of a mentor. Wormwood is attempting to ensure the damnation of the man he calls his “patient”, to keep him out of the hands of “the Enemy”, who is God.

This book is incredibly convicting and insightful, not only because it exposes the subtle tactics of the devil, but also because it lays bare many tactics of our flesh, which is in conflict with the Spirit who dwells within us as believers (Galatians 5:17).

The following excerpt is a taste of Lewis’ honest and sobering observations, examining humility as one of the most misunderstood and easily compromised virtues that we long for in the Christian life.

On p. 44 Screwtape gives this advice to Wormwood:

Your patient has become humble; have you drawn his attention to the fact? All virtues are less formidable to us once the man is aware that he has them, but this is specially true of humility. Catch him at the moment when he is really poor in spirit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, “By jove! I’m being humble,” and almost immediately pride – pride at his own humility – will appear. If he awakes to the danger and tries to smother this new form of pride, make him proud of his attempt – and so on, through as many stages as you please. But don’t try this too long, for fear you awake his sense of humor and proportion, in which case he will merely laugh at you and go to bed.

But there are other profitable ways of fixing his attention on the virtue of humility. By this virtue, as by all the others, our Enemy wants to turn to man’s attention away from self to Him, and to the man’s neighbors. All the abjection and self-hatred are designed, in the long run, solely for this end; unless they attain this end they do us little harm; and they may even do us good if they keep the man concerned with himself, and, above all, if self-contempt can be made the starting point for contempt of other selves, and thus for gloom, cynicism, and cruelty.

You must therefore conceal from the patient the true end of humility. Let him think of it, not as self-forgetfulness, but as a certain kind of opinion (namely, a low opinion) of his own talents and character. Some talents, I gather, he really has. Fix in his mind the idea that humility consists in trying to believe those talents to be less valuable than he believes them to be. No doubt they are in fact less valuable than he believes, but that is not t32b5088f8bfb4b8eeffa5b8ec52a4010-1he point. The great thing is to make him value an opinion for some quality other than truth, thus introducing an element of dishonesty and make-believe into the heart of what otherwise threatens to become a virtue.

By this method thousands of humans have been brought to think that humility means pretty women trying to believe that they are ugly and clever men trying to believe they are fools. And since what they are trying to believe may, in some cases, be manifest nonsense, they cannot succeed in believing it, and we have the chance of keeping their minds endlessly revolving on themselves in an effort to achieve the impossible.

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