The Gentle Slope of Pessimism
I have a naked confession to make. I am a pessimist by nature. I tend to be that person who bends towards the raw character of “suck-it-up-buttercup” realism while loathing sappy inattentiveness – the type that circulates on social media and says, “The world is burning, but here are pictures of puppies to make you feel better.” Inspirational sicky-sweet quotes and being told “Everything is fine” when in fact things are not fine does nothing for me. I realize that for many flowery sentimentalities are artificial anesthetics to keep oneself from being crushed by a world gone mad, but for someone who tends to be a raw “realist”, it does little. I must be raw and honest in this, admitting it at the beginning, before discussing a topic such as pessimism of which I struggle.
I believe it can be argued with great force that our World is an utter dumpster fire. The West at large and particularly the United States is entering its twilight stage of moral, political, and cultural decline. In artistic terms, we would be somewhere between “The Consummation of Empire” and “Destruction” in Thomas Cole’s (1801-1848) The Course of Empire paintings series (1830s). We citizens of a declining West have front row seats to watch the World of our childhoods burn up in the name of security, liberation, and necessity. With global pandemics, mass forced lockdowns and vaccinations, selective conformity and censorship, economic inflation, civic laziness and greed, political ineptitude and corruption, unmitigated social violence, mass child genocide, celebrated and legislated sexual perversion, and so much more, we are witnessing, in real-time, a free people’s suicide. The Empire of Liberty we once loved is bleeding by our knives and we wonder what is happening. Our mindless, depraved, and selfish decisions are going to ring through the ages of our posterity as our sins are met upon the heads of our children and their children.
That all said, there is more to the story.
Satan Wants Hell in Us
In thinking about all the insanity occurring around us, it is easy, especially for someone like me, to just acknowledge the chaos and declare doom, praying for the asteroid. However, I was slapped with a dose of corrective conviction and much-needed realignment regarding this while reading C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. Just as a reminder, Lewis wrote this book during World War II and from the perspective of a demon named Screwtape writing advice to his underling Wormwood on how best to destroy his Christian “patient.” In one section Lewis has Screwtape gives his minion advice on how to cultivate a materialistic and pessimistic view of the world. Here is the section that struck such a chord:
The scenes [your patient] is now witnessing [of the horrors of the War] will not provide material for an intellectual attack on his faith…but there is a sort of attack on the emotions which can still be tried. It turns on making him feel, when first he sees human remains plastered on a wall, that this is “what the world is really like” and that all his religion has been a fantasy. You will notice that we have got them completely fogged about the meaning of the word “real”. They tell each other, of some great spiritual experience, “All that really happened was that you heard some music in a lighted building”; here “Real” means the bare physical facts, separated from the other elements in the experience they actually had. On the other hand, they will also say “It’s all very well discussing that high dive as you sit here in an armchair, but wait till you get up there and see what it’s really like”: here “real” is being used in the opposite sense to mean, not the physical facts (which they know already while discussing the matter in armchairs) but the emotional effect those facts will have on a human consciousness. Either application of the word could be defended; but our business is to keep the two going at once so that the emotional value of the word “real” can be placed now on one side of the account, now on the other, as it happens to suit us. The general rule which we have now pretty well established among them is that in all experiences which can make them happier or better only the physical facts are “Real” while the spiritual elements are “subjective”; in all experiences which can discourage or corrupt them the spiritual elements are the main reality and to ignore them is to be an escapist. Thus in birth the blood and pain are “real”, the rejoicing a mere subjective point of view; in death, the terror and ugliness reveal what death “really means”. The hatefulness of a hated person is “real” — in hatred you see men as they are, you are disillusioned; but the loveliness of a loved person is merely a subjective haze concealing a “real” core of sexual appetite or economic association. Wars and poverty are “really” horrible; peace and plenty are mere physical facts about which men happen to have certain sentiments. The [human] creatures are always accusing one another of wanting “to eat the cake and have it”; but thanks to our labours they are more often in the predicament of paying for the cake and not eating it. Your patient, properly handled, will have no difficulty in regarding his emotion at the sight of human entrails as a revelation of Reality and his emotion at the sight of happy children or fair weather as mere sentiment.
I was reminded by Lewis’ wisdom here, which simply echoes the greater wisdom of Scripture, that the goal of the Devil is two-fold: (a) to methodically glide us into Hell, and (b) to get Hell into us by making us believe the chaos and darkness of our world are the Ultimate Reality. It is easy to believe point (a). We all know Satan wants to take us to Hell, but it is far more difficult to realize that he also is working to make us think that the worldview of Hell (in all its weeping, wailing, darkness, and fire) is somehow the natural lasting state of the World in which we live, move, and have our being. The process of (b) comes much more methodically and subtly through repeatedly bringing before our mind's eye images of darkness and chaos (i.e. “entrails splattered on the walls”) until slowly, our joy, peace, love, and sense of the divine are withered away and replaced by anger, anxiety, defeat, and doubt.
Seeing God In The Midst Of The Fire
Satan ravenously craves our soul and one way he leeches on to it is by draining it of the dual vision of the World that we are to have. His job, and the job of his minions, is to ensure that when we see the World, we are seeing it only through the tinted lenses of the physical dimension. He wants us to see the world monochromatically, as nothing more than a bland shade of greys devoid of hues or focal points. He wants us to see the world burning without seeing the God Who is in the midst of the fire.
We must resist this temptation, even when we do not feel like resisting it. We must resist it even when it is so much easier to be eaten up with naysaying and gloom. We must resist it even when we are racked with mental and emotional fatigue and desensitization from the tsunami of idiocies and indecencies we see going on around us. By pushing back this temptation we are taking the step in acknowledging that the nightly news does not undermine the sacred providential unfolding of the Holy-Loving God Whose purposes are to refine His people for His Glory. It is an acknowledgment that this dumpster-fire of a world is not and in fact, cannot be outshined by the Luminous Nazarene who redefines its values and dismantles its idols. If you want this depicted in all its beautiful theological richness, then read Romans 8. For brevity I quote parts of it here:
13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God…23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
This entire chapter is full of richness and power. For the sake of brevity consider but a few points. First, notice that bad-stuff is a given, even in the life of those who are in Christ Jesus. This isn’t pessimism talking at this point! This is a reality of the fallen nature of a Creation that is groaning for its final redemption made manifest by the glorified Christ. The Apostle Paul asks rhetorically, “What can separate us from the love of Christ?” Then he lists examples: Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword, or death, or life? Notice that these are concrete realities experienced by Paul and the early Christians in real-time! This fact alone destroys the “live your best life now” preaching so predominate on Christian TV stations today. Earlier in the passage, Paul literally says, “We are children of God…and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (v. 17). Read it again. There is no wiggle room around this truth.
That said, this is not a cause for pessimism! On the contrary, the real tangible darkness and suffering that occurs in our world are transformed in the hearts and minds of those who find identity and security in Christ (a Christ-centered transvaluation of values if you will). Our glorification in Christ is the Reality that translates everything about our World, both good, bad, and ugly. That Reality changes how we process and live amid pain, agony, darkness, and chaos. Why? Because it reminds us that while they are real things, they are not things that can ultimately define who we are, how we are, or where we are going.
The Ultimate Reality of Christ outweighs infinitely the entire collective weight of sufferings and insanities this World can throw at us precisely because they are empty of true mass. On the scales of Ultimate Reality, they are outweighed by the infinity of God’s promises and power. Their power to control us through anxiety, despair, and hate are infinitely outmatched by the Eternity of Love, Peace, and Security found in Christ. Remember Lewis said that when we see “human remains plastered on a wall” we want to say, “that this is ‘what the world is really like’ and that all…religion has been a fantasy.” But this is an objective lie! It is a fog before our eyes blinding us to what is really Real about the World. This World is not just comprised of decaying matter or evanescent moments that we see flashing about us on the nightly news – it is permeated with the brilliant, boundless, touch of the Everlasting God Who is living, active, and moving to make us His chosen people and preparing us for Eternity in the consummation of a New Heavens and a New Earth.
Second, notice that the assurance of love transcends circumstances and is not person-centered but God-centered. Paul says that the troubles of this world, from disease to famine to demons to death, will not separate us from the love of God. He doesn’t say that these things would necessarily keep our love from separating from Him but rather that they do not separate His love from us. In short, Paul is saying, among other things, that these horrendous circumstances (martyrdom, disease, or death…etc.) do not demonstrate a lack of God’s love for us but display it. This sounds insane to our modern western ears. How could suffering display God’s love? We in the West don’t understand this. Our Health-n-Wealth blab-it-n-grab-it view of spirituality necessarily creates in us the idea that if “God is love” He will then do only good for us (as we are defining “good” as any lack of suffering or trial). We argue that only peace, healing, and success are expressions of God’s love and not war, sickness, and poverty. But what if peace, healing, and success are the very things that make us complacent and indifferent to Him? They often are if we are honest. Just ask yourself when you are most “spiritual” and attuned to the things of the Kingdom? Is it when all is well or when chaos is happening? At this point, I am reminded of the words of the Apostle Peter who said to the hellishly persecuted Christians of his time,
Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, 2 so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God. 3 For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. 4 With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you; 5 but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. 6 For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.
1 Peter 4:1-6 (ESV)
I am not exegeting all of this, but notice that in some amazingly powerful way, the Apostle Peter affirms that suffering refines us towards being a people who can cease from sin – who no longer desire sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, or lawless idolatry. Could it be that suffering, chaos, and darkness are tools through which God’s love is remaking you, me, and the Western Church as large? Could it be that He is refining us through the dumpster fire to be who He has called us to be?
The Bible teaches us that suffering is a common reality we should expect to share with Christ. The chaos and the darkness and the disease around us remind us of what is most important in life. It quickens us to the reality that this Fallen World is not our home, that we are mere sojourners in this world (1 Peter 2:11) who “have no lasting city” but rather are seeking “the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14). The chaos and the darkness and the disease we see ravaging our world, and in fact can ravage us (but by God’s unmerited grace), is a refining fire for our faith (James 1:1-2 & 1 Peter 1 & 4). This understanding helps to break down pessimism in our hearts as it reminds us that God is a God who Himself suffers (John 3:16, 1 Peter 2) and is a God Who also overcomes and is overcoming in our midst the power of darkness, disease, and disappointment by His mighty power. As the German Lutheran pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) said months before his execution by the Nazis,
“It is only by living completely in the world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman (a so-called priestly type), a righteous man or an unrighteous one, a sick man or a healthy one. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world – watching with Christ in Gethsemane.”
Third, and finally, notice that the transformative view of the present is in light of Eternity. This present age is only to be understood in light of the eternal rays of God’s everlasting love and glory. Notice that over and over Paul discusses that we are groaning, that all of Creation is groaning in fact, with a hope not yet seen of the immense glorification of our bodies and all of Creation (v. 19-25). This glory is not Sweet-By-And-By escapism but rather the permeation of an eschatological reality of glory that pierces through every aspect of life. Eternity is shining through to us, even in the darkness, whispering and reminding us with echoes in our soul that God is a God who keeps His promises – God is a God in Whom we can be assured that all injustices will be made justice, that all wrongs will be made right, that all healing will be completed, and that all joy will be made unspeakable. This age, and all its absurdities and obscenities, reminds us that everything we are going through matters and is part of the tapestry of Eternity as it molds us into the eternal agent God desires us to be. As 20th Century Swedish theologian Bishop Anders Nygren (1890-1978) said,
“Just as the present [age] is to be followed by eternity, it has already been preceded by an eternity. Only when we see our present existence set in God’s activity, which goes from eternity to eternity, do we get it in right perspective. Then man comes to see that everything that comes to the Christian in this life—and consequently the suffering of the present too—must work together for good to him.”
The craziness of this world is surrounded and penetrated by the beauty and splendor of Eternity. That should remain at the center of our minds as we watch our world unraveling around us. That, at the center of our minds, burns up indifference and pessimism and hastens us to press further and further into the heart of the Father.
 C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters in Signature Classics (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2003), pg. 272-274
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, pg. 369-370
 Anders Nygren as quoted in R. Kent Hughes, Romans: Righteousness from Heaven (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1991), pg. 161
THE GENTLE SLOPE OF FUTURISM
The humans live in time but our Enemy [God] destines them to eternity. He therefore, I believe, wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself, and to that point of time which they call the Present. For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity…. He would therefore have them continually concerned either with eternity (which means being concerned with Him) or with the Present — either meditating on their eternal union with, or separation from, Himself, or else obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, giving thanks for the present pleasure.
Our business is to get them away from the eternal, and from the Present. With this in view, we sometimes tempt a human (say a widow or a scholar) to live in the Past. But… it is far better to make them live in the Future. Biological necessity makes all their passions point in that direction already, so that thought about the Future inflames hope and fear. Also, it is unknown to them, so that in making them think about it we 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….
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 not 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 a man hag-ridden by the Future — haunted by visions of an imminent heaven or hell upon earth — ready to break the Enemy’s commands 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 a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end, never honest, nor kind, 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.
Such are the words of infernal “wisdom” dripping from the pen of C.S. Lewis’ master tempter Screwtape to his underling Wormwood. Lewis’ diabolical protagonist (or antagonist) brings up that there are two things God wants us as creatures to chiefly attend to eternity and the present. There is deep wisdom in this. It is a truism that one of the central ways the principalities and powers try to destroy our souls is by enslaving us to futurism and materialism. They want us to live our existence in a time that has yet to be in the hopes of aggravating our anxieties and ingratitude. By whatever means necessary their goal is to ensure we do not spend an adequate amount of time being reflective, contented, or joyous in the ordinary nowness of our lives. As Lewis says, they want us “hag-ridden by the Future.”
Unfortunately, far too often, the dark forces against us tend to succeed in making us time travelers. They get us to be people who are located in the present but not living in it – instead, we are thousands of miles away inhabiting our pasts and futures. This is why, for many of us, we are a people full of insecurities, fears, unforgiveness, and restlessness. The French mathematician and Christian thinker Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) put his finger on the pulse of this mode of existence when he wrote in his day,
“We never keep to the present. We recall the past; we anticipate the future as if we found it too slow in coming and were trying to hurry it up, or we recall the past as if to stay its too rapid flight. We are so unwise that we wander about in times that do not belong to us, and do not think of the only one that does; so vain that we dream of time that are not and blindly flee the only one that is. The fact is that the present usually hurts. We thrust it out of sight because it distresses us, and if we find it enjoyable, we are sorry to see it slip away. We try to give it the support of the future, and think how we are going to arrange things over which we have no control for a time we can never be sure of reaching.”
“Let each of us examine his thoughts; he will find them wholly concerned with the past or the future. We almost never think of the present, and if we do think of it, it is only to see what light it throws on our plans for the future. The present is never our end. The past and the present are our means, the future alone our end. Thus we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we are always planning how to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so.”
The last sentence deserves to be repeated, “Thus we never actually live but hope to live, and since we are always planning how to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so.” In short, Pascal is bringing to light one of the malaises of our post-modern existence: we always plan for happiness and never achieve it. Our lives are spent seeking for joy in a realm of temporal existence we are not living in yet (namely the future). It is the bane of the “One-Day-ism” syndrome. This is where we consciously or subconsciously tend to think that the future is where our happiness, security, and contentment reside. True happiness, we think, lies at the weekend, or it's when we will meet that special someone, or when that new job or promotion comes, or when we can cash into that retirement plan, or when we can catch that perfect getaway we’ve been saving up for.
Don’t misunderstand. “One-days” are not wrong or bad – they are a constant feature of hope itself. We can and should prepare, store up, and even look forward to that which is not yet. The problem comes when we assign our “one-days” the unrealistic expectation that they are without question the remedy to satiate our restless hearts. Before our one-days “whisk us away” we tend to accustom ourselves to plodding around in our piecemeal lives of mediocrity, being filled with anxiety, dissatisfaction, unforgiveness, and boredom. As a result, we live less fulfilled lives and remain spiritual anemic – and we’re very good about convincing ourselves that we aren’t when in fact we are.
The problem is we are not guaranteed one-days (James 4:13). Because of this stark realization, we need to have a transvaluation of our values and a realignment of our worldviews. Part of this comes from seeing our present differently, as Lewis points out through Screwtape. We need to begin to see the world as permeated with the rays of eternity, as a realm we can occupy with joy and contentment, and peace.
FAITH IS IN THE PRESENT TENSE
In affirming that God wants us to think of the present Lewis is not meaning we must denounce remembrance, expectation, or preparedness in our lives (for these are good and biblical), rather he is bringing to our awareness the need to soak in the present with joy, patience, and appreciation by coming to a mindfulness of the eternal that saturates it. He is reminding us that the power of faith lies now in its capacity to be merely future-directed but in its abiding transformative nowness to ignite our character and perspective of our everyday experiences (both good and bad). A.W. Tozer (1897-1963) put it this way,
“Faith in Christ is not an act to be done and gotten over with as one might get inoculated against yellow fever or cholera. The repentant sinner's first act of believing in Christ for forgiveness and eternal life is the beginning of a continuous act of believing which lasts throughout life and for all eternity.”
What Tozer is getting at (as well as Pascal and Lewis) is as biblical as it is practical: faith is an active state of existence that we are to live in. Faith is not just believing for but is the very act of believing in. Faith is not a belief extended into the future alone but is rooted in present reality that acknowledges God as a God of immanent withness or presence. Remember how the writer of Hebrews put it,
“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (11:1)
Faith is a present reality (things not seen) of the God Who is that grounds our confidence in what is not yet (things hoped for). In short, you cannot have faith that God will do unless you have an active faith that God is doing. This requires an intentional awareness of the transcendent and eternal in daily life. This is why Lewis links the present with eternity so closely. Understanding the true immanence of God in our midst, that He is with us (Immanuel), that His peace and strength and joy is with us now, changes fundamentally how we see the moment we are in rather than just maintaining us for a future that is yet to be.
ETERNITY IS BLEEDING THROUGH INTO THE ORDINARY
The practice of “living in the present” has deep Christian roots. The Psalmist told us to cast our burdens upon the Lord that He may sustain us (Psalm 55:22), which is a present-centered promise. The Apostle Paul affirmed that our outer self is wasting away but our inner self is renewed day by day (2 Corinthians 4:16). James had said we should not worry about tomorrow because of the evanescence of life and instead should rest in God’s will (James 4:13-16). Jesus Himself said we are to be a people who pray for daily bread (Matthew 6:11) and are not to be anxious about a new day but concentrate on today (Matthew 6:34).
The Biblical vision of “presentness” is not a pietistic otherworldliness of “I’ll-Fly-Away-ism”; it is not detaching ourselves from the everyday monotony and responsibilities of life, and it’s not navel-gazing or Eastern mysticism. We are being called to live in the moment but not for the moment. There is a difference. The latter is presentistic and shallow, recklessly unabandoned in wisdom or reflection. This is not what we are talking about. We are talking about a deeper reflection upon the nature of everyday experience as seen through the lens of the eternal. It is a call for us to recover the sacredness of ordinary life. To be still and know that God is God (Psalm 46:10). As one author has put it,
“The aim when we practice the present is not to learn a bunch of techniques but to learn how to live and relate to God in the here and now. Practicing the present is about living for God by living with God in the real world. The best way to practice the present is to look for the reality of God’s presence in the full and sometimes disappointing realities of ordinary circumstances.”
Life, in all its seeming mediocrity, is emblazoned with the presence of God. Eternity is bleeding through into our ordinary lives. Are we aware of this? We serve a God who is immanent. He is present with us and in us and among us. God is in the simple and God is in the grand. God is with us and among us not just before us. Really! Stop at this moment and really think on this! As theologian Thomas Oden (1931-2016) said,
“Only when one thinks of oneself as standing on the edge of either a happy or pitiable eternity does present life become meaningful and serious.”
We need to be serious about ordinary spirituality. We need to be a people that see God as more than a Sunday experience or a future God of some revival experience. We need to stop seeing God as merely a “one-day” fulfiller of greater spiritual growth or even material blessings. We need to stop seeing God as merely “Coming in the Clouds” at the expense of seeing Him in the cloudiness of life’s experiences. While He is the God of all those things, He is also the God of now! And by this, I do not mean a God of “gimme-gimme” instant gratification, miracles, and blessings (although He can). I am talking about becoming acutely aware of our immediate surroundings and ordinary everyday spirituality – i.e. what living the Christian life is when it’s not Sunday! I am talking about realizing that God is the God in our midst when we clean dishes, prepare a meal, stock the shelves, watch the kids, take a walk, pay the bills, or drive the car. When we begin to actively and consciously try to think upon and touch God in these moments, then their monotony begins to melt, and our anxiousness is undone and our ingratitude is thrown upon the altar of worship and thanks.
In closing this post (of which I but scratched the surface of this profound topic) I leave you with an extended quote from the Christian Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) who wrote long ago about being a person who is present-minded in their faith,
The one who rows a boat turns his back to the goal toward which he is working. So it is with the next day. When, with the help of the eternal, a person lives absorbed in today, he turns his back to the next day. The more he is eternally absorbed in today, the more decisively he turns his back to the next day; then he goes not see it at all…. This is the way one is turned when one rows a boat, but so also is one position when one believes…. If a person turns to the future, and especially with earthly passion, then he is most distanced from the eternal, then the next day becomes a monstrous confused figure, like that in a fairytale….
The believer is one who is present and also…a person of power…. How rare is the person who actually is contemporary with himself; ordinarily most people are apocalyptically, in theatrical illusions, hundreds of thousands of miles ahead of themselves, or several generations ahead of themselves in feelings, in delusions, in intentions, in resolutions, in wishes, in longings. But the believer (the one present) is in the highest sense contemporary with himself. To be totally contemporary with oneself today with the help of the eternal is also formative and generative; it is the gaining of eternity. There certainly was never any contemporary event or any most honored contemporary as great as eternity….
To live in this way, to fill up the day today with the eternal and not with the next day, the Christian has learned or is learning (for the Christian is always a learner) from the prototype [Christ Himself]. How did he conduct himself in living without care about the next day – he who from the first moment he made his appearance as a teacher knew how his life would end, that the next day would be his crucifixion, knew it while the people were jubilantly hailing him as king (what bitter knowledge at that very moment!), knew it when they were shouting hosannas during his entry into Jerusalem, knew that they would be shouting ‘Crucify him!’ and that it was for this that he was entering Jerusalem – he who bore the enormous weight of this superhuman knowledge every day – how did he conduct himself in living without care about the next day?... How did he conduct himself in living without care about the next day – he who was indeed not unacquainted with suffering of this anxiety or with any other human suffering, he who groaned in an outburst of pain, ‘Would that the hour had already come’?
How did he manage?.... [That answer is] He had the eternal with him in his today – therefore the next day had no power over him, it did not exist to him. It has no power over him before it came, and when it came and was the today, it has no other power over him than what was his Father’s will, to which he, eternally free, had consented and to which he obediently submitted.”
 C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters in Signature Classics (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2003), pg. 227-229
 Blaise Pascal as quoted in Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1993) pg. 74
 Faith is not merely future directed but is a present active style of living that resides in the nowness of God’s promises, grace, and truth. Consider some sources on this: J.I. Packer, “Faith” entry in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001) pg. 431-434; David L. Allen, Hebrews, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing, 2010) pg. 542-543
 John Koessler, Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2019) pg. 210
 Thomas Oden, John Wesley’s Scriptural Christianity: A Plain Exposition of His Teaching on Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), pg. 30
 Søren Kierkegaard, Christian Discourses; The Crisis and a Crisis in the Life of an Actress, ed. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997) pg. 73-76
The Gentle Slope of Prosperity
Also, Over the past several months we have been working through a series of posts entitled “The Gentle Slopes.” The central content we have been using in these posts is C.S. Lewis’ (1898-1963) The Screwtape Letters, which is a profound satirical work from the perspective of a demon named Screwtape who writes letters to his impish nephew Wormwood in the hopes of training him in the best tactics to destroy the Christian “patient” he is assigned to. Throughout the book we witness Screwtape advising his minion to utilize a variety of temptations to unravel the soul of the Christian man – such as unsavory friendships, bouts of doubt and skepticism, struggles with lust, self-centeredness, and even boredom and distraction. These sobering insights are a powerful reminder to us as believers of the infernal tactics we face in the everyday ordinariness of spiritual life.
If you have not gotten it from this series of posts, let’s make it explicit: all of life is spiritual and all of ordinary existence is saturated with eternity. This is one of the central themes that permeates Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters and stands at the heart of the Gentle Slopes series. We need to be awakened to the reality of how everyday ordinariness can become a battleground of spiritual warfare.
PROSPERITY AS ENEMY OF SPIRITUAL LIFE
Towards the end of The Screwtape Letters, the senior demon begins to worry that his minion Wormwood may be failing at his task of insnaring his patient. Even worse, Screwtape fears that his diabolic toady may allow his patient to die prematurely amid war, which would ensure his immediate assent to Heaven (C.S. Lewis wrote this when the Germans were bombing England in World War II). The senior devil, therefore, takes the initiative to write his naïve underling and remind him of the necessity to keep his patient safe from harm so more time may be given to defeating him. One of the goals of Hell, Screwtape reminds, is to make sure the Christian has a long, healthy, and prosperous life of mediocrity. He puts it like this,
[Humans] tend to regard death as the prime evil and survival as the greatest good. But that is because we have taught them to do so. Do not let us be infected by our own propaganda. I know it seems strange that your chief aim at the moment should be the very same thing for which the patient's lover and his mother are praying - namely his bodily safety. But so it is; you should be guarding him like the apple of your eye. If he dies now, you lose him. If he survives the war, there is always hope. The Enemy [God] has guarded him from you through the first great wave of temptations. But, if only he can be kept alive, you have time itself for your ally. The long, dull monotonous years of middle-aged prosperity or middle-aged adversity are excellent campaigning weather. You see, it is so hard for these creatures to persevere. The routine of adversity, the gradual decay of youthful loves and youthful hopes, the quiet despair (hardly felt as pain) of ever overcoming the chronic temptations with which we have again and again defeated them, the drabness which we create in their lives and the inarticulate resentment with which we teach them to respond to it - all this provides admirable opportunities of wearing out a soul by attrition . If, on the other hand, the middle years prove prosperous, our position is even stronger. Prosperity knits a man to the World. He feels that he is "finding his place in it", while really it is finding its place in him. His increasing reputation, his widening circle of acquaintances, his sense of importance, the growing pressure of absorbing and agreeable work, build up in him a sense of being really at home in earth which is just what we want. You will notice that the young are generally less unwilling to die than the middle-aged and the old.
The truth is that the Enemy, having oddly destined these mere animals to life in His own eternal world, has guarded them pretty effectively from the danger of feeling at home anywhere else. That is why we must often wish long life to our patients; seventy years is not a day too much for the difficult task of unravelling their souls from Heaven and building up a firm attachment to the earth…. So inveterate is their appetite for Heaven that our best method, at this stage, of attaching them to earth is to make them believe that earth can be turned into Heaven at some future date by politics or eugenics or "science" or psychology, or what not. Real worldliness is a work of time - assisted, of course, by pride, for we teach them to describe the creeping death as good sense or Maturity or Experience….
How valuable time is to us may be gauged by the fact that the Enemy allows us so little of it. The majority of the human race dies in infancy; of the survivors, a good many die in youth. It is obvious that to Him human birth is important chiefly as the qualification for human death, and death solely as the gate to that other kind of life. We are allowed to work only on a selected minority of the race, for what humans call a "normal life" is the exception. Apparently He wants some - but only a very few - of the human animals with which He is peopling Heaven to have had the experience of resisting us through an earthly life of sixty or seventy years. Well, there is our opportunity. The smaller it is, the better we must use it. Whatever you do, keep your patient as safe as you possibly can.
I do not presume in one post to exhaust the wisdom within this passage, but I wish to focus upon one major truth that permeates it: One of the greatest threats to our spiritual lives is prosperity. Arguably there are few things more capable of producing in us a indifference and lethargy to spiritual things than affluence and safety. The famed German poet and novelist Goethe (1749-1832) said,
“Everything in the world may be endured, except continual prosperity.”
How profound when you dwell on it. People can endure tremendous amounts of suffering and evil, and yet many times come out the other end reforged into a new creature full of charity, temperance, strength, and calm. But how many people have you ever read about in history, how many nations can you think of, how many individuals have you known, that have been destroyed by prosperity? My mind immediately thinks of Solomon, Rome, America, and modern lottery winners. I am reminded of one author who wrote,
“Hard times create strong men, strong men create good times, good times create weak men, and weak men create hard times.”
This sentiment is true not only with nations but individuals, and not only with the material but even more so with the spiritual. Peace and success most often are the central tools by which the Adversary births within us an anemic and apathetic soul. We hate to admit it, I hate to admit it, but if we are honest, it is the truth. When things are good, when all is well in body and soul, God is more often than not put on the back burner of priorities. He becomes an event or individual penciled into our busy schedules, or perhaps not even that. This is all very subtle of course. Very few of us would acknowledge nor bring to the frontal realms of our consciousness the idea that we think less of God when things are good versus when things are bad. Few if any of us consciously say, “You are unimportant to me God.” But again, that isn’t how spiritual warfare works most of the time. It isn’t usually blatant blasphemous rebellion; it is slow-growing seemingly “benign” indifference. Remember that spiritual decay is a slow leakage – a methodical regression of caring. It is a settledness of spirit content with in its mediocrity. Prosperity is chief in this process all too often. The English bishop and writer George Horne (1730-1792) said it this way,
“Prosperity too often has the same effect on its possessor that a calm at sea has on the Dutch mariner, who frequently, it is said, in these circumstances, ties up the rudder, gets drunk, and goes to sleep.”
What is so sad about all this is how often our western churches help inculcate in us a desire for and even expectation of prosperity. In many of our modern churches, we are preached at incessantly, unto death even, on how much God desires to give us what we want. His goal, we are told, is to bless us with unbounded health, wealth, and peace. We are told “God wants you never sick but always healed,” (even though this never happened to the Apostle Paul) and “God doesn’t want you to ever beg bread” (even though many a prophet did), and “God has promised to give you the desires of your heart (even though said desires are to be aligned to Kingdom desires). God wants all of this for us, we are taught, even though the long and marred History of the Church reveals that untold suffering and even martyrdom are at the core of the Faith. The Early Church Father Tertullian (155-220 A.D.) long ago said,
“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
Could you imagine such sentiment being stated in our modern western church settings? Now, let me just detour but for a moment at this point. Do not misunderstand. Can and does God often heal and feed and clothe his people? You bet! To think otherwise is to deny scripture and history. Can and does God answer our prayers regarding earthly desires and needs? Absolutely, as testified through the ages and the Word. But there is more to the story than this. There is an objective difference between requesting the blessings found in Christ versus demanding and expecting them. Furthermore, we tend to forget that God can and does often use struggle, suffering, and even lack for the reason to reform, refine, and realign our souls back to Him (the Book of Job, Romans 8:18, 2 Corinthians 4:17, 1 Peter 5:10, Hebrews 12:11).
Even more so, we tend to forget that there are far deeper and far grandeur levels to what qualifies "blessings" than physical safety and success. They are richer, higher, and more transcendent than just our earthy ends. That should, therefore, be our central focus when we consider "blessings." Jesus Himself taught it like this,
19 “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.
And the Apostle Paul instructed Timothy saying,
17 As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. 18 They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, 19 thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.
1 Timothy 6:17-19
Again, God can and does bless us with prosperity (and I mean this not in the sense of Bill Gates but contentment, peace, security, health, and normalcy of life) but we should stop expecting this as a guarantee. The fact is God doesn’t owe us a thing. He doesn’t have to do anything for us, and what He does is a sheer act of His grace and love. We need to get this truth and chew on it lest we be consumed with a sense of unwarranted disappointment because God is “not doing what we ask.” We should have a fortitude of faith that can declare, as Job did,
Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him
Can I declare such a thing? Can you? We better. Even more so, when you think upon it, if it is the case that God knows in His foreknowledge that prosperity would, in fact, make us indifferent and indolent spiritually, then why would He grant such requests to begin with? He would be unjust and unloving to do so. So in a very real sense, denying us prosperity can in fact be an exercise of His love and mercy for us at times. Read Job if you have any doubt, and then try out Ecclesiastes and Lamentations. But I digress.
COMFORTABLE IN A FALLEN WORLD
A major danger of prosperity is that it tends to make us desire and expect more of it, which in turn tends to become the central focus of our field of vision in life. Subtly it morphs our spiritual relationship with God into one of expectation rather than gratitude, of haughtiness rather than humility, and fickleness rather than perseverance. What can creep in is a hellish Health-n-Wealth type religion that believes that our “hard work” for God is somehow deserving of “hard work” from Him for us. Again, we won’t say this publicly or even perhaps consciously, but it can be there in the depths of our soul. God HAS TO bless me, cause I’m His! Right!? It’s this idea that if we put in a lot of mileage “doing for God” (going to church, praying, seeking Him) that He is going to “do for us” because, after all, we are His children. Right? Aren't we His little cosmic pets living on a spherical terrarium we call Earth, being fed directly by His hands and never having to be concerned with lack or want? Isn't He required to clean our litter boxes and resupply our food bowls?
Such an attitude is bred into the minds of a people who are obsessed with the idea that prosperity is defined in the narrow frame of earthly material accommodations (both body, property, and money). It is almost inconceivable to us in the West that prosperity from God can occur through suffering and even lack. It is almost inconceivable to us that prosperity can exist outside the realm of complete health and wealth. Sadly, such a view is as unbiblical as it is asinine - and it doesn't hold muster in the vast life of the Church beyond American shores, where continued suffering and slaughter is a regular recurring reality. Again, I digress.
Is it any wonder that the Scriptures are replete with cautioning us about worldly success and prosperity for fear it will distract us spiritually? In fact it is quite sobering just how much the Bible tells us about this. We are told that when we have eaten and been satisfied we tend to become proud and forget God (Deuteronomy 8:10), that confidence in riches tends to lead to gloating (Job 31), that trust in abundance versus God is evil (Psalm 52:7), that when we trust in riches we will fall (Proverbs 11:28), that abundance can lead to rebellion and blasphemy (Nehemiah 9:25), that wealth brings spiritual satisfaction and forgetfulness (Hosea 13:6), that the love of money is the root of all evil (1 Timothy 6:10), that one cannot serve God and wealth (Matthew 6:24, Luke 16:13), that wealth has a deceitfulness that chokes the Word and spiritual fruitfulness (Matthew 13), and that the desire for riches tends to plunge us into ruin and destruction (1 Timothy 6:8). There are so many more examples, but the point is made that we are creatures that all too often simply cannot handle prosperity. John Newton (1725-1807), the great 18th Century hymnist and abolitionist, spoke poignantly on such a point when he said,
“Experience testifies, that a long course of ease and prosperity, without painful changes, has an unhappy tendency to make us cold and formal in our secrete worship…. When things go on much to our wish, our hearts are too prone to say, ‘It is good to be here.’”
What Newton is getting at is a profound truth: Prosperity has this seemingly inevitable effect of making living in a fallen world more comfortable for us. Lewis echoes this by saying that prosperity tends to “knit us to the world” and produce in us “a sense of being really at home in earth.” This is so true, even in thinking in my own life! Even worse, we get to a place where we centralize our earthly abundances and begin to, as Lewis says, “believe that earth can be turned into Heaven at some future date.” In short, it has the effect of reprioritizing our values and desires towards the secular as opposed to the sacred, to see the eternal through temporality rather than the temporal through the eternal.
PUTTING PROSPERITY IN ITS PLACE
I cannot get around the need for us to have an eternal perspective in combating our struggles with prosperity. I have come to this theme on multiple occasions concerning battling other struggles, but it applies here as well. The “deceit of riches” (prosperity) happens when we slowly lose sight of eternity and focus more on the finite fulfillment with no clear focus of how they only echo the deeper Reality found in Christ we are longing for through them. Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) said it like this,
In this life there is no true and solid satisfaction, that all our pleasures are mere vanity, that our afflictions are infinite, and finally that death which threatens us at every moment must in a few years infallibly face us…. The only good thing in this life is the hope of another life, that we become happy only as we come nearer to it, and that, just as no more unhappiness awaits those who have been quite certain of eternity, so there is no happiness for those who have no inkling of it.
Pascal is not saying anything here that is not in line with Scripture. I have said this before, but it bears repeating, over and over again the Scriptures remind us to think of life through the lens of the eternal, and even death itself, for by this our souls are grounded to the Greater Beauty that truly fulfills. When we do this we realign our values and desires, we transform our views of the spiritual disciplines, and we begin to even see prosperity in a new light. The Apostle Paul declared,
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. 5 Put to death therefore what is earthly in you…
The central means by which we curb our obsessive slips into the deceits of riches is to “seek the things above.” When we think eternally, “where Christ is seated,” what we desire and pray for, how we view health and safety, what we fear and long for, transforms because it is revalued through the work and person and nature of Christ.
Before closing, I cannot help but be reminded of the wisdom of Agur in the Book of Proverbs. In chapter 30 of the book, we are given the only prayer that exists in the entire set of proverbial writings in the Bible. It just so happens that such a prayer has a major focus on prosperity. Agur declares,
7 Two things I ask of you;
deny them not to me before I die:
8 Remove far from me falsehood and lying;
give me neither poverty nor riches;
feed me with the food that is needful for me,
9 lest I be full and deny you
and say, “Who is the Lord?”
or lest I be poor and steal
and profane the name of my God.
Think of the gravity of this prayer. How many times have you heard preachers pray, “God, I pray that these people do not have too little…and do not have too much”? How many of us have ever prayed that we would not have riches as much as we pray about not having poverty? But why such a prayer? Agur affirms, for “lest I be full and deny you” oh God. Fullness comes from abundance, which in turn breeds satisfaction which in turn makes us forget the LORD – it is the loss of the eternal perspective. I wonder if it could be possible that our Health-n-Wealth obsession in America is one of the reasons our churches are so ineffective in bringing lasting spiritual change. We are so focused upon God “giving us” abundance as a sign of blessing that we forget that “giving us” lack can also be a blessing to us. If that is the case, and it is, then perhaps we need to pray that God staves His hand of riches in our lives to drive us towards Him rather than be content and full of earthly things. God help us in this.
 C.S. Lewis, Signature Classics, The Screwtape Letters (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2003), pg. 267-268
 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe as quoted in Tyron Edwards, A Dictionary of Thoughts (United States: F. B. Dickerson Company, 1908), pg. 450
 G. Michael Hopf, Those Who Remain: A Postapocalyptic Novel (Michael Hopf, 2016)
 George Horne as quoted in Tyron Edwards, A Dictionary of Thoughts (United States: F. B. Dickerson Company, 1908), pg. 451
 Tertullian, Apologeticus, L.13, (c. 197 A.D.) https://www.tertullian.org/works/apologeticum.htm
 John Newton, Letter V, Cardiphonia or, The Utterance of the Heart, vol. 2 (United Kingdom: Murray & Cochrane, 1807), pg. 22-23
 Pascal, ibid, pg. 191-192
 Consider these scriptures that deal with the evanescence of our lives and seeing life through eternity and death: 2 Samuel 14:14, 1 Chronicles 29:15, Psalm 90:12, Psalm 144:4, Job 14:1, Ecclesiastes 1:4, Isaiah 40:6, James 4:13-14. All of them call us to have a healthy understanding of death so that we may have a proper understanding of life.
The horror of the Same Old Thing is one of the most valuable passions we have produced in the human heart — an endless source of heresies in religion, folly in counsel, infidelity in marriage, and inconstancy in friendship. The humans live in time, and experience reality successively. To experience much of it, therefore, they must experience many different things; in other words, they must experience change. And since they need change, the Enemy (being a hedonist at heart) has made change pleasurable to them, just as He has made eating pleasurable. But since He does not wish them to make change, any more than eating, an end in itself, He has balanced the love of change in them by a love of permanence. He has contrived to gratify both tastes together in the very world He has made, by that union of change and permanence which we call Rhythm. He gives them the seasons, each season different yet every year the same, so that spring is always felt as a novelty yet always as the recurrence of an immemorial theme. He gives them in His Church a spiritual ear; they change from a fast to a feast, but it is the same feast as before.
Now just as we pick out and exaggerate the pleasure of eating to produce gluttony, so we pick out this natural pleasantness of change and twist it into a demand for absolute novelty. This demand is entirely our workmanship….
This demand is valuable in various ways. In the first place it diminishes pleasure while increasing desire. The pleasure of novelty is by its very nature more subject than any other to the law of diminishing returns. And continued novelty costs money, so that the desire for it spells avarice or unhappiness or both….
But the greatest triumph of all is to elevate [the] horror of the Same Old Thing into a philosophy so that nonsense in the intellect may reinforce corruption in the will…. The Enemy [God] loves platitudes. Of a proposed course of action He wants men, so far as I can see, to ask very simple questions; is it righteous? is it prudent? is it possible? Now if we can keep men asking ‘Is it in accordance with the general movement of our time? Is it progressive or reactionary? Is this the way that History is going?’ they will neglect the relevant questions. And the questions they do ask are, of course, unanswerable; for they do not know the future, and what the future will be depends very largely on just those choices which they now invoke the future to help them to make. As a result, while their minds are buzzing in this vacuum, we have the better chance to slip in and bend them to the action we have decided on. And great work has already been done.
These are words of truth uttered by a demon. Well, let me clarify, a fictional devil named Screwtape created by the indispensable C.S. Lewis (1898-1963). This excerpt is from Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters in which he takes us through the veil of spiritual warfare, from the perspective of Hell. It is as jarring as it is profound. Over the past several months we have been reading selections from this work to understand the diabolic methods by which Satan and his minions work to destroy our intimacy and passion for God’s truth and love in the daily. Within the excerpt above we learn how the devils encourage boredom and novelty as a means of driving us towards spiritual restlessness and rot.
THE VALLEY OF BLAH & THE STATE OF “I-CAN’T-WAIT-ISM”
Lewis points out that one way the Adversary works his dark magic is to perpetuate in our souls a dissatisfaction with the seeming mundanity and repetitiveness of life. He makes us swallow the lie that life is only truly lived in light of perpetual novelty. Quite often, without even physically saying, “Is this all there is?” we begin to live out loud this sentiment by having less and less purpose and joy in the everyday activities that consume most of our existence. This could be in our work, cooking, cleaning, parenting, fellowshipping, church-going, or spiritual disciplines. We can begin to see these things as weights keeping us from “truly living.” One way we, therefore, try and overcome them is to overshadow them with novelty.
We tend to become creatures who worship novelty. We extol the bright, shiny, and perhaps even edgy or bawdy as “true living” while we balk at the regular or old as enslaving or passé. Who likes vanilla anyways as opposed to the thousand and one other flavors able to titillate the taste buds? Through the novel, we believe we can ascend from the Valley of Blah to the Mountains of True Satisfaction. So, we take up some new activities (social outing, parties, classes, services) or new gadgets (iPhone, computer, gaming system, car), or new amusement (social media, movies, video games, sports) in the hopes it will ignite into reality our deepest fantasies and desires at the expense of the black-and-white malaise of “Real Life.”
Let me make this flesh and bone for a moment.
Consider seasons for example. Very often we are a people who are never pleased with the season we are in. When we are in the Summertime, we speak of yearning for Fall and Winter (“I can’t wait for sweater weather & pumpkin spice!”), and yet when we are in Fall or Winter we wistfully dream of Summer (“I can’t wait for pool weather and cookouts!”). When we are in Thanksgiving Season we shop for Christmas and when we are at Christmas we prepare for Valentine's. It seems that while we are living in the moment we longed for we are never pleased. What does this say about us?
Or consider how we do our entertainment. We tend to obsess over upcoming or new releases. We exclaim, “I can’t wait until they release X!” or “That is the greatest Y ever!” (insert movie, song, game, gadget…etc.). Our commercial and trailer culture only perpetuates this behavior in us. Funny thing is, the release comes, we consume it (or even binge it) and it is awesome…until it’s not. We will then repeat the cycle when the new stream of trailers releases to ignite our curiosities.
Or even consider our jobs and careers. We tend to skip from one venue to the next, rarely enjoying where we are at even when we chose it at the expense of previous preferences. Rapidly the new environment and colleagues become old, showing their warts and “true selves,” and we thus begin seeking yet another venue in which to win our bread and butter. Even amid our careers, in the monotony of daily loads, we exclaim the desire for the novel: “I can’t wait to get out of this place,” or “I can’t wait for the weekend,” or “I can’t wait for a vacation,” or “I can’t wait for retirement.” Again, we seem to be unpleased with being pleased.
In all these examples we are living in a state of “I-can’t-wait-ism” which lays within the quest for novelty. It is a state we live in as we go through the Valley of Blah (which is just another name for regular everyday living). We seem to be incapable of ever really being at rest in the things we do, even when we are doing the things we wanted to do in the first place.
The great malady in all this is the fact that all the gadgets, activities, new venues, and amusements we ingest tend to have a lesser and lesser appeal the longer we plod upon this narrow globe. What is happening is we are succumbing to what Lewis called “the law of diminishing returns.” The allurement of “the new” quickly devolves into the “blah” as we oscillate from moments of emotional high and low which are shackled to the contingencies of events and people. As a result of all this, what do we do? We keep repeating. We are like gerbils on a ceaseless wheel of filling our lives with more and more activities, gadgets, and amusements in the hopes they will bring us out of “blah” only to find that they lead us to “blah” which in turn makes us seek even further amusements.
OUR RELENTLESS QUEST TO BE RESTLESS
We post-modern westerners are especially susceptible to the Law of Diminishing Returns. Consider for example our accessibility to movies and entertainment (something I enjoy and therefore have thought about personally in my life). In 1950 there were less than 100 television channels, today there are close to 2,000. In 1990 there were no streaming video services, today there are about 200 with over 70,000 movies and shows just on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. On Steam (a video game digital distribution service) in 2008 there were around 200 games available, today there are over 10,000. Around 1990 there were around 150 video games released annually, today there are close to 6,000. However, amid this tsunami of amusement available to us we have less and less sustainable wonder and joy in our consuming. We mindlessly search for "something to watch" only to say "nothing is on." Or we flip something on in the background, not caring about what it is, while we flip through our phones to find one bout of idiocy after another on Tiktok. What does all this say about us as a people? Have you not experienced the feeling that movies and the games and the shows “aren’t what they used to be”? Why do we tend to think this? And yet this sentiment seems somewhat pervasive as we seem less and less able to sustain excitement or interest in new releases. Is our more somehow becoming less to us? Is it any wonder we are obsessed with retro things (from Dunkaroos to windbreakers to 2D gaming) and seeking to grasp at the wonder and joys we experienced as kids? There is a post waiting to be written just on this topic, but I digress.
I will not give more stats nor belabor the point for fear we will go off focus but suffice to say enough ink has been spilled in the world of philosophy and psychology to show us that we post-moderns seem to be suffering from a strange malady of “boredom” that did not really exist in previous generations. Think on that for but a moment. How quickly do you end up saying, “I am bored,” in-between one pursuit and another? How quick are you to need some activity or sound to tantalize your senses so you feel fulfilled or don’t have to think? Again, in asking these questions, I cannot but be reminded of when the French mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) remarked,
“All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
Why is this? Well, a full-orbed discussion will go beyond the confines of this post but suffice to say that one central element at play is our loss of purpose and meaning in life. We have little peace or contentment in our hearts and minds because we do not really have a sense of who we are, what we are to do, and how we are to live. Part of all this lies in what great thinkers through the centuries have coined “human restlessness,” which is this inability to find a sense of peace and security in our souls. As a result, we fill our lives with novelties, noise, and nonsense in the hopes they will stimulate our indifference to life. But they don’t, they just aggravate it. Pascal piercingly revealed this problem rising in his day (which is unduly exacerbated in our own time) saying,
[People] think they genuinely want rest when all they really want is activity.
They have a secret instinct driving them to seek external diversion and occupation, and this is the result of their constant sense of wretchedness. They have another secret instinct, left over from the greatness of our original nature, telling them that the only true happiness lies in rest and not in excitement. These two contrary instincts give rise to a confused plan buried out of sight in the depths of their soul, which leads them to seek rest by way of activity and always to imagine that the satisfaction they miss will come to them once they overcome certain obvious difficulties and can open the door to welcome rest.
All our live passes in this way: we seek rest by struggling against certain obstacles, and once they are overcome, rest proves intolerable because of the boredom it produces. We must get away from it and crave excitement.
We think either of present or of threatened miseries, and even if we felt quite safe on every side, boredom on its own account would not fail to emerge from the depths of our hearts, where it is naturally rooted, and poison our whole mind.
Man is so unhappy that he would be bored even if he had no cause for boredom, by the very nature of his temperament, and he is so vain that, though he has a thousand and one basic reasons for being bored, the slightest thing, like pushing a ball with a billiard cue, will be enough to divert him.
How raw and in your face. We are a people, Pascal says, that never rest and in fact despise rest – and by rest Pascal is speaking not of sleep but a serenity of spirit and a capacity to soak in silence and peace. Why do we do this? Pascal asserts it is because we hate to think of “our wretchedness.” In other words, we hate to come face to face with ourselves or our situations, so we cover up the mirror of our souls with a million little mice to divert deep reflection. But again, these diversions only satiate but for a time, until we are resolved to find further venues of contentment, which in turn do not fulfill. It’s the gerbil on the wheel. Ad infinitum.
OUT OF THE CYCLE OF PERPETUAL NOVELTY
Once again, let me do an addendum before I close this post. There is nothing in what is said here that asserts it is somehow inherently wrong to desire taking up a new activity or a trendy gadget or to enjoy a new amusement. To walk away with such a notion is to miss the point entirely. The goal is to get us to stop for once and think about what we consume, what we desire, and how we are viewing our lives; it is to draw us towards reflecting on where we perch our real contentment and joy.
That said, we need a way forward through the Valley of Blah. As always, I do not presume to give be-all-end-all solutions to addressing our maladies, but I think part of the way out of the Valley is to come to terms with the fact that the valley is itself a place where joy and satisfaction can be found. In short, we need to see the Valley of Blah with fresh eyes. Part of the release from the seeming monotony of the every day is to see that monotony as part of the cadence of human existence – there is monotony in novelty and there is a novelty in the monotony. The Preacher of Ecclesiastes put it much better than I can. He wrote it like this:
2 Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
3 What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
4 A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
5 The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
and hastens to the place where it rises.
6 The wind blows to the south
and goes around to the north;
around and around goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
7 All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.
8 All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
9 What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us.
11 There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after.
12 I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 14 I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.
And yet after saying all of this he goes on to say by chapter 3,
9 What gain has the worker from his toil? 10 I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 12 I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; 13 also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God's gift to man.
There is so much goodness in these passages, but time fails me to do full exegesis. Suffice to say, life is a dance of permanence and change and change becoming permanence. Lewis called this “Rhythm,” that union of difference and durability which is at the heart of our existence as created beings. When we come to see what the function of “toil” and “business” and “everyday life” is – that it has the heartbeat of eternity – we come to be freed from feeling enslaved in it. Our enslavement comes from our inadequate view of what life should be instead of coming to see it as it is. Nothing lasts and everything that comes is really just a rehashing. “Vanity of vanity, all is vanity.” This is life.
We have got to get to the place that we embed within our philosophy of life the truth that “God has made everything beautiful in its time” as the Preacher said. The doing good, the eating, the drinking, and yes, even the toil, is “beautiful in its time” and is “a gift from God.” How could this be? The every day and the seemingly mundane, as well as the experiences of the novel, all have the embers of eternity in them. They are not eternity but they reveal it to us. Through them, they show us what it means to be a creature, what it means to need to find the Ultimate Rest for our restless souls that are found not in them, but perhaps, however faintly, through them in God Himself.
The Preacher of Ecclesiastes and a whole lot of great thinkers and sages through the ages have told us the same message: Stop thinking your happiness and satisfaction rests in the novel. It doesn’t. It can’t. That which is new becomes old and that which is old repeats itself. This is your life. To crave infinite newness to satiate your restless soul is to remain infantile in your perspective on life; it is to be stunted into a pubescent soul that is enslaved to people and things. Find your rest in the One in Whom there is no change and there you find true living amid the ordinary.
 C.S. Lewis, Signature Classics, The Screwtape Letters (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2003), pg. 257-259
https://www.foxbusiness.com/technology/how-many-movies-on-netflix; https://www.diffen.com/difference/Hulu_vs_Netflix#:~:text=Hulu's%20original%20series.-,Size,shows%2C%20and%20over%202%2C500%20films; https://www.businessinsider.com/what-is-prime-video#:~:text=The%20streaming%20service%20has%20roughly,channels%20with%20Prime%20Video%20Channels.
 Consider some philosophical reflection on the concept of “boredom” by Wendell O’Brien, Boredom, A History of Western Philosophical Perspectives from Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://iep.utm.edu/boredom/. Also consider these scientific studies on boredom: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/media-spotlight/201703/bored-in-the-usa; https://www.sciencenews.org/article/social-distancing-boredom-covid-19-public-health-pandemic; https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/11/191119123750.htm;
 I cannot find the exact source for this but I believe it is in his Pensées
 I would suggest considering some of these great thinkers who have discussed human restlessness: Saint Augustine, Confessions, Book 1 in particular; Blaise Pascal, Pensées, particularly section “VIII. Diversion;” Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Volume II, Part II, Chapter XIII and Volume II, Part III, Chapter XVI. Also consider a discussion on this topic in Paul Rahe, Soft Despotism, Democracy's Drift Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009). I would also recommend: Peter Busch’s article “Modern Restlessness, from Hobbes to Augustine” from Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute (www.mdpi.com/journal/religions)
 Blaise Pascal, Pensées (New York, NY: Penguin Classics, 1995), pg. 40
 Consider the previous post I did called The Gentle Slope of Relentless Noise, (https://www.faithunderstood.com/articles/the-gentle-slope-of-relentless-noise)
Have you ever noticed that “Mine” is often one of the first words a child learns to say? It does not take much coaxing for a kid to gain a sense of ownership over anything their eyes see or hands touch. With grunts, screams, and tears they try and conquer claims to anything around them – from sippy cups to teddy bears to Cheerios to mommies and grandads. Such behavior may seem “cute” but often it follows us into adulthood. The same inherent toddleresch attitude of self-centeredness tends to tint our view of the world. We inherently and subconsciously tend to see ourselves as masters of the universe, the arbiters of our own choices, and the proprietors of our fate. But the fact is we are not any of these and the sad thing is we do not get that truth very often.
But one must ask if such a way of seeing the world is all that surprising. Consider but for a moment our culture which is obsessed with self-help hyper-individualism and relativistic moral autonomy. From cradle to grave we postmodern Americans are inundated with waves of commercials, slogans, movies, music, and technologies that melt our minds and hearts into seeing the Cosmos as our personal sandbox. We have an embarrassment of food, clothing, and home goods chains that allow us to personalize everything from calories to underwear to coffee tables. We are told via boob tubes and billboards that we can “Have it your way,” and to “Just Do It,” and to do it “Because You’re Worth It.” We tend to grow up coddled with endearments such as “princess” and “little CEO” while being told we need to “do what makes us happy.” We go to schools that teach us to “take hold of our destinies” and “be what we want to be.” We even go to churches where most often the focus of the sermons and songs are upon what God is going to do for us and how we are going to overcome this or that personal problem with self-help tips from Jesus. Atop of all this lies countless trinkets and technologies that titillate our vanity, from iPhones to iPads to iPods to iTunes to iClouds, upon which we can customize avatars, wallpapers, and ring tones and ingest avalanches of personalized entertaining videos and games.
If you do not see a trend let me point it out to you: Our whole westernized life is deluged with the omnipotence and omnipresence of “self.” Everything in our existence, from career to family to church, is constantly instilling in us a view of life with “I” at the center.
Now, let me pause lest I be misunderstood. I am not saying there is anything inherently wrong with calling your child “princess” any more than it's wrong to have an iPhone or prefer the veggie option. I’m also not saying there isn’t something deeper working its magic through these things. That said, I think it can be said clearly that we as a species are not very vigilant to reflect upon the sea in which we swim. It is amidst tsunamis of self-focused nicknames, gadgets, food, and entertainment that our soul’s habitation is formed.
This may sound ridiculous, but the fact is there is but a hop, skip, and jump to go from “My Cheerios” and “My MiMi” to “My Body” and “My Sex Life.” We need to realize this.
We need to look around our world and ask hard questions. Why am I not where I should be spiritually? Why is my faith life – the spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible reading, meditation, worship, silence, and charity – so difficult to live? Behind these questions lie deeper questions still. Hard questions. Could it be I am not growing spiritually because there is too much “I” in the process of growing? Could it be I am not as spiritually mature because I am set up for spiritual failure by a culture that is inherently antithetical to spiritual discipline? Could it be I have been swaddled by my schools and churches and families into a state of cosmic egotism by which I inherently find it even more difficult to crucify myself for Christ?
If we ever hope to break through the veil that fogs our minds from deeper intimacy with God, if we ever hope to mature spiritually in any meaningful way, then we need to consider our own chains. We need to take seriously the shrewd methods by which the Adversary of our soul crafts the elements of life to destroy our love and worship for God and Christs' community.
C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) once again brings forth poignantly such truth through the mouth of the senior devil Screwtape when he writes to Wormwood about inculcating in his patient a sense of self-possession about life. This is how the devil writes,
Men are not angered by mere misfortune but by misfortune conceived as injury. And the sense of injury depends on the feeling that a legitimate claim has been denied. The more claims on life, therefore, that your patient can be induced to make, the more often he will feel injured and, as a result, ill-tempered…. You must therefore zealously guard in his mind the curious assumption "My time is my own". Let him have the feeling that he starts each day as the lawful possessor of twenty-four hours….
You have here a delicate task. The assumption which you want him to go on making is so absurd that, if once it is questioned, even we cannot find a shred of argument in its defense. The [fact is the] man can neither make, nor retain, one moment of time; it all comes to him by pure gift; he might as well regard the sun and moon his chattels….
The sense of ownership in general is always to be encouraged. The humans are always putting up claims to ownership which sound equally funny in Heaven and in Hell and we must keep them doing so. Much of the modern resistance to chastity comes from men's belief that they "own" their bodies - those vast and perilous estates, pulsating with the energy that made the worlds, in which they find themselves without their consent and from which they are ejected at the pleasure of Another! It is as if a royal child whom his father has placed, for love's sake, in titular command of some great province, under the real rule of wise counsellors, should come to fancy he really owns the cities, the forests, and the corn, in the same way as he owns the bricks on the nursery floor.
We produce this sense of ownership not only by pride but by confusion. We teach them not to notice the different senses of the possessive pronoun - the finely graded differences that run from "my boots" through "my dog", "my servant", "my wife", "my father", "my master" and "my country", to "my God". They can be taught to reduce all these senses to that of "my boots", the "my" of ownership. Even in the nursery a child can be taught to mean by "my Teddy-bear" not the old imagined recipient of affection to whom it stands in a special relation (for that is what the Enemy will teach them to mean if we are not careful) but "the bear I can pull to pieces if I like". And at the other end of the scale, we have taught men to say "My God" in a sense not really very different from "My boots", meaning "The God on whom I have a claim for my distinguished services and whom I exploit from the pulpit - the God I have done a corner in".
And all the time the joke is that the word "Mine" in its fully possessive sense cannot be uttered by a human being about anything. In the long run either Our Father or the Enemy will say "Mine" of each thing that exists, and specially of each man. They will find out in the end, never fear, to whom their time, their souls, and their bodies really belong - certainly not to them, whatever happens….
Lewis penetratingly reveals to us the fiendish ways of how possessiveness can begin to take hold in our lives. It drives us down a path to seeing everything in life within the vacuum of self. We become like the Greek mythical character Narcissus who became obsessed with looking upon his own beauty in the reflective waters to the point of death. For us, life becomes the reflecting pool and everything we see in it centers upon our reflection. As Lewis points out this is subtle. We can go from “my teddy bear” to “my time” to “my money” to “my property” to “my body” to “my talents” to “my church” to “my God” in the same vein. Lewis is not talking about mere possessive pronouns here; he is talking about the intentions and habits of our souls to inherently see life as owed to us and as our personal property. He is showing us that we love to be cosmic conquistadors who stake claims to every realm of existence without any regard of fealty to the Cosmic Liege, God Himself.
When we act this way, we are failing to recognize this deflating truth: we don’t own anything. Full stop. Let that deflate your post-modern senses. We don’t own our talents, time, or even our own lives for that matter. Everything is under the auspices of the Creator God. But we hate this idea, and our culture helps inculcate within us a seeping revulsion towards it. Peter Kreeft (1937-present) has said it like this,
“We carry around with us our own false perspective, our own human ego as the center, the absolute so that everything else, even God, must become ‘mine’…. Reality is theocentric, not anthropocentric. God announces [this] truth when he announces his own name to Moses: ‘I AM WHO I AM’ (Ex 3:14). The fact that we naturally begin our sentences with the word ‘I’ shows whose place we instinctively usurp.”
Consider once again: reality is theocentric, not anthropocentric. Do you get this? Chew on it. This is a life modifying sentence. God has exclusionary rights to everything in existence. He is the only “I AM” and we are His “you.” All of Creation is a donation. As David declared,
The earth and everything in it, the world and its inhabitants, belong to the Lord
God Himself declared to Ezekiel that,
Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine
And the Apostle Paul went on the say,
For everything was created by Him, in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities— all things have been created through Him and for Him.
Because of this truism, we must come to terms that we are not owners but stewards of life. We are stewards of time, money, property, talents, possessions, and even children. As stewards, this means we are to cultivate what we possess with wisdom and diligence for the central goal of offering back in worship to Him who gave these things in the first place. As the Word says,
You are not your own, for you were bought at a price. Therefore glorify God in your body.
1 Corinthians 6:19-20
And the Apostle Peter went on to say,
Based on the gift each one has received, use it to serve others, as good managers of the varied grace of God.
1 Peter 4:10
Notice that in these passages the prerequisite to right service and worship towards God and others is a right understanding that all is a gift received. When we begin to see life through the reflection of self-giving stewardship instead of egocentric possessiveness those enslaving powers of possession are broken off us. In short, in a strange set of affairs, we become freer as we become more aware of how little we control. Consider some practical examples of this:
When you see talents as your personal possession, they tend to either overwhelm you or stagnate into ill-use. They can overcome you by demanding you drive harder and harder to succeed in them, only to be left with squelched passion and crushing insecurity or inadequacy. They can stagnate by seeing no need to work hard to enrich themselves for service towards God and others.
But when you see your talents as a gift from God, they become a beauty and joy to hone and craft and offer back to Him upon the altars of sacrifice. The demands of them are lightened while the cultivation of them is honed, both because of a focus upon worship towards the One Who gave them.
When you see children as your personal possession, they will crush you with their life choices or you will crush them with your demands. You will be torn asunder when they fail to be what you wanted them to be because in some way you laid claim to their lives. On the other end, they will run roughshod over you as you sacrifice every element of time, energy, and opinion to their personal happiness and security.
But when you see children as gifts from God, you come to hand them over to His service and not your own purposes. Your goal for their life becomes not one of perpetual happiness or good opinion of you but Truth and Love found in the lover of their souls. You begin to focus less upon you living your desires through them and allow God to cultivate in their souls the dispositions necessary for His purposes in the Kingdom.
When you see the church as your personal possession, you will become bitter and burned out while serving within it or be indifferent towards supplying it with anything but mere opinions. You will expunge your time, energy, and money to make the church your second home, only to become overwhelmed and underappreciated by those who benefit. Turned the other way you will demand the church be a vending machine of preferences which will offer you certain types of worship (contemporary vs hymns) with certain types of sermons (self-help vs. hellfire) amid certain types of people (black vs. white, young vs. old) all before you will consider giving your money or time or talents.
But when you see the church as a gift from God, you will joyfully serve with others for the purpose of loving God. The church house becomes a place not defined by personalities or preferences but by the presence of the Holy Spirit, Who is refashioning a diverse body of believers into the likeness of Christ for the work of the Gospel. As a result the focus isn’t upon style but substance and truth over preference.
When you see money as your personal possession, there will never be enough saved up nor enough to indulge in. You will weaponize money through tithes or inheritance or bills to control others or the future, only to realize when you die nothing goes with you. Or, on the other extreme, you will unthoughtfully expunge your wealth on self-focused frivolities, only to have growing stacks of unpaid expenses.
But when you see money as a gift from God, it transforms your view and usage of it. You give with unabandoned cheerfulness and sincerity of heart with no strings attached while at the same time yearning to preserve and expand your wealth for the benefits of the present and future.
When you see time as your personal possession, you will selfishly guard it against any inconvenience or recklessly waste it on various trivialities. You will snarl over any possibility of sacrificing your time to charity, the church, service, or spiritual disciplines for fear there won't be enough left over to do what you want to do. Or, on the flip side, you will thoughtlessly expunge your time with endless hours of games, movies, Tiktoks, Youtube vids, and Instagram posts without any regard to using it towards more productive ventures.
But when you see time as a gift from God, you begin to focus upon managing it with greater intentionality. Time begins to be seen through the lens of eternity; it is a precious commodity you will sacrifice for God as a reasonable act of worship. You will purposefully decide to spend time and serve with those people and in those moments that matter the most in the eternal scheme of your life and theirs.
In all of these examples, the life-altering principle at work is understanding that we don’t own anything. God is the owner of all. When we get this, when we truly understand this, we are on our way to breaking the shackles of possessive proclaiming that so easily finds its nest in our hearts and minds.
For everything was created by Him, in heaven, and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities— all things have been created through Him and for Him.
 C.S. Lewis, Signature Classics, The Screwtape Letters (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2003), pg. 245-247
 Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascals Pensées (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 1993), pg. 163
While the radio, the television, the computer, and the iPhone stand as some of the grandest scientific advancements in the history of humanity they also are some of the most effective breakthrough tools ever made for advancing the powers of Hell. Because of these devices our world is now incessantly and irreversibly filled with noise. Silence has gone the way of the dodo bird and western civilization courses. There is almost no square inch of our daily lives that is not now consumed with a buzz or a hum or a ding of an email, phone call, or entertainment device.
These things are changing our souls and bodies. The famous French mathematician, philosopher, and apologist Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) once remarked,
“All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
This is a solid truism. Our inability to sit and think or meditate for any significant amount of time reveals our fear of dealing with ourselves in any significantly intimate way. Study after study proves that we are less capable of being at peace or in solitude than previous generations. To date it has been shown that we have shorter attention spans than goldfish do, we have higher levels of attention disabilities than ever before, and we have a woeful capacity to retain basic content information. For example, in a series of 11 studies conducted by the University of Virginia, it was found that the vast majority of people between the ages of 18 to 77 could not spend a minimum of 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think – even if they were receiving a mild electric shock. In another study, it was found that while 95% of us can find time to do leisure activities over 83% could spend zero time just sitting and thinking. These statistics reveal a sickness within our post-modern souls.
We have gotten to the place that silence terrifies us. The late great Dallas Willard (1935-2013) said of silence,
“[S]ilence is frightening because it strips us as nothing else does, throwing us upon the stark realities of our life. It reminds us of death, which will cut us off from this world and leave only us and God.”
Because of this fear we fill the silence with the distractions of incessant activities and entertainment. The problem is there is never enough of these, and we must therefore invent and consume more and more.
We can do this and not even realize we are doing it!
Consider a regular day you have and how much noise you consume. It may go something like this: You wake up and grab your cellphone to check the news or watch a few trending videos sent to you the night before. You get out of bed, get dressed, and make breakfast all the while watching the television or listening to the radio. You leave for work or school, get in your car, and turn on the radio or plug in your earbuds. You get to work and sit down to a screen for 7 to 9 hours with intermittent moments of music and/or videos playing in the background all day. You go to lunch, get a quick meal, surf your phone, and watch more videos or listen to music. You then go back to work, finish out the day, and drive home while listening to music from your iPod or radio. You get home, make dinner, and sit down to unwind all the while watching the television or listening to the radio or both while at the same time messaging on Facebook or surfing Instagram. After dinner you get ready for bed, surf on the apps on your phone a few more hours, or fall asleep to the television. You wake up and repeat the process. Sound familiar?
In time this kind of living slowly, unknowingly, drowns out the capacity to hear what God is saying in His still small voice (Zephaniah 1:7; Zechariah 2:13) much less to understand one’s self or neighbors in any meaningful way. This slow death of solitude on the Altars of Clatter inevitability leads us to have less emotional stability (because we always have to have others cheering us up), far more shallow relationships (because of our inability to talk with spouses or loved ones intimately), and far more mediocre spiritual growth (because we have less and less consistency in Bible reading or prayer).
HELL DELIGHTS IN NOISE & FEARS SILENCE
C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) The Screwtape Letters makes the point well through the mouth of the hellish Screwtape when he schools his nephew demon Wormwood on the power and goal of noise in the works of Hell. Screwtape’s correspondence to the minor demoniac is as such,
“Music and silence—how I detest them both [Wormwood]! How thankful we should be that ever since Our Father [Satan] entered Hell—though longer ago than humans, reckoning in light-years, could express—no square inch of infernal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise—Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile—Noise which alone defends us from silly qualms, despairing scruples, and impossible desires. We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. We have already made great strides in this direction as regards the Earth. The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down in the end. But I admit we are not yet loud enough, or anything like it. Research is in progress.”
Satan and his minions love our souls stunted. One effective way to do this is to ensure we never take time to stand with our soul naked in solitude and stillness before our mind's eye or before the presence of God. Instead, he likes us bunkered down in our souls, perpetually bombarded in our senses with an incessant clatter so we never find true peace.
Noise is an opiate of the masses. It dulls us and makes it impossible for us to come to terms with ourselves and to listen for God in any sustained intimate attentiveness.
Amid the incessant clamor of social media personalities, political pundits, TikToks, and memes is it any wonder that sitting to pray, meditate, or even read the Scripture for a sustained period is excruciatingly difficult for us? From cradle to grave we live in a cacophony of distractions muddling our attention spans and mental dexterity and aggravating our cravings for the ever-shinier and catchier. Hell rejoices in this.
SEEKING & FINDING SOLITUDE
One problem we have regarding silence is how we view it. We tend to think of it as the absence of anything; it is the absence of doing. It is not. Silence is an activity and discipline which is an endeavor of profound nurturing and rejuvenation of the soul.
The discipline of silence helps limit distractions in our prayer, meditation, and scripture reading; it brings a deeper focus in worship; it revivifies the body and the mind; it realigns our spiritual perspective; it helps us domesticate our mouth and thoughts; it helps us understand more clearly the will of God. But how do we achieve such silence in this busy world? This is difficult to do (or seemingly difficult to do) in the hustle and bustle of our lives filled with work and extra-curricular activities. I will not give a long list but consider some of these ways:
First and foremost, you must get to a place that you say “No” to other things. This is the hardest battle. You must get to a place that you say no to additional responsibilities and disturbances. Say “No” to the television, to the radio, to the iPad, to the iPhone, and the computer. You must say “No” to taking on more and more obligations that suck away more and more time from you and God. Is your job sucking away additional time? Then say no to more hours. Are your kids’ extra-curricular activities sucking more and more opportunities for you to have peace in the presence of the King? Then consider cutting back on how many activities your kids will be part of.
You will find time and make time for those things you deem the most valuable in your life! An overscheduled, overworked, individual will never find the time nor make the time to spend with God.
Second, realign some of the opportunities of alone time you already have towards solitude with God. Many of us have periods throughout our day or week when we have “downtime.” This could be a day off, a period of cleaning the house, an extended lunch break, arriving early or leaving early from work, or a commute to and from work in the car. In each of these, there is time we have that we do not realize. We tend to fill these “downtimes” with incessant quantities of noise – Tiktoks, Youtube videos, and radio music. Instead, allow periods like this to be an intimate meeting house of meditation and prayer and listening to God. Allow this time to be a period of refreshing and peace, a period of conviction of sins known and unknown, and a time of clarity of purpose in mind and heart.
Third, and finally, try and go somewhere physically to be alone for a time. This can be going on a walk-in nature, sitting in a park, taking a drive, going to the empty church, retreating into a room in the house, or even getting up earlier before everyone else. I realize this can be difficult if one has small children. Perhaps in such instances, the husband or wife can rotate such a schedule to allow the other to go off alone at periods to be with God while the other cares for the kids. Is this impossible? Well, be reminded of Susanna Wesley (1669-1742), the mother of the famous evangelist's John and Charles Wesley, who had at least nine children living in her home at one time! She took care of all of them upon her own accord and yet she still found time for solitude. Her sons remembered her practice of solitude in which she would throw her apron over her head like a tent of meeting before the presence of God. When this happened all the children in the house grew silent and did not disturb her, knowing she was meeting God in prayer and silence. Would we be able to get our kids today to respect our time with the Lord like this? If not, then what does that tell us?
We make time for babysitters to watch our kids when we go on a date, or we have our spouses cover when we have a boy's or girl's night out? We rearrange schedules all day long to ensure we will have time for the family cookout or a run to Dairy Queen on a Sunday evening, but what about scheduled time with the Almighty? Why not the same effort and desire when it comes to being with God alone and in silence? I believe the answer is we do not see this as important.
Dear friends, let us strive to recover the ancient Christian discipline of silence. It is such a discipline by which our souls are nurtured and we come to hear our God speak His words of wisdom that quiet our restless souls.
Jesus Himself demonstrated the beauty of silence repeatedly in His earthly ministry. He would go into the wilderness alone (Matthew 4), He would leave large crowds of people and flee into the mountains (Matthew 14), He would rise early in the morning and go out into the wilderness (Mark 1), and He would depart from the masses constantly seeking Him out (Luke 4). He did all of this that He could grow in His intimacy with God. He understood that through solitude and silence His Father would give Him the power and wisdom to live abundantly the spiritual life.
Let us follow the Way of our Master.
1For God alone my soul waits in silence;
from him comes my salvation.
2 He alone is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress; I shall not be greatly shaken.
 I cannot find the exact source for this but I believe it is in his Pensées
 Data on these points: https://www.digitalinformationworld.com/2018/09/the-human-attention-span-infographic.html; https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/apr/16/got-a-minute-global-attention-span-is-narrowing-study-reveals; https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/04/190415081959.htm
 Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines (New York, NY: HarperOne, 1991), pg. 163
 C.S. Lewis, Signature Classics, The Screwtape Letters (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2003), pg. 249-250
 An excellent discussion on the importance of silence and solitude came be read in Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, revised edition (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2014) pg. 226-238; also consider C.W. McPherson, Keeping Silence: Christian Practices for Entering Stillness (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse, 2002)
 I would also recommend reading in some more detail about various ways of silence and solitude in: Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, revised edition (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2014) pg. 238-248
Saint Augustine (354-430 A.D.), the great ancient philosopher and theologian of the Christian Church, wrote nakedly in his Confessions about a period of his life in which he faced spiritual apathy. He said,
“I was astonished that although I now loved you…I did not persist in enjoyment of my God. Your beauty drew me to you, but soon I was dragged away from you by my own weight and in dismay I plunged again into the things of this world…as though I had sensed the fragrance of the fare but was not yet able to eat it.”
Can you relate to this? I know I can. At one time the Christian walk is a state of perpetual wonder and fire, God is front and center, and everything else gives but a bitter aftertaste. But steadily, regressively, a waxing and a waning seep into the soul. Spiritual things, God-centered things, lose their glistening luster. You catch yourself, rebuke the slow fade, and earnestly try to reignite the fading passion, only to have such intentions peter-out as fast as they came to the mind. The heavens seem to re-calcify and you are once again drawn into a state of mind-wandering indifference. Sound familiar?
If this is you, or you fear it could be but aren’t sure, here is advice: keep going. Press through. Lean into Christ. Journey across the trough.
The problem is not the trough itself but the view you have of it.
You should expect times in which spiritual drought tries to creep into your soul. It is a given. It is a biblical truism. This is contrary to many a person that is obsessively seeking after some “experience” – running hither and thither to this or that conference or church service – with the hopes of having a perpetual catharsis of gyrating emotional fervor.
The fact is the Christian life is not going to be one perpetually ecstatic revival service. It does not work that way.
We are told over and over and over again to expect troughs and struggles as Christians, not unending emotional highs. We are told that our spiritual walk will be marked by perseverance (Romans 5:3-5), that we will war against strongholds (2 Corinthians 10:3-5), that hardships and calamities and weakness are a given (2 Corinthians 12:9-10), that we will have tests of endurance (James 1:1-3), that we will wrestle against spiritual forces (Ephesians 6:12), that we will experience suffering (Romans 8:18, 1 Peter 5), and that our fleshly cravings will war against us (Galatians 5:17).
The point is: struggle and hardship are a given reality of spiritual life. Get used to it.
C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) gets all of this across powerfully in The Screwtape Letters through the senior demon Screwtape advising the junior devil Wormwood on how to exploit his Christian patient’s spiritual trough. Screwtape writes,
So you ‘have great hopes that the patient’s [the Christians] religious phase is dying away’, have you? I always thought the Training College had gone to pieces since they put old Slubgob at the head of it, and now I am sure. Has no one ever told you about the law of Undulation?
[The law of] undulation [is that] repeated return to a level from which they repeatedly fall back, a series of troughs and peaks. If you had watched your patient carefully you would have seen this undulation in every department of his life— his interest in his work, his affection for his friends, his physical appetites, all go up and down. As long as he lives on earth periods of emotional and bodily richness and liveliness will alternate with periods of numbness and poverty. The dryness and dullness through which your patient is now going are not, as you fondly suppose, your workmanship; they are merely a natural phenomenon which will do us no good unless you make a good use of it.…
Now it may surprise you to learn that in His [God’s] efforts to get permanent possession of a soul, He relies on the troughs even more than on the peaks….
[The Enemy (God) is] prepared to do a little overriding at the beginning [of their spiritual walks]. He will set them off with communications of His presence which, though faint, seem great to them, with emotional sweetness, and easy conquest over temptation. Sooner or later He withdraws, if not in fact, at least from their conscious experience, all those supports and incentives. He leaves the creature to stand up on its own legs— to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish. It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it [the patient] is growing into the sort of creature He [God] wants it to be. Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best. We can drag our patients along by continual tempting, because we design them only for the table, and the more their will is interfered with the better. He cannot ‘tempt’ to virtue as we do to vice. He wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles. Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.…
I hope [all of this has not] convinced you that the trough of dullness or ‘dryness’ through which your patient is going at present will…of itself, give you his soul, but needs to be properly exploited. What forms the exploitation should take I will now consider….
[One chief way of] exploiting the trough [is] through the patient’s own thoughts about it. As always, the first step is to keep knowledge out of his mind. Do not let him suspect the law of undulation. Let him assume that the first ardours of his conversion might have been expected to last, and ought to have lasted, forever, and that his present dryness is an equally permanent condition. Having once got this misconception well fixed in his head, you may then proceed in various ways. It all depends on whether your man is of the desponding type who can be tempted to despair or of the wishful-thinking type who can be assured that all is well. The former type is getting rare among the humans. If your patient should happen to belong to it, everything is easy. You have only got to keep him out of the way of experienced Christians (an easy task now-adays), to direct his attention to the appropriate passages in scripture, and then to set him to work on the desperate design of recovering his old feelings by sheer will-power, and the game is ours. If he is of the more hopeful type your job is to make him acquiesce in the present low temperature of his spirit and gradually become content with it, persuading himself that it is not so low after all. In a week or two you will be making him doubt whether the first days of his Christianity were not, perhaps, a little excessive. Talk to him about ‘moderation in all things’. If you can once get him to the point of thinking that ‘religion is all very well up to a point’, you can feel quite happy about his soul. A moderated religion is as good for us as no religion at all—and more amusing.
Notice in the passage the “Law of Undulation” is to be expected, and in fact, is not the sole work of devils. This law, Lewis writes, is an expected “natural” feature of up-and-down happenings in one’s Christian life. God can and often is using this “law” to refine His servants. He is wanting us to “stand on our own two feet” in the sense that we come to a point that we stop leaving our faith on our sleeve and ground it in the reality of everyday struggles and experiences. He is calling us to a mature faith (1 Corinthians 14:20; Ephesians 4:13-15) that takes serious struggle, pain, and suffering.
What does this mean then? It means that the danger is not really going through troughs, the danger lies in allowing the trough to become a valley that one takes up residency in. This is where indifference lies. It is much more about how we see the trough than the troughs themselves. Remember Lewis’ (Screwtapes) words,
“The dryness and dullness through which your patient is now going [Wormwood] are not, as you fondly suppose, your workmanship; they are merely a natural phenomenon which will do us no good unless you make a good use of it.”
If you are wanting a Biblical equivalent of this then consider the words of the Apostle Peter when he said to the persecuted underground 1st Century Church,
6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
1 Peter 1:6-7
Not your usual health-and-wealth constant victory over your lesser self type of sermon is it? But I digress.
THE DEVILS LOVE A DOMESTICATED FAITH
The devils work their dark magic to massage our souls amid the troughs we go through. They want to make us yawnish with hands folded and spiritual eyes glazed over – to the point that we no longer resists and don’t care that we don’t care about resisting.
How do they do this? One way is to bring us to a state where we domesticate our faith. We come to see ourselves as “grown-up” and beyond the wiles of excessive forms of devotion and prudishness. We come to believe “moderation in all things” and that “religion is all very well up to a point.”
We laugh at our past selves and how naïve and militantly pious we were: Remember the days when we cared about saying certain ‘bad’ words? Ha! How virginal. Or remember when we thought this or that behavior was unbecoming or disrespectful? Jeeze. The “good-old-days” of our Puritanical youth am I right? Or remember that time we preached modesty? Or recall that time we took seriously discerning what we watched on television!? Ho! Those were the days! Am I right? Those were the quaint, naïve, priggish, traditionalist, Pharisaical days of excessive religious fundamentalism. Fundamentalism… the only “F” word worth keeping ourselves and our children from.
Such a conversation is all too true for many of us.
It is at this point that the classical arguments of excessive Puritanism rise in the mind. “You are being far too judgmental!” or “Stop being such a prude!” is what comes to our numbed post-modern minds. We need to come to terms that we may have, to some degree, allowed ourselves to be nursed to a spiritual slumber in our contentment with things we once found abhorrent. The Law of Undulation (that up-and-down battle of troughs and peaks) may have flatlined in our souls and we are not even aware of it.
Take inventory dear saint.
THE DEVILS LOVE A HAUGHTY PROGRESSING FAITH
How else do the devils slowly seep spiritual complacency into our hearts? Well before closing I want to argue that another way they do this is through the seemingly most unlikely path: through our spiritual progress.
Yes. Spiritual progress can possess within itself a germ of hand-folded indifference. We can get to the place that as we grow in the Lord we start to “become aware” that we are growing and slowly become complacent in that growth. Lewis gets this across powerfully through the mouth of Screwtape when the devil reminds Wormwood to keep his patient on track to start thinking about how humble he is becoming. The high-ranking hellion puts it this way,
“[Do not forget Wormwood that] all virtues are less formidable to us once the man is aware that he has them…. [In fact the virtues] 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…. You must therefore conceal from the patient the truth 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.”
In short what Lewis is getting at is the fact that we are most in danger of spiritual failure when we are becoming aware of our spiritual growth. When we start becoming aware of our progress we can begin to suffer from spiritual comparability. We can begin to measure our spiritual progress to where we were in our past or where others around us are presently. At such a stage we are in danger of arousing the sleeping dragon of the Idol of Self in our souls. We can start checking off a list of how modesty we are, how charitable we have become, how humble we now are, how much more often we go to church, and how much more Bible we have memorized compared to others. We can start seeing others through a tinted lens of spiritual contempt – the whole “I thank God I am not like other men” Syndrome (Luke 18:19).
Be careful saint.
Even here, amid spiritual progress, one can get snagged among the bushes of indifference. As time goes on the tune of our souls' rhythm can start relaxing and we can become like the caricature of the rabbit in the Tortoise And The Hare. We are seemingly ahead of everyone else, so much more knowledgeable, so much more discerning, so much more mature, that we can calcify in our passions and sense of wonder.
In closing, I just urge you to awaken yourself to the whiles of the enemy in crafting in you a spirit of settled faith. You and I need to diligently check our spiritual barometers in the daily and pray as the Psalmist did,
10 Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
 Augustine, Confessions, trans, R.S. Pine-Coffin (New York, NY: MacMillian, 1961) pg. 152
 C.S. Lewis, Signature Classics, The Screwtape Letters (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2003), pg. 206-210
 C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters in The C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2017), pg. 224-225
For many of us prayer is something we talk a lot about but do far too little of. It is very often a mundane chore as opposed to a desire or a mere preference opposite a passion. This is to our own detriment. Yawnish, distracted, stunted prayers are an essential ingredient in producing the anemic spirituality that characterizes much of modern western Christendom. It is just such prayer the Lord of Hell gleefully glories in and desires for us. C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) speaks with piercing accuracy on this reality in The Screwtape Letters. In the excerpt below Lewis has the senior tempter Screwtape give advice to his demonic nephew Wormwood on how best to meticulously undermine the prayer life of a young Christian. Read with openness and conviction,
The best thing, where it is possible, is to keep the [Christian] patient from the serious intention of praying altogether. When the patient is an adult recently re-converted to the Enemy’s party, like your man, this is best done by encouraging him to remember, or to think he remembers, the parrot-like nature of his prayers in childhood. In reaction against that, he may be persuaded to aim at something entirely spontaneous, inward, informal, and un-regularized; and what this will actually mean to a beginner will be an effort to produce in himself a vaguely devotional mood in which real concentration of will and intelligence have no part…. That is exactly the sort of prayer we want…. At the very least, they [Christians] can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget, what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls. It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.
If this fails, you must fall back on a subtler misdirection of his intention. Whenever they are attending to the Enemy Himself [God] we are defeated, but there are ways of preventing them from doing so. The simplest is to turn their gaze away from Him towards themselves. Keep them watching their own minds and trying to produce feelings there by the action of their own wills…. Teach them to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling; and never let them suspect how much success or failure of that kind depends on whether they are well or ill, fresh or tired, at the moment.
But of course the Enemy [God] will not meantime be idle. Wherever there is prayer, there is danger of His own immediate action. He is cynically indifferent to the dignity of His position, and ours, as pure spirits, and to human animals on their knees He pours out self-knowledge in a quite shameless fashion. But even if He defeats your first attempt at misdirection, we have a subtler weapon. The humans do not start from that direct perception of [God]…. If you look into your patient's mind when he is praying…you will find that it is a composite object containing many quite ridiculous ingredients. There will be images derived from pictures…. I have known cases where what the patient called his "God" was actually located-up and to the left at the corner of the bedroom ceiling, or inside his own head, or in a crucifix on the wall. But whatever the nature of the composite object, you must keep him praying to it – to the thing that he has made, not to the Person who has made him. You may even encourage him to attach great importance to the correction and improvement of his composite object, and to keeping it steadily before his imagination during the whole prayer. For if he ever comes to make the distinction, if ever he consciously directs his prayers "Not to what I think thou art but to what thou knowest thyself to be", our situation is, for the moment, desperate. Once all his thoughts and images have been flung aside or, if retained, retained with a full recognition of their merely subjective nature, and the man trusts himself to the completely real, external, invisible Presence, there with him in the room and never knowable by him as he is known by it – why, then it is that the incalculable may occur. In avoiding this situation – this real nakedness of the soul in prayer – you will be helped by the fact that the humans themselves do not desire it as much as they suppose. There's such a thing as getting more than they bargained for! 
There are several points I would like to syphon out of this excerpt without draining its richness.
The Subtilty of What we Classify as “Prayer”
One of the most striking things in this excerpt is the most easily missed. It reveals a sadistically clever scheme all too often overlooked to our dismay. Screwtape says, “The best thing, where it is possible, is to keep the patient from the serious intention of praying altogether,” and then he says, “this is best done by encouraging him to remember, or to think he remembers, the parrot-like nature of his prayers in childhood.” Do you notice what he is saying? The Devil does not really care about us praying, as long as the type of prayer we do is a useful fiction. If we keep our prayers dreary-eyed, timely, thoughtless, and childish, he is content and undisturbed.
In such cases the Devil is content for us to live out the hellish inversion of John 5:16: “The ineffectual fervent-less prayer of a sluggish saint avails much for the Adversary of our souls.”
Lewis is giving meat here worth chewing. He is showing us that such feeble prayer really is not prayer at all! It is prayer masquerading as prayer, which makes us content and ineffective while at the same time delighting the demons. It is not real prayer because it is comfortable, quaint, and compels no real change. It is not real prayer because it categorically has no teeth to it! It is a milk-toast spirituality.
Real prayer is active, Spirit filled, intentional, habitual, God centered, humbling, relational, and power packed. Prayer is the specific, intentional, spiritual discipline of the Christian life. John Calvin (1509-1564), the great reformer, said it was “the chief exercise of faith.” The revivalist Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) said prayer,
“is as natural an expression of faith as breathing is of life…[and a] prayerless life [is a life] without God in the world.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), the 20th Century German pastor and martyr said,
“Prayer is the supreme instance of the hidden character of the Christian life. It is the antithesis of self-display.”
One of the things these men of old are getting at is that prayer is the chief means of distinguishing people who are of Faith versus the Faithless. It is an endeavor that displays in us an active acknowledgement of the presence of the divine in our lives on the daily! In short prayer reveals that we are aware, humbled by, and actively seeking more than matter and molecules; it reveals that we are a people who “look up” beyond our world to Someone Greater than ourselves for our ultimate answers, hope, peace, security, and future.
To fail to be a prayer is, in a very real sense, to live as a functional atheist. To live a “spiritual life” with a complete absence of ever seeking to touch the Spirit or communion is to deny the very foundations of Faith itself. It is living in the world on a regular basis as if God is not intimately and actively within and among you.
But this goes even further than mere awareness of the transcendent in our lives.
Prayer is also a fundamental means of awakening us to the reality of our present situations and to the Ultimate Fact that we stand naked before the eyes of a living God who knows us far more intimately than we could ever hope to. It reminds us that we cannot hide from God. He knows our facades. He knows our fakery. He knows our insecurities. He knows our needs. Prayer is that place where we reveal our souls to our God and He in turn reveals more intimately His heart to us. It is the meeting of wills. It is the meeting of souls. Lewis put it this way,
“It is a personal contact between…incomplete persons (ourselves) and the utterly concrete Person. Prayer is the sense of petition, asking for things, is a small part of it; confession and penitence are its threshold, adoration its sanctuary, the presence and vision and enjoyment of God its bread and wine.”
It is such rawness of prayer that the devils loath for us to experience. Thus they (along with the World and the Flesh) ensure we ingest enough busyness and distractions to keep us from ever reaching such intimacy. But really, as Lewis points out, the devils do not have to work too hard at this because most of us do not even care to experience such rawness before God. As Screwtape so candidly affirms,
“It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out…. [In fact to avoid] the real nakedness of the soul in prayer – you will be helped by the fact that the humans themselves do not desire it as much as they suppose. There's such a thing as getting more than they bargained for!”
This is to our own dismay for it is in such nakedness that we can truly be ourselves and see ourselves as we more clearly come to see the One who holds us.
It is in prayer that we stand before an Audience of One.
How Our Physical State Can Many Times Affect Our Prayer State
Another profound truth worth chewing is Lewis’ insight of how easily our physical states affect our spiritual states. He points out how the postures we make in prayer can reveal and even shape the sincerity and depth of focus we have before God. Do not misunderstand this! He is not saying we should bask in pagan asceticism or external posturing. What he is driving at is us coming to terms with how our bodies shape our souls as much as our souls shape our bodies.
In the history of the Christian Church there has been a consistent trajectory of teachings and reflections upon taking serious how we posture ourselves in worship and prayer. This is not out of a sign of stiff-necked ceremonialism but a recognition that we are a unified complexity of spirit, soul, and body that intertwine and interact with one another and therefore affect one another. A slouching posture can indicate a slouching spirit. A casual stature can reveal a casualness of soul which tends to express itself casually when coming before God in worship and prayer. God becomes a familiar to us – just “another relationship” among the myriads we have. We come into His presence and prop our feet upon Him instead of prostrating ourselves before Him in worship and reverence as the Cosmic King of Justice and Mercy He is.
I know this personally.
Tiredness physically leads to fogged mental states which inevitably misdirect my thoughts in prayer. I will start a prayer in earnest and within 40 seconds I begin to drift and think of all the work I have to accomplish, or I begin to daydream or become lethargic. Or I will pray as I drive to work, only to find my eyes wondering to a sign along the road or a pedestrian crossing the street. What is happening in all these? I am forgetting before Whom I stand when I am praying. I am slouching before God. I am yawning in His presence.
One way to fix this is to fix my physical state. Train the eyes, train the mind, discipline the body. If need be, stand to pray. Walk. Look upward. Lift hands. Kneel. Be uncomfortable. By doing these things one begins to take seriously the physical discipline of directing the body in the realm of spiritual life.
Generating Synthetic Piety
We can grow up on healthy doses of certain stylized versions of prayer. There are more liturgical types, more charismatic types, more blustery types, more tranquil types, and so forth. Lewis causes us to be reflective on this. We can begin to equate ‘true prayer’ with certain emotional expressions or experiences to the point that those expressions become the only means by which we define prayer (this also applies to all of spirituality).
This is where the danger creeps in.
Prayer is not less than emotion, but it is far more than emotion. This is what Lewis is wanting us to remember. True prayer is rooted in authenticity and reverence – an emptying or unclothing of oneself before God. It is not to be grounded in “turning our gaze towards ourselves and keeping watch on our own minds” as we think about how we are “feeling” as we are doing it. It isn’t about us! It is about Him! It is “other directed,” being lifted above our present circumstances into the realm of God Himself. It is only there that true answers, freedom, clarity, and focus takes place.
God is not interested in artificial emotionalism. He is not interested in syntax, He is interested in the sincerity. He is not interested in fervor, He is interested in faithfulness. He is not interested in hooping, He is interested in humility. Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) said it this way,
“The heart is the source, the seat, and the essence of supplication. Prayer with the heart is the heart of prayer: the cry of our soul is the soul of our cry.”
He went on to say, “There is as much grace in the bark of a dog or the grunt of a swine as in a form of prayer if the heart be absent.” It is not enough to go through a set of disciplines or emotions when it comes to prayer. The heart must be pruned. The heart must be nursed to desire the sweetness of communion with God.
Generating False Images
One of the easiest things we can do is to make images in our head of Who God is whenever we pray. As Lewis makes clear we can derive our images of God from pictures, we can focus on a composite object, or we can think of some distant image in our imagination. In all these there are two things happening: misdirection and distance.
When we pray to God with a preconceived vision of what we think He should be we miss the true beauty of Who He is. This misdirection skews our understanding of God’s nature, person, and work. As a result, when we worship and pray God tends to become who we are. He likes what we like, He approves of what we approve, He hates what we hate, and He will give what we ask. It is all a total misdirection of who God really is. This is not assigned to just heretics or spiritual relativists; this happens in regular Bible believing churches! But as Timothy Keller (1950-present) has said,
“If your god never disagrees with you, you might be worshiping an idealized version of yourself.”
But not only is such misdirection an outcome of this corrupted iconoclasm, there is also a distance created. Lewis makes the point that when we generate images of God in prayer, we can detach Him from our midst. He becomes an object among many within our minds eye. He becomes, as Lewis says, “located-up and to the left at the corner of the bedroom ceiling, or inside [our] own head, or in a crucifix on the wall.” What is he getting at here? He is showing that in a very real sense what happens is we tend to “see God” like an object or a person crossing before our eyes afar off. By doing this with prayer we lose the sense of inner intimacy of His presence within us and living around us.
Now, again, do not misunderstand Lewis here! He is not promoting some pagan pantheism or New Ageism mumbo-jumbo. What he is reminding us of is how easy it is to make God “away from us” as we pray. He becomes a detached deistic Being looking down far away from us as we call out to Him and look up at Him on Olympus. But such a vision doesn’t take seriously the immanence and intimacy of Who He is. God is not a detached Father. He is, as Jesus Himself taught us, our Heavenly Father (Matthew 6) – that impossible to contain, quantify, or composite Cosmic King Who is equally immanent, relational, and accessible to His children.
We need to recover this reality when we pray! This is what Lewis is getting at!
The Bible is profoundly clear that we have an intimate union with God through Christ that eliminates “distance” between us and Him (Romans 5 & 8, Galatians 2, Colossians 1, 1 Corinthians 6, 1 John 4). This understanding is an awareness of our “nakedness” (Lewis says that “real nakedness of soul”) before the eyes of God. This means that in prayer, we are baring ourselves before our Maker at the deepest levels. We are recognizing that God is not some celestial confession box but is the Great Knower of our souls.
Praying About Our Prayer
Prayer should be, and in fact is, the lifeblood of Faith. A prayerless faith is a dead faith. It is “the chief exercise of faith.” It trumps public worship, fellowship, and service. It is the key means through which we display dependence upon the Lord through humility. It is us actively taking time out of our mud and clay lives to acknowledge the transcendence and immanence of the God Who is in our midst and desires that we desire Him. Prayer really is “spiritual breathing” – the activity that sustains spiritual life itself. It is therefore no wonder that the Adversary of our souls works overtime in conjunction with our fleshliness to detour our efforts of such a fruitful spiritual discipline.
Sadly, I have found that many times my prayer life correlates to the level of comfort in my life. I say this with personal trepidation. When things are good, I pray less. When things are bad, I pray more. John Newton (1725-1807), the great 18th Century hymnist and abolitionist, spoke poignantly on such a point when he said,
“Experience testifies, that a long course of ease and prosperity, without painful changes, has an unhappy tendency to make us cold and formal in our secrete worship.”
I can say with shaken confidence this is true for me. I would venture to say it is true for you. There is a stinging truism here: we tend to be the most sincere and focused on spiritual things when we are faced with trouble and suffering. Good times tend to generate spiritual apathy and indifference in our lives. The more comfortable we are the more complacent we become before God’s presence.
Complacent prayer is most often born by satisfied and secure saints.
Must we then perpetually suffer in order for us to be made into the image of Christ? I would hope not. But perhaps so. Perhaps we need to experience suffering to be refined on our knees.
We need to pray about our praying.
We need to ask God to help us desire prayer all the more. We need to pray even when we are not feeling it. It is in those times of “not feeling it” that we often need it the most! It is in that time the Adversary is working his dark magic in our midst, slowly, methodically, driving a wedge between us and our Lord. It is in that time we need to push and fight for that sacred communion known as prayer.
God, help me to not just write about this but to live it in my life! Help me to demonstrate this instead of merely teaching it. Help me nourish my soul in this and not just taste it. Help me to pray.
I want to leave you with the poignant and encouraging words of Charles Spurgeon,
Now the tempter will whisper, "Do not pray just now; your heart is not in a fit condition for it." My dear brother, you will not become fit for prayer by keeping away from the mercy-seat, but to lie groaning or breathing at its foot is the best preparation for pleading before the Lord. We are not to aim at a self-wrought preparation of our hearts that we may come to God with them, but "the preparation of the heart in man, and the answer of the tongue, are both from God." If I feel myself disinclined to pray, then is the time when I need to pray more than ever…. Whatever thy position, if thou canst not speak, cry; if thou canst not cry, groan; if thou canst not groan, let it be "groanings that cannot be uttered;" and, if thou canst not even rise to that, let thy prayer be at least breathing—a vital, sincere desire, the outpouring of thine inner life in the simplest and weakest form, and God will accept it. In a word, when you cannot pray as you would, take care to pray as you can. 
 C.S. Lewis, Signature Classics, The Screwtape Letters (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2003), pg. 194-196
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville, KY: Westminister John Knox, 2011), 3.20 (pg. 850)
 Jonathan Edwards, The Works of President Edwards, Volume IV (New York, NY: Leavitt & Allen, 1852), pg. 481
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1995) pg. 163
 A good discussion on this can be found in Joe Rigney, Lewis on the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), pg. 119-122
 C.S. Lewis, “The Efficacy of Prayer,” in The World’s Last Night, pg. 8
 Consider reading this short little treatise on the postures of prayer by Isaac Todd (1787-1886) https://www.covenanter.org/reformed/2015/8/19/isaac-todds-the-posture-of-prayer-or-god-to-be-worshipped-with-the-body-as-well-as-the-mind
 Avail yourself to these resources on the topic: https://calvinistinternational.com/2015/04/09/calvin-on-posture-in-worship/; http://www.prca.org/resources/publications/articles/item/4651-the-posture-of-prayer; https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/why-posture-matters-in-worship/;
 Charles Spurgeon, Comfort for Those Whose Prayers are Feeble, Sermon given May 1872, accessed from https://www.spurgeon.org/resource-library/sermons/thought-reading-extraordinary/#flipbook/
 Timothy Keller, Twitter, Sep. 12, 2014, https://twitter.com/timkellernyc/status/510458013606739968?lang=en
 R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew: New International Commentary on the New Testament, (United Kingdom: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), pg. 244-246
 Michael Horton, John Calvin on the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), pg. 154-165
 Dane Ortlund, Jonathan Edwards on the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), pg. 124
 John Newton, Letter V, Cardiphonia or, The Utterance of the Heart (T. Nelson and Sons: United Kingdom, 1857), pg. 285
 Charles Spurgeon, Thought-Reading Extraordinary, Sermon given October 5, 1884, accessed from https://archive.spurgeon.org/s_and_t/feeble.php
We moderns are obsessed with “causes.” We love to stand and fight for things. We fight to end racial prejudice, we fight for social justice, we fight to end hunger, we fight to end war, we fight for abortion, we fight to end drugs, we fight for life, we fight to preserve the Constitution, we fight to bear arms, we fight for the flag, we fight for faith and so forth. We really are modern-day crusaders. Our mighty banners of conquest are raised through hashtags, Facebook filters, and a sea of tweets as we exclaim death to the infidels who are our opposites.
Do not misunderstand. Such a critique is not a wholesale denouncement to standing for or against various ideas, values, policies, or platforms. We can and should stand when we see wrongs exercised at the expense of justice and goodness. We should “seek the peace and prosperity of the city” in which we find ourselves just as God exclaimed through the Prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 29:7). But as always there is a grave danger that lurks in our midst when we take up such a quest. Even in our campaigning to “make the world better” or “stand against injustice” we can lose sight of Christ; we can become blinded to the True End for which we fight. C.S. Lewis speaks with wisdom on this point. In The Screwtape Letters Lewis’ Screwtape gives the young Wormwood insight into the ways ‘causes’ can be used to slowly destroy his patient Christian’s faith. Read and weep,
All extremes, except extreme devotion to the Enemy [God], are to be encouraged. Not always, of course, but at this period. Some ages are lukewarm and complacent, and then it is our business to soothe them yet faster asleep. Other ages, of which the present is one, are unbalanced and prone to faction, and it is our business to inflame them…. Whichever [your Christian patient] adopts, your main task will be the same. Let him begin by treating the [the cause he takes up] as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which [his] religion becomes merely part of the ‘cause’, in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favour of [the effort]. The attitude which you want to guard against is that in which temporal affairs are treated primarily as material for obedience. Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing. Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades, matter more to him than prayers and sacraments and charity, he is ours – and the more ‘religious’ (on those terms) the more securely ours. I could show you a pretty cageful down here.
The shift here is subtle, as all the shifts are that we have looked at in the Gentle Slopes series. Notice that at first “The Cause” we take up is secondary and just part of our Christianity. This is when we still are keeping Christ at the center of all our reasoning and intended ends. But then notice, in time our Christianity slowly becomes part of “The Cause,” it becomes peripheral, deadened by earthly concerns alone. In short, Christianity slowly loses its Eternal reality and subsequently its spirituality. And so, we enter a state of being Pharisaical in all the good causes we take up – they become ends in themselves instead of satellites orbiting the greater constellation of Christ. So, for example, Jesus is a white gun-toting red-blood libertarian at our gun conventions, or He is the brown man oppressed by systemic imperial oppression at our social justice marches, or He is the free-caring anti-judgmental “love is love” guru at our sexual liberation rallies, or He is the no nonsense stern faced hyper judgmental commander at our conferences.
The sad thing is that in all of these Christ has ceased to guide the values, ideas, and platform, of “the cause” and instead has become another piece of furniture we rearrange in the rooms of our life to accent our preferences (i.e. our social, theological, or political preferences). What is happening is we are losing sight of the eternal by making that which is temporal our eternal.
THE DISTINCTIVE CAUSE FOR WHICH WE CRUSADE
This is stingily personal. I tend to be the type that can make axes and grind them. I have been a “keyboard crusader,” a social media warrior, and even a professional political ranter. Sometimes simultaneously. I will be frank, I make no apologies for speaking Truth nor standing for Truth, but there is something to be said when the central driving focus, the bread, and butter of existence, of one’s life (thinking of how I can be at times!) becomes consumed with things doomed to ash and shadow (Psalm 102:26, Matthew 24:35, Luke 21:33, Hebrews 1:11).
Once again, do not misunderstand! I am not saying one should not be engaged in great causes or stand for one’s values or ideas or even support a platform or a policy. This is noble, this is good, and this is just. But what we should do as we engage in such causes is ask the fundamental question,
“For what end do I do this?”
It is the Adversary’s job to keep us – through busyness, exhaustion, and service – from ever asking such a question. But we must. If we honestly believe the world is not less than but more than matter and energy, if we truly believe that there is a purpose for which all of Creation was made, if we are truly convinced that humans have a cosmic identity and meaning, if we truly believe Jesus is the climactic spiritual revelation to all human questions and needs, if we truly believe Heaven is a place to be gained and Hell a place to be shunned, then we cannot but ask such a question!
Sadly, much of modern Christendom cannot be bothered to ask such a question. We help in soup kitchens, we assist at shelters, we even drill wells in Uganda, we council drug addicts, we march to end racism, we rally to save the unborn, we teach Kids Church, we coordinate VBS, we organize connect groups, we develop outreach programs, and on and on. But if all of this is devoid of an eternal perspective, if in all of this Christ and His Gospel is vacated, then all of it is shallow and ultimately pointless. In fact, in none of these examples is such work isolated to the Christian Church. Thousands of secular organizations and dozens of religious groups do the same thing!
What then is the Christian distinctive?
Some may argue at this point that the good of such things abovementioned is within themselves. “Helping people is a good in itself and is what ‘it’s all about!’” one could exclaim. There is an element of truth here but it isn’t the whole Truth. Feeding the poor, clothing the naked, and even assisting widows and orphans, were done by Pharisees in Jesus’ day. Yet Jesus said of many of the Pharisees “you are whitewashed tombs…full of dead men’s bones” who,
“outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness”
While much could be said here one point is stinging: the Pharisees were often good people doing good things, standing for good “causes,” and yet they still were full of deadness. What deadness? Hypocrisy and lawlessness. In short, they had no focus upon authentic spirituality (hypocrisy) nor the Word (the Law) within the things they did. This is vital to understand: the Pharisees' faults were not found in the execution of the goods they were doing; it was found in the reasons for which they were doing what they were doing. The things/causes/activities became ends in themselves only or they were done for self-centered reasons, which is really two sides of the same coin. In short, the “causes” became their idols – the things they lived for, would die for, got ultimate meaning from, and ultimately worshiped!
The Christian message is not less than the just earthly causes we fight for, but it is much greater! And when such greatness is absent from the earthly cause, we miss the mark. The Apostle James said it this way,
26 Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
Notice that there is a duality of the “religious life” displayed. The true pure acceptable religious life is one characterized by an authentic spiritually controlled tongue (i.e. a Christ-centered heart) plus good works towards just causes (i.e. widows and orphans) plus a deep focus on the highest need of spiritual purity without compromise. Well, what is it that keeps us pure without compromise? The Gospel – which is itself something we not only “keep for ourselves” but should be exclaiming to others! Lest the point be lost, consider the words of the Apostle Paul,
14 I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. 15 That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome. 16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.
In other words, Paul makes clear that evangelistic zeal to reach Jews and Gentiles (people of non-Christian faith – like the ones we fight for and with for just causes) cannot be divorced of the central needful thing: THE GOSPEL. It is the gospel which is the power unto salvation, not a bowl of soup or post about racial solidarity alone.
AIMING AT HEAVEN THAT EARTH MAY BE THROWN IN
The meaning of things is inherently tied to their intended ends. When we say we stand for this or that cause because it is “right” or “just” or “good” we are exclaiming that there is a way the World should be; we are asserting, consciously or subconsciously, that Right and Just and Good are actually real and that people (who are agents of rights, justice, and goodness) are inherently valuable sacred ends in themselves. But all of this is only made possible by a transcendent all powerful Creative Moral Law Giver who gives an inherent sacredness to values and life itself. It is such a One to whom we should be ultimately pointing since all purpose’s crescendo in Him. When this Reality is forgotten amid our crusading, we castrate the greater meaning and purposes for which we fight and stand. Even further, we do disservice to those for whom we fight (against or with) because we have failed to make known to them the ultimate beauty and truth that lies behind the earthly acts we do.
In closing, I am reminded of the poignant words of C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity,
If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth “thrown in”: aim at earth and you will get neither.
 C.S. Lewis, Signature Classics, The Screwtape Letters (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2003), pg. 205
 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, Harper edition, 2001), pp. 134-135
The Gentle Slope of Heedless Humor
The great Church Father Basil of Caesarea (330-379 A.D.), when citing Ephesians 5:4 on the nature of humor said,
“The Christian…ought not to indulge in jesting [and] he ought not to laugh nor even to suffer laugh makers. He must not talk idly, saying things which are of no service to the hearers.”
In short, for Basil, humor was no laughing matter. Now we recognize that this is excessive and somewhat priggish on the surface, but below in the meat of thought lies a truth: laughter has soul shaping power. But seldom do we ever think about this – even we Christians. We enlightened moderns are living in an age of sitcoms, stand-up comedians, and infinite memes, which wash over us with rivers of puns, wit, and knee slapping entertainment. But even here there lies both great joy and great danger. Even here, in our humor and laughter, we must become reflective and ask if we have allowed the law of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5) to reign.
Humor can be a Balm and Bane to Life
Humor and laughter are sweet balms of life. They make life bearable and beautiful by breaking down barriers and helping us forget about the business and seriousness of reality. All the incongruities (the absurdities, oddities, and “out-of-placeness”) have a humbling effect upon us as creatures. Through humor we tend to make fun of ourselves and our place in the world. Therefore, humor has a humbling aspect to it at times because we realize just how absurd and weird we can be. As one author said, “[Humour] involves some confession of human weakness” and is “the chief antidote to pride; and has been, ever since the time of the Book of Proverbs, the hammer of fools.” The great English philosopher and essayist G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) said it this way,
“If you really ask yourself why we laugh at a man sitting down suddenly in the street you will discover that the reason is not only recondite, but ultimately religious. All the jokes about men sitting down on their hats are really theological jokes; they are concerned with the Dual Nature of Man. They refer to the primary paradox that man is superior to all the things around him and yet is at their mercy.”
There is much to unpack here but we will point to only one minor aspect of what Chesterton is getting at. The fact is humor is deeper than we think. Laughter reveals more than we think. They reveal something about us as a people. Why we laugh at what we laugh says something about how we think the world is and who and what humans are, and how it all should be. This is centrally because we were made to be social creatures who live a certain way in the world and seek joy in the good. What grounds all of this is the comforting and empowering knowledge that we serve a Creator King who laughs and has joy (Psalm 2:1-12, Zephaniah 3:17) and in fact has made us to be people who can laugh, and play, and express such joy through lighthearted interactions (Ecclesiastes 3:4; Job 8:21; Proverbs 15:13, 17:22; Psalm 126:2-3; Luke 6:21).
But with everything, sin and darkness become the kill-alls and makers of infinite devaluation. This is where a demon can give us insight.
C.S. Lewis in all his piercing correctness speaks straight to the quick of the power and influence of humor in The Screwtape Letters. In the section below the senior demon Screwtape informs his underling Wormwood of the most effective ways of utilizing humor and laughter to slowly destroy purity and sacredness in the life of his patient Christian believer. Before this conversation you will remember our previous post in the Gentle Slopes Series which dealt with friendships. Here the Christian patient has not only begun to hang out with two carousing skeptical unbelievers but has been introduced to another broader group of friends, all of them obsessed with revelry, novelties, and joking. Screwtape decides to advice Wormwood on his next steps with his patient,
My Dear Wormwood,
Everything is clearly going very well. I am specially glad to hear that the two new friends [of your Christian patient] have now made him acquainted with their whole set. All these, as I find from the record office, are thoroughly reliable people; steady, consistent scoffers and worldlings who without any spectacular crimes are progressing quietly and comfortable towards our Father's house. You speak of their being great laughers…. [This] point is worth some attention.
I divide the causes of human laughter into Joy, Fun, the Joke Proper, and Flippancy. You will see the first among friends and lovers reunited on the eve of a holiday. Among adults some pretext in the way of Jokes is usually provided…. Fun is closely related to Joy-a sort of emotional froth arising from the play instinct….
[But the] real use of Jokes or Humour is in quite a different direction…. Humour is for [some] the all-consoling and (mark this) the all-excusing, grace of life. Hence it is invaluable as a means of destroying shame…. Mere cowardice is shameful; cowardice boasted of with humorous exaggerations and grotesque gestures can be passed off as funny. Cruelty is shameful-unless the cruel man can represent it as a practical joke. A thousand bawdy, or even blasphemous, jokes do not help towards a man's damnation so much as his discovery that almost anything he wants to do can be done, not only without the disapproval but with the admiration of his fellows, if only it can get itself treated as a Joke. And this temptation can be almost entirely hidden from your patient [the Christian]…. Any suggestion that there might be too much of it can be represented to him as "Puritanical" or as betraying a "lack of humour".
But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny…. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour-plating against the Enemy [God] that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy [and] it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it.
In this passage Lewis is soberly reminding us of how the Adversary of our souls uses humor to slowly deaden our souls to any sense of shame or sacredness.
Laughter Often Carries an Agenda
One point worth noting that Lewis shows is that behind laughter there often lies an agenda. We do not often think of this when we enjoy good banter. But this is true. That agenda can be merely to bring joy into others’ lives – which is a noble activity within itself. But often it can be pregnant with ulterior motives: such as to generate self-aggrandizement or attention-seeking or to soften people’s acceptability of particular behaviors, beliefs, or values. Here, on this last point specifically, lies the far more subtle yet sinister element of humor.
Humor can shape our souls. It can also shape culture. G.K. Chesterton poignantly said back in the twilight of Victorian England,
“If you really want to know what is going to happen to the future of our democracy, do not read the modern sociological prophecies, do not read even [utopian novels]…. Read the [comic pages] as if they were the dark tablets graven with the oracles of the gods. For…they contain some hint of the actual habits and manifest desires of the…people. If we are really to find out what the democracy will ultimately do with itself, we shall surely find it, not in the literature which studies the people, but in the literature which the people studies.”
If you want to shape people’s souls, and even guide the culture of a people, then shape what they laugh about. Shape the entertain they consume. In time what they consume will consume them. They will become what they cajole and joke about. Why? Because laughter has the inherent capacity to bypass the mind and go straight to the emotional and appetite driven parts of our nature. These areas of our souls are the most malleable and guiding aspects of our being. If you want people to be willing to start accepting a particular behavior, to normalize it, then your best methodology is to soften it as playful, innocent, and lighthearted.
I think we can say with some accuracy we can see this in our own lives and culture. Before any particular behavior or preference or lifestyle is accepted in our society it is always “normalized” on our televisions and the silver screen. Make it look “normal” or friendly or innocent within the context of story making and laughter and you have all but won over the audience. If you do not think this is the case, then take a moment for some personal inventory. Ask yourself: How much have you changed in the past 10 years in your views of religion, morality, modesty, gender identities and roles, language use, sexual preferences, politics, and justice? Have you come to accept, loosen up on, or shrug off certain ideas within these areas? Now ask yourself, how have you come to change so? Did you sit down and do a lot of arm-chair philosophizing and dialoging? Did you read a ton of philosophical, theological, political, sociological, and psychological manuals, treatises, and books? For most, the answers would be no.
While we can change our views on life based on mere experiences, education, and political shifts, these are not the central methods of how we change. Change happens gradually and centrally through the relationships we share and the entertainment we consume. It is inescapable and undeniable. This past year alone we Americas spent a whopping $30.03 billion on entertainment and spent an average over 7.5 hours a day using media. On top of this the U.S. media and entertainment industry has affirmed that its budget is going to exceed $825 billion by 2023. Interesting enough, connecting to the main point of this post and Chesterton’s words, the most popularly consumed genre by us is comedy.
It is a truism: the things we consume in turn consume us.
The movies, TV shows, video-games, and music of our age are all our modern high priests and philosophers slowly teaching us to accept the ways of the idols of our age. Laughter has always, but especially now in our age, possessed the power of democratizing or “leveling” values, behaviors, and beliefs. It has the capacity to make everything a desacralized joke or meme or caricature. As a result, slowly, unknowingly, unthoughtfully, the concepts and virtues of shame, respect, honor, dignity, faith, beauty, and charity are chipped down and become lost in a sea of chuckles and shrugs. This especially happens with religion and faith.
The Power of Laughter to Desacralize
Some of the most effective uses of laughter are those about spiritual things. Do not misunderstand nor assume that we cannot be joyous nor joking with our Faith. I believe there is a healthy, respectful form of this. But go deeper here. Think for a minute. There is truth in this worth mining. How far do we go with this?
Behind kiddish jests or irreverent puns about God and His Son in particular there can lie an inheritance of irreverence. Slowly the laughs can chip away at the sacredness and transcendence of Faith claims, bringing them low and close to the mud. It is not hard to see the logical jump that can and often happens when we move from laughing about Christ in a joke to inadvertently casualizing Christ in life. When this happens, we have entered a slippery slope of shifting from disciples worshiping at His feet to mocking bystanders who see Him as part of the regular landscape of life.
This is all subtle. There is deception here. Awaken yourself to this.
Joy and laughter are a medicine (Proverbs 17:22) but they can also become a hallucinogenic to our souls. They have within them the capacity to degenerate into flippancy and irreverence. This is Lewis’ warning from the lips of a devil.
This may sound prudish. But here again is Lewis is spot on. The simplest way to never have to question ones consumption of entertainment or what one laughs is to judge every judgement or correction as “Puritanical.” “Well that may be offensive to you, but it isn’t to me” is a common phrase at this point. Or the mantras of “spiritual maturity” or “that’s the way of the world” or “freedom in Christ” are conjured to expunge any sense of propriety or chastity in the realm of entertainment and laughter. I will not fight this game. Neither will Lewis. But be aware that you are dancing in the realm of the Adversary. He is elated that you are inundated and do not care. He is ecstatic to your gilded over indifference.
There is no lie here. It is tricky to locate what are the acceptable or unacceptable levels of laughter and humor. When does joy devolve into vulgarity? This is not easy to gage and if you are looking for a list of movies, books, and TV shows that are acceptable or not then you are missing the point of the post. We moderns love our check off lists of does and don’ts. But the authentic spiritual life doesn’t work like that. The key is not in a list but a consistent self-examination by the power of the Holy Spirit in ever facet of our lives, even the places we least expect or least want Him to check.
Are you doing this with what you consume with entertainment? Are you considering how Christ addresses that which you laugh at? If there is no reflection at all, then you may be in the realm of devils. If you are reflecting, then allow the Holy Spirit to continue to speak and guide you into His ways.
3 But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. 4 Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.
 Saint Basil of Caesarea, “On the Perfection of the Life of Solitaries” from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 8. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1895) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3202022.htm
 If you want a more technical or philosophical understanding of the nature of “humor” then consider: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/humor/ and https://iep.utm.edu/humor/
 G.K. Chesterton, “Humour” (1938) found at https://nonsenselit.com/g-k-chesterton-humour-1938/. Original source is Chesterton, G.K. The Spice of Life and Other Essays, Edited by Dorothy Collins (Beaconsfield: Darwen Finlayson, 1964)
 Chesterton, et.al.
 G.K. Chesterton, “Cockneys and Their Jokes” in All Things Considered (1908), accessed from https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/All_Things_Considered/Cockneys_and_Their_Jokes
 C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters ibid, pg. 215-217
 G.K. Chesterton, “Cockneys and Their Jokes” in All Things Considered (1908), accessed from https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/All_Things_Considered/Cockneys_and_Their_Jokes
 http://www.uky.edu/~jjord0/ArisIII.htm#:~:text=Appetitive%20soul%20%E2%80%93%20This%20is%20the,itself%20a%20faculty%20of%20thought, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/medieval-emotions/#:~:text=He%20regarded%20the%20emotions%20as,of%20knowledge%20and%20rational%20will,
 https://www.statista.com/statistics/254115/favorite-movie-genres-in-the-us/, https://www.marketingcharts.com/television/tv-audiences-and-consumption-110704, https://morningconsult.com/2018/11/27/reality-is-americas-least-favorite-tv-genre-yet-people-are-still-watching/, https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2007/07/25/what-they-watch-online/
Michael H. Erskine is a high school Social Studies Teacher, has an M.A. in History & School Administration, serves as a Bible teacher in the local church, and is happily married to his beautiful wife Amanda.