One of my favorite books in college was C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters. It is a collection of letters from a senior demon named Screwtape to his nephew tempter Wormwood. Their values are completely reversed: God is "the Enemy," Satan is "our Father Below," selfishness and doubt are chief virtues. The two devils find love and faith repulsive.
In one of the letters, Screwtape is instructing his student on how to deactivate his "patient's" prayers by distraction or misdirection:
My dear nephew Wormwood:
The best thing, where it is possible, is to keep the patient from the serious intention of praying altogether... If this fails, you must fall back on a subtler misdirection of his intention...
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... 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.1
Your affectionate uncle, Screwtape
Lewis' reverse advice through the devil Screwtape stuck with me. I have often thought of that phrase through the years, changing it to my own: "Help me to worship You not as what I think You are, but as who You actually are!" Do I pray to the real God, or to some aberration or distortion of the truth? Could I have a concept of God that is a result of my own making?
As a child, I spent many summers at a camp in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. Miles away from distracting city lights, a large field in the darkness of night made the perfect viewing place. Lying on the grass, looking upwards into the vast display of lights, I could see thousands of stars. But more than that, I could sense the presence of my Creator.
Those stars were so consistent every night. They had been there for uncountable years, always shining. Every night they were the same. The vastness of the heavens above caused my mind to consider the distances involved in getting to the nearest star. Yet He seemed so close, that He could even hear my prayers. Why were all of these things out there, and so far away?
The stars have a way of speaking, though they do not speak loudly. And in the city, you may not hear their voice at all. But creation speaks in many ways, not just in the stars.
Consider the moon. That ball of rock has the perfect spin on it so that the same face is always shown towards us. The "man-in-the-moon" is always looking at you. Yet we believe in the other side of the moon, though it cannot be seen. Such skill, such order to place that moon there... But my knowledge was limited. Some things were as real as the other side of the moon, but I would never see them. I was small and God was big.
Every morning the sun rose. These features were not mere physical events to be taken for granted. They had meaning. The sun was kindness every morning. It pointed to the faithfulness and patience of our Creator. That is who I wanted to know.
Standing there looking at the stars, God was real. He had a great purpose for that universe above, if we could ever get there. Had He made everything up in the heavens for us humans down here? Judging from the stellar distances of light-years, He must be very patient. We don't live in fear of a sudden meteor or lightning bolt landing on us, though He has the power to do so. And I knew that if I did good things, He would be pleased. I heard these things in my heart as I laid there looking up at the stars.
When the sun comes up, you cannot see the stars anymore. Though still present, the bright light makes them hard to notice. In the daytime, I didn't think the same thoughts as I did at night. The day's events took my attention.
The brightness of the day helps you work and move around. You can get more done in the day. And during the day, sometimes I would do things that made me feel guilty. Sometimes I wanted to change; sometimes I did not. Sometimes I was glad when my bad deeds were exposed, and sometimes I kept them hidden. I knew it was my fault. My Creator saw it all, even if no one else did. I felt so badly about myself, so grieved over these things. I wanted to be like my Creator and be patient and faithful and have good intentions for others, just as He was. But I wasn't. That is what hurt so bad. Though I hadn't been "caught," I had violated my own good intentions within.
When I was older, some people told me that god actually condemned me for my bad deeds. I didn't deny I was guilty. Then I learned that god had condemned me from my birth. I learned that my future was not up there in those stars, but that my soul had been already aimed towards an eternal fire of suffering. In spite of these seemingly impulsive and severe judgments, god was still to be called patient, kind, and just, or this insolence against him would be deemed a greater crime -- unbelief. Furthermore, I learned that god made my psyche in such a way that it was impossible to be what I wanted to be. It seemed hopeless, but I couldn't deny I was guilty.
I learned that there was one hope, that if I turned to this god I was learning about, he would forgive me and spare me of the fires below. But in order for him to hear my prayer, I had to admit that there was nothing good in me.
I considered the implications. In order for it to work, my views of reality had to change. My high ideals must go, such as when I looked up into those stars and thought those good things about my Creator.
No! No! Down! Down! There was nothing good in me, not even those noble thoughts I thought I had! No! No! Down! Down! Not the voice of my Creator, but only selfish imaginings, unreal daydreams! And at last, the last whit of resistance gave way, my heart re-wired, and I worshiped and prayed to this merciful god that I had learned about.
My joy gave way to duty. My childlike wonder turned to haughtiness. My awareness of not-knowing-many-things turned to spiritual arrogance. But I worshiped the merciful god who had changed my life. I told others to worship the one who created them and destined them to the fire for crimes they only partially committed.
My preachers and my teachers were pleased at my zeal and my knowledge. I felt good that I could prove to the atheist that god really existed. I could boldly tell the sinner that he was guilty, and shed no tears when he walked away offended.
Had I been deceived? Was I worshiping a god of our own making, or the One who was as He knew Himself to be?
I took a walk at night again. The daylight had passed, and I could see the delicate light of the stars again. Their voice again spoke to my heart. Just like my conscience. It spoke to my heart: "How can you worship what your heart condemns? How can you praise a god who is unjust and more erratic in his punishment than a drunkard father? Don't you realize that you were born for those stars, to rule over them? Don't you realize that you are the highest thought ever conceived in the mind of God? Do you know that you were created just a little lower than God?"
Their quiet voice spoke to my heart, breaking the spell of my former deception. I couldn't deny that I was guilty. Yes, I fell short, but not so far or so quickly as Screwtape wanted me to believe. That clever serpent had won a ruse on me. My Creator was just and fairer than ten thousand judges, holding each man guilty for what he actually does -- no more and no less. I was not always kind as the sunrise. I arrogantly boasted of my knowledge of things that I did not really know. I was not consistent in my love as the stars above. Yes, I was guilty.
But the greater crime was now clearly exposed. I was guilty of denying the truth of my loving Creator. I had worshiped a lie. I had led the blind into the ditch, where I was also, when I should not have grabbed their hands to lead them.
What shall I do? I fell to the ground and worshiped my Creator for who He truly was, for who He truly knew Himself to be. I cried out to my God to save me.
Within weeks, life changed. I was in the Community in Island Pond, Vermont. Standing in a circle of brothers and sisters at a morning gathering, I listened as each one shared his or her thanks and praise. Though each spoke in his own human voice, I heard another voice in my heart. It was the same voice I heard as I lay under those stars with so many questions.
And now the voice said, "You're home."
I found peace and forgiveness for my guilt with these people. I joined the circle. I am part of a people who are learning to bear an even greater witness to our Creator. This witness is greater than the stars and moon, because only a community of believers can bear witness to the Creator's greatest attribute of all -- love.