Just yesterday, I was sitting in my truck driving home from College Station, listening to the Focus on the Family Radio Theatre production of C.S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters,” the satirical piece of work that tells the story of an old, wise devil named Screwtape teaching his nephew, the novice tempter named Wormwood, the art of temptation. And yes, when I say “devil,” I literally mean “devil.” Like…hell-and-brimstone, fiery dudes who call Satan “father” and God “the Enemy.”
Interested yet? It’s a great, great book, and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone interested in something that is just as philosophical and deeply intriguing as it is enjoyable and entertaining. Wormwood is an amateur, pitiful excuse for a “devil,” emphasized by the book’s very existence—you see, “the Screwtape Letters” is composed as thirty-one separate letters addressed to Wormwood from Screwtape, who continually gives his imbecilic nephew advice on how to tempt “the Patient” most efficiently and effectively. Essentially, the book is an amalgamation of different ways that the devil could tempt us, with the end goal being: bring the Patient to hell. It’s a pretty dang awesome read.
And despite the off-the-wall, seemingly oddball premise of the narration, there are some things that really get you thinking, which makes sense given the fact that the author, C.S. Lewis, was and is considered one of the greatest theologians of all time. He manages to find a way to intermix both humorous irony and touching theology, so that at times you are laughing at the absurdity of the premise while at others, you are trying to comprehend how one man could develop such a complex and developed thought and then proceed to have a great enough imagination to express it through the viewpoint of a demon. It really is crazy.
One particular instance of the latter case would be at the culmination of Screwtape’s twelfth letter to Wormwood, in which he writes:
“You will say that these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
That last sentence left chills running down my spine, and I had to turn the audio off for a moment just to contemplate that very thought.
…the safest road to hell is a gradual one. It’s something I’d never considered before, but it made perfect sense! From the devil’s perspective, he would prefer to play it safe, have someone gradually walk away from God without realizing it rather than to run away from Him and realize it immediately. Murder can definitely tear someone away from God, but it is such a drastic sin that it will haunt their mind, causing them to question their motives and more-than-likely realize their need for repentance and forgiveness. However, if someone can gradually drift away—like an unanchored boat adrift at sea—they might drift away slow enough so that by the time they finally realize the distance they’ve made, they might not have the will nor time nor ability to make it back. A raunchy joke here, a white lie there…all those things that we would call “little sins”…those are the things that truly tear us away from God, because we excuse them as “little” whereas really, they are just as likely if not more likely to keep our minds off of the big picture, which is God Himself. With each “little sin” we make, the next sin becomes that much easier, so that before we’ve caught onto it, we have immersed ourselves into a life of sin, all whilst we thought we were living the “perfect, Christian life” by going to church every Sunday and having all the hymns memorized. We admit that we are sinners and we say we want to pursue a life free of sin (an impossible feat for anyone but Jesus, yet still a goal to strive for), yet we keep making excuses for the sins we do commit, justifying them by saying things like, “Oh, at least I haven’t killed someone. At least I haven’t committed adultery.”
We live a life acting like the Ten Commandments are the only ten sins, when in reality, a sin is anything that is opposed to God’s sovereign will! In fact, the word sin that we use today actually comes from an old archery term that literally means “to miss the mark.” While yes, the majority of the sins we commit can be shoehorned into one of those oh-so-famous commandments of Exodus 20, often our narrow scope of the reality of the lives we live cause us to distort the truth and twist God’s Word so that it conforms to us, rather than us conforming to it, as should be the case. Our modern definition of sin is vastly skewed from the literal definition of sin as God sees it. In actuality, sin is not limited to action, as our modern-day culture would like us to believe; sin includes words, thoughts, motives (Matthew 5:27-28; Isaiah 55:7; Galatians 5:16-26). Sin can be both intentional or unintentional, both sins of commission (doing something bad) or sins of omission (failure to do something good). We are sinners because we consistently “miss the mark,” and that’s exactly the thing that the devil loves. As long as he can drag us down with the little things, perhaps we will fail to recognize that we have drifted away from God. The devil doesn’t want to put any signposts in our way along the road away from God, because then we might recognize our failures and turn back to Him. Instead, the devil would prefer to leave the road empty of any signs, so that we blindly follow it until we are too late to turn back.
The reason I find myself so attached to this particular passage from the book can be attributed to two things, I believe. The first is fairly understandable, lying in the fact that the statement truly is a profound bit of wisdom imparted to us by C.S. Lewis that would leave even the greatest of theologians scratching their heads in thought, much more an eighteen-year old college student driving home for summer break. The second reason is that, perhaps, I find the statement relevant in my own life, which, as many fellow Christians would surely testify in agreement, is a life composed of many ups-and-downs, spiritual highs and lows. In another chapter of “The Screwtape Letters,” Lewis actually refers to this constant shift in one’s spiritual life as the Law of Undulation, but that’s another concept for another day.
But yes, I find this idea fairly familiar to myself, having experienced those small sins gradually dragging me further from God until at last I caught myself and dragged myself back. Only now, looking back at the situation, am I capable of seeing how drastically I changed over the course of time, and how lucky I was to jump back on ship and come running back to God before I hit the point of no return.
In fact, this concept goes hand-in-hand with another one that I was speaking of with one of my friends just a few nights ago, as we sat in my truck sharing testimonies with each other at three o’clock in the morning, [the time that I have learned is pristine for deep, philosophical conversations]. We eventually drifted to the idea of spiritual maturity and how, through our lack of spiritual maturity, God has the chance to truly display His amazing sense of humor. You see, it typically goes something like this:
You’ve had an amazing week. Individual Bible study in the day, group Bible study at night. Throw some evangelism in there. You’ve gone to youth services and church services and everything, and you live a life in constant prayer. If there was the definition of Christian, you’d be the dude. Endless faith in God, not doing anything “too bad,” and just feeling yourself coasting through a spiritual high that feels so amazing that you can practically feel the Holy Spirit seep into your nostrils when you take a deep breath each morning.
And then a past temptation comes back to haunt you, and you realize you aren’t as strong as you thought you were. You give into the temptation—even though you could’ve sworn you’d built up an immunity to it—and you find yourself crashing down, realizing that you aren’t the type of super-amazing-religious-spiritual aficionado that you thought yourself to be. It’s as if God saw your pride swelling up, laughed and said, “HAHAHAHAHAHA NO,” and then allowed you to be put back in your place if only to prove a point that spiritual pride is just as dangerous as sin itself, being that it is sin itself, “missing the mark.” God wants to ensure that you don’t get too big for your britches and deem yourself wiser than those around you. God recognizes that the devil is working through little sins, so that even though you feel like you are growing closer to God, you are in fact growing away from Him, with things such as pride and religion itself getting in the way of your one-on-one, personal relationship with the Big Man Himself. So, being the gracious God He is, He lets you stumble big time, putting a road block in your path to call your attention to the problem at hand: your ego. Then, having put you in place, He welcomes you back like the father welcomed the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). He puts His arms around you and throws a feast for your return, and together, y’all can look back on your foolishness and laugh about it come the future.
“Professing to be wise, they became fools.” That’s what the Apostle Paul writes about those who recognize God yet do not honor Him (Romans 1:22), and that’s something that is just as applicable to this day and age. We can profess spiritual, mental, or intellectual wisdom as much as we want, yet often it is those who hold their tongues and do not profess to be wise that are, in fact, truly wise. We are foolish to say that any wisdom we have is of ourselves, and in doing so, we will “miss the mark” and thus give the devil a clear shot at us, having strayed—albeit ever-so-slightly—from the intentions of our Lord. Claiming spiritual maturity can be a sin as it gives birth to spiritual pride, which the devil can latch onto; so, whether we like it or not, though murder might seem like a much heftier sin to commit, they both “miss the mark,” so we should, at all costs, avoid both. Sin is any lack of conformity to the revealed moral standard of God, and as Romans 3:23 tells us, “all have sinned and fall short” of that standard.
So now you’re probably standing there and wondering why on earth this is such a depressing post; at this point, I’ve essentially been hammering the nail in the coffin as to the fact that yes, we are all dirty, rotten sinners who, quite frankly, deserve hell. That’s a pretty dark and depressing theme for an article, especially from someone like me, who professes to be a lifelong optimist who sees the light at the end of the tunnel. So, is there a light at the end of this tunnel?
You bet your boots there is!
The bigger your view of sin, the bigger your view of salvation. If you have a strict view of the Ten Commandments, then you might not recognize your need for a Savior. You’ve never told a lie that hurts someone or gone and murdered a person or knelt down and worshipped another god, so why do you need Jesus? If you have a small view of sin, you have a small view of salvation, and thus Jesus is rendered useless in your faith, which negates the entire purpose of Him coming down to earth and dying for us. So, contrarily, I would argue that it’s important to recognize how broad a category sin is, because then we can truly recognize how imperfect we all are, and thus the grace of God is magnified in the fact that, despite our consistent missing of the mark, He was willing to come down, in the flesh, and give His perfect, unblemished life for ours.
But Paul brings up a valid point: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means!” (Romans 6:1-2) All because God is gracious doesn’t mean that we should abuse that sin and just keep on sinning. The devil is constantly getting through to us with those things that we would call “small sins,” but in reality, there is no level to sin—it is sin nonetheless, and we are rendered unworthy by succumbing to it. The safest road to hell is a gradual one, but if we can manage to set up milestones or checkpoints on even the flattest of these declines, then how can the devil get to us? The answer is that he can’t, because as soon as we catch ourselves on even the “small sins,” we will turn back around and grab onto the One who was willing to come down and save us from it all. Now let’s be honest: Do we deserve Him? No. Are we good people? No. Will we achieve the standard He has set for us? No. Will the road be easy? No. Will we always be impervious to the devil’s schemes? No. But will we be protected by the grace of God despite our shortcomings? You know it.
God can forgive you of our sins and it gives Him great delight to do so, but it’s still our job to put on the armor of Ephesians 6:10-18 and go to battle against the devil and his schemes. So yes, we are all sinners and yes, we all fall short of God’s glory, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and that light is found in Jesus. Put your hope in Him, and the devil stands no chance.