Screwtape has just received a letter from Wormwood in which Wormwood describes having let the patient “slip through his fingers.” The end result of Wormwood’s error is that the patient has repented his recent actions and returned to the church with new faith. Screwtape warns Wormwood that such repentance can be very dangerous to the devils’ cause.
It is almost halfway through the book, and the devils have made no real progress in tempting the patient. Indeed, they’ve only confirmed Screwtape’s observation that sin often actually brings mankind closer to God, since it encourages people to repent and embrace the faith.
Screwtape lists Wormwood’s errors. He allowed the patient to read a book for the patient’s own pleasure, and he allowed the patient to walk to the old mill, again giving the patient happiness. Wormwood’s biggest mistake was to allow the patient to feel material pleasure of any kind, instead of continuing to expose him to Nothing. As a result of Wormwood’s negligence, the patient has forgotten his cynical sensibility, undoing all the progress Wormwood has made.
The notion that evil is “nothing” rather than a “thing” is so counterintuitive that even Wormwood doesn’t fully grasp it. And yet it’s a central part of Lewis’s Christianity. Give anyone real pleasure, he insists, and they’ll eventually find their way back to the source of all pleasure: God. There’s something amusingly simple about the patient’s repentance—if something as pedestrian as reading saved him from evil, then the devils’ job is more difficult than we’d thought.
Humans’ tastes and pleasures are the basic material with which God encourages them to become Christians, Screwtape says. When he tempts humans, Screwtape always begins by trying to make them forget their enjoyment of cricket, stamps, chocolate, etc. The danger of a human enjoying a thing for its own sake is that the human cannot be tempted, as the patient has been, by appeals to what other people think or enjoy.
Christianity has a lasting reputation as an ideology that encourages its adherents to abandon pleasures of all kinds: sex, wealth, partying, etc. Lewis tries to refute these stereotypes of by showing that his religion is, at its core, about encouraging pleasure of all kinds. It’s only when pleasure is abandoned or abused, in fact, that evil results.
Screwtape encourages Wormwood to continue working on the patient. Wormwood’s most important strategy should be to prevent the patient from acting in any way on his newfound faith. Piety is always useless, Screwtape says, unless it influences the will. If the patient does not act on his faith, then eventually he will not feel his faith.
Another important tenet of Lewis’s Christianity is based on the Biblical idea that “faith without works is dead.” Simply professing faith in Christ isn’t enough—it should also inspire one to act morally. If it doesn’t, then it isn’t real faith. Thus Screwtape advises Wormwood to work backwards against this, by discouraging moral actions, and so weakening the faith that inspires them.