Screwtape notes that Wormwood is still too inexperienced to understand the concept of prayer. He mentions that Wormwood believes that Screwtape’s advice about prayer has been unsuccessful. He scolds Wormwood for speaking in this impertinent way to him, and urges him to take responsibility for his own mistakes. Screwtape also mentions that he is the “undersecretary” of his department, while Wormwood is only a “junior tempter.”
Part of the comedy in The Screwtape Letters comes from passages like this one, in which Screwtape “scolds” Wormwood for his rudeness, impertinence, etc.—in other words, gives him moral guidance. There is a profounder point here, though—even though the devils in the novel are immoral beings, they can’t help from occasionally behaving morally, effectively agreeing with Lewis. Lewis clarifies the levels of Hell in this section—Hell seems to be run like a business, with different levels devils must climb (or rather descend) throughout their careers.
Screwtape argues that the goal of devils should be to keep humans from serious prayer. Adults often think the prayer is ridiculous because they remember praying as children, when they were too young to pray sincerely. Some humans think, absurdly, that they can pray silently, or without kneeling. It is strange, Screwtape says, that humans think of devils as “giving” them evil thoughts, when in reality, a successful devil keeps thought out of a human’s mind.
The distinction between ignoring thought and receiving thought is a crucial one in the novel—essentially, this distinction boils down to the difference between Christianity as a rational philosophy and Christianity as a superstition. Lewis believes that Christianity is the former, and thus he sees the devils’ job as limiting thought as much as possible.
Another way to tamper with prayer is to encourage the praying person to think of himself, rather than of God. Thus, when the patient prays for bravery from God, Wormwood should encourage the patient to try to be brave.
Lewis illustrates how easy it is to deviate into sin, even in the middle of a seemingly moral action like prayer. The road to heaven, he implies, is often a difficult one.
Wormwood can tamper with the patient’s prayer by encouraging him to think of God in concrete, visual terms. There are many people, Screwtape notes, who get in the habit of praying to a specific place on their wall, or to an object like a cross. If the patient prays in this way, then he will remain far from God. Screwtape reminds Wormwood that humans don’t want to feel God’s presence as much as they sometimes think—this is a huge advantage for devils.
In these early chapters, Lewis sketches the “mechanics” of devilry. Devils can’t directly control humans’ thought—they can only “suggest” things to humans. This coheres with the model of freedom Lewis has already outlined, that humans are “free to fall,” but also free to accept God. He ends on a dark note: humans don’t necessarily want to be saved.