In C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Proposes a Toast the senior devil Screwtape speaks to the junior devils regarding the tempter’s relationship with his prey: Screwtape describes the task of the junior devils in influencing their assigned humans. He says “The job of their Tempters was first, of course, to harden these choices of Hell-ward roads into a habit by steady repetition. But then (and this was all-important) to burn the habit into a principle – a principle the creature is prepared to defend. After that all will do well. Conformity to the social environment, at first merely instinctive or even mechanical – how should a jelly not conform? – now becomes an unacknowledged creed…”.
Lewis’s fanciful account contains some insightful observations. As Screwtape suggests, succumbing to the first temptation makes it easier to succumb to the second, and so on until we become hardened in our choices. At that point we are caught in the tempter’s snare. It will impact all of our relationships. We see this principle at work all around us. The embezzler doesn’t usually begin with a large embezzlement. Most news accounts refer to a series of embezzlements over several months or years. The initial ones are likely small and insignificant. But over time and repetition they become larger and larger. Likewise, most people who become caught up in extra-marital affairs don’t wake up one morning and state “I am going to have an affair today.” The process begins with an attraction between two people which grows over time, finally resulting in the affair. Along the way there are many little things that contribute to it. The continual thoughts and actions become a habit. These habits in turn become a principle that we are willing to defend. We then rationalize our decisions and conduct.
Screwtape also suggests that conformity plays an instrumental role in these temptations. We only need to look at history to see that most societies have gone through periods of moral decay. Their lack of morality becomes habitual. We face this problem in our society today as well. When we take the attitude “Everyone is doing it” we start down Screwtape’s Hell-ward road. Joining in only hastens the downward slide. Ultimately it will negatively affect all of our relationships – with each other and with our God.
How do we avoid succumbing to this process? Just as habits are created by continual repetition, so also is their avoidance. We have to consciously say “No”. Successfully rejecting the first temptation makes it easier to resist the next one. We must remember that temptations often come upon us in areas where we are the weakest. For this reason it is important for us to understand where we are most likely to be caught off guard. We need to examine our lives to avoid being caught in the tempter’s snare. We need to understand what are the insignificant little areas where temptations can start that will build up into habits. We need to understand that we can choose to accept or reject these temptations. We need to acknowledge our weaknesses and ask God for help to avoid the temptations that will come. As we examine our lives, three questions come to mind. What are the small areas Satan is trying to drive a wedge in our relationship with God? What detrimental habits is he trying to build in our lives? How can we successfully resist them? As James 4:7 says, “Resist the devil and he will flee from you.”