Who amongst us has not wasted time on the internet when we’re trying to avoid whatever it is we ought to be doing? I was reading C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters this week, and it convicted me.
If you’re not familiar with The Screwtape Letters, the letters are written from the perspective of a senior tempter (Screwtape) mentoring a junior one (Wormwood). Lewis’s brilliant insight into human nature and the Christian life makes this book one of my favorites; if you haven’t read it, you should.
In the excerpt below, Screwtape speaks about the appropriate method for tempting someone who is currently welcoming any distraction that can keep him from having to think about his current state and what he ought to be doing. His advice to Wormwood is that it will require little work on his part to waste such a person’s life through worthless distractions, and he praises the use of the internet for this purpose. Of course, Screwtape is not actually talking about the internet (the book was published in 1942), but see if what he says doesn’t sound familiar.
A few weeks ago you had to tempt him to unreality and inattention in his prayers: but now you will find him opening his arms to you and almost begging you to distract his purpose and benumb his heart. He will want his prayers to be unreal, for he will dread nothing so much as effective contact with the Enemy [i.e., God]. His aim will be to let sleeping worms lie.
As this condition becomes more fully established, you will be gradually freed from the tiresome business of providing Pleasures as temptations. As the uneasiness and his reluctance to face it cut him off more and more from all real happiness…you will find that anything or nothing is sufficient to attract his wandering attention. You no longer need a good book, which he really likes, to keep him from his prayers or his work or his sleep; a column of advertisements in yesterday’s paper will do. You can make him waste his time not only in conversation he enjoys with people whom he likes, but in conversations with those he cares nothing about on subjects that bore him. You can make him do nothing at all for long periods. You can keep him up late at night, not roistering, but staring at a dead fire in a cold room. All the healthy and out-going activities which we want him to avoid can be inhibited and nothing given in return, so that at least he may say, as one of my own patients said on his arrival down here, ‘I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.’ The Christians describe the Enemy [God] as one ‘without whom Nothing is strong’. And Nothing is very strong: strong enough to steal away a man’s best years not in sweet sins but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why, in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that the man is only half aware of them, in drumming of fingers and kicking of heels, in whistling tunes that he does not like, or in the long, dim labyrinth of reveries that have not even lust or ambition to give them a relish, but which, once chance association has started them, the creature is too weak and fuddled to shake off.
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 [God]. 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.