Our life group has been percolating on, and navigating, the reality of spiritual warfare (see Ephesians 6:10-11; 2 Thessalonians 3:3; 2 Corinthians 10:4-5; 1 Peter 5:8-9; James 4:7; Colossians 1:13-14; John 16:33; 1 Corinthians 10:13), and we recently discussed Screwtape Letter #9. The discussion was lively and constructive, and I decided that it would be helpful to make the 15th Screwtape letter available on the ECPC blog. So without further ado…

My dear Wormwood,

The enemy wants people to attend chiefly to two things: eternity itself, and to that point of time which they call the Present. For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity. In the present moment alone freedom and actuality are offered them. The enemy would therefore have them continually concerned either with eternity (which means being concerned with him) or with the Present — either meditating on their eternal union with, or separation from, himself, or else obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, giving thanks for the present pleasure.

Our business is to get them away from the eternal, and from the Present. With this in view, we sometimes tempt a human to live in the Past. But this is of limited value, for they have some real knowledge of the past and it has a determinate nature and, to that extent, resembles eternity. It is far better to make them live in the future. Biological necessity makes all their passions point in that direction already, so that thought about the future inflames expectations and fear.[1] Also, it is unknown to them, so that in making them think about it we make them think of unrealities.[2] In a word, the future is, of all things, the thing least like eternity. It is the most completely temporal part of time — for the Past is frozen and no longer flows, and the Present is all lit up with eternal rays. Hence the encouragement we have given to all those schemes of thought such as creative evolution, scientific humanism, or Communism, which fix men’s affections on the future, on the very core of temporality. Hence nearly all vices are rooted in the future.[3] Gratitude looks to the past and love to the present; fear, avarice, lust, and ambition look ahead. Do not think lust an exception. When the present pleasure arrives, the sin (which alone interests us) is already over. The pleasure is just the part of the process which we regret and would exclude if we could do so without losing the sin; it is the part contributed by the enemy, and therefore experienced in a Present. The sin, which is our contribution, looked forward. To be sure, the enemy wants men to think of the future too —just so much as is necessary for now planning the acts of justice or charity which will probably be their duty tomorrow. The duty of planning the morrow’s work is today’s duty; though its material is borrowed from the future, the duty, like all duties, is in the Present. This is not straw splitting. He does not want men to give the future their hearts, to place their treasure in it.[4] We do. His ideal is a man who, having worked all day for the good of posterity, washes his mind of the whole subject, commits the issue to heaven, and returns at once to the patience or gratitude demanded by the moment that is passing over him. But we want a man hag-ridden by the future — haunted by visions of an imminent heaven or hell upon earth — ready to break the enemy’s commands in the present if by so doing we make him think he can attain the one or avert the other — dependent for his faith on the success or failure of schemes whose end he will not live to see. We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel wherewith to heap the altar of the future every real gift which is offered them in the Present.[5]

And keep in mind that the phrase “living in the present” is ambiguous. It may describe a process which is really just as much concerned with the future as anxiety itself. Your man may be untroubled about the future, not because he is concerned with the Present, but because he has persuaded himself that the future is going to be agreeable. As long as that is the real course of his tranquility, his tranquility will do us good, because it is only piling up more disappointment, and therefore more impatience, for him when his false hopes are dashed.[6] If, on the other hand, he is aware that horrors may be in store for him and is praying for the virtues, wherewith to meet them, and meanwhile concerning himself with the Present because there, and there alone, all duty, all grace, all knowledge, and all pleasure dwell, his state is very undesirable and should be attacked at once. It is most likely that he is “living in the Present” simply because his health is good and he is enjoying his work. The phenomenon would then be merely natural. All the same, I should break it up if I were you. No natural phenomenon is really in our favor. And anyway, why should the creature be happy?

Your affectionate uncle


[1] How do you ordinarily experience, or navigate, expectations and fears re: the future?

[2] What are some unrealities that you’ve wasted a lot of time on?

[3] Do you agree with this? If so, how important is this insight?

[4] What are the most ordinary or regular ways you give your heart to the future?

[5] What are some of the very real gifts that God is offering you at present? How could you actually embrace and enjoy those gifts?

[6] What is an example of this?

“Many years later, after Niemöller had been imprisoned for eight years in concentration camps as the personal prisoner of Adolf Hitler, he penned these infamous words: First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionist, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew. And then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”