Testimony of a Tempter
Scriptures: Genesis 3:1-13
As I said in the eNews this week, one of my favorite short novels is The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis. Screwtape is like an under-secretary in the devil’s department of temptation. His letters are advice to his nephew Wormwood on how to tempt people, how to draw people away from a relationship to God and from the life God wants us to have. Lewis uses these letters in a kind of backward way to tell us how to avoid temptation and how to nurture a relationship to God.
So for today’s sermon I have written my own Screwtape letter based on the story we just heard in Genesis 3. This is “Testimony of a Tempter.”
Dear Nephew Wormwood:
Your letter came as a surprise. It’s been a long time since I heard from you. I was beginning to think you had forgotten your old uncle Screwtape, especially after all the help I have given you. You have come a long way down in the organization, Wormwood, but you will never reach bottom if you forget those who helped you along the way.
Now to your question. You asked about my greatest temptation. Naturally, many come to mind. Your uncle has had a fairly illustrious career, if I say so myself. But the greatest temptation—that would have to be the first one.
You young tempters have it so easy. Centuries of lust, greed, exploitation, and violence have given you so much to work with. At the beginning we had nothing to work with. Everything was good: happy marriage, clean environment, plenty of food, fulfilling work. It was disgusting.
A lesser tempter might have given up, but I saw possibilities. You see, Wormwood, even good things can be twisted if you know how to do it. That is the key to temptation. Almost nothing is evil in itself. It becomes evil only when it is twisted from its intended purpose.
Take sex, for example. Sex might have been a disaster for us. God gave it tremendous power for drawing people together and uniting them in a family. Sex could have been awful for us. To be useful, sex had to be twisted. We did it by separating sex from its most important component: commitment. Once we separated sex from commitment, we produced one of our greatest emotional triumphs: jealousy. And with jealousy we created many other delightful experiences: suspicion, mistrust, fear, anger, resentment, and vengeance. We’ve done such a good job with sex hardly anyone associates it with something holy.
Yes, Wormwood, anything good can be twisted into something bad, if you know how to do it. That is what I did at the first temptation. In the Garden of Eden the only thing had I to work with was freedom. Now freedom is another of those nauseatingly good things that God concocted. Imagine giving those funny little human beings a freewill. What was God thinking? Didn’t God know that humans could use their freedom to reject God just as easily as to love God?
That gave me my opening. I approached the woman first. No particular reason. The man was just as gullible. It did not matter whom I approached first, the key was to approach them one at a time. People are far more likely to do something stupid if they don’t first stop and talk it over with others in their family.
So I approached the woman and said, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” Of course I knew that was not true. So did the woman. Immediately she answered, “What are you talking about? We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden.”
Suddenly the woman was defending God. Now you may think that is a bad thing for us, but it isn’t. Because in the very act of defending God the woman discovered that God could be questioned. She realized, perhaps for the first time, that her freedom to enjoy God was also a freedom to put herself over God, in effect to become God’s judge.
I did not even mention the forbidden fruit. I didn’t have to. The woman brought it up herself. She said, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden, except for this one tree…”
Isn’t it delightful how the human mind works? You put two children in a room full of toys, and the only toy they want is the one held by the other child. God had given the woman a whole world of fruit to enjoy, but suddenly she is thinking only of the one God prohibited.
Do you know why people are like that, Wormwood? I hope they are teaching you something in that school. People crave power. It irked her that God would restrict her freedom by prohibiting this one tree. I played on this by suggesting that God might be jealous. I said to her, “Perhaps God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
Actually, this was partly true. Half-truths are always better at deceiving people than outright lies. What I said was partly true. Eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil meant taking into their own hands the power to decide good and evil. Rather than listening to God, they would in a sense become God, deciding for themselves what is good and evil, right and wrong.
I never actually suggested eating the forbidden fruit. The woman thought of that on her own. You know, Wormwood, we do not have the power to make people do evil. The decision must come from the people themselves. But I could see that already in her mind the woman was rationalizing the decision. She looked at the fruit and saw that it was good. Of course it was good. Everything God made was good. The question was whether the humans would use the good things God made according to God’s intended purpose.
The ending was delightful. The man and woman ate the fruit to become like God, and they ended up ashamed of being human. They hid from God in the bushes, like a snake. Having tried to rise above their humanness, they sank below it. Having tried to assert their freedom, they now scrambled to avoid responsibility. The man blamed the woman, and the woman blamed me. I can still hear her: “The devil made me do it.”
Well, Wormwood, I hope you have learned something from this story. You will never succeed at creating evil. We do not have that power. We must take things that God created and use them for our purposes, making them more important to people than God. When sex becomes a person’s god, we get lust. When achievement becomes their god, we get pride. When possessions become their god, we get greed. And when a person or relationship becomes their god, we get idolatry. See how it works, Wormwood. Don’t try to make something evil. Try to make something good into something people want more than God. Then stand back and watch what happens.
I have always had success with this approach, except that one time it did not seem to work. I still have not figured out why. We offered that guy from Nazareth everything: wealth, power, prestige—everything. But he turned it all down so he could go out and get himself nailed to a cross. I never figured it out. Sometimes I think that failure may come back to haunt us.
But let us think of happier things. The world is still full of gullible people, just like Adam and Eve. The possibilities for temptation are endless. So carry on, Wormwood. You have nothing to lose but your soul.