Every now and again, we like to whip out a fictional book and read it to the Ellerslie students. This semester, we are reading through Lewis’ “Screwtape Letters.” For those who haven’t read, you ought to; the basic premise is that Screwtape is a head demon who is counseling his nephew, Wormwood, on how to most effectively tempt a soul, and secure that soul to eternal damnation. This “opposite advice” tactic is really rich and insightful. One particular section really captured my attention. I’ll share it in just a moment.
First, however, I want to share why I think we are in danger of falling for this temptation. It is all too common for us to shape a mental image of God which we summon forth when we pray or worship or discuss God. This mental image, while different for everyone, is obviously shaped by numerous factors: goofy sermon illustrations, the Jesus film, father figures, and really any variety of contributing elements. Humankind is so prone to idolatry that we easily take this mental image of Him, and pray to the mental image of Him, worship the mental image of Him, and meditate upon the mental image of Him; rather than prayer, worship and meditation which is actually directed to Him, not a mental image of Him.
What Lewis points out, is that we as humans form a composite god, and even have the audacity to imagine him being “up and to the left at the corner of the bedroom ceiling, or inside [our] own head, or in a crucifix on the wall.” We must be vigilant to ensure that our understanding of God is governed, guided and guarded. Governed by God’s means of revelation (i.e. His Word and His Creation). Guided by His Spirit by the Word. Guarded against any attempt to fashion and sculpt God to meet our own tastes, preferences, and desires.
As Christians, we do not worship a composite god. We must worship the One True God. He alone knows Himself fully. We ought to request that our prayers would be, as Lewis petitions: “Not to what I think thou art but to what thou knowest thyself to be.” It is as Tozer once commented: “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” We must come to understand God, as He understands Himself. And it should be pointed out, this understanding is not an operation of merely the intellect; it is primarily an operation of the Spirit of God Himself (Eph. 3:16-19).
Thus, enjoy this excerpt from Screwtape:
The humans do not start from that direct perception of Him which we, unhappily, cannot avoid. They have never known that ghastly luminosity, that stabbing and searing glare which makes the background of permanent pain to our lives. If you look into your patient’s mind when he is praying, you will not find that. If you examine the object to which he is attending, you will find that it is a composite object containing many quite ridiculous ingredients. There will be images derived from pictures of the Enemy as He appeared during the discreditable episode known as the Incarnation: there will be vaguer—perhaps quite savage and puerile—images associated with the other two Persons. There will even be some of his own reverence (and of bodily sensations accompanying it) objectified and attributed to the object revered. I have known cases where what the patient called his “God” was actually located—up and to the left at the corner of the bedroom ceiling, or inside his own head, or in a crucifix on the wall. But whatever the nature of the composite object, you must keep him praying to it—to the thing that he has made, not to the Person who has made him. You may even encourage him to attach great importance to the correction and improvement of his composite object, and to keeping it steadily before his imagination during the whole prayer. For if he ever comes to make the distinction, if ever he consciously directs his prayers “Not to what I think thou art but to what thou knowest thyself to be”, our situation is, for the moment, desperate. Once all his thoughts and images have been flung aside or, if retained, retained with a full recognition of their merely subjective nature, and the man trusts himself to the completely real, external, invisible Presence, there with him in the room and never knowable by him as he is known by it—why, then it is that the incalculable may occur. In avoiding this situation—this real nakedness of the soul in prayer—you will be helped by the fact that the humans themselves do not desire it as much as they suppose. There’s such a thing as getting more than they bargained for!