Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.
This brief sentence at the end of the eighth Screwtape letter may not be as life-changing as other sentences have been for me, but it has certainly been faith-sustaining. I realized this recently when I noticed just how frequently I return to it. I quote it twice in my book on Narnia. Whenever I give a talk on C.S. Lewis, I find myself quoting it (even when I haven’t planned to). In counseling sessions with students or members of our church, the words frequently roll off my tongue. Most importantly, I know how often I preach it to myself in the midst of dry times.
Law of Undulation
The sentence appears in a letter from Screwtape to Wormwood about “the law of Undulation.”
Undulation is a fancy word for “wave-like rhythm.” The law of Undulation refers to a permanent feature of human life in our mortal condition. Screwtape derisively refers to humans as amphibians, creatures with one foot in the spiritual world (like angels) and one foot in the material world (like animals). As spirits we belong to the eternal world, but as animals we inhabit time.
“In all areas of our life, periods of emotional richness are regularly followed by periods of dryness and dullness.”
While our spirits can be directed to an eternal object, our bodies, passions, and imaginations are in continual flux. The result is undulation — “the repeated return to a level from which they repeatedly fall back, a series of troughs and peaks.” In all areas of our life, periods of emotional richness and bodily vitality are regularly followed by periods of dryness, dullness, numbness, and poverty.
Peaks and Valleys
Screwtape explains why God has subjected human beings to the law of Undulation. Fundamentally, God aims to fill the universe with little replicas of himself. He intends for the lives of his image-bearers to be a creaturely participation in his own life as our wills are freely conformed to his will. God wants us to be united to him and yet distinct from him.
Troughs, especially spiritual troughs, serve this larger purpose. At times in the Christian life, God makes his presence manifest and felt. He makes himself sensibly present to us, with an emotional sweetness that empowers us to more easily triumph over temptation. Obedience flows from us like rivers from a living spring. Prayer is like breathing — the most natural and normal overflow of God’s felt presence in our lives. These are the peaks of the Christian life.
But then come the valleys, the troughs. God withdraws himself, not in actual fact, but from our conscious experience, from our felt reality. In doing so, he removes the emotional support and spiritual incentives that made obedience seem so natural and effortless. In these times, God is calling us to carry out our duties without the emotional richness and relish that his felt presence provides (though not apart from his sustaining grace). In doing so, we grow into creatures whose wills are more fully conformed to his own.
Desiring Versus Intending
This brings us to the faith-sustaining sentence, “Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys” (Screwtape Letters, 42). We can break it into parts in order to understand it better.
Lewis here makes a distinction between “desiring to do God’s will” and “intending to do God’s will.” This distinction is produced by the law of Undulation. Doing the will of God feels hard in the valley. It’s heavy and burdensome because the emotional sweetness of God’s presence is not felt.
In these times, we feel divided from ourselves. At one level, there is no desire. This is the level of the passions, those almost instinctive and intuitive reactions to reality that are closely tied to our bodies. At that level, we feel no desire to do God’s will because God is sensibly absent. His presence is not felt, and so our passions (i.e., desires) are not stirred up. But at another level — the level of reason and will — there is intention. This level is higher (or perhaps deeper) than the level of passions. Here there is a deep and fundamental commitment, even a deep and fundamental and enduring desire to do God’s will.
In such moments, we are like Christ in Gethsemane, saying, “Not my will, but yours be done.” “Not my will,” that is, “I don’t want to do this; I don’t desire to drink this cup.” Nevertheless, at a deeper level, “Your will be done.” That is, “I still intend to do your will, and this intention reflects a deeper and more enduring desire in my heart.”
Gap Between Want and Ought
Lewis expresses this division elsewhere in a discussion on prayer in Letters to Malcolm. Prayer, he notes, can feel irksome. “An excuse to omit it is never unwelcome” (113). And this is deeply unsettling to us, since we were made to glorify God and enjoy him forever. “What can be done for — or what should be done with — a rose tree that dislikes producing roses? Surely it ought to want to?”
If we were perfected, Lewis says, prayer would not be a duty, but a delight. So would all of the other activities we classify as duties. In fact, the category of duty is created precisely by this gap between our spontaneous desires and our real obligations. In other words, the distance between what we desire to do and what we ought to do is what creates the whole category of moral effort.
Lewis, however, insists that duty exists to be transcended. Angels don’t know (from the inside) the meaning and force of the word “ought” (115). Someday, God willing, we too will live beyond duty. Prayers and love to God and neighbor will flow out of us “as spontaneously as song from a lark or fragrance from a flower” (114). Until then, however, we live in the realm of duty, in which our desires and our obligations are frequently divided.
Lewis knows how to encourage us here: “I have a notion that what seem our worst prayers may really be, in God’s eyes, our best. Those, I mean, which are least supported by devotional feeling and contend with the greatest disinclination. For these, perhaps, being nearly all will, come from a deeper level than feeling” (116) — though, we should add, not from a deeper level than God’s grace.
Returning to Screwtape, what frequently smothers our desires is that we “look round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished.” The “seems to” is crucial. Every trace of him hasn’t actually vanished. All of reality continually testifies to its Maker. The heavens perpetually declare the glory (Psalm 19:1).
But in the trough, our perception is diminished. Our felt reality is often out of accord with reality. And thus God “seems to” have vanished. This seeming is potent. We mustn’t underestimate the power of appearances, of seemings. But neither must we make our periodic (and even enduring) seemings the dictators of our actions. Lewis shows us a better way.
Acknowledging Our Valleys
What should the Christian in the trough do? Begin with honesty. Acknowledge the trough. Name the valley. If God seems absent, say so. Out loud.
More importantly, say so to God. The patient in Screwtape “asks why he has been forsaken.” He directs his observation upward, to the God who seems to have forsaken him. In doing so, he follows in a great biblical lineage.
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? (Psalm 13:1)
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? (Psalm 10:1)
O Lord, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me? (Psalm 88:14)
In the face of (seeming) divine absence, faithful saints cry out to God and plead, “Why?” and “How long?” and “Arise, O Lord!” They echo Jesus on the cross, who himself echoed the psalmist: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Psalm 22:1) This is what faith looks like in the trough.
“In the face of God’s apparent abandonment, the faithful Christian still obeys.”
The cry of desperation and confusion is faith in the face of felt divine absence. That’s why Lewis contends that prayers offered in the state of dryness please him in a special way. Unsupported by rich communications of the divine presence, lacking the emotional sweetness of the peaks, these prayers come from the deep places of the soul, the heart of hearts, which contains our deepest and most persistent longings and commitments.
And Still Obeys
The sentence crescendos with these final three words: “and still obeys.” In the absence of passionate desire, in the face of God’s apparent abandonment, the faithful Christian still obeys. God’s felt absence is never an excuse for sin. The poverty of our feelings, the dryness and the dullness — these can never be used to justify disobedience.
And make no mistake: that is the demonic stratagem in the troughs — to prey upon our experience of divine absence in order to lead us to abandon him altogether. Which is why the satanic cause is never more in danger than when every sensible support has been knocked out and we cling to Jesus anyway. If we, apart from eager desire to do God’s will, and with God’s felt absence pressing upon us, still cling to Jesus and seek to walk in the light, what else can the devil do?
Even more than that, such faithful obedience, over time and through the valley of shadows, is frequently the pathway to renewed experiences of God’s presence. As Lewis’s hero George MacDonald put it, “Obedience is the opener of eyes.” Faithfulness in the Master’s absence leads to the delight of returning to the Master’s presence. “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your master” (see Matthew 25:21).