“The Screwtape Letters’” Valuable Insights for Addiction Recovery

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During my own recovery, I have found C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters to be particularly useful in navigating the emotional fallout from a relapse as well as an aid during periods of temptation. 

The Screwtape Letters is a fictional work detailing a collection of letters written by a devil, a tempter named Screwtape. He is writing to his young demon nephew, Wormwood, who is learning the ways of tempting and leading people, or “patients,” away from God (the devils refer to God as the “Enemy”). It’s a fascinating and amusing work.

The book’s insights are especially helpful during periods of temptation. If you don’t read anything else from this book, at least read Chapter 9, which offers a compelling description of addictive patterns of sin. I’ll highlight a few instances from the book and connect them to our work in recovery.

Let’s begin with the following passage:

“Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts…”

As many of us are painfully aware, the above quote is particularly poignant. We’ve likely experienced it as we slowly sank more and more into our addiction. While acknowledging that Satan cannot create pleasure but only distort it, Lewis hints at the Law of Diminishing Returns, demonstrating that as we give in to our addiction or sinful behavior that we’ll increasingly need “more and more” of it to reach the same “high.” Yet, the more we seek the pleasure of the high, the less it actually offers us pleasure, and the more it becomes a controlling force in our lives. 

It was only after beginning my recovery process that, looking back on my addiction, I could see “the gentle slope, soft underfoot,” leading down into quicksand. The devil had distorted my seeking of sexual pleasure, and the “more and more” I sought it the more enslaved I became. It took me a long time to reclaim the type of healthy, authentic pleasure God desires for us.

Similarly, I (and I suspect many of us), lived much in my mind during the height of my addiction. As Screwtape instructs, “there is nothing like suspense and anxiety for barricading a human’s mind against [God]. He wants men to be concerned with what they do; our business is to keep them thinking about what will happen to them.”

In other words, the more we live in our mind—worrying and anxiously thinking—the more vulnerable we become to giving into our addiction and committing sin. The less we focus on God and living presently in His will. 

I personally spent years navigating this mental minefield. Now, as I seek strength to resist these temptations, I remember what Lewis wrote about fortitude: “Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.” This is what we all should be aiming for in both recovery and our lives as a whole—the courage, by God’s grace, to stand firm against the devil during temptations.

Developing courage and fostering change through God’s grace requires that we respond to the Lord through our actions and to live outside of our inner worlds. This means looking outward through prayer, acts of service, and other good things that allow God to change us. This is why Screwtape admonishes Wormwood to “keep [the human being’s] mind on the inner life. [The human being] thinks his conversion is something inside of him and his attention is therefore chiefly turned at present to the states of his own mind.” 

Again, if we are closed in on ourselves, the devil has an easier time inciting us with temptation and negative thoughts. But through concrete actions, such as praying a novena to Mary Undoer of Knots, consecrating ourselves to Saint Joseph, attending Eucharistic adoration, consuming the Eucharist regularly, connecting with others in our community, and serving our neighbor, the devil’s “mind games” will not be successful. 

Additionally, there is another aspect of recovery that Lewis brings up. Screwtape instructs Wormwood, “Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s ground.” As recovery addicts we should take pleasure in the times, ways, and degrees that God allows. This might include developing new and positive habits as well as forming enjoyable friendships that encourage us to live Christ-centered lives. 

One of the main ways that we can stumble in our Christian walk, especially during times of dryness, is engaging in pleasures that God has not ordained for us to partake in. Yet, it’s important to remember that the temptation to sin by misusing pleasure can be counteracted by an unhealthy tendency to restrict all legitimate pleasures and see pleasure as evil. God created pleasure, so let’s find enjoyment in His pleasures—not those of the devil, which are only a distortion of such pleasures. 

Lastly, Lewis reminds us that we turn into what we emulate. Screwtape explains to Wormwood that, “All mortals tend to turn into the thing they are pretending to be.” 

This means that when we partake in evil we become more evil. But it also means that when we partake in good we become more good. As Lewis writes in another one of his famous books, Mere Christianity, when we take actions of love toward something or someone that we don’t naturally love we begin to cultivate a natural love for that thing within us.

By understanding how the devils seek to tempt and lead us away from God in The Screwtape Letters, we can counter the works of the devil by maintaining our sobriety and growing in holiness, all through the grace and mercy of our God.

Aaron Walter is a lifelong Catholic and former porn addict whose ministry,
NewMenRising, is dedicated to pornography addiction recovery. He is a coach, mentor, and accountability partner and is passionate about helping husbands kick their addiction and transform their lives and relationships. You can connect with him at calendly.com/aaronwaltercoachingsessions.