Posted by: Philip Rushton | October 4, 2010

Is Wormwood Your Spiritual Director?

I recently re-read C.S. Lewis’ famous book, The Screwtape Letters. This book includes a series of fictional letters from a senior demon named Screwtape to his young demon nephew Wormwood. Screwtape offers advice to Wormwood on how to deceive, confuse, and disrupt people, so that they do not come to know who God is.

If you haven’t read the book I highly recommend it. For one thing, C.S. Lewis is an engaging writer. When the book was first released in 1942, one reviewer stated, “C.S. Lewis has the rare gift of making righteousness readable.” Lewis’ brilliance allows him to avoid the triteness that plagues a lot of devotional literature. More than that, however, Lewis’ creative study offers a lot of wisdom on how to discern truth from deception in our spiritual journey.

In one letter, Screwtape responds to Wormwood’s concern that his client is starting to pray regularly. Screwtape advises Wormwood to throw various distractions at his client when he starts to pray. Wormwood is advised to make his client remember that he is hungry or that he has to attend to something around the house.

As I was reading this section I was reminded of an insight one of my professors offered me during a course I took on spiritual discernment. My professor said that if we do not have a structured time of prayer in our schedule we are really making the devil our spiritual director. If we approach our spiritual disciplines with no structure, we are placing our spiritual development on shaky ground. We are assuming that we will spend regular time in prayer and study without a plan. We are assuming that we are not prone to distraction and deception. In the name of spontaneity and authenticity we often validate a relaxed approach to spiritual formation that is at the mercy of our fickle human nature.

I know that this is true in my own life. When I do not plan to pray, or when I am without some sort of bible reading schedule, I can easily overlook these disciplines for a few days at a time. Part of the solution, I think, is to come up with a plan. Start by planning to spend 30 minutes a day in prayer and reflection on scripture. Perhaps it would help to actually set a 30 minute timer at first. It takes a while for habits to develop, so at first these patterns take some hard work.

When you think about, many of us spend very little time working on our spiritual development. For some of us, 30 minutes a day seems like a huge block of time. Yet, how much time do we spend doing other things in our life? I was challenged this summer to tithe my time by 10%. If we give just 10% of our time to God that would be 2.4 hours a day. This starts to get closer to Paul’s exhortation to the Thessalonians to pray without ceasing (1 Thess 5:17).

What are some of your thoughts on how to avoid a sporadic spiritual life that is at the mercy of the distractions and deceptions that inevitably come our way?


  1. It just creeps me out to think Wormwood is my spiritual director! To avoid such a delimma, I think I would plan to have a time of reading and prayer BEFORE breakfast. The before breakfast strategy could work for those of us who love breakfast and realize that if we want to keep our commitment we must get up early enough to allow for the time. I’ve done stuff like tell myself while I’m eating breakfast that I need to spend some time reading. Then the next thing I know, I am driving to work thinking, “What? How did I do that? I forgot to read and pray.” Personally, I need the routine of reading first, breakfast next to keep myself on track.

  2. Thanks Mary,

    I think it is helpful to find those times that work well with our everyday rhythms and schedules.

    This week I was feeling especially distracted and I had to put on the 30 minute timer to keep me focused.

    One of the things that I find interesting is that the early church had set times of prayer. We often think that the first believers in the book of Acts were very spontaneous, but in Acts 3:1 it says that Peter and John were headed to the temple at the time of prayer which was 3 in the afternoon. These dynamic and charismatic leaders of the church also followed scheduled rhythms to sustain their spiritual life.

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