Lessons from Screwtape is a series of posts based on C.S. Lewis’ book, The Screwtape Letters, in which a principle demon, Screwtape, converses with a lower demon about their tactics to prey on humans.

Don’t worry, todays post is not suggesting that God’s goodness is limited; not in the least. But it will address why God’s goodness often appears to be limited from our vantage point. Think about it, why is it that we speak of a God of unlimited power, but only see His power in limited intervals? Why not simply reveal the completeness of His power unendingly for all the world to see? The answer has to do with God’s purpose in revealing Himself to Humans at all. Screwtape (C.S. Lewis’s fictional demon) helps us understand this as he trains Wormwood (another demon) how to use the changing perception of God’s presence in the lives of Christians; what he calls the “troughs and peaks”.

The “troughs” are times in which God’s goodness is only faintly observable by the Christian. When tragedy strikes, when our hearts are shaken, when needs are not met, or when evil triumphs. The Christian life is full of instances and even phases where it seems that God’s goodness is faint. Its barely getting us by. We want the intense brightness of the sun to shine on us, but all we feel is a nightlight in the middle of dark times. Screwtape examines why these “troughs” are so important to the Christian:

Now it may surprise you to learn that in His efforts to get permanent possession of a soul, He relies on the troughs even more than on the peaks; some of His special favourites have gone through longer and deeper troughs than anyone else. The reason is this. To us a human is primarily food; our aim is the absorption of its will into ours, the increase of our own area of selfhood at its expense. But the obedience which the Enemy demands of men is quite a different thing. One must face the fact that all the talk about His love for men, and His service being perfect freedom, is not (as one would gladly believe) mere propaganda, but an appalling truth. He really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself—creatures whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own, not because He has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His. We want cattle who can finally become food; He wants servants who can finally become sons.

Lewis, C. S.. The Screwtape Letters (pp. 38-39). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

The reason for these troughs, these times where God’s goodness seems limited, has to do with the nature of God’s desired relationship with His people. Screwtape loathsomely admits that God’s desires are different than his own and his Father Below (the devil). Whereas all demonic creatures want to consume and annihilate humans, God’s intention is to grow them into beings who share a life similar to His own. Adoption into his royalty is how the Bible puts it. The book of Romans tells us:

“All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Romans 8.14-15)

But how does God use these “troughs” to grow us into beings that can share in His glory? Would it not make more sense to make His presence overwhelmingly known to us? Would he not secure every soul if He would just be fully and eternally present? Not so fast.

We often forget that God is working with the human will. If it were God’s desire to simply have humans follow a set of rules, compulsion is simple; just ask any tyrant or dictator. And compulsion is what the fullest degree of His presence achieves, for, as the Bible tells us, no man can see God and live1. His presence is overwhelming, and compulsion is the least we could afford. But for God to achieve forming creatures that can participate in the qualities of His own being — that is, sharing in His beauty, truth, holiness, faithfulness, and love — mere compulsion will not due. God must transform us into beings that have the ability to actively participate in such qualities.

And that is where the troughs come in. You must have often wondered why the Enemy does not make more use of His power to be sensibly present to human souls in any degree He chooses and at any moment. But you now see that the Irresistible and the Indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of His scheme forbids Him to use. Merely to override a human will (as His felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for Him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo. For His ignoble idea is to eat the cake and have it; the creatures are to be one with Him, but yet themselves; merely to cancel them, or assimilate them, will not serve.

Lewis, C. S.. The Screwtape Letters (pp. 39-40). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

God’s presence experienced by man is awful, in that it invokes awe, wonder, and fear. In God’s complete presence we are made aware of our smallness, our limitedness, our finitude. And God’s greatness is more clear — His vastness, his powerfulness, limitlessness. In our current state, His full and sustained presence does not lead us to love and adoration. One day we shall see Him face to face2, but for now we must live only experiencing God’s veiled goodness; the “troughs”. But through the timely tastes of God’s goodness we are entranced. Like a moth to light, we are drawn to love and serve Him because even his most faint unveiling is sufficient to captivate the human heart for a lifetime.

It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be. Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best. We can drag our patients along by continual tempting, because we design them only for the table, and the more their will is interfered with the better. He cannot ‘tempt’ to virtue as we do to vice. He wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles. Do not be deceived, Wormwood. 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.

Lewis, C. S.. The Screwtape Letters (pp. 40-41). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

As paradoxical as it may sound, we are drawn more powerfully to Him by His limited goodness. As Screwtape reminds us, faithfulness is not something that one can be tempted with; such as with sin. Faithfulness is something born out of the will and desires of the human heart. And in His mercy, He delights in our imperfect attempts, our “stumbling”, because we are slowly “learning to walk”, in preparation for the eternal stride we shall one day enjoy forever.


  1. Exodus 33.20
  2. 1 Cor. 13.12
Chris Saenz
Chris Saenz is the founder of Post-Christian Era. He has a Master's Degree in Biblical Studies and more than a decade of church work in teaching, worship, and discipleship across many church settings and denominations. He and his wife and three children live in the Los Angeles area (Covina, CA).