In his 1941 book, The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis imagined what devilish strategies demons might employ to keep human beings permanent residents in the domain of darkness.
The Screwtape Letters is a collection of fictional epistles between Screwtape, a senior-level demon, and Wormwood, his nephew and understudy.
Wormwood has been sent to Britain during World War II in order to keep a young man from becoming a Christian. In the series of letters Screwtape addresses particular strategies by which the younger Wormwood must tempt and keep the man's thoughts from turning toward God.
Here is an excerpt from Letter 15. In it Screwtape is discussing how the Living God - whom Screwtape calls the Enemy - wants men to live in the present and not in the unknown future. The demons on the other hand want men to live in the unknown future to make them wildly anxious in the present. Here’s Screwtape:
He does not want men to give the Future their hearts, to place their treasure in it. We do. His ideal is a man who, having worked all day for the good of posterity, washes his mind of the whole subject, commits the issue to Heaven, and returns at once to the patience or gratitude demanded by the moment that is passing over him. But we want a man hag-ridden by the Future—haunted by visions of an imminent heaven or hell upon earth—ready to break the Enemy's commands in the present if by so doing we make him think he can attain one or avert the other. We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow's end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now.
Screwtape then advises Wormwood on what to do if he finds the man succumbing to a Godward orientation during the season of War:
If, on the other hand, he is aware that horrors may be in store for him and is praying for the virtues, wherewith to meet them, and meanwhile concerning himself with the Present because there, and there alone, all duty, all grace, all knowledge, and all pleasure dwell, his state is very undesirable and should be attacked at once.
This whole exchange reminded me of Christ's own letter via the apostle James.
James 4:17 reads: "So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin."
These good words are very much about where we live in our minds - in the holy present or the hag-ridden future. How do we know this is James' concern? We know because of the verses immediately preceding this one. James 4:13-16 reads:
Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit"—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, "If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that." As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.
So now we see it. In verse 17 James is extending his teaching on living presumptuously in our "doing." He is saying, "The good you ought to do is here and now - it is not out there, tomorrow, in another city on another day - it is here and now and if you don't do the good you ought do in the present day, in the present place, you are sinning.”
James sounds very much like the Lord's wisdom in Proverbs 3:27-28.
Do not withhold good from those who deserve it, when it is in your power to act. Do not say to your neighbor, "Come back later; I'll give it tomorrow"—when you now have it with you.
The Lord is saying to us in both testaments that our attraction to the good we want to do in the future will defeat the good we ought to do in the present. And this is sin. It is sin because it leaves the mina in the ground (see Luke 19:12-27) waiting for better circumstances, better people, better times in which to love and to do what God requires. Many sins of omission are committed by just such a presumptuous and inordinate affection for the future.
It is always easier to see ourselves doing good in the future because when we think of the good we want to do then we don't envision the difficulties of doing that good. Our presumptuous vision excludes future physical weakness, future sufferings, and a host of other obstructions which will eventually make the climate for doing good in the future just as difficult as the climate is for doing good now.
“Gratitude looks to the Past and love to the Present; fear, avarice, lust, and ambition look ahead," says Screwtape in his counsel to Wormwood.
Love looks to the present. That truth is simple and pure gold. It means that "the good you ought to do" is right before you right where you are. If you can not do the good you ought to do now, why should you have confidence you will do it when the new job comes, when the financial windfall arrives, when the kids get a little older, when the husband changes, when you get to the new city.
Jesus has given you today without the promise of tomorrow. If you have today, the present, you have everything you need to serve the Lord and please Him in this life. It is not He who keeps kicking the can down the road, failing to give you the right people and the right places and the right circumstances in which to unburden all your love. Jesus sets the opportunities before you in the present. He has given you children in their present age. He has given you a church in this time and this place. He has given you the poor who are on the earth today. He has given you the lost who are lost today and have not yet fallen into the unyielding grave. He has given you the needy wife you have today and the weak husband you have today. If you are pleased to share in His sufferings, you do not have to wait.