The following is something I posted in 2015. I was reminded of it when talking with a friend about how we both felt overwhelmed by people’s needs. This is a particular problem in our age when mass media and social media can make us aware of needs and problems half a world away, things we can often do nothing about. Our conversation reminded me to focus on what the Lord has given me to bear, not every need I hear about. Only Jesus can bear every need or problem in the world.
Recently, I began re-reading CS Lewis’s classic, The Screwtape Letters. For the uninitiated, Screwtape is a series of letters in which a senior demon, Screwtape, instructs a junior demon, Wormwood, on the finer points of capturing a human soul. The letters begin when Wormwood’s subject is an atheist; they end after Wormwood’s subject becomes a Christian and later dies. Wormwood’s punishment for losing this soul is to be Screwtape’s snack for the rest of eternity. (YUCK!)
Although a work of fiction, Screwtape is filled with insight about spirituality, the nature of God, and “the wiles of the devil” (Eph. 6:11). I am always impressed with Lewis’s understanding of human motives. Much of this probably comes from first hand experience (as he indicates in the preface of the book).
At one point, Screwtape coaches Wormwood to create strife between his subject and the subject’s mother. He then gives this interesting bit of advice: “It is, no doubt, impossible to prevent his praying for his mother, but we have means of rendering the prayers innocuous. Make sure that they are always very ‘spiritual,’ that he is always concerned with the state of her soul and never with her rheumatism.”
Screwtape’s advice is fascinating. You can see the aim here: Screwtape wants the subject to turn his mother into an abstraction (a “soul”). That way, the subject cares for an imaginary person while dehumanizing the actual person he lives with every day. While loving the real person less and less, the subject nevertheless feels more spiritual because of his heartfelt prayers for her soul.
This got me thinking about Jesus’s great commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). Jesus didn’t say, “Have passionate experiences praying for martyrs you’ll never meet in another country.” He didn’t say, “Cultivate a heart for people enslaved half a world away.” He said, “Love your neighbor. Love the person you see every day. Love those I’ve placed in your sphere.”
Global media affords an unprecedented opportunity to love abstractly. I live in Washington state, USA. If I wanted, I could cry for hurricane victims on the east coast, pray passionately for oppressed people in North Korea, abhor the sex-trade in India, and plead for Muslim conversions in the middle east. I could do all this while being petty in traffic, barking at my kids for interrupting my prayers, and ignoring a co-worker who is having a hard day. Maybe my prayers and action-less empathy make a difference in the spirit. Or maybe these are the whitewashed walls hiding a soul in decay (Matt. 23:27). By telling us to love our neighbor, Jesus agrees with John when he says, “Little children, we must not love with word or speech, but with truth and action” (1 John 3:18). (Also see James 2:15-16).
Now, if love works in our hearts toward those around us, God may lead us to pray for persecuted Christians in another country; He may give us a heart for victims of human trafficking throughout the world. God can move us to pray for a co-worker and for Muslims in the middle east. “For the person who does not love his brother he has seen cannot love the God he has not seen” (1 John 4:20). Similarly, the test of our love for those we haven’t seen is the quality of our love for those we have seen.