And while he thinks that, we do not have to contend with the explicit repentance of a definite, fully recognised, sin, but only with his vague, though uneasy, feeling that he hasn’t been doing very well lately.
The distinction Screwtape is making here is critical. He (as a demon) recognizes that there is a distinct difference between specific recognition, repentance and confession of our sin and merely acknowledging it’s presence. Recognizing but not repenting of sin leaves us considering that we haven’t “been doing very well lately.” But this is a works based mindset. We are considering ourselves on the basis of performance, not on the basis of repentance and confession.
We are not saved, nor kept by works, but by grace (Eph 2:8), so when we start to consider our salvation or walk on the basis of performance rather than grace, we start to head down a path to destruction. Rather than accepting responsibility, repenting and pleading with the Lord to help us to turn, we largely just carry on thinking “I having’t been doing very well lately” – and the sin continues to fester.
As Screwtape goes on to say:
If such a feeling is allowed to live, but not allowed to become irresistible and flower into real repentance, it has one invaluable tendency. It increases the patient’s reluctance to think about the Enemy.
When we stop dealing with our sin, we stop thinking about the cross, and the salvation that has been purchased for us and we become self-oriented. Which is precisely what the real enemy (not Screwtapes Enemy) wants. This leads to misery rather than joy, as Screwtape later notes:
As the uneasiness and his reluctance to face it cut him off more and more from all real happiness, and as habit renders the pleasures of vanity and excitement and flippancy at once less pleasant and harder to forgo (for that is what habit fortunately does to a pleasure) you will find that anything or nothing is sufficient to attract his wandering attention. You no longer need a good book, which he really likes, to keep him from his prayers or his work or his sleep; a column of advertisements in yesterday’s paper will do.
From Screwtape’s perspective:
It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing.
Sin erodes away at us by gradually drawing us away from the Lord. The sin itself is less important than the fact that it draws us away from the light. It could be overt sin such as anger, but it may equally be a harbored bitterness that is driven by a lack of forgiveness, or even a preoccupation with food. Either way it draws us away from the light of the Lord and that is it’s intended outcome.