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The “Law of Undulation,” or the Way of the Wilderness
“We didn’t count on suffering…we didn’t count on pain…but if the blessing’s in the valley…then in the river I will wait…” – Delirious
Christians often speak of “seasons.”...
Ecclesiastes 3:1 says “To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven…” One of these seasons is what Screwtape calls the “trough.”
In letters eight and nine of The Screwtape Letters, the elder demon, Screwtape, writes to his nephew, a novice demon, about “The Law of Undulation.” This law is a major principle in the Christian walk. While Wormwood, the novice, is thrilled about this condition of spiritual dryness, the trough, Screwtape is much more cautious, and writes at great length about how God (The Enemy) uses the trough to His advantage.
Here's just a little background on the book these characters are taken from so you can understand the illustration...The Screwtape Letters is a Christian apologetic novel by C. S. Lewis. It is written in a satirical, epistolary style and while it is fictional in format, the plot and characters are used to address Christian theologicalissues, primarily those to do with temptation and resistance to it. First published in February 1942, the story takes the form of a series of letters from a senior Demon Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood, a Junior Tempter. The uncle's mentorship pertains to the nephew's responsibility for securing the damnation of a British man known only as "the Patient".
Screwtape’s terminology is of “troughs and peaks,” but Christians often refer to “wilderness” or “desert” seasons, and to ‘hills and valleys.” It’s all the same concept. All Christians, at some point, go through these ups and downs.
While Wormwood is eagerly planning the ways he can use his “patient’s” trough to his advantage – and in fact, the demonic can use troughs to their benefit – he gets a stern correction from his uncle: “Now it may surprise you to learn that in His [The Enemy’s] efforts to get permanent possession of a soul, He relies on the troughs even more than the peaks; some of His special favorites have gone through longer and deeper troughs than anyone else.” Consider Moses, who spent 40 years in the wilderness with the Israelites, but who remained faithful throughout. Or Job, who had all kinds of horrible things happen to him, but still declared, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him.” (Job 15:1) Or David, who often felt abandoned by God, and did not hesitate in saying so. In Psalm 22, he cries out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me? Why are You so far from helping Me, and from the words of My groaning? O My God, I cry in the daytime, but You do not hear; and in the night season, and am not silent…”
Perhaps even Jesus was in this trough, when he echoed David’s words on the cross. Certainly these are good examples of God’s beloved experiencing deep valleys, or troughs, as Screwtape calls them. Screwtape also says “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.” All of the aforementioned people prove Screwtape’s point. Despite their trials, their pain, or what seems like God’s absence, they ultimately remained faithful, and what’s more, they remained obedient.
Troughs, or valleys, or wilderness seasons, generally do not constitute the fun part of being in relationship with God. In these seasons, it is harder to hear God’s voice, feel His presence, or even see evidence of it anywhere. Doubt and depression often enter in. Screwtape harps on this when he encourages Wormword to get his patient to think in terms of “phases.” We wonder if we ever heard God, if He was ever there, if we really witnessed those miracles. We can even begin to wonder if we are really “saved.” These are the times where we must rely on what we know to be true, not what we feel is true. It doesn’t matter what the trial is. What matters is our response. Are we going to give up on God, write our whole relationship off as simply a “religious phase,” as Screwtape would like? Or are we going to take advantage of what God has for us in the wilderness?
Looking through the Scriptures, it is interesting to note how often those in the wilderness are led there. They didn’t just find themselves there, completely by accident. The Israelites were led out of Egypt into the wilderness. Not only were they brought out of slavery, but they witnessed miracle after miracle, like the parting of the Red Sea, bitter waters made sweet, manna sent from heaven, and water brought from the rock. It might be safe to assume that God was with them. And indeed He says “For the Lord your God has blessed you in all the work of your hand. He knows your trudging through this great wilderness. These 40 years the Lord your God has been with you; you have lacked for nothing” (Deut. 2:7). Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where He countered satan’s tempting with the Word (Matt. 4, and a good lesson for us). And then there is Hosea 3:14-16, which is perhaps the most moving passage about the wilderness in the Bible.
14)”Therefore, behold, I will allure her,
Will bring her into the wilderness,
And speak comfort to her.
15)I will give her vineyards from there,
And the Valley of Achor as a door of hope.
She shall sing there,
As in the days of her youth,
As in the days when she came up from the land of Egypt.
16)”And it shall be, in that day,”
Says the Lord,
“That you will call Me ‘My Husband,’
And no longer call Me ‘My Master.’”
While we may not see, hear or feel God in the wilderness, in the trough, in the valley, it is in this place that we are schooled in His grace, His provision, and His love. The Israelites – though they complained bitterly – lacked for nothing, with all the miracles they witnessed and lived on. Job had everything restored to him. David continued to offer that “sacrifice of praise” (Hebrews 13:15,) and was considered “a man after God’s own heart.” And I don’t need to describe what Jesus did. In the trough, we have to walk by faith, and not by sight, which we as Christians are called to do, anyway. (2 Cor. 5:7). We have to trust that God is with us, even if we can’t hear or feel Him. And we know that He’s with us, because He promises to never leave or forsake us. While we may enjoy the mountaintop experiences, or the peaks, we grow in the wilderness, in the troughs. Screwtape himself says, “It is during such trough periods, that it [the human] 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.”
In the trough we learn to rely on God and on His promises. We learn to seek more diligently after Him, and in doing so, can be rewarded with the some of our most intimate and rich moments with Him. Look at what He says in Hosea: He will “allure her, will bring her into the wilderness, and speak comfort to her.” Comfort in the wilderness? Yes, it is possible. And in verse 16, He says “You will call Me ‘My Husband,’ and no longer call Me ‘My Master.’” What a picture of intimacy! On the mountaintop, or on the peak, to use Screwtape’s word, we tend to become self-sufficient. In the trough, we are unable to be self-sufficient. We may find ourselves stripped of all that we once relied on, meaning that we must depend solely on God. In this time, it helps to remember that His strength is made perfect in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). And in the trough, we are indeed quite weak.
I don’t mean to paint such a glorified picture of the trough. It is not an easy season to be in, and we can be quick to resent it, and resent God for it. But as I said before, it is not simply our being in the wilderness that matters; it is what we do with our time in it that makes the difference (and often determines how long we remain there). It can be a time of real intimacy with God and tremendous growth in our faith. It can also be a time of depression, doubt, and even worse, self-pity. This is when Screwtape and company can really enter in and rob us of what God has for us. Doubt can destroy all the good God had planned for us. Wormwood is advised about this: “Do not let him [the human] suspect the law of undulation. Let him assume that the first ardours of his conversion might have been expected to last, and ought to have lasted, forever, and that his present dryness is an equally permanent condition.” It is easy, when in the trough, to see it as permanent, and lose hope, and even worse, lose faith. Screwtape continues: “When you have caused him to assume that the trough is permanent, can you not persuade him that his ‘religious phase’ is just going to die away like all the previous phases?” We need to be like Jesus in the wilderness, responding to the devil’s taunting with the truth, the way Jesus responded with “for it is written…” each time the devil tempted Him. And the truth is that the trough is not permanent; God’s love is.
We cannot reason our way out of the wilderness, the valley, the trough. We may remember with longing the joyous feeling of being on that mountaintop, and work our hardest to get back up there. But if we don’t pause, seek God and see what He has for us, we miss the potential for so much. We might miss blessings, miracles, opportunity for growth, and worst of all, true intimacy with God. Though it may be dark, the fire by night will guide us, and we will lack for nothing. God will be with us, even if His presence is not as readily apparent as it once was. It may seem like He’s gone silent, or even worse, left us. It may seem like we are being punished for something. This is not the truth. The truth is that the wilderness – though difficult and often painful – is when we get to mature as followers of Christ, to learn to rely on God rather than people or things, to stand on His promises and not be swayed, no matter what may come against us, and above all, to really draw near to Him, knowing that He never has and never will leave us. In the trough, if we respond well, Screwtape’s fears will be justified, and we will become just the sort of “creature” God wants us to be.
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