The Law of Undulation: a Concept by C.S. Lewis
In 1942, C. S. Lewis published The Screwtape Letters. The story is written as a series of letters from a senior demon, Uncle Screwtape, to a junior demon (his nephew), Wormwood. Each letter is advice on securing a man’s soul and covers many different aspects of life. Because it is written in from a demon’s perspective, Christians have to get used to the unique dialogue and characters, such as “the patient” (a man), “our father below” (the devil), and “the Enemy” (God). While the whole book is well worth reading, here I will focus on one particular concept in chapters 8 and 9, the Law of Undulation.
The Law of Undulation is explained as the peaks and troughs humanity experiences in every area of our lives, such as our work, friends and, most importantly, our relationship with God. Peak times are characterized by feelings of richness and liveliness, where everything is new and exciting. Troughs are full of numbness and poverty. Humans are by nature unstable and, according to Lewis, this roller coaster of feelings is the “nearest approach to constancy” that we will ever have.
Specifically, Lewis talks about the difference between our initial Christian experience vs. our ongoing spiritual lives. Uncle Screwtape states that God initially sets us “off with communications of His presence which, though faint, seem great to them, with emotional sweetness, and easy conquest over temptation.” Later, however, our spiritual life changes as we begin experience difficulties. Screwtape says that God “withdraws, if not in fact, at least from their conscious experience, all those supports and incentives. He leaves the creature to stand up on its own legs—to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish.”
In short, we begin our Christian life in the “honeymoon phase.” Our first love for God is all-encompassing and seems that it will carry us through to eternity. Later, however, it seems that God is nowhere to be found and we must keep being Christian regardless of our feelings. It is during these emotional troughs that Satan frequently attacks. He attacks our body, usually with lust and sexual temptation, where we take the pleasures “which God has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden.” And he attacks our mind, “making us doubt whether the first days of Christianity were not, perhaps, a little excessive.”
I think it is safe to say that every Christian experiences this undulation. In my early walk with Christ, I remember praying for God to prove his existence by getting me a Toyota hippie van (no comments please). A few weeks later, I found one for $100 (true story). I remember feeling God’s presence in every area of my life, as if completely surrounded by his love at all times. Many of my friends were using terms like “Ned Flanders” or “Bible thumper” to explain me, I was proud of it. I was even honored to be cleaning church toilets — for Jesus!
Now, it is fifteen years later. I have made many decisions of faith that have steered my life this way and that, and I have reaped the benefits of many of those good decisions. Yet no matter how much God has done for me, I still doubt Him on occasion. Sometimes, I can’t even remember why I am doing basic things like writing testimonies or doing daily devotionals. It is at these times when acts which used to bring me joy lose their fervor, and I am left wanting, sad, and alone.
My adventure through getting a doctorate has been especially trying at times. Last semester, I was studying for the last, and most difficult, exam of my last semester. For the first time since I became a Christian, I doubted God’s presence. Sure, I often feel as though God is gone, but I still know He is there. But this time I actually thought He was not with me anymore. I began to think my WHOLE grad school experience was me walking out on a limb without His holy presence protecting me. This was the most frightened I have been since I became a Christian.
So what are we supposed to do about this? How can we manage this fundamental tension? We are human, so we have extreme highs and lows. And we are Christian, so we must serve God regardless of how we are thinking or feeling at the time. In The Screwtape Letters, Lewis offers a few hints that I find helpful about how to endure the troughs.
First of all, we need to know WHY God is letting this happen to us. Screwtape tells his nephew, “Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger, than when a human, no longer desiring, but 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.” This means that God is training us to be more like Christ at these times. He allows us to understand something of what it felt like when He was alone on the cross, so that we can grow up in our spiritual lives. Our fear and feelings are not unvarnished reality. And God has a plan behind all of it. This reminds me of Joseph, who didn’t understand why he was a slave or prisoner. And Job, whose whole life was taken away. And the Apostle Paul, who was beaten, jailed, and shipwrecked. Each one of these men were trained through these hard times and made much greater than they would have been.
Second, we need to seek help from those who understand our condition. Screwtape recommends his nephew to keep his patient out of the way of experienced Christians who will offer up passages that will help him in his hour of need. Verses like Matthew 11:28-29 or Exodus 14:13-14 give us hope when we are most vulnerable. Christians who are not accustomed to troughs need to find someone they can talk to and seek help from.
Knowing that we will surely experience this Law of Undulation, we can use our peak times to prepare for the troughs. We all need to come together as the Body of Christ and reach out for help or offer help to those in need.
What about you? Have you experienced this Law? Is there a particular Bible verse or passage that has helped you in times of fear or doubt? Have you been helped out of a trough by a brother or sister in Christ?