Of all the things that can come between people and poison life in community, possessiveness is perhaps the most common. In C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape, a senior demon, advises his inexperienced nephew, Wormwood, on how best to corrupt a human.
My dear Wormwood,
...The sense of ownership in general is always to be encouraged. The humans are always putting up claims to ownership which sound equally funny in heaven and in hell, and we must keep them doing so. Much of the modern resistance to chastity comes from people’s belief that they “own” their bodies – those vast and perilous estates, pulsating with the energy that made the worlds, in which they find themselves without their consent and from which they are ejected at the pleasure of Another! It is as if a royal child whom his father has placed, for love’s sake, in titular command of some great province, under the real rule of wise counselors, should come to fancy he really owns the cities, the forests, and the corn, in the same way as he owns the bricks on the nursery floor.
We produce this sense of ownership not only by pride but by confusion. We teach them not to notice the different senses of the possessive pronoun – the finely graded differences that run from “my boots” through “my dog,” “my servant,” “my wife,” “my father,” “my master,” and “my country,” to “my God.” They can be taught to reduce all these senses to that of “my boots,” the “my” of ownership. Even in the nursery a child can be taught to mean by “my teddy bear,” not the old imagined recipient of affections to whom it stands in a special relation (for that is what the Enemy will teach them to mean if we are not careful), but “the bear I can pull to pieces if I like.” And at the other end of the scale, we have taught people to say “my God” in a sense not really very different from “my boots,” meaning “the God on whom I have a claim for my distinguished services and whom I exploit from the pulpit – the God I have done a corner in.”
And all the time the joke is that the word “mine” in its fully possessive sense cannot be uttered by a human being about anything. In the long run either Our Father [the devil] or the Enemy will say “mine” of each thing that exists, and especially of each man. They will find out in the end, never fear, to whom their time, their souls, and their bodies really belong – certainly not to them, whatever happens. At present the Enemy says “mine” of everything on the pedantic, legalistic ground that he made it. Our Father hopes in the end to say “mine” of all things on the more realistic and dynamic ground of conquest.
From Called to Community: The Life Jesus Wants for His People chapter eighteen.
C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: Macmillan, 1982), 95–99. Copyright © 1942 C. S. Lewis Pte. Ltd. Extract reprinted by permission.