Gently Apply the Brakes

Gently Apply the Brakes

In September 1961, an English teacher at Fort Hamilton High School in Brooklyn, New York challenged his class to write a letter to an author they had recently read. One of the students was Harvey Karlsen, a member of 59th Street Lutheran Brethren Church and a senior at Fort Hamilton High School.

Harvey had just finished reading a creative and insightful book on temptation by C.S. Lewis. The book, The Screwtape Letters, is a series of letters written by a high ranking demon named Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood, a younger and less experienced demon.

On September 24, 1961, having been warned not to expect a response, Harvey sat down and penned a letter to the famous author and Oxford professor.

Dear Sir:

I have read your book titled The Screwtape Letters and it brings a question to mind. I, too, have received Jesus Christ as my personal Savior and I realize the power Satan has. My question is: when you wrote The Screwtape Letters, did Satan give you any trouble, and if he did, what did you do about it?

I would appreciate it if you would tell me this and at the same time give me some instruction as to what one should do when temptation occurs.

Sincerely yours,

Harvey Karlsen's Signature


On the 13th day of October, 1961, C.S. Lewis sat down to write a response to the young student from Fort Hamilton High School in Brooklyn, New York.

Dear Mr. Karlsen:

Your letter did not reach me till today. Of course I have had and still have plenty of temptations. Frequent and regular prayer, and frequent and regular communions are a great help, whether they feel at the time as if they are doing you good or whether they don’t. I also found great help in monthly confession to a wise old clergyman.

Perhaps, however, the most important thing is to keep on; not to be discouraged however often one yields to the temptation, but always to pick yourself up again and ask forgiveness. In reviewing your sins, don’t either exaggerate them or minimize them. Call them by their ordinary names and try to see them as you would see the same faults in somebody else—no special blackening or whitewashing.

Remember the conditions on which we are promised forgiveness; we shall always be forgiven provided that we forgive all who sin against us. If we do that we have nothing to fear. If we don’t, all else will be in vain.

Of course there are other helps which are mere commonsense. We must learn by experience to avoid either trains of thought or social situations, which for us (not necessarily for everyone) lead to temptations. Like motoring—don’t wait till the last moment before you put on the brakes but put them on gently and quietly, while the danger is still a good way off.

I would write at more length but I am ill. God bless you.

Yours sincerely,


Two years later, on November 22, 1963, at the age of 64, C.S. Lewis died of kidney failure. In 1971 (approx.) Walter Hooper, C.S. Lewis’ private secretary, took out an advertisement in Christianity Today. The advertisement stated that C.S. Lewis had a habit of personally responding to those who wrote to him, and that the Bodleian Library in Oxford, England was compiling a collection of those letters. Harvey Karlsen sent his handwritten letter from C.S. Lewis to Oxford, where it remains to this day.

In March 1992, Harvey Karlsen was invited to Walter Hooper’s home for tea. During their conversation, Mr. Hooper told Pastor Karlsen that he had read many letters penned by C.S. Lewis and yet he had not seen Jack (as he was known to his friends) address the subject of temptation as clearly and concisely as he had in his letter to Harvey.

Rev. Harvey Karlsen is an Ordained Pastor in the Church of the Lutheran Brethren serving with InterFACE Ministries, a nonprofit educational Christian organization that networks international students and scholars with culturally sensitive Americans who enjoy the open exchange of ideas.

C.S. Lewis was a novelist and Christian apologist born in Belfast, Ireland. He held positions at both Oxford University and Cambridge University. He is best known for his books The Screwtape Letters, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Space Trilogy, Mere Christianity, Miracles and The Problem of Pain.

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