In Printer’s Devil, a Twilight Zone episode that first aired in 1963, Burgess Meredith plays an impish little man named Mr. Smith who applies for a job as typesetter at a failing small-town newspaper called the Danzburg Courier. Told there is no money to pay him due to the paper’s precarious financial condition, Mr. Smith immediately offers to cover its debts with a loan out of his own pocket. He turns out to be a virtuoso on the Courier’s ancient linotype machine and a crack reporter to boot. He has the uncanny ability to show up at the scene just as news is breaking. He composes his story right on the linotype machine, then has the paper printed and out on the street within the hour, scooping the rival chain newspaper that had been threatening to put the Courier out of business. Soon Mr. Smith has made adjustments to the linotype machine that seemingly enable him to make news as he composes his story.
All of this appears at first to be a huge stroke of luck for the Courier’s owner and editor, Douglas Winter, played by Robert Sterling. Circulation doubles, then triples, and Winter is soon out of debt. But his good fortune comes at the expense of all those whose misfortune enables the Courier to scoop the competition. A bank is robbed. The local high school principal is discovered to be a bigamist. A honeymoon couple drowns in a canoeing accident. A building collapses. Then the rival newspaper office burns down, and the owner accuses Winter of arson. By now Winter realizes he has gotten in way deeper than he bargained for – not the least because of that little promissory note Mr. Smith has cajoled him into signing, which requires him to surrender his immortal soul once he has no further need of it. Winter demands to know whether Mr. Smith has had anything to do with the fire at is competitor’s office. Mr. Smith, who has a habit of lighting his crooked little cigars with a flame that shoots from his forefinger, airily replies that the fire was caused by an electrical malfunction. How is Winter going to beat the devil and redeem his soul? Suffice it to say he finds a creative use for Mr. Smith’s tricked-up linotype machine to give the story a happy ending.
Most of us would never sell our souls for personal gain, at least not explicitly. Nor would we dream of praying that misfortune befall others so we might benefit. And yet we give far too little thought to what we are asking when we pray that good things happen to us. Praying for a winning lottery ticket might seem an innocuous enough request, but consider the position we are putting God in. We are asking him to deny the winning ticket to someone who may be more deserving than ourselves. Even praying that we will have sunny weather for a picnic could mean that a farmer’s fields will not get the rain they so badly need. “We do not know how to pray as we ought,” St. Paul told the Romans. Indeed not; in fact, most of what passes for prayer resembles nothing so much as a pact with the devil.