Today’s featured book comes from the writings of C.S. Lewis. Browsing my campus library, I found Christian Reflections, a collection of papers Lewis wrote. A close friend of his, Walter Hooper, gathered together these papers after Lewis’ death and got permissions to print them. The papers come from three decades of Lewis’ work and some had never been printed before.
It looked interesting, and who can turn down C.S. Lewis? Well, I mean, what person breathing Christian theology would? Anyway, one essay caught my eye in the back of the book, which means Lewis wrote it closer to the end of his life. It’s titled, “Petitionary Prayer: A Problem Without an Answer.”
As it turns out, I’ve long wondered about the function of petitions in prayer. One of my favorite verses is Matthew 7:7 where Jesus says, “Ask and it will be given to you.” The only problem is, a lot of times God doesn’t give us what we ask. Many people have left their faith because they prayed for healing but a loved one died anyway. Others get frustrated because they pray and don’t receive a well-paying job, relief from a chronic pain, or peace with their family. I’ve struggled with my own unanswered prayers or prayers that get an answer I didn’t want.
Which has made me wonder, “What’s the point in asking?” Why should we share prayer requests when we meet for Bible studies? Why should we ask friends to pray for us when we’re sick or injured? What difference does it make? Even praying for God’s will doesn’t make an impact on the outside world. God will follow his will whether or not we remember to ask for it.
I believe it’s better he acts on his will rather than granting our foolish wishes. God will always know what is best for us, and you can be sure he’s looking to give you the best in your life even if it isn’t what you want. But how much does God take what we pray for into account? What impact can our prayers have on the mind of God?
Lewis partly addresses this confusion concerning petitionary prayers. Mainly, he asks how we should come to God with our requests. He says the Bible gives us two patterns of petitionary prayer. The first can be seen used by Jesus himself at Gethsemane.
“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done,” he prayed (Luke 22:42).
Jesus asked that God would provide another way and spare him, and yet, he desires the Father’s ultimate will above his own. This example suggests we should pray with the submission that God may refuse our requests.
“If the faith which is demanded of us were always a faith in the goodness of God, a faith that whether granting or denying He equally gave us the best, and never a faith that He would give precisely what we ask, I should have no problem,” Lewis writes.
The problem starts with the second biblical pattern. This example of prayer encourages that God will accomplish our requests when we have faith in him to do so. Lewis referred to Matthew 9:20-22 when a woman with chronic bleeding says to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed.” Jesus then turns to her and responds, “Your faith has healed you.”
The Gospels are full of such miracle-by-faith passages. If these don’t give us enough confidence in the second pattern, Jesus states even more explicitly, “Very truly I tell you, all who have faith in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it” (John 14:12-14).
The Bible gives us clear instructions to pray in faith and receive “whatever” we ask. But of course, any child who prayed for a pony and didn’t find it in the yard Christmas morning can tell you we don’t always get what we ask for. It isn’t a guarantee. What does that say about Jesus’ promise?
Lewis puts forward a few explanations he’s heard but finds holes in each one. It seems. by all the evidence, these two patterns of petitionary prayer are contradictory. Which is it? Either we’re supposed to seek God’s will first and foremost, acknowledging our prayers may be refused, or else we’re expected to come before God in complete faith so he will reward our faith with our desires.
Surprisingly, Lewis did not find a solution to this problem. Possibly the most well-known theologian of the 20th century had a question he could not answer. In a way, I took it as encouraging to know even C.S. Lewis felt lost sometimes and could admit it.
He concludes, “The faith that moves mountains is a gift from Him who created mountains.” So he expects to only pray in the first pattern unless God gives him the faith necessary to pray as in the second pattern. If God gives him the faith, then he would pray with the second pattern. This suggests that God chooses who shall pray in which way. It isn’t a choice we have to make because he chooses it for us. Even with this explanation, Lewis isn’t satisfied.
Neither am I, to be honest. I pray God will answer this prayer for understanding.