C. S. Lewis Part 2: An Answer to Prayer

12 Jan

The search continues.

With a little googling, I found another essay on prayer by C. S. Lewis. This one, titled “The Efficacy of Prayer,” printed in another collection, The World’s Last Night and Other Essays. You can read the essay on Scribd, so you have no excuse to miss out. I’ve never heard of Scribd before, but apparently it’s “the world’s largest social reading and publishing company.” Sounds interesting. I’ll take another look later.

But back to Lewis. “The Efficacy of Prayer” again tackles (or at least arm wrestles) the two patterns of prayer the Bible gives us. He focuses more this time on the confusing connection between praying and getting what you ask. He starts off by making the clear conclusion that prayer isn’t something we can test and prove scientifically. We can’t run experiments to see whether prayer actually does anything for us.

Lewis suggests it might help comparing prayer to our usual requests of other people. One example he uses that I particularly liked was a man asking a woman to marry him. Even here, there is no way to prove causation between the proposal and engagement.

“As for the lady who consents to marry you—are you sure she had not decided to do so already?” Lewis wrote. “Your proposal, you know, might have been the result, not the cause, of her decision. A certain important conversation might never have taken place unless she had intended that it should.”

An accurate observation, Lewis. Well done. He then draws the relation between asking something of your lady friend and requesting something of your Lord. We must have the same doubt of causation when we receive something from God. Our prayer may have already been something he intended to give us. Going on, Lewis points out that really we shouldn’t even discuss prayer as in whether it “works.” That suggests that prayer is some form of magic to use to get what you want. Lewis corrects this thinking.

“Prayer in the sense of petition, asking for things, is a small part of it; confession and penitence are its threshold, adoration its sanctuary, the presence and vision and enjoyment of God its bread and wine,” Lewis wrote. “In it God shows Himself to us. That He answers prayers is a corollary—not necessarily the most important one—from that revelation.”

So petitionary prayer is interaction with the living God, not a scientific process that obtains wishes. God isn’t a genie. And here comes my most serious question: “Can we believe that God ever really modifies His action in response to the suggestions of men?”

As Lewis explains: “For infinite wisdom does not need telling what is best, and infinite goodness needs no urging to do it.”

Why would God need or want to hear human requests? What good could they do? Then again, God often uses finite means to carry out his infinite will. He allows us to act in his plans, even though an all-powerful god would not need our help. He allows us to impact the world with our actions.

“It is not really stranger, nor less strange, that my prayers should affect the course of events than that my other actions should do so,” Lewis wrote. “They have not advised or changed God’s mind—that is, His over-all purpose. But that purpose will be realized in different ways according to the actions, including the prayers, of His creatures.”

We are not watching a movie of life without any power to decide the story. We are players in the greatest video game. God allows us choices. Even with this understanding, Lewis still resists a firm conclusion like he did  in “The Problem of Petitionary Prayer.”

“The reality is doubtless not comprehensible by our faculties,” Lewis wrote. “But we can at any rate try to expel bad analogies and bad parables. Prayer is not a machine. It is not magic. It is not advice offered to God. Our act, when we pray, must not, any more than all our other acts, be separated from the continuous act of God Himself, in which alone all finite causes operate.”

To leave off, he dispels one last misunderstanding. He says answered prayers, when we receive what we requested, do not prove a stronger relationship with God. The example of the Son of God in Gethsemane should be enough to show this. If God refused Jesus, how can we claim a stronger faith is necessary for answered prayers?

C. S. Lewis has covered most of my struggles with prayer and at least eased them if not gave me a complete assurance. His reasoning makes sense and has given me a new perspective to consider. I agree with his half-hearted conclusion that we can never fully comprehend the reality of God’s world. There will always be questions, and I can be content with that. What would life be like without a little mystery? The point is to keep asking the questions and trust that one day God will help me understand.

The search continues.


Posted by on January 12, 2012 in Books


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4 responses to “C. S. Lewis Part 2: An Answer to Prayer

  1. Michael Bouterse

    January 12, 2012 at 7:26 pm

    Really wonderful post. Thanks so much for exhorting me to “ponder in my heart” the deep things of God.

    To further fertilize your intellectual thicket (sorry), I think of the Trinity. The Trinity is union within the Godhead and is the paradigm of the eternal condition that God’s salvation and sanctification is achieving for us, the “prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Ph. 3:14).

    If the Trinity is the paradigm of divine unity, then it is the paradigm of divine conversation. And given that the Trinity models our subsumption into unity with God through our identification with Christ (1 Jn. 3:2), then it is also the paradigm of how we should converse with God. The Trinity is the template of prayer.

    Prayer, then, touches not only mystery but the very sancrosanct essence of our Trinitarian God. Therefore, it is no wonder that I do not understand the mechanics of how prayer corresponds to the will and actions of God. But if prayer is a shadow of what happens inside the Trinity, then prayer is the firstfruits of consummate union with God. There is no action in all of creation that is more worth our time. Hence we are commanded to practice it ceaselessly (1 Th. 5:17).

    Prayer is just talking and listening. It’s so easy. It’s also the most profound activity in which a human being can engage. May the grace of that reality bring me to my knees.


  2. Sam

    September 23, 2013 at 3:51 am

    Very interesting post. I read the Lewis article on Scribd as well. He makes some excellent points, but I think there are holes in a lot of them For instance, he says that we can’t prove prayer empirically. That may well be true, but does that mean we can’t prove anything about it at all? For instance, what if all the courts of our land declared, “We can’t prove whether someone is guilty or not empirically, so we just won’t bother to try to prove anything at all”? How much sense would that make? Just as with a trial, we can gather enough kind of evidence IMO to decide whether petitionary prayer actually does what it’s supposed to. Based on what I’ve experienced, I know that in general it works. The problem is that it doesn’t *always* seem to work.

    Lewis also says that certain promises in the Gospels can’t mean what they seem to. That may well be true, but he doesn’t offer any explanation about what he thinks they *do* mean, or why Jesus phrased the promises that way.

    Here’s one approach to the problem of unanswered prayer. I think almost every Christian would agree that God answers their prayers *some* of the time. I think they would also agree that they see more results in certain areas than others. So, one solution would be to place most of your prayer time/effort on the “high yield” areas, and little if any on the “low yield” areas.

    Here are a few examples: a) family b) stress/anxiety c) weather d) sports.
    Let’s say that whenever you pray for your family’s health and well-being, or for relief of stress/anxiety and for peace, you often see good results. However, let’s say that when you pray concerning the weather or the outcome of sports events, you see very little “fruit” for your effort and end up feeling very frustrated. Common sense, then, would dictate that you devote much more time/energy to a) & b), and little if any to c) & d). Your expectations will also be lowered for c) and d), which means you will be less likely to be frustrated in those areas.

    In general, one of the things that frustrates me about prayer is that God can often seem so capricious at times. For instance, let’s say you’ve prayed about a certain area for years, with reasonably good results. Then all of a sudden, sometimes it seems God just stops answering. And then He doesn’t start again any time soon. That can just be incredibly frustrating, and it often makes it difficult to feel that you can really trust God. Perhaps He does this to increase our faith, etc., but I’ve found that it tends to do just the opposite in my own life.

    Another thing to keep in mind is that, even though the Bible promises a ton of stuff, it seems to be a good idea to keep your expectations realistic most of the time. That way, if God exceeds your expectations, you’ll be thrilled, but if He doesn’t, you won’t be too disappointed. There’s a line from an Aimee Mann song that I think speaks very well to this area:

    “The damage we do by the hopes that we raise.”

    One other point: I would like to know how the Early Church interpreted some of the promises Christ made concerning prayer. They seemed to understand the Bible a lot better than we do today, so it would be interesting to know what their take was on these promises.

    Anyway, those are just some of my thoughts. I enjoyed your two posts, and I agree with your overall conclusion: “The point is to keep asking the questions and trust that one day God will help me understand.” We may never understand all this stuff completely on earth, but I do think we can at least grow to understand it *better*.

  3. Sam

    September 23, 2013 at 4:04 am

    Oh, I thought of something else. I suspect one key to understanding the promises Christ made is context–both the immediate context, and the “context” of the entire New Testament. It is very easy to take verses out of context and give them the meanings we want them to have. 🙂 Jesus also spoke symbolically quite often, but whether he was actually doing that here I have no idea.

  4. Bob

    August 25, 2016 at 9:58 pm

    I once asked a theologian about “falling out of heaven”. His response was, “I’ve never been there…I don’t know.” For me, this was a very acceptable answer because it was truthful and sincere. As for Lewis’ paradox, I’ve been thinking about this for over a decade. There was a period in my life where I had to pray as if my life depended on it. I clung on to verses such as, “whatever you ask for in prayers believe you’ll receive it and it shall be yours”, “ask in faith, without doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea” and “will not God secure the rights of his chosen one who calls out to Him day and night?” If someone had told me just to ask for His will, I could have very well done that. But, then, why give us these other options? At Gethsemane, if Jesus couldn’t get things to ‘pass’, why should I think I could do any better? I, too, am dumbfounded. I believe Lewis’ conclusion is very human, genuine and sincere.


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