Thursday, April 28, 2011

C.S. Lewis and Petitionary Prayer

C.S. Lewis and Petitionary Prayer

An important figure in the discussion concerning petitionary prayer and God’s providence is C.S. Lewis. Lewis has written many major works on Christian living and apologetics. He has written essays on the subject of petitionary prayer, and one of his works entitled, Letters to Malcolm, was published posthumously and dedicated as a discourse on prayer. The intent of this article is to examine what C.S. Lewis believed regarding petitionary prayer in four of his works. First, we will examine three of his essays on prayer, and finally we will examine portions from his aforementioned book.

Let us first consider the reason this topic is of interest to Lewis and myself. Lewis wrote in his essay entitled “The Efficacy of Prayer” that, “I have stood by the bedside of a woman whose thighbone was eaten through with cancer and who had thriving colonies of the disease in many other bones as well. …A good man laid his hands on her and prayed. A year later the patient was walking…and the man who took the last X-ray photos was saying, “These bones are as solid as rock. It’s miraculous.””[1] The woman he refers to here is Joy, his wife of little over three years. The essay, was written approximately nine months before his wife was once again diagnosed with cancer in 1959. She died on July 13, 1960.[2] It was after this point that he began working on A Grief Observed, a notebook of his thoughts concerning his grief after the passing of his wife. In it he writes, “What chokes every prayer and every hope is the memory of all the prayers H. and I offered and all the false hopes we had. Not hopes raised merely by our own wishful thinking, hopes encouraged, even forced upon us, by false diagnoses, by X-ray photographs, by strange remissions, by one temporary recovery that might have ranked as a miracle.”[3] He was at the end of his life when he wrote those words, and it seemed that at the point of his wife’s death all of his contemplation on the concept of petitionary prayer was being tried in a furnace. It is my belief that Lewis overcame those final, dark two years before his own death.

Our first essay under consideration is entitled “Work and Prayer” (1945). The question that this essay opens with is, “If He is all-wise, as you say He is, doesn’t He know already what is best? And if He is all-good won’t He do it whether we pray or not?”[4] He begins by stating that this is a common argument against petitionary prayer, because God does not need us to inform Him of anything. He already knows it, and He will act in the best way regardless of our petitions—if it is good, He will do it, and if not, He will not. Lewis writes, “In neither case can your prayer make any difference. But if this argument is sound, surely it is an argument not only against praying, but against doing anything whatever?”[5] He goes on to explain and illustrate how our prayers are no different from our everyday actions. If our objective in prayer is that something we desire to occur be realized, then it is no different from our physical attempts to make something be realized. Lewis then notes, “Why wash your hands? If God intends them to be clean, they’ll come clean without your washing them. If He doesn’t, they’ll remain dirty…however much soap you use.”[6] Essentially, Lewis is saying that because we have the capacity to cause (from a human perspective) real events, we have an obligation and responsibility to act. Our prayers are no different from those actions.

Lewis indicates in this essay that we do have some free will. He writes, “Everyone who believes in God must therefore admit (quite apart from the question of prayer) that God has not chosen to write the whole of history with His own hand. …It is like a play in which the scene and the general outline of the story is fixed by the author, but certain minor details are left for the actors to improvise.”[7] After reading this previous statement, one might be tempted to think that Lewis is not a determinist. Lewis, however, uses this analogy in some of his other works in order to “[emphasize] God’s sovereignty more than human free will. If life is like a play and God is the playwright, then all events in life are planned from the beginning.”[8] Some things, the minor details, are within the bounds of our control. He reasons, “It may be a mystery why He should have allowed us to cause real events at all; but it is no odder that He should allow us to cause them by praying than by any other method.”[9] If our actions are indeed causes, then our prayers are so all the more. Lewis concludes this essay by stating that work and prayer are not entirely different. He illustrates this by saying that when one weeds his field, that one is not acting much differently from when that one prays for a good harvest. Work and prayer, though distinguished in some sense, are similar enough to say that if work has merit, then so does prayer.

The next of Lewis’ essays under consideration is one entitled, “Petitionary Prayer: A Problem Without an Answer” (1953). The main idea of this essay concerns petitionary prayer as found in Scripture. According to Lewis, there seemed to be at least two different patterns of prayer. What he calls the “A Pattern” refers to the prayer that Christ taught us to pray in the Lord’s Prayer and the prayer that Christ prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, “Thy will be done.” Lewis wrote we ought to pray “…well aware that God in His wisdom may not see fit to give us what we ask and submitting our wills in advance to a possible refusal which, if it meets us, we shall know to be wholly just, merciful, and salutary.”[10] Lewis is content with this first pattern as his model for prayer.

He goes on to note that “…whatever faith the petitioner has in the existence, the goodness, and the wisdom of God, what he obviously, even as it were by definition, has not got is a sure and unwavering belief that God will give him the particular thing he asks for.”[11] According to Lewis, this is because, by definition, praying “Thy will be done” is far from the kind of praying faith that has certainty of receiving that request. Here Lewis hits a snag. The “B Pattern” of prayer is not simply a prayer with a general sort of faith but “…faith that the particular thing the petitioner asks will be given him.”[12] Lewis then goes on to list numerous verses from the New Testament that involve certain figures whose ailments were healed as a result of their faith. He continues listing verses that have a direct relationship between prayer and faith. His first reference is Matthew 21:21.[13] Of course, Lewis believed this to be a hyperbole, and not a literal transformation of landscape. Rather, he believed the point to be, “…that the condition of doing such a mighty work is unwavering, unhesitating faith.”[14] The prayer of Christ in the Garden seems to be at odds with the prayer that requires faith. He examines Matthew 21:22[15] more closely. “Can we even here take pisteuvonteV to mean ‘having a general faith in the power and goodness of God’? We cannot.”[16] Lewis references Mark 21:23-24 where it mentions that what we are to believe is that we get “all things” asked for. He feels that it is very difficult to reconcile these two patterns. Nonetheless, Lewis is quick to observe that at times he feels that God is the one who gives such faith that is unwavering. When this seems to be the case, he advocates that we pray after the “B Pattern.” If for other reasons we have not the faith to pray with such confidence, then we must pray after the “A Pattern.”

In the final essay under consideration, entitled, “The Efficacy of Prayer” (1959), Lewis, in commenting on a specific incident where a man’s prayers were seemingly answered by Lewis himself, wrote, “It awed me; it awes me still. But of course one cannot rigorously prove a causal connection between the [man’s] prayer and my visit. It might be telepathy. It might be accident.”[17] In other words, how does one know that the thing that happened wasn’t going to happen anyway? In this essay, Lewis explores the possibility of providing some sort of evidence or analogy in an attempt to better understand a causal connection in petitionary prayer. He concludes that, “Empirical proof and disproof are…unobtainable.”[18] The very thing that one sets out to accomplish by praying as an experiment[19] is destroyed by the fact that one tries to accomplish it with intentions other than receiving an answer to that prayer.

He goes on to explore by means of analogy an understanding of what prayer is like. We ask people for things all the time. In those petitions, “Our assurance is quite different in kind from scientific knowledge. It is born out of our personal relation to the other parties; not from knowing things about them but from knowing them.”[20] For Lewis, petitions to another person are real and effective, and they in some sense “work” when we have a relationship with that person. We have assurance because we know God. Lewis finds that only those who best know God know best whether or not He answered certain prayers. This may work both ways—those who know God best know best what to pray for.

Lewis, however, disliked using the word “work” in conjunction with prayer. He writes “The very question “Does prayer work?” puts us in the wrong frame of mind from the outset. “Work”: as if it were magic, or a machine—something that functions automatically.”[21] Lewis believed that prayer was either an illusion or a real connection between God and man. This brings Lewis to another matter. He asks, “Can we believe that God ever really modifies His action in response to the suggestions of men? For infinite wisdom does not need telling what is best, and infinite goodness needs no urging to do it. But neither does God need any of those things that are done by finite agents, whether living or inanimate.”[22] Lewis says that, although God needs nothing from mankind, He still allows His finite creatures to operate in fallible ways rather than to accomplish His ends apart from His creation. He wrote, “Perhaps we do not fully realize the problem, so to call it, of enabling finite free wills to co-exist with Omnipotence. It seems to involve at every moment almost a sort of divine abdication.”[23] For Lewis, this is the reason for petitionary prayer. It is necessary because God has allowed us to become participants in his Creation as co-creators.

In conclusion of his essay, Lewis writes, “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.”[24] From this last statement, it seems that Lewis believes in a sort of determinism, where our actions are held within God’s supreme providential causes. Our prayers, then, are to be like any of our other actions, which are part of God’s working in creation.

The final work under consideration is Lewis’ series of fictional letters to a fictional character in a book entitled Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, written subsequent to his wife’s death.[25] Once again, in considering prayer, Lewis seems to have been deterministic in a different sense. In contemplating the different objections to petitionary prayer, Lewis writes, “There is, for example, the Determinism which, whether under that name or another, seems to be implicit in a scientific view of the world. Determinism does not deny the existence of human behaviour. It rejects as an illusion our spontaneous conviction that our behaviour has its ultimate origin in ourselves.”[26] Lewis believed, then, that every action, voluntary or involuntary, results from causes outside ourselves, or from within ourselves which has its origin as a result of external causes. “I am a conductor, not a source. I never make an original contribution to the world-process. I move with that process not even as a floating log moves with the river but as a particular pint of water itself moves.”[27] Lewis continues by saying, “But even those who believe this will, like anyone else, ask you to hand them the salt. …If a strict determinist believed in God (and I think he might) petitionary prayer would be no more irrational in him than in anyone else.”[28] It is difficult to actually pinpoint what Lewis believes in terms of God’s providence, but in a later chapter of his Letters to Malcolm, he indicates that Scripture says, ““Work out your own salvation in fear and trembling”—pure Pelagianism. But why? “For it is God who worketh in you”—pure Augustinianism. …We profanely assume that divine and human action exclude one another like the actions of two fellow-creatures so that “God did this” and “I did this” cannot both be true of the same act except in the sense that each contributed a share.”[29] It seems that Lewis advocates a sort of providence that is compatible with human free will. In conclusion, Lewis was not a very strict determinist, and he had some Molinistic tendencies.[30] As far as his understanding of providence was concerned, petitionary prayer still mattered immensely, because it worked in conjunction with God’s providence.

In summation, C.S. Lewis believed that petitionary prayer not only had merit, but that it mattered just as much as any other action mattered. Works and prayer are essentially on the same level. If our works can cause events, why cannot our prayers cause events any less? Lewis also believed that Scripture lays out two different patterns of petitionary prayer. The “A Pattern” makes perfect sense and would seem to be the best model for prayer. The “B Pattern” however, is somewhat problematic in lieu of the former pattern. Though it is difficult to reconcile the two patterns, Lewis believed that each pattern bore significance in a Christian’s life whether or not that Christian has the kind of faith necessary to pray after the “B Pattern.” Lewis also believed that there was no empirical way of determining a causal relationship between petitionary prayer and answered prayer. Rather, the best way of understanding petitionary prayer is through relational means. Because we know God, we can know that He answers prayer. Finally, Lewis understood that our prayers work in conjunction with God’s working in the world in some mysterious way, just as our actions are somehow compatible with God’s providence. In our attempts at understanding how petitionary prayer fits into out lives, we can learn many practical insights from C.S. Lewis. He had many of his own experiences with answered petitions. At the end of his life, after his wife died, he struggled for a time but eventually felt God’s presence once more. “I have gradually been coming to feel that the door is no longer shut and bolted,” he wrote.[31] According to Lewis, petitionary prayer, the door upon which one “knocks and receives,” is a wide-open reality.

Works Cited

Gresham, Douglas. Jack’s Life. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2005. Print.

Lewis, C.S. Christian Reflections. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1967. Print.

---. God in the Dock. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1970. Print.

---. A Grief Observed. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1961. Print.

---. Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace, 1964. Print.

---. The World’s Last Night and Other Essays. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace, 1960. Print.

Vaus, Will. Mere Theology: A Guide to the Thought of C.S. Lewis. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004. Print.

End Notes

[1] The World’s Last Night, LN 3-4.

[2] Gresham 157.

[3] A Grief Observed, AGO 30.

[4] God in the Dock, GD 104.

[5] Ibid. 105.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Vaus 53.

[9] GD 106.

[10] Christian Reflections, CR 143.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid. 144.

[13] “Our Lord says… ‘If you have faith with no hesitations or reservations, you can tell a mountain to throw itself into the sea and it will’” (CR 146).

[14] Ibid. 147.

[15] “And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith” (CR, n.2 147).

[16] Ibid. 147.

[17] LN 3.

[18] Ibid. 6.

[19] Lewis gave the illustration of an experiment where one prays for hospital A and not hospital B, to see if there are less deaths as a result. However, he concludes that the moment you begin such an experiment, you’ve lost the purpose for praying. You are no longer praying for healing, you are praying to see what happens. (LN 5-6)

[20] Ibid. 7.

[21] Ibid. 8.

[22] Ibid. 8-9.

[23] Ibid. 9.

[24] Ibid. 10.

[25] Gresham 161.

[26] Letters to Malcolm, LM 36.

[27] Ibid. 37.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid. 49-50.

[30] At the same time, it seems that he believes in middle knowledge (though as far as I have read, I have never come across his usage of the word). This is one way in which he attempts to explain the causal relationship between prayer and answers, for he writes, “I would rather say that from before all worlds His providential and creative act (for they are all one) takes into account all the situations produced by the acts of His creatures. And if He takes our sins into account, why not our petitions?” (LM 50). Because God sees everything as an ever-present now, He sees our prayers and takes them into account.

[31] AGO 46.


Aronne said...

I don't think Lewis' logic in the 1945 paper gets us anywhere. His later papers make more sense.

Great job on putting all this together, DM.

De Mentor said...

Oh, it does! Immensly so! You see, Lewis essentially says that the means of God working in the world is/can be through our prayers and petitions. If God wants our hands to be clean, we have to say that it will happen. However, it will not happen unless we wash our hands (but it could in other ways if God so saw it fit to be done through such other means; for sake of argument, He chooses not to)! God's causing in the world is in some sense our causing in the world. Lewis would say, however, that God is the originator of all causes, as evidenced by his statements in Letters to Malcolm.

Once again, to reiterate, Lewis does say that God seems to "delegate" much of the accomplishing of His will and purposes to humanity, regardless of how well they can do it. So his 1945 essay does further expound what Lewis believes concerning petitionary prayer. Petitioning God is equated on some level as working in the world. If work is effective, then so with prayer.

But perhaps it was my take on his 1945 paper that does not quite accurately reflect his logic. Perhaps you could further expound as to clarify which part seems not to get us anywhere? I would be happy to comment more.

Fitzbattleaxe said...

The first part mostly. It sounds terribly clever, but saying prayer is no different from regular actions is not very practical. The fact is, prayer and regular actions appear very different to us. Lewis analogy doesn't reconcile the two.

De Mentor said...

I must further clarify then. Hmm... Perhaps I will post his one paragraph on the harvesting analogy. The important thing to remember, however, is that Lewis does draw a distinction between the two. No, they are not the same. But if I, in some sense, can consider the actions I put forth as the cause of certain events (in lieu of God's providence), then my petitions have got to have the same effect. The main difference is that our actions are held within the bounds of this physical universe. Prayer is a petition for God to intervene, to go beyond our boundaries, to by-pass anything, uninhibited by "space and time".


John Terry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Terry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Terry said...

Found your blog. It is full of really good information. Thank you for sharing. If you ever need service on air conditioning repair please visit us at We would love it if you would have a look at some of our blogs and let us know your thoughts.