What Prayer Really Accomplishes

All those essays by C. S. Lewis contain nuggets that can be missed when we focus only on his more famous works. For instance, in “The Efficacy of Prayer,” written in 1959, he provides many thoughtful insights:

Prayer is either a sheer illusion or a personal contact between embryonic, incomplete persons (ourselves) and the utterly concrete Person.

That’s a good starting place for any prayer: recognize who you really are in comparison to the One to whom you are praying.

Then there are the various aspects of our prayers:

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.

There’s a lot going on in genuine prayer; it’s not just seeking God’s favor with petitions:

In it God shows Himself to us. That He answers prayers is a corollary—not necessarily the most important one—from that revelation. What He does is learned from what He is.

We are tempted at times to try to use God to get things. The temptation is to value Him as the One who provides us with what we need or want. Instead, we need to value Him just for who He is. The “things” will disappear in eternity, but the relationship with Him is what makes heaven truly heaven.

Influencing the Course of Events: A Lewis “Scrap”

God in the DockCombing through C. S. Lewis’s essays to find pertinent quotes for the paper I will be presenting at the C. S. Lewis Foundation’s summer conference, I came upon what might be called a little scribbling that I don’t remember ever reading before. It’s in the collected essays entitled God in the Dock and is called simply “Scraps.”

These seem to be just odds-and-ends comments that Lewis saw fit to put on paper, perhaps just for fun, or for future reference to use in other pieces. I’m not sure if this particular “scrap” found its way into another essay (I’m not yet Lewis-omniscient) but it works beautifully for the theme of my paper, which focuses on the responsibility of Christians to speak out in the public square.

Here is that “scrap”:

“Praying for particular things,” said I, “always seems to me like advising God how to run the world. Wouldn’t it be wiser to assume that He knows best?”

“On the same principle,” said he, “I suppose you never ask a man next to you to pass the salt, because God knows best whether you ought to have salt or not. And I suppose you never take an umbrella, because God knows best whether you ought to be wet or dry.”

“That’s quite different,” I protested.

“I don’t see why,” said he. “The odd thing is that He should let us influence the course of events at all. But since He lets us do it in one way I don’t see why He shouldn’t let us do it in the other.”

All is not settled in public affairs until we make our decisions. We do have an influence on how our society functions and on the path it will take in the future. Christians are to be involved in every aspect of society, whether it be education, entertainment, business, or politics.

I’m thinking of using this Lewis quote as the starting point for my paper. I love searching for nuggets and finding ones such as this.

Jesus & Anxiety: A Lewis Primer

Letters to MalcolmAnother C. S. Lewis book that I read recently—for the first time—is Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. One section speaks directly to me with respect to a hard time I’m going through at the moment.

We would like the world to be predictable, something we can manage according to our expectations. Lewis says we have to lay that expectation aside:

But is it not plain that this predictable world . . . is not the world we live in? This is a world of bets and insurance policies, of hopes and anxieties, where “nothing is certain but the unexpected” and prudence lies in “the masterly administration of the unforeseen.”

Nearly all the things people pray about are unpredictable: the result of a battle or an operation, the losing or getting of a job, the reciprocation of a love. We don’t pray about eclipses.

Therefore, despite our faith, we can’t avoid the potential anxieties life throws at us. Lewis seeks, though, to distinguish between anxiety and sin:

Some people feel guilty about their anxieties and regard them as a defect of faith. I don’t agree at all. They are afflictions, not sins. Like all afflictions, they are, if we can so take them, our share in the Passion of Christ.

Jesus in GethsemaneJesus, Lewis reminds us, had to suffer anxiety in order to be fully human. His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane prior to the crucifixion, held the hope, however slim, that He might not have to go through with it:

Lest any trial incident to humanity should be lacking, the torments of hope—of suspense, anxiety—were at the last moment loosed upon Him—the supposed possibility that, after all, He might, He just conceivably might, be spared the supreme horror.

If Jesus hadn’t sweat blood in the Garden, “perhaps He would not have been very Man. To live in a fully predictable world is not to be a man.”

Lewis concludes these thoughts with this:

We all try to accept with some sort of submission our afflictions when they actually arrive. But the prayer in Gethsemane shows that the preceding anxiety is equally God’s will and equally part of our human destiny. The perfect Man experienced it. And the servant is not greater than the master. We are Christians, not Stoics.

Who am I to think that I should be allowed a lifetime full of completely manageable, totally predictable moments? That expectation would place me above my Master.

I like Lewis’s final sentence very much. The Stoics attempted to glide through life unaffected by anything bad that happened. They sought to so completely control their emotions that nothing bothered them. That is unrealistic.

Christians should not expect to be unaffected by the sin and misery that are the common lot of us all, redeemed and unredeemed alike. What we have that the unredeemed do not is a Savior we can look to who knows what it is like to experience similar anxieties. He was fully human, even as He was fully God. He can come to our aid in our darkest hours.

National Day of Prayer

National Day of PrayerToday is the National Day of Prayer, not government-sponsored, but called by Christian leaders throughout our nation. Only in calling out to God will anything going wrong in this country be reversed. In the spirit of this day, I offer the following prayer.

Lord, we are in trouble as a nation, as You well know, even better than we do. The problems aren’t all at the top politically; there is a culture that has not only accepted sin but has glorified it. We need a cleansing from top to bottom.

First, I do pray for our government. We are in dire need of leaders who not only respect Your principles but who know You personally and are committed to living their lives in accordance with Your directives. You tell us to pray for all those in authority, whether they know You or not, even if they are antagonistic toward Your ways. So, in keeping with that command, I pray specifically for President Obama and all in his administration. I have no illusions about them, yet I know You can do things through them even when they don’t realize it’s You. I recall Nebuchadnezzar. He wasn’t following You, but you made him Your servant without his knowledge. Please do so again.

This prayer for leaders applies not just to the federal government; states and localities are extremely important as well. Please strengthen the hearts of governors and legislators at the state level to stand firm on Your truths. Thank You for a government that is not intended to be top-down. Thank You that we have recourse to many governments throughout the nation. Please work through them.

One of my chief concerns is education. I am more than dismayed by what is being communicated in our education system. Hold back the tide, I pray, and create a thriving private education movement that cannot be stopped, in both Christian schools and through homeschooling. Our children—the next generation—are vital to the survival of this nation.

Prayer-FerventI pray for the upcoming elections, not only at the presidential level, but at state and local levels. We are in urgent need of candidates whose hearts are truly Yours. I ask that you elevate those whose hearts are pure and who intend to do their best for You. I also ask that You expose those who are false in their professions of faith and open the eyes of American citizens to see the difference between those who have integrity and those who do not.

I also realize, though, that the key to a turnaround is Your church, broadly identified as all those, regardless of denomination, who seek Your face and are dedicated to Your truth. May we repent of any sin that stands in the way of Your favor. May we hold fast to Your Word as truth. May we stand strong in defense of the unborn and the infirm at the end of their lives. May we be bold in our proclamation of what marriage really is and what it is not. May we be willing to suffer for our faith in the same spirit as Your early disciples, and through our stand, may others be brought to repentance and saving faith also.

We are a needy people. We ask for Your mercy, which is unmerited favor. We do not merit it at all, but we plead for it anyway.

Thank You for Your love and willingness to listen to us. May You see a church, as Your Word describes, without spot or wrinkle. Help us be the Bride of Christ that You seek, and may we work with You to accomplish Your purposes in our country.

We ask all of this in the Name Above All Names, who laid down His life for us. Amen and amen.

Obama’s Moral Equivalence Ploy

The tradition of the National Prayer Breakfast started during the Eisenhower administration with the encouragement of Billy Graham, who spoke at most of them at that time. President Eisenhower sought, in those crucial years when atheistic communism seemed to be in the ascendancy, to call the nation back to its Christian roots. Those were also the years when “In God We Trust” was added to our coins and “under God” was inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance.

The Breakfast was meant to be an occasion for reaffirming our basic Biblical beliefs as a nation. It was never intended to become a lightning rod for undermining those beliefs or diminishing their inherent value to a people. Yes, a civic religion, as such, is not sufficient for salvation. That’s fine—government was never meant to be our savior; only Jesus can take that title legitimately. But I see nothing wrong with calling government officials together to acknowledge our dependence on God. It can lead to saving faith for some if the message is clear.

National Prayer BreakfastMuch has been written and said about President Obama’s remarks at this year’s Breakfast. I waited a couple of days before adding my own. First, let me say in what sense I might agree with him. Certainly, anyone in the world, both now and throughout history, can hijack a religious tradition and do things in the name of that tradition that are abhorrent. That’s called free will; God doesn’t always intervene directly to stop human beings from being foolish and/or downright evil.

From that premise, I have no problem acknowledging that many have “used” the name of Christ for their own selfish purposes, whether to gain ecclesiastical or political power or to get rid of those they consider their enemies. So far, so good.

Here are the problems with the President’s remarks.

First, he offered them as a way of deflecting attention from the atrocities currently being committed by Islamists. It’s a standard ploy when you want to minimize the terrible actions of people you seek to support. Draw attention elsewhere. Kind of like “Look! Squirrel!”

Second, he attempted to turn the whole conversation into a “moral equivalence” argument. This is what some historians have done with the Cold War. They have tried to point out America’s sins and thereby downplay the actions of the Soviet Union in the struggle. They have argued that there really is no essential difference between the sides, i.e., they are the same morally. That analysis—if that word really can apply here—ignores the actions that started the Cold War, that forced the United States to take the actions it did to defend itself, and the evil inherent in the communist system.

CrusadersThird, he twisted some history to make the moral equivalence argument. Why did the Crusades take place? Could it perhaps have had something to do with the fact that Muslims, by military might and methods of forced conversion, took over most of the the territory where Christianity began? Could it possibly have been an attempt to take back that territory that had been grabbed unjustly? Could these Crusades have been initiated to help the beleaguered Christians living in a hostile environment?

Then there’s the Inquisition. Do I agree with what happened in the Inquisition? Of course not. It was the instrument used by the Church at one period in history to try to make sure no one upset the status quo. Did some people die in the Inquisition? Yes. Was it unjust? Yes. Did the inquisitors wipe out entire populations, rape the women, and kill all the children? No.

Then there was Obama’s linkage of Christianity to the support of slavery and segregation. Some people will always use their religious beliefs to bolster other things they want to believe. One thing he left out, though, is the crucial role Christians have played throughout history to rectify those inequities. All he sees is complicity because it bolsters his theme. He ignores the other side of the story. He also says nothing about where slavery exists today, largely in the Muslim world.

What we are witnessing in our day is a large-scale attempted genocide of any people group that stands in the way of Sharia law being imposed on the entire world. It is not, as the President says, only .1% of the Muslim population that favors jihad; in some countries, according to a recent survey, almost half the population finds jihadist terrorism acceptable.

And we have a president who now seems oblivious to the inherent evil of that system of belief and who has done virtually nothing to stop it from spreading. It’s not just Al Qaeda and ISIS. Iran’s rapid development of nuclear weapons comes with its development of intercontinental ballistic missile capability. Israel is not Iran’s only target; the United States is on that list as well. Yet, what seems to be President Obama’s chief concern?

Overreact

By all means, let’s continue with the National Prayer Breakfast tradition. It has yielded some excellent speakers—Eric Metaxas, Ben Carson, Darrell Waltrip—who have boldly proclaimed Biblical truths. What we may need to do, though, for the remainder of this presidency, is to find the courage to decline the traditional invitation that allows the president to make remarks also. We would be better off as a nation if he didn’t say anything.

Finney: The Spirit of Prayer

Charles Finney, in his autobiography, provides excellent details on the many revivals that followed him as he ministered in New York in his early years as an evangelist. Yet while he does credit the message itself, he never falls into the trap of thinking the results came purely through man’s efforts. Prayer, he asserts, is the key to success:

Prayer-FerventIf anything occurred that threatened to mar the work, if there was any appearance of any root of bitterness springing up, or any tendency to fanaticism or disorder, Christians would take the alarm, and give themselves to prayer that God would direct and control all things; and it was surprising to see, to what extent, and by what means, God would remove obstacles out of the way, in answer to prayer.

In regard to my own experience, I will say that unless I had the spirit of prayer I could do nothing. If even for a day or an hour I lost the spirit of grace and supplication, I found myself unable to preach with power and efficiency, or to win souls by personal conversation.

So Finney offers a corrective to all of us who are tempted to move forward in our own strength alone. Without prayer, the Spirit of God is hampered in the work of spreading His truth. We need to do both: speak the truth and pray that God will back up the words we say with His power.

Finney: The Spirit of Prayer

Prayer meetings are supposed to be times when believers can join together to pray for God’s will to be done in the many areas of life—national, local, family, personal—with the promise that where two or three are gathered in His name, Jesus will be present via the Holy Spirit. In his Revival Lectures, Charles Finney cautions believers in his day to be sure they enter into these meeting in the right spirit, and that they not turn them into self-centered endeavors. He comments, rather forcefully,

PrayerA man who knows he is not in a spiritual frame of mind has no business to conduct a prayer-meeting—he will kill it. There are two reasons. First, he will have no spiritual discernment.

A person who is spiritual can see the movements of Providence, and can feel the Spirit of God, and understand what He is leading them to pray for. . . . He will not overthrow all the feeling in a meeting by introducing things that are incongruous or ill-timed. He has spiritual discernment to understand the leadings of the Spirit, and His workings on those who pray; and to follow on as the Spirit leads. . . .

And then, if the leader is not spiritual, he will very likely be dull and dry in his remarks, and in all his exercises. He will give out a long hymn in a dreamy manner, and then read a long passage of Scripture, in a tone so cold that he will spread a wintry pall over the meeting, and it will be dull, as long as his cold heart is placed in front of the whole thing. . . .

Injury is also done when Christians spend all the time in praying for themselves. They should have done this in their own homes. When they come to a prayer-meeting, they should be prepared to offer effectual intercessions for others. . . .

Neglect of secret prayer is yet another hindrance: Christians who do not pray in secret cannot unite with power in a prayer-meeting, and cannot have the spirit of prayer.

For Finney, prayer was not just an exercise or a discipline to be carried out as a form; rather, it was an expectation that God is present, He is listening, and the heart of the one who prays may determine whether that prayer is answered. The Christian life is not external rules, but a relationship with the One who created all things, sustains all things, and loves that which He has created.