C. S. Lewis on the Problem of Unanswered Prayers

I admire much about C. S. Lewis’s writings. He’s a great model of thoughtful engagement with his faith. The more I read of his, the more aware I am of how much deep reading and deep thinking lie behind his sentences.

But I am equally impressed – honestly, maybe more impressed – by how clear his prose is. He can be writing about difficult topics, and he phrases things carefully, with a clarity rarely matched. I often pause to think more deeply about the subject he is addressing, but rarely do I have to stop and work hard to understand him.

A few months ago, I was reading his essay, “Petitionary Prayer: A Problem Without an Answer.” I’d been meeting weekly with a group of college students, discussing Origen’s work on prayer. (Origen was an early Christian theologian.) And when I read how Lewis set up a common theological problem with prayer – that we are told that God would answer our prayers and that the Bible and our own experience show us that there are unanswered prayers – I found it to be another occasion when Lewis worded a problem so well.

Lewis mentions that one “pattern of prayer” is to qualify our prayers with “Thy will be done.” In praying so, we recognize that our specific prayer requests might go unanswered, but that what God wants will be done. But, yet, we are also called to have faith that God would “give precisely what we ask” and not simply that He would give us “the best.”

Lewis writes:

“It is as if God demanded of us a faith which the Son of God in Gethsemane did not possess, and which if He had possessed it, would have been erroneous.”

C. S. Lewis, “Petitionary Prayer: A Problem Without an Answer” in Christian Reflections, p. 144

What a great way of stating the problem of prayer. Some verses read as if we are called to have a faith that our requests will be answered, which is precisely the kind of faith Jesus did not have the night before his death.

How could one not read that sentence and grasp both the logic and the emotion of the problem?

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