Throughout his life, C.S. Lewis wrote several essays, letters and newspaper pieces defending the Christian faith. Many are compiled in the book, God in the Dock, in which, I recently stumbled upon a short reflection on prayer. Consistent with his reputation, Lewis gave me a lot of chew on.
Lewis wrestled with two primary frustrations many experience with prayer: first, the peculiarity that God seemingly needs our advice in the first place and, second, that God sometimes (or even often) doesn’t do what we ask Him to. We all know that God doesn’t look to us for wisdom, so why have Christians historically offered prayers for daily bread, for the sick, for protection and for salvation? And why do so many Christians learn through experience that God reserves and often claims the right to say no?
It’s here that Lewis paints a picture that I think is very helpful, emphasizing God’s purpose in allowing us to participate with Him in His story.
We know that we can act and that our actions produce results. 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. Most of the events that go on in the universe are indeed out of our control, but not all. 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. 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 (pp. 105-106).
This is a helpful way to think about serving God through both our work and our prayer. In these ways, God allows us to participate in His story. He has established several major plot points, but much of the story is left to us. It’s a mystery that we are allowed to participate in the story at all and even more so that part of our role includes prayer.
Not only does God let us play our part, but He also invites us to come to Him with inquiries and requests about how the story might proceed. In prayer, we can participate in story changes that couldn’t happen in any other way than that the Author divinely intervene. In the grandest story ever told, God has written into the story His own willingness to hear and respond to His people’s desires.
However, God graciously does not hand the script over to us and allow a complete rewrite. He has, as any storyteller should, reserved the right to accept or deny our requests. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make them, only that there are parts of the story He will preserve.
Again, Lewis says it best,
Prayers are not always—in the crude, factual sense of the word—’granted.’ This is not because prayer is a weaker kind of causality, but because it is a stronger kind. When it ‘works’ at all it works unlimited by space and time. That is why God has retained a discretionary power of granting or refusing it; except on that condition prayer would destroy us. It is not unreasonable for a headmaster to say, ‘Such and such things you may do according to the fixed rules of this school. But such and such other things are too dangerous to be left to general rules. If you want to do them you must come and make a request and talk over the whole matter with me in my study. And then—we’ll see’ (p. 107).
Admittedly, it can be easy to get frustrated with prayer, especially when we’ve seen a lot of our requests refused. But perhaps the problem is that we don’t understand the story well enough. We often think we know how the present scene should go, but a quick study of history shows many brilliant scenes when people suffered and the story got even better.
In our times of prayer, the more we know the Storyteller and the story He’s telling, the more we will rejoice in prayer, regardless of how He answers, because we trust Him and that His story will prove spectacular nevertheless.