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A Problem in Prayer:


Learning to Ask as We Ought

As C.S. Lewis ended his lecture on petitionary prayer, he asked his audience of clergymen a question: “How am I to pray this very night?” He did not know. “I have no answer to my problem, though I have taken it to about every Christian I know, learned or simple, lay or clerical, within my own Communion or without” (C. S. Lewis: Essay Collection, 204).

What problem could he not solve? In short, he could not reconcile the seemingly mutually exclusive ways in which we are taught to make our requests known to God.

The first way, which Lewis calls “the A Pattern,” is the “Thy will be done” prayer. The deferential prayer, the creaturely prayer. We bring our requests to our All-Wise Father, but leave them at his feet to answer how he sees best.

Jesus taught us to pray this way in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done” (Matthew 6:10). Jesus prayed this prayer himself in that most dire hour in Gethsemane, when he first asked for deliverance from the cup and yet ended, “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus assures us that our Father in heaven will give us good things when we ask him, but often not the exact thing we ask for (Matthew 7:9–11). We ask for “bread” and only know our Father will not give us a “serpent.”

So far, so good.

Ask Whatever I Wish?

Then comes “the B Pattern,” the “Ask whatever you wish” prayer. Instead of explicit deference, this prayer requires faith that what is actually prayed will be given by God. “Whatever you ask in prayer,” the perfect Pray-er also taught, “believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:24). Or again, “And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith” (Matthew 21:22). This pattern requires “faith that the particular thing the petitioner asks will be given him” (199).

Jesus is not bashful to teach this pattern. “Ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15:7). Jesus (not some modern prosperity preacher) teaches, “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:13–14John 15:716:23–24).

So, the question: “How is it possible at one and the same moment to have a perfect faith — an untroubled or unhesitating faith as St. James says (James 1:6) — that you will get what you ask and yet also prepare yourself submissively in advance for a possible refusal?” (Letters to Malcolm, 35).

When he (now we) bend the knee in prayer, interceding for ill Mrs. Jones, by which pattern do we pray? Do we ask for her healing if the Lord wills (Pattern A)? Or should we pray for her healing in Jesus’s name, expecting — and not doubting — this to happen?

Lewis wrestles:

Have all my own intercessory prayers for years been mistaken? For I have always prayed that the illnesses of my friends might be healed “if it was God’s will,” very clearly envisaging the possibility that it might not be. Perhaps this has all been a fake humility and a false spirituality for which my friends owe me little thanks; perhaps I ought never to have dreamed of refusal, μηδὲν διακρινόμενος [without doubting]? (Essay Collection, 203)

If we pray prayers of deference (Pattern A) when we should have prayed prayers of assurance (Pattern B), could we be the doubter who clogs the drain of his own prayers (James 1:6–8)? Yet, if we pray Pattern B when A was best, we expose ourselves to presumption, false expectation, and disappointment.

What Wicked Men Understand

To deepen the question, we hear this same promise on the lips of another in the Gospel of Mark. Though he was a wicked man, the scene provides another valuable lens.

When Herodias’s daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests. And the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it to you.” And he vowed to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.” (Mark 6:22–23)

This, you remember, is how John the Baptist’s head ends up on a platter. What did he mean by this promise? When Salome requested the prophet’s head instead of half the kingdom, “the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her” (Mark 6:26). He realized (and assumes his guests realize) that having promised “whatever she wished” up to half the kingdom, anything other than John’s head would break his word.

This understanding strikes the nerve of our silent misgivings over Pattern B. What do we make of the unanswered prayers of so many saints who thought they prayed with expectant faith? “Every war, every famine or plague, almost every death-bed, is the monument to a petition that was not granted” (Letters to Malcolm, 35). Again, he sees no problem with Pattern A — God always knows best. But how can we comfortably make eye-contact with Pattern B when it contrasts so much with our experience, dwelling now on the borderlands of the unbelievable?

Unhappy Birthdays

Some hurry to man the gap between the promise and our apparent experience of the promise by insisting that “whatever you ask” really means “whatever you ask . . . according to his will.” They cite 1 John 5:14: “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.” See, “according to his will.” Whatever is not a blank check in which one can write “a new Ferrari” or “a Christian spouse” or even “the conversion of my son” and safely believe to have it. Only checks that accord with his definite plan will cash.

Lewis finds this answer unsatisfactory.

Dare we say that when God promises “You shall have what you ask” he secretly means “You shall have it if you ask for something I wish to give you”? What should we think of an earthly father who promised to give his son whatever he chose for this birthday and, when the boy asked for a bicycle gave him an arithmetic book, then first disclosing the silent reservation with which the promise was made? (Essay Collection, 203)

Although the book might be better for the child, Lewis argues it arrives with a sense of “cruel mockery” for the boy without his bicycle. And Lewis’s understanding that sees whatever as quite simply whatever accords better with Herod’s understanding as well.

Splashing in the Shallows

As I wrestled with the tension Lewis exposes here, I began to realize a problematic tendency in my own prayer life: How often I have defaulted to Prayer A as a way to protect unbelief?

How many of my own If the Lord wills prayers have, beneath the surface, really been prayers saying, “I don’t really expect you to answer, so I’ll not get my hopes up?” How much has unbelief masqueraded, in Lewis’s words, as “fake humility and a false spirituality”? A tying of a rope around my waist as I venture out to meet Jesus upon the waves — just in case.

How many of us are men and women of little faith, not seriously considering Prayer B as an unconscious strategy to ward off suspected disappointment? I see this most in myself in my willingness to pray grand and abstract prayers, but rarely granular and specific prayers. Even if I ask Whatever I want prayers, they’re general requests that beget general (and open-ended) answers. But if I pray specific, time-dependent prayers, I know whether they’re answered as I prayed them or not.

Although I abide in Christ, ask in his name, have his words indwelling, possess a concern to bear fruit for his fame, I too often beach-dwell, splashing in the shallows of prayer, tempted to distrust that I ever will see whales and dolphins in the depths, as God offers.

Where Did Lewis Land?

How does Lewis answer his own riddle? Lewis guesses that Prayer B prayers must be expressions of a special God-given faith for specific kingdom work.

My own idea is that it occurs only when the one who prays does so as God’s fellow worker, demanding what is needed for the joint work. It is the prophet’s, the apostle’s, the missionary’s, the healer’s prayer that is made with this confidence and finds the confidence justified by the event. (Letters, 37)

In other words, this is a special “prayer of faith” for God’s fellow-workers. And the faith for this prayer, for Lewis, is not manufactured by us through a feat of “psychological gymnastics,” rather, it is God-given. We do not clench our fist and furrow our brow and prod our imaginations and confuse this with faith. God must give the gift. “For most of us,” Lewis admits, “the prayer in Gethsemane is the only model” (Letters, 37).

So, how should we pray tonight?

Lewis reasons along these lines, “Can I ease my problem by saying that until God gives me such a faith I have no practical decision to make; I must pray after the A pattern because, in fact I cannot pray after the B pattern? If, on the other hand, God ever gave me such a faith, then again I should have no decision to make; I should find myself praying in the B pattern” (Essays, 204).

Even this solution, however, did not ease all tensions,

But some discomfort remains. I do not like to represent God as saying “I will grant what you ask in faith” and adding, so to speak, “Because I will not give you the faith — not that kind — unless you ask what I want to give you.” Once more, there is just a faint suggestion of mockery, of goods that look a little larger in the advertisement then they turn out to be. (204)

How Will You Pray This Night?

For my own part, I look forward to help from wiser, more experienced saints. I confess my weakness, that I still do not know how to pray as I ought (Romans 8:26). Yet doesn’t Paul unearth a secret to our trouble with the next line commending the Spirit’s help to our faltering prayers? “The Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words,” and, “the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8:27). He always prays B-pattern prayers on our behalf (if so they can be called). So, I must pray as I’m able, knowing that the Spirit’s groans make up perfectly for my ignorance.

How will I petition this night? I will petition God as one who loves God, his glory, his church, and his world. I will petition to bear fruit and to see souls bow to Jesus. And I will pray for faith to pray more boldly, more expectantly, as one who has a check signed by the King. I pray to experience this prayer of faith (if so it is). And I also pray reverently, “Thy will be done,” leaving room in my prayers for his will, the Spirit’s groans, but not for unbelief.

How will you pray this night?


 is a staff writer for desiringGod.org and graduate of Bethlehem College & Seminary. He and his wife, Abigail, live in St. Paul with their son and two daughters.


The Reactionary Savage:


Lewis’s Warning to Intellectuals

C.S. Lewis’s Pilgrim’s Regress is an allegory about the life of the mind — Lewis’s mind — as it wrestles with the soul’s desire for God. Filled with allusions to Lewis’s own intellectual development, the book is equal parts fascinating and impenetrable. Its full original title gives you a taste of what you’re in for: The Pilgrim’s Regress, or Pseudo-Bunyan’s Periplus: An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason, and Romanticism. No wonder Lewis would later apologize for its “needless obscurity” in an afterword to the third edition (207).

Still, Pilgrim’s Regress is worth the work — especially if you can find the recent annotated edition, which supplies explanatory notes, including some written by Lewis himself. What you find is that Lewis’s pilgrimage reflects not merely the familiar desire to lose the burden of guilt, but also the desire to satisfy his soul’s thirst, his soul’s longing. Pulled between the competing demands of intellectual consistency and bodily passions, the pilgrim is led by a glimpse of eternity. It pulls him in and through the false offers of the world, often in spite of his own weaknesses.

The Stern North

Since The Pilgrim’s Regress is about Lewis’s own “return,” it has all the features of the early-twentieth-century academic class. Lewis’s pilgrim struggles with classic temptations like lust and pride, but they frequently take the form of ideologies. His allegorical foils include “Puritania” and “Victoriana,” as well as personifications of Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche. Lewis even makes space for his contemporary pilgrim intellectuals on their own journeys, both divine and devilish.

In one of the more arresting scenes, Lewis shows us the northernmost extremity of the journey. Described as the “sterner regions of the mind” (94), the northern territory is where “the tough-minded” go. Their great opponent is what they view as a childish sentimentality, the tendency to still hold to emotions, hopes, and dreams — all of which they believe are illusions. The northern men are intellectual, but harsh and cynical. They believe they have seen through all the deceptions.

But they are not the final mountain peak. No, the top of the mountain is something more: a figure called Savage. Dressed in a Viking helmet and quoting Nietzsche and Wagner, Savage is terrifying, “almost a giant.” He’s joined by a Norse sorceress and sings the philosophy of heroic violence in epic verse. Here are a few of his convictions, the first about ordinary simple men and the second about self-important intellectuals:

These are the dregs of man. . . . They are always thinking of happiness. They are scraping together and storing up and trying to build. Can they not see that the law of the world is against them? Where will any of them be a hundred years hence? (105)

The rot in the world is too deep and the leak in the world is too wide. They may patch and tinker as they please, they will not save it. Better give in. Better cut the wood with the grain. If I am to live in a world of destruction let me be its agent and not its patient. (106)

This northern Savage has rejected attempts at morality and even rationality, at least as traditionally understood. To him, everything is ultimately meaningless because it will crumble. All men will die. The only eternal thing is “the excellent deed.” A more common expression today might be “the will to power.”

Servants of Savage

Savage is giant, but there are many varieties of dwarves that work for him. These dwarves can “reappear in human children” and take on many variations, though they are ultimately animated by the common spirit of Savage.

Among these dwarves are the Marxomanni, Mussolimini, Swastici, and Gangomanni (105). Here Lewis is illustrating the social and political breakdown of the 1920s and ’30s by showing us violent Marxists, Fascist revolutionaries, and American gangsters. Each movement, whether highbrow or lowbrow, had given up on the ordinary rules of society, had given up on law and order, and had instead decided to impose its will through brute force. They are dwarves, but they regularly show up among the children of men. They are, all of them, servants of Savage.

The Pilgrim’s Regress was originally written in 1933, the same year Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany. While the savagery and mania of Nazism can be taken for granted by modern writers, this was not true in the 1930s. Indeed, one of Lewis’s own heroes, G.K. Chesterton, was more than partially taken in by fascism. And while never a proponent of Nazism, Chesterton did frequently explain its attraction as an understandable response to modern social decay (The Sins of G.K. Chesterton, 183–84, 213–22). When considered from that context, it’s quite remarkable that Lewis was able to see fascism for what it was: the dwarf-servant to savage nihilism.

Three Pale Men

There’s another layer to Lewis’s tale, though. One of the more obscure parts, he singles it out as a “preposterous allegorical filigree” (215). Yet, when decoded, it speaks to our moment in a powerful way. This is the scene of the “three pale men.” These are men of the north. They conceive of themselves as fully rational and realistic. They have no interest in romantic ideals. Indeed, they are a sort of intellectual reaction against Romanticism (which was itself a reaction against the first round of the Enlightenment). They consider themselves extremely deep thinkers who have worked through all the other failed theories and movements. They represent a sort of “return” to older ways.

One of these pale men is Mr. Humanist, representing an embrace of Renaissance and Enlightenment thought, though stripped of all idealist and romantic elements. Another is Mr. Neo-Classical, a character obsessed with antiquity, but also without its mystical or religious elements. The third pale man is Mr. Neo-Angular, and Lewis’s notes describe him as “the more venomous type of Anglo-Catholic.” Neo-Angular insists on dogma and what he takes as “Catholicism.” This seems to mean the universal and undiluted faith, but Mr. Neo-Angular’s true defining characteristic is his opposition to experiential religion. He has no time for “subjective” motivations (98). He rejects the pilgrim’s affective “soul longing” as a form of escapism and “romantic trash” (99).

The pale men do not expect to find good in this world, so they turn their attention to a distant past and an ever-stoic lifestyle. In the case of Mr. Neo-Angular, affection is also reserved for the future, the eternal life in heaven. Until then, a strict sort of spiritual segregation is expected. This world is not home. The men are “very thin and pale” (94), and their food is described as perfectly cubic in shape and “free from any lingering flavour of the old romantic sauces” (95). As an allegory, they are the various paths the reactionary mindset can take, varieties of elitist intellectual retreats to philosophy or religion without any of the affections or social graces.

Reactionism’s Dead End

When these pale men hear about Savage, two of them are put off, but Mr. Neo-Angular is attracted. “I should like to meet this Savage,” he says. “He seems to be a very clear-headed man” (107). From Savage’s own point of view, Mr. Neo-Angular has the most potential. “He said that Angular might turn out an enemy worth fighting when he grew up” (106). What is Lewis telling us about the relationship between a wholly institutionalized and stoic “Catholicism” and the savage spirit that animated Marxism, Fascism, Nazism, and Gangsterism?

Lewis’s point is not a simple slippery slope. He is not saying that a harsh and rigid “high church” Christianity leads to fascism. Instead, he is saying that those represented by Mr. Neo-Angular are caught in the same reaction to modernity as is fascism. What they believe to be a sophisticated and mentally strong rejection of “romance” is simply another version of the nihilism hollowing out the broader society.

Mr. Neo-Angular “relegates” and “transfers” the mystical and affective elements wholly to the life to come (and perhaps within the particular bounds of a worship service), but this leaves the rest of life to follow the same harsh rules as the non-Christian follows. That Mr. Neo-Angular likes what he sees in Savage shows us that he also has a certain quest for the “heroic” that could lead to prioritizing the will, power, and even violence. Professing to reject all romance, or to limit it wholly to the spiritual realm, the deepest hunger of the soul nevertheless expresses itself, but through political domination and anti-social violence.

Led and Kept by Longing

Lewis’s core apologetic in The Pilgrim’s Regress is that a sort of romance is natural, good, and inescapable. In fact, it is the way that God draws all of us to himself. He wants his creatures to find satisfaction, fulfillment, and joy. These desires are not to be cast off and rejected but rather embraced as means by which we might find our eternal satisfaction: life with God himself.

Mr. Neo-Angular represents a sort of Christianity that claims to reject affections. It has no interest in emotions. It will “taste and see” when it gets to the life to come. But this is self-deception. Such forms of religion can never eliminate the human urge and its spiritual longing. To the extent that they refuse to be satisfied by God in this life, they will invariably be satisfied by something else in this life — and probably by dark and sinister things.

Put in a positive conception, Lewis also explains why intellectual and “tough-minded” Christians can go in for extreme reactionary movements. The fascist movements in Portugal and Spain both clothed themselves in the garb of Catholicism. In our own day, Vladimir Putin makes overtures to the “trad” Christian base, with more than a little fanfare. This works because such people are longing for a natural satisfaction that has been obscured by secularizing ideas and movements, but they respond in a newly disordered way. The promise of the “heroic” is an echo of the divine. But imitation gods are demons.

This isn’t a warning only for Lewis’s opponents. Throughout his literary corpus, “the north” is typically a good place for Lewis. He favors Norse tales. His own brand of Anglicanism, while not quite fully Anglo-Catholic, was certainly more “high church” than anything else. In The Pilgrim’s Regress, these symbols that might otherwise symbolize Lewis himself are shown to have their own dangers and temptations — dangers that could lead to destruction.

And so too for readers of Lewis, for intellectual Christians who appreciate the classics, for traditional and “tough-minded” pilgrims — we also need to see the dangers that most threaten us. Our “return” must be along a path of truth. Our enlightenment must expose ourselves. And we must bare our hearts so that their true desires might be fulfilled by God forever.


 (@wedgetweets) is the pastor of Christ Church Anglican in South Bend, Indiana. He is one of the founding members of The Davenant Institute and is a regular columnist for World Opinions. He and his wife have three children.

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