How to Pray: Through the Eyes of C. S. Lewis
The last book C. S. Lewis prepared for publication before his death was meant to be the sequel to The Screwtape Letters. Originally, he wanted the sequel to stand in a sharp contrast as one angel wrote to another about how to elevate and encourage someone. Yet he was filled with hesitation, not thinking anyone could write such a sequel justly.
We’re all bent more toward the devilish than the angelic, Lewis believed, and the result instead was a modest book in which Lewis writes to his friend Malcolm, a fictitious character. While Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer only contains Lewis’ side of the correspondence (unlike The Screwtape Letters) it’s about two men encouraging one another to follow Jesus more nearly in general, and in prayer in particular.
From the get-go, Lewis poses a question several of us have, “What’s really happening when we pray?” And he proposes that it’s this: we’re not merely giving information to God; we’re giving ourselves. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we’re always and completely known by God. That’s unchangeable. What varies is the quality of our being known. Instead of being known by God simply because of his omniscience, through our giving of information and requests we’re also giving ourselves. In this way prayer is an offering, an act of surrender. For a mother to know her child because she has birthed and raised that child is one thing; but for a mother to know her child because that child has shared their hopes, dreams, and fears with her, is quite another.
Perceptively shooting an arrow through the heart of the struggle for many of us, Lewis says this: “We want to know not how we should pray if we were perfect but how we should pray as we now are . . . we must lay before him what is in us, not what ought to be in us.” What he’s affirming is that believers won’t be perfect, and if any of us wait around for that process to reach its culmination, no prayer will happen. Our frequent tendency is to put up a front with God and say things that make us sound like we’re much farther along in our pilgrimage. Yet doing so isn’t really to offer ourselves to God at all, but to offer a façade or cheap imitation of someone else we want to be. We only fool ourselves, not the God who knows us to the deepest depths.
Therefore Lewis submits, “Begin where you are.” That’s to say, begin with where you are in life and what few words you can muster. We might think our opening words to God must be specific and distinct as Lewis once did, believing he had to start by summing up his beliefs about the greatness and goodness of God. This isn’t to suggest, of course, that we shouldn’t give God the due veneration. Our adoration is inseparable from our prayers. Unlike gratitude that exuberates with thanks for something God has given, adoration is employed because of who God is. Lewis describes it this way: “One’s mind runs back up the sunbeam to the sun.” And allowing ourselves the experience of the sunbeam itself is to adore.
So when you pray, don’t allow yourself to be strapped down by the worries of what to say and how to say it. All of that will come. For now, just show up. Be still; be silent even. Rest in the spaciousness of God’s love as you now are. Because to come to him as the person you think you “ought” to be is really not to come to him at all.
What do you think is really happening when we pray? Would you agree with Lewis, or do you have a different perspective? Leave a comment. I’d love to hear your thoughts.