C.S. Lewis: On Prayer

Can we believe that God ever really modifies His action in response to the suggestions of men? For infinite wisdom does not need telling what is best, and infinite goodness needs no urging to do it… For He seems to do nothing of Himself which He can possibly delegate to His creatures. He commands us to do slowly and blunderingly what He could do perfectly and in the twinkling of an eye. He allows us to neglect what He would have us do, or to fail. Perhaps we do not fully realize the problem, so to call it, of enabling finite free wills to co-exist with Omnipotence. It seems to involve at every moment almost sort of a divine abdication. We are not mere recipients or spectators. We are either privileged to share in the game or compelled to collaborate in the work, ‘to wield our little tridents.’ Is this amazing process simply Creation going on before our eyes? This is how (no light matter) God makes something — indeed, makes gods — out of nothing.

from “The Efficacy of Prayer,” The World’s Last Night and Other Essays, by C.S. Lewis

It’s time to dive deep into another favorite C.S. Lewis quote! Now, this one is on prayer, which we know is one of the things in Christian faith that seems a little mystical. We don’t actually knows what happens when we pray, right? It’s like the wind: you can’t actually see it, but you see its effects.

Leave it to ol’ Clive to give us some insight onto the divine side of something we can’t explain. Let’s take it a couple lines at a time!

Can we believe that God ever really modifies His action in response to the suggestions of men? For infinite wisdom does not need telling what is best, and infinite goodness needs no urging to do it… “

First, I can tell your initial answer is most likely “yes”. That’s where I landed, too! And my answer was “yes” because I know stories like Lazarus coming back to life, the fiery one of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, or the time Joshua asked God to make the sun stand still. In just these three stories, we see the characters ask for a change in outcome… and God delivers.

However, what Lewis is arguing is whether or not the changes came about because a creature asked that it should be done, or was it in God’s plan to do so anyway?

We can, obviously, never know God’s intentions — nor should we really speak for him — but I would guess that the answer is the latter. If we credit the spiritual greats in the Bible with the miracles, then the miracles no longer belong to God. It lessens his involvement. While I think it’s important that they acted and asked for these changes to happen, God 1) knew they would ask, 2) loves his creations enough to know what is needed, 3) would respond according to what the grand plan was, and 4) simply loved being asked to intervene at all.

The second line mentions that God is omniscient (all knowing) and omnibenevolent (all good). Because we know these are two of the four main characteristics of God, we have to believe that God doesn’t need convincing to act. He’s not the jury — he’s the judge. He doesn’t require influence or counsel because he will act in the way that is highly fitting and in such a way that brings him glory.

So, is it likely that God modifies the grand plan because we asked him to? Probably not. I think it’s just us catching up to the plan he already had in place.

For He seems to do nothing of Himself which He can possibly delegate to His creatures. He commands us to do slowly and blunderingly what He could do perfectly and in the twinkling of an eye. He allows us to neglect what He would have us do, or to fail.”

Such good points made in these lines! For me, this starts all the way back in the Garden. In Genesis, we see God create everything, throw a man and woman into it to tend to the garden and expand it, and then allows them to rule the area by themselves. I think I first have to point out that this is proof that God does not control us like puppets because, if you enjoy controlling everything in your life (hi, me too!), then you know how difficult it is to truly step away and hand off something you worked so hard on to someone else.

My Enneagram 1 brain is desperate for this answer: Why would a perfect God, whose abilities far outweigh my own, be okay with my failure in regards to his creation?

I strongly believe that when it comes to a project, let someone who is gifted and passionate about doing something do it. If it’s not your wheelhouse but you just want control over it, you will end up missing the mark on that project every time. That’s pride. But thank God we don’t serve a prideful God.

He graciously allows us to learn from what he’s created and expand and improve upon it. The sign of a good teacher is patience and willingness to let a student fail so that they can learn. I think it’s safe to say that this was God’s intention with us, too.

Perhaps we do not fully realize the problem, so to call it, of enabling finite free wills to co-exist with Omnipotence. It seems to involve at every moment almost sort of a divine abdication. We are not mere recipients or spectators. We are either privileged to share in the game or compelled to collaborate in the work, ‘to wield our little tridents.'”

We and the Divine have the option to not take a suggestion from the other. Don’t take that lightly because God could very well have said, “This is how it will be and that’s the end of it.” But he chose to give us free will so that we might come to know and love him willingly, not by force.

That same sentiment continues when we make a mistake or suffer a tragedy. His “divine abdication” allows us an experience that couldn’t have been learned otherwise. I’m not a parent, but I understand how difficult it can be to watch a toddler continue to push a triangle plastic piece into an oval shaped hole! I imagine it’s the same for God, but instead of being frustrated at our finitude, he smiles knowing that he made us this way.

The reference at the end is from a beautiful poem by John Milton called Comus and you can read it here. The line in which Lewis quotes refers to a god who “commits to several government, / And gives them leave to wear their sapphire crowns / And wield their little tridents.”

Translation: the little “g” god in this story similarly reflects the intention of our big “G” God. Creations will, when left to their own devices, inevitably build hierarchy and systems with which to rule the created world — for good or otherwise. God graciously allows us to continue these little causes but knows that he has the final say and rule.

Is this amazing process simply Creation going on before our eyes? This is how (no light matter) God makes something — indeed, makes gods — out of nothing.

Whatever we are, whatever we build down here, it’s all a reflection of what God has made us to do. I wouldn’t consider God to be secretive, but he’s certainly not an open book test. He will not give us all the answers we want in a trial. That’s why desperate prayers sometimes feel like they fall on deaf ears. But that only illustrates our limitations, not God’s.

There will probably never be a day that you ask the sun to stand still and God obliges. There may also never be a resolution to your marriage or your illness that ends happily. But there is a God who, like a good engineer, planned out his creation and its abilities and gifts so that it could navigate this world in the way it was intended to.

You know… I said God wouldn’t give us an open book test, but the opposite is true too. You always have access to the blueprint for Creation. Pouring over scripture will always be a helpful resource, but prayer? It’s an inexhaustible connection to the One who created you for him.

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