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 14:13–14; John 15:7; 16:23–24).
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?
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?
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?