Begin Where You Are

How to Renew Your Prayer Life

Begin where you are. This simple sentence, tucked away in C.S. Lewis’s book Letters to Malcolm, has the potential to transform your prayer life. In four basic words, it ties together a biblical vision of prayer that avoids two errors that often smother our thanksgiving and adoration of God and hinder our requests to him, especially in relation to earthly blessings and goods. Consider these errors, and whether you recognize them in your own life.

The first I’ll call worldly prayers. Such prayers, though offered by a Christian, are in reality no different from those that an unbeliever might pray. Twice in Matthew 6, Jesus draws a contrast between the prayers and aims of the Gentiles and the prayers and aims of his followers.

When you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matthew 6:7–8)

Do not be anxious, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. (Matthew 6:31–32)

Jesus criticizes both the manner of unbelieving prayers (empty phrases and many words) and the aims of unbelieving prayers (anxiously seeking earthly provision and material goods). Christ’s warning implies that his followers can wrongfully imitate unbelievers at precisely these points. We can seek material blessings as our highest goods, anxiously craving and desiring them. And then, we can attempt to manipulate God into providing us these blessings, treating him like a butler who exists solely to supply our earthly needs and preserve our earthly happiness.

False Spirituality

In reaction against the danger of worldly prayers, some Christians fall into a second error, which we can call false spirituality: a pious refusal to pray for earthly goods at all. Because we see the danger of worldly prayer around us, we begin to regard praise and communion with God as the only true forms of prayer.

The only blessings we thank him for are spiritual blessings, the kind set forth in Ephesians 1. Thus, we praise him that he chose us, predestined us for adoption, redeemed us by Christ’s blood, forgave us for our trespasses, and sealed us with his Holy Spirit, all to the praise of his glorious grace. Likewise, the only requests we make to him are for spiritual goods — for holiness, for help to walk in his ways, for filling with the Holy Spirit.

Clearly, such prayers are good prayers. The falseness comes from the word only. We may not use this word directly, but we may still subtly begin to operate according to it. The only requests that truly please God are those for spiritual things. The only thanksgiving that truly honors him is gratitude for spiritual blessings.

This attitude ignores the plain and simple fact that Jesus taught us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). What’s more, it ignores the litany of passages in the Psalms where the psalmists seek God for deliverance from earthly enemies, ask him to supply earthly needs, and render him thanks for earthly kindnesses. The Bible is filled to the brim with thanksgiving and supplication for earthly provision and blessing.

And so, to avoid both errors, we offer spiritual prayers for earthly goods. And “begin where you are” can help.

From Pleasure to Thanks

Lewis commends this principle as a way of fostering worship and adoration. We often find that spiritual blessings, being invisible, feel abstract to us. However much we may want to summon a heart of worship for God’s attributes, character, and saving acts, our hearts struggle to get off the ground. Lewis’s principle encourages us to begin with the concrete and the present.

The earthly blessings that surround us, however minor, are present to us in ways that help us to begin. A warm shower, shoes that fit, a satisfying breakfast of biscuits and gravy, indoor heating in the middle of winter, the laughter of your children, a hug from your spouse — all of these are concrete blessings, extended to you with kindness from God. “His mercy is over all that he has made” (Psalm 145:9).

“Direct your attention to the mercies that press upon you at every side, and see them for what they are.”

Thus, Lewis says, rather than try to conjure up feelings of adoration directly, direct your attention to the mercies that press upon you at every side, and see them for what they are. They are beams of glory, striking our senses, giving us pleasure, and inviting us to chase them back to the sun. Every pleasure, Lewis says, can become a channel of adoration when we experience the pleasure and then frame it rightly as a message of kindness from our generous Lord.

Lewis, therefore, encourages us to attend to our pleasures and then to give thanks for them — to say, “How good of God to give me this,” elaborating on this with all the concrete specificity we can muster. “Thank you, Lord, for the smoothness of the table, the softness of my socks, the sweetness of the honey, the silliness of my son, and the wisdom and compassion of my wife.”

From Thanks to Adoration

Then, having given thanks, we follow the sunbeam back to the source, turning thanksgiving into adoration. “Such earthly blessings, O Lord, are simply the far-off echoes of your own bounty and goodness. These are but the fringes of your ways, and at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”

From our first breath in the morning to our last conscious thought as we rest our head on our pillow, Lewis encourages us to receive God’s earthly kindness, to give thanks for God’s earthly kindness, and then to leap from that gratitude to the heights of worship, weaving in the spiritual blessings of redemption, forgiveness, and sanctification all along the way.

“The higher does not stand without the lower,” Lewis reminds us (87). And that’s why we must begin where we are.

One must learn to walk before one can run. So here. We — or at least I — shall not be able to adore God on the highest occasions if we have learned no habit of doing so on the lowest. At best, our faith and reason will tell us that He is adorable, but we shall not have found Him so, not have “tasted and seen.” Any patch of sunlight in a wood will show you something about the sun which you could never get from reading books on astronomy. These pure and spontaneous pleasures are “patches of Godlight” in the woods of our experience. (91)

Daily Bread, Heavenly Bread

The same principle applies to our requests. Though the Gentiles seek for earthly goods (food, shelter, clothing), Jesus does not tell us to cease praying for such gifts. Instead, he exhorts us to “seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33), and then to pray for our daily bread.

We see this in the Lord’s Prayer itself. The request for daily bread is sandwiched between “Hallowed be your name” and “Yours is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever.” In other words, our requests for earthly provision are framed and animated by our desire for the sanctifying of God’s name and the coming of his kingdom.

Framing the prayer for earthly provision in this way enables us to avoid the foolishness of unbelieving manipulation that Jesus condemns. How many of us have earnestly desired some earthly good, but instead of asking God directly for it, have asked instead for some spiritual good in hopes that he’ll see our spiritual request and throw in the earthly good for good measure? Is this not the equivalent of piling up empty phrases and many words in order to trick God into giving us what we really want? Is there not a fundamental dishonesty at the heart of such pious prayers?

Instead, begin where you are — with the desires and needs and anxieties that you actually have. The daily needs are real, and we are taught to ask for them directly. Bring them before God honestly, with no pretense or fakery. No doubt, our earthly desires are often excessive or misplaced. But the best way to reorder them is to bring them to God and let him do the moderating and refining.

“Prayers for daily bread lead naturally (or supernaturally) to prayers for heavenly bread, for the bread of life.”

In this way, we can begin where we are, but unlike unbelievers, we can press beyond where we are. We don’t seek merely the earthly provision; we seek God’s kingdom first, above all, as our highest good. Thus, as with gratitude, we ask for the earthly good, and then we press through the desire for the earthly good to a deeper desire for the heavenly good. Prayers for daily bread lead naturally (or supernaturally) to prayers for heavenly bread, for the bread of life.

Your Heavenly Father

Finally, don’t miss what ties all of these prayers together — the goodness of our heavenly Father. Why don’t we pile up empty and manipulative words for what we need? Because our heavenly Father knows what we need before we ask (Matthew 6:8). Why don’t we anxiously pursue earthly goods? Because our heavenly Father knows that we need them all (Matthew 6:32).

And this presses home the goodness of beginning where we are and asking for daily bread. Just the other day, I was burdened by an earthly problem. I could see no earthly way out of it. And so, I bowed my head and asked God for help. “I don’t know what to do, Lord. You will have to do something. Make a way.” Thirty minutes later, the answer came, clear as a bell.

Had I not prayed for the provision, I might have missed out not only on the blessing (since God does truly answer prayer) but also on the kindness and care of “our Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:9). When I begin where I am, I pray to him who knows my needs before I ask, and who tells me to ask anyway, because he loves to give good gifts to his children (Matthew 7:11).