C.S. Lewis on Prayer

TO DR. F. MORGAN ROBERTS: On Lewis’s own rules about prayer.
31 July 1954

I am certainly unfit to advise anyone else on the devotional life. My own rules are (1) To make sure that, wherever else they may be placed, the main prayers should not be put ‘last thing at night’. (2) To avoid introspection in prayer—I mean not to watch one’s own mind to see if it is in the right frame, but always to turn the attention outwards to God. (3) Never, never to try to generate an emotion by will power. (4) To pray without words when I am able, but to fall back on words when tired or otherwise below par. With renewed thanks. Perhaps you will sometimes pray for me?
From The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume III

Like Uncle Jack, who claimed to be unfit to give advice on prayer, I am possibly the least qualified to lecture anyone on how to pray, so this isn’t a how-to piece, or at least that isn’t my intention. I just want to share a couple of things that draw me closer to my Father.

Lewis offered sound advice in his letter to Dr. Roberts, as far as it went. Step one requires some trimming and sorting of your chores. Like giving, prayer is easy to procrastinate until either it doesn’t happen, or it becomes relegated to left-overs. And no, God won’t punish you for giving him your left-overs, but he won’t bless you, either.

Step two requires some discipline, and lots of practice. In one way it’s similar to falling asleep; it won’t happen as long as you’re thinking about it. Lewis’ steps two and four are so closely related that they could be two, and two-a. To avoid monitoring your prayer style you must meditate on the pray-ee, not on the pray-er. You must not gage in any way your “success” in prayer. It’s not performance-based. Which takes us to the next step.

Step three is true of both emotions and methods. Though will-power in the context in which Lewis used it—the teeth-gritting, grunting effort of a weight lifter—is inappropriate, clearing the way for genuine emotional intercourse with your Father begins with the will to do it. And again, meditation on him figuratively ushers you into his presence. Once your mind is staid on him, you’d have to be a robot not to receive a groundswell of emotion.

As to his step four: Praying without words suggests to me Romans 8:26-27. My experience tells me that I must meditate on God—who he is and what he has done, both for the world and for me personally—before I begin unrolling my shopping list. God’s attributes alone are enough to blow your mind, and when you keep envisioning his nature more and more deeply, somehow your shopping list becomes trivial by comparison. Scripture is an integral part of this meditation, so keep a list of passages that you have found meaningful, especially those dealing with his (literally) awesome qualities and works.

Please forgive me; for not being a how-to piece, that’s a lot of how-tos. I never realized I had so much to say on the subject of prayer. Now I need to take my own advice, and Uncle Jack’s, as well.

C.S. Lewis Asks, Do You Have Rats In Your Basement?

cartoon-rat

Honestly, this has little to do with rats or basements, as you’ve probably already guessed. But it has a lot to do with … well, I’ll let Uncle Jack clarify the issue:

We begin to notice, besides our particular sinful acts, our sinfulness; begin to be alarmed not only about what we do, but about what we are. This may sound rather difficult, so I will try to make it clear from my own case. When I come to my evening prayers and try to reckon up the sins of the day, nine times out of ten the most obvious one is some sin against charity; I have sulked or snapped or sneered or snubbed or stormed. And the excuse that immediately springs to my mind is that the provocation was so sudden and unexpected; I was caught off my guard, I had not time to collect myself. Now that may be an extenuating circumstance as regards those particular acts: they would obviously be worse if they had been deliberate and premeditated. On the other hand, surely what a man does when he is taken off his guard is the best evidence for what sort of a man he is? Surely what pops out before the man has time to put on a disguise is the truth? If there are rats in a cellar you are most likely to see them if you go in very suddenly. But the suddenness does not create the rats: it only prevents them from hiding. In the same way the suddenness of the provocation does not make me an ill-tempered man; it only shows me what an ill-tempered man I am. The rats are always there in the cellar, but if you go in shouting and noisily they will have taken cover before you switch on the light.
From C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity

One concept that often confuses people is “sins” versus “sin.” Sins(plural form) are simply acts that are contrary to God’s expressed will, whether or not anybody sees you do them. Some clever preacher came up with a catchy phrase about the two kinds of sinful acts: “Sins of commission, and sins of omission,” but differentiating them isn’t always easy. Sins of omission often cause sins of commission because the sinner has neglected the necessary preparation to resist temptation. It’s the old “If I had done this, I wouldn’t have done that.”

Sin(singular form), however, isn’t just one sinful act. It’s the condition humans are born into ever since that fateful day when the first humans first tried to stick it to God. We’ve all seen “fails” videos, but that was the first, and the worst, fail of all. Can you imagine how Adam felt when he realized God wouldn’t accept his cop-out? I’d say it involved the world’s first, and worst, blush. Ever since then we’ve all tried to put one over on God, whether it’s trying to con him with our lame excuses, or simply ignoring him while alleging that he doesn’t exist.

Here’s a clue: your snubbing God doesn’t hurt his feelings. And you don’t have to be an atheist to snub God. Many who claim to be Christians routinely snub him, by refusing to take their feelings, their faults, and their failures to him in prayer.

And speaking—or writing—of prayer, there’s confusion about it, similar to the confusion about sin; prayer, and prayers, aren’t the same thing. “Saying ones prayers,” implies a deliberate, one-time or routine act of devotion to God. And that’s a great thing as far as it goes. But God said he wants us to “pray without ceasing.” Fortunately, he didn’t mean we have to constantly kneel beside our beds praying. It’s much more subtle than that. He meant we need to always see, think, and do things in a way that will allow us to go to him in prayer at any instant. It’s like walking with your loved one; you won’t always have things to say at any given moment, but just being with him or her comforts and affirms you. That’s what relationship is all about.

 

C.S. Lewis Answers the Question, “Is God Despotic?”

“Those Divine demands which sound to our natural ears most like those of a despot and least like those of a lover, in fact marshal us where we should want to go if we knew what we wanted. He demands our worship, our obedience, our prostration. Do we suppose that they can do Him any good, or fear, like the chorus in Milton, that human irreverence can bring about ‘His glory’s diminution’? A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word ‘darkness’ on the walls of his cell. But God wills our good, and our good is to love Him (with that responsive love proper to creatures) and to love Him we must know Him: and if we know Him, we shall in fact fall on our faces. If we do not, that only shows that what we are trying to love is not yet God— though it may be the nearest approximation to God which our thought and fantasy can attain. Yet the call is not only to prostration and awe; it is to a reflection of the Divine life, a creaturely participation in the Divine attributes which is far beyond our present desires. We are bidden to ‘put on Christ’, to become like God. That is, whether we like it or not, God intends to give us what we need, not what we now think we want. Once more, we are embarrassed by the intolerable compliment, by too much love, not too little.”

If that excerpt from C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain seems a bit long, read it anyway. And maybe read it again, till it all soaks in. Uncle Jack expressed complex thoughts in the simplest possible language, without compromising their depth. The problem most of us have with his writing is we’re lazy, or somehow the significance of his words sail far over our heads.

The first sentence in the above excerpt introduces and defines it. The central clause of the next sentence, “our obedience,” summarizes God’s requirement of us. Then Lewis goes on to point out our rebellion’s trivial nature—trivial in the grand scheme, but fatal to us.

Finally, Lewis points out the benefits we reap by loving God according to his definition of the word. He didn’t include a Bible reference for the last bit, but I’m happy to correct that deficit:

Romans 13:12-14 The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light. 13 Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy. 14 But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts.

Galatians 3:26-29 For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

1 Peter 1:2-4 Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord, 3 as His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue, 4 by which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.

Talk about precious promises; they don’t get much better than that, for anyone who has committed to following Christ.

C.S. Lewis on Love

This is a cool quote, even though it has nothing to do with my post.

This is a cool quote, even though it has nothing to do with my post.

My Uncle Jack didn’t speak or write on love and marriage very often because he felt he didn’t have enough experience in those areas to contribute meaningfully to the body of thought on them. He was wrong, which is a statement I won’t often make about him. The following is from The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume III:

There are two kinds of love: we love wise and kind and beautiful people because we need them, but we love (or try to love) stupid and disagreeable people because they need us. This second kind is the more divine because that is how God loves us: not because we are lovable but because He is love, not because He needs to receive but He delights to give.

Those two love-categories—natural love, and godly love—are a slightly different take on love-categories, that reduces the usual three to their least common denominators. And I find it a point so well taken that I can’t add to it. Wonder of wonders!

Retrospective Christianity

Who would think that I, as into tech-stuff as I am, would pitch hindsight for our walk of faith?

David McCasland, of Our Daily Bread, suggests that, “God’s guidance in the past gives courage for the future.” And he supported his thesis with Jeremiah 6:13-20, where the prophet decried his people’s greed and false dealing, religious flippancy and lack of shame. He could have been addressing many in today’s church (but not me, of course).

Lest God would be forced to punish and overthrow them:

16 Thus says the Lord:
“Stand by the roads, and look,
    and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way is; and walk in it,
    and find rest for your souls.
But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’

Does that mean we need to go back to the Mosaic Law and abide by all the statutes and ordinances? If you think so, you haven’t studied God’s New Covenant, delivered through Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. Jesus’ blood freed us from the law’s tyranny so we could walk in newness of life—God’s divine life.

Does that mean we should walk in nostalgia, worshiping the “good old days?” Remember, longing for the past is the most curious sort of lust and idolatry, in that its hunger and thirst can never be quenched. Besides, it can make you unresponsive to today’s needs that God wants to address through you.

Living retrospectively means we learn from the past to prepare for today’s and tomorrow’s challenges. And we have so many ways of doing that: Of course, the Bible is where we start, as it tells us of God’s historical dealings with his people through his commands, and his responses to their depravity. Then we must learn from past saints, both those who lived by faith under the Old Covenant, and those who lived by faith in Christ (not only canonized saints, but all those sanctified by faith in Jesus), who devoted their lives to rightly dividing the Word of truth. And finally we must learn from the faithful saints of today, the elders who have proved their spiritual zeal for their Savior.

Living retrospectively also means we must learn from our own victories and defeats, with joy in the hope of the ultimate victory that Jesus won for us at such great cost.

If that means we have to look back with blinders, like a race horse that tends to get distracted and stumble, put on those spiritual blinders so you will neither long for past depravity, nor submit to condemnation for what is already under Jesus’ blood.

In your retrospection, never live for the past. Learn from it.

C.S. Lewis on the Impermanence of Feelings

If “falling in love” happens, so will “falling out of love.” As C.S. Lewis said, “The great thing is to continue to believe when the feeling is absent: and these periods do quite as much for one as those when the feeling is present.”

It’s all about trusting in God, and not in feelings. Christ-followers are just as apt to “fall in love” as flesh-followers. The difference is the foundation upon which said love is built.

We fallible, human-type beings are going to feel emotions, but we must remember that said emotions are just as fallible as anything else in our lives—probably more so. If we think of emotions as nothing more than a temporary effect that endorphins have on our brains, we may be able to assign a more appropriate priority to them.

Does that sound cold and heartless? Actually, it’s anything but. Think about the “good” feelings you experience after exercise; you feel pumped, ready to take on the world. But what about the next day? You go back to the gym and repeat the process.

The emotions associated with love and hope are similarly transient, even though they effect your life far more profoundly than the generic, “good” feeling from exercise.

What I’m saying is, we must take the sensations of love and hope, and of any other emotional responses to spiritual facts, with a grain of salt. They are the icing on the cake of Biblical spirituality.

We must expect, and guard against, the natural discouragement of failing to see in ourselves all that we want from God. I can think of two Bible passages that bear directly on that: “Hope that is seen is not hope, for who hopes for what he sees?” (Romans 8:24) and, “But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” (2 Peter 3:8).

Remember, dissatisfaction with your spiritual growth is great, but discouragement is from the flesh, and condemnation is Satan’s specialty.

Screwtape on Confusing The Churchgoer

I have been writing hitherto on the assumption that the people in the next pew afford no rational ground for disappointment. Of course if they do—if the patient knows that the woman with the absurd hat is a fanatical bridge-player or the man with squeaky boots a miser and an extortioner—then your task is so much the easier. All you then have to do is to keep out of his mind the question ‘If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention?’ You may ask whether it is possible to keep such an obvious thought from occurring even to a human mind. It is, Wormwood, it is! Handle him properly and it simply won’t come into his head. He has not been anything like long enough with the Enemy to have any real humility yet. What he says, even on his knees, about his own sinfulness is all parrot talk. At bottom, he still believes he has run up a very favourable credit-balance in the Enemy’s ledger by allowing himself to be converted, and thinks that he is showing great humility and condescension in going to church with these ‘smug’, commonplace neighbours at all. Keep him in that state of mind as long as you can.

From The Screwtape Letters

 What more can I say? Perhaps this: Complacency is conceit’s first cousin. If I’m satisfied with my present spiritual condition, it follows that I think myself good enough to satisfy God. But perhaps I haven’t been taught the gospel properly. If that is true, my teachers will be judged more harshly than I. Nevertheless, with such an attitude as mine, God will judge me for my vain pride, and that judgment will not be enviable.

I can’t thank my Savior enough for allowing me to begin that scenario with an “If.” I have countless areas in my life where I need to grow more like Jesus, but at least I have a handle on that—at the moment, anyway.

C.S. Lewis, on “Excessive Selfness”

Once again I can’t hope to improve on, or even approach, Uncle Jack’s ingenious writing, but I must at least attempt to comment on this excerpt from his correspondence with Edward Lofstrom. The following is from The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume 3:

10 June 1962

You are of course perfectly right in defining your problem (which is also mine and everyone’s) as ‘excessive selfness’. But perhaps you don’t fully realise how far you have got by so defining it. All have this disease; fortunate are the minority who know they have it. To know that one is dreaming is to be already nearly awake, even if, for the present, one can’t wake up fully. And you have actually got further than that. You have got beyond the illusion (very common) that to recognise a chasm is the same thing as building a bridge over it.

The frustrating thing about sharing the same problem as everyone else is, that fact doesn’t make it seem any less acute. The last thing I want to hear from a counselor is, “That’s a common problem; don’t let it bother you.”

I don’t care how many others struggle with it! Fact is, it bothers me! Okay?

Any “selfness” is excessive, as it causes literally all the world’s problems. It was Adam’s sin, and all of us carry it with pride. Just look at little children; their first words are “mine,” and “no,” except for my elder daughter Bethany, whose first word was, “button.”

From then on throughout life, all sins come from that one foundational sin. Is there any wonder why it so concerned Mister Lofstrom and me, and I hope, you?

Your danger now is that of being hypnotised by the mere sight of the charm, of constantly looking at this excessive selfness.

Boy! Can I relate to that constant self-examination which, curiously enough, my acquaintance with my Savior severely aggravates. One who has always suffered chronic sickness doesn’t know what it is to be well. But give him just one day of wellness and he’ll never again be happy in sickness. So, back to Mr. Lofstrom’s issue:

The important thing now is to go steadily on acting, so far as you can—and you certainly can to some extent, however small—as if it wasn’t there. You can, and I expect you daily do—behave with some degree of unselfishness. You can and do make some attempt at prayer. The continual voice which tells you that your best actions are secretly filled with subtle self-regards, and your best prayers still wholly egocentric—must for the most part be simply disregarded—as one disregards the impulse to keep on looking under the bandage to see whether the cut is healing. If you are always fidgeting with the bandage, it never will.

The enemy of our souls relishes such constant introspection, knowing, as he does, that we will never find anything good there. Instead, we must keep looking up to our Lord, the Author and Finisher of our faith.

What Lewis calls, “acting,” is not hypocrisy, but simply the practice of trying to live up to the standard revealed to us in Christ. We must develop the holiness-habit, to overcome the sin-habits acquired over our years as sinners.

Imagine yourself behind the wheel of a car, driving down the highway at speed. Do you stay straight with the road by watching the white line whizzing by next to your front fender? Of course not! If you do that, you will be all over the road, and it will prevent your seeing situations up ahead that will soon be in your lap. Do you study the gauges on the dashboard, read a book, or text a friend? At highway speeds the briefest distraction from traffic is enough to kill you. Walk through life as if you’re driving on the highway. Your life depends on it.

Enough with the safe driving lecture, and my commentary. I’ll close with the balance of Lewis’ excerpt, as he said it best.

A text you should keep much is mind is I John iii, 20: ‘If our heart condemns us God is greater than our heart.’ I sometimes pray ‘Lord give me no more and no less self-knowledge than I can at this moment make a good use of.’ Remember He is the artist and you are only the picture. You can’t see it. So quietly submit to be painted—i.e., keep on fulfilling all the obvious duties of your station (you really know quite well enough what they are!), asking forgiveness for each failure and then leaving it alone. You are in the right way. Walk—don’t keep on looking at it.

C.S. Lewis on Humility and Temptation

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis wrote:

You may remember I said that the first step towards humility was to realise that one is proud. Conviction of sin comes only from God’s Holy Spirit, and self-pride is indeed sinful. I want to add now that the next step is to make some serious attempt to practise the Christian virtues. That is, after accepting God’s conviction of your sin, confessing it back to him, and trusting Christ for your justification and salvation. A week is not enough. Things often go swimmingly for the first week.

Call this the “Honeymoon Period.”

Try six weeks. By that time, having, as far as one can see, fallen back completely or even fallen lower than the point one began from, one will have discovered some truths about oneself. No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good.

That’s because sin is our natural condition and frame of reference. For a natural person, trying to be good according to God’s absolute standard is like a goldfish trying to live outside of his comfy fishbowl home. It ain’t gonna happen.

A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. … That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness. They have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it: and Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means—the only complete realist.

Resisting temptation is like bodybuilding; you don’t know how badly you were out of shape until you begin working out, but you will never get into shape until you persist through the initial pain. Self-control is part of the fruit of God’s Spirit, but you can’t passively receive it and then go on to actually control your impulses. It’s more of a Holy Spirit motivation to get in spiritual shape.

Only Satan makes things easy for us, because we’re predisposed to sin. It’s God who makes our lives hard, by motivating us to swim against our enemy’s current, which, by the way, will carry us to the falls if we refuse to swim for safety.

My Uncle Jack

Clive Staples Lewis, or Uncle Jack to me.

C.S. Lewis’ works have blessed me greatly, both as entertainment and as teachings. When I consider him, my first mental picture is of “Professor Lewis,” a lavishly gifted senior intellectual who stimulates my own thinking with his delightful, insightful prose. His door is never closed to me, and when I seek him out he welcomes me with an open smile.

I visualize him at his desk, seriously evaluating his students’ submissions, occasionally chuckling or laughing out loud at the young people’s novel perspectives. When I knock his doorsill he looks up, the remnant of his thoughtful frown still decorating his face, but on recognizing me everything changes; the frown is gone and his face lights up. He removes his reading glasses and those piercing eyes that had just been studying his students’ writing suddenly begin studying me. I feel as though he is a physician, but his specialty is not diagnosing and treating physical illness. Rather, his eyes are his diagnostic apparatus, penetrating all my facades and pretensions, rather like the Sword of the Spirit.

When he’s not Professor Lewis, or Doctor Lewis, he is my dear Uncle Jack. As Professor, Doctor, or Uncle, he never feeds me pseudo-spiritual platitudes or intellectual pablum, but always well thought-out, unique insights that bless my heart and mind. He truly was, and still is, God’s gift to us.