Lewis’ Problem with Petitionary Prayer

Albrecht Dürer "Praying Hands"
Albrecht Dürer “Praying Hands”

C.S. Lewis once wrote an essay entitled “Petitionary prayer: A Problem Without An Answer”**

Petitionary prayer is a prayer where we ask God for something. As Lewis saw it, the problem with petitionary prayer is that “Christian teaching seems…to contain two different patterns of petitionary prayer”, and that “no man, so far as I can see, could possibly follow them both at the same moment”.  The question Lewis could not find an answer to is: “How then, should we ask for things of God?”

The first pattern Lewis saw in scripture was, basically, to ask for things conditionally. We ask for things but frequently say “If it’s your will, God”. Lewis saw Jesus giving us this pattern himself in the Lord’s prayer, when he prayed “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”, and then goes on to ask for bread, forgiveness, guidance. In Gethsemane, Jesus asks for the cup of suffering to pass, not with an assurance that it will happen, but instead with the exception clause “nevertheless, not my will, but your will be done”. This pattern is familiar enough to all of us, and Lewis says “such a submissive faith would seem to me…far better than any confidence that our own necessarily ignorant petitions would prevail”

The passages which show the second pattern most clearly are Mark 11:22-24, Matthew 18:19-20, & John 14:13. These passages are often curbed, softened, conditioned, and there are three common reasons for doing this, none of which Lewis thought were convincing**

In Mark & John, Jesus is not talking about a general faith in God’s goodness but rather, Lewis says, “precisely that we get ‘all the things’ we ask for”. This is made more obvious by the fact that the thing which instigates Jesus’ remarks in Mark 11 is Peter’s surprise that the fig tree which Jesus cursed the previous day, is now literally withered, dead. The significance of Jesus doing this to the tree in-and-of-itself is widely debated, but that question is irrelevant to how the event connects directly to Peter’s follow-up question and Jesus’ response, which is about prayer. Whatever the symbolism, Peter was just amazed, quite reasonably, that Jesus’ words had such power.

In Matthew 18, the condition of “two or more being present” is sometimes used to explain that it must be “the whole church” that prays together for the specific thing to be granted. But, Lewis quickly dissolves the potency of this pat-answer in the real-life scenarios he lived through, having seen World War II. He wrote: “I suppose that least twice in this century the whole Church prayed for peace and no peace was given her…And this at once raises a question which shows how frighteningly practical the problem is. How did the Church pray?”

Lewis also responds to the statement of some Christians, in reference to John 14:13, that only prayers that are made “in Christ’s name” will receive the “yes” response from Jesus. This view is usually implying that “in Christ’s name” is the same as “in alignment with Christ’s will” which is the same as “something that Christ specifically desires”. But, Lewis was uncomfortable with the idea of God telling us:

“I will grant you 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”…there is just a faint suggestion of mockery.

In other words, it did not sit well with Lewis to simply say that when we do not have the faith to pray “truly in Christ’s name” (and thus when we don’t receive a positive answer to a prayer), we must assume that God simply hasn’t given that kind of faith to us, and that He won’t give it to us, because we’re not praying for something He specifically wants. I echo that sentiment, it seems manipulative, almost as though God were playing some sort of game with how and when we experience a deep trust in His power: When we pray for something that’s out of line with a detailed divine blueprint, God doesn’t give us the faith to pray for it effectively. When we pray for something that is in line with the blueprint, He gives the faith to us. The question then gets pushed farther back into whether our praying these prayers the first place, especially the prayers which God did not want to give us the effective faith for anyway, was in this divine detailed blueprint.

I think that one of the things that inhibited Lewis’ ability to swallow the full implications of the passages in Mark, Matthew, and John was the lack of a full-blown “warfare worldview”**. He does not bring up in his essay the possibility that spiritual opposition can delay an answer to prayer, even if we have this kind of faith, and even if Christ’s words are to be taken at face value. Neither does Lewis mention the passages in the Old & New Testament which explicitly connect the work of Satan to the ineffectiveness of a prayer made.

One thing to add before moving on is that the spiritual condition of the person praying, and of any recipients of the benefits of a prayer could also affect the outcome of a prayer, but I think we can now distill Lewis’s concerns to two sub-questions:

1. Given a believer having faith, and any recipients of the prayer also having such faith, should we pray with assurance, as  Mark 11:22-24, Matthew 18:19-20, & John 14:13 imply, or with the qualifier “if it is Thy will Lord?

2. If a prayer is prayed with assurance, as Mark 11:22-24, Matthew 18:19-20, & John 14:13 imply they should be, what are we to think when such prayers seem unanswered, or negatively replied?

To these questions, I believe two specific passages offer specific responses, and I’ll share those in the next post.

**Lewis, C.S., in Christian Reflections. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. (1967). All quotes are from this essay

**For anyone who would simply dismiss the passage in Mark as hyperbole, Lewis says “…a sane man does not use hyperbole to mean nothing: by a great thing (which is not literally true), he suggests a great thing which is [true]” ibid. 146

**I first came across this term in Boyd’s “Satan and the Problem of Evil”

A Problem for Theistic Evolution, Pt. 3

Destruction of Leviathan - Gustave Doré
Destruction of Leviathan – Gustave Doré

This is the 3rd post on this topic, and there at least 2 things we’ll be assuming here from those last two posts, both are observations from Genesis 1:

(1) Everything that God created and called good, was good; but God did not call everything good. The things which God does not explicitly call “good” were: the state of the world as “without shape and empty”, “the darkness”, “the deep”, and “the serpent”.

(2) The impression that the paradise Adam & Eve enjoyed was unique on earth. Combined with (1) above, this opens up the possibility that the “curse” does not imply that the entire world was an Edenic paradise up to then.

There’s one more objection to (1) above I want to clear up. In Genesis 1:31 we read,  “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” Doesn’t this imply that up to this point, everything was perfect? Well, not necessarily. Verse 31 is at the end of the seven days, and it would be sticking more closely to the actual order of things to say : “God declared ‘everything that he had made’ as ‘good’ when the finished product had appeared”. This is the same pattern throughout all Genesis 1, and, by the end of this post, we’ll hopefully have some other scriptures to balance out this reaction to the isolated creation account in Genesis.

The question now is: “How do we interpret ‘the bondage of decay’ spoken of in Rom. 8:20-21?”

From the perspective we’re working towards, “the bondage of decay” is represented in Genesis by “the darkness”, “the deep”, and “the serpent”. There are two aspects to understanding how this fits with the rest of the Bible.

One aspect is looking at more scriptures which give us the reason to believe that God’s commands were met with hostility during creation. There are several places in the Bible, outside of Genesis, that talk about the creation of the world. We’re trying to avoid ignoring all these other passages. The second aspect is how God “subjects the world to futility”, as it says in Romans 8:20. We’ll explore this by looking at how God does similar things in other instances of the Old & New Testament. This will be left for the next post.

So, are there actually other scriptures which connect “the bondage of decay” to “the deep”, “the darkness”, or “the serpent”, and, are there other passages about creation which give us reason to think that God was overcoming these powers as he spoke the created order into existence?

Well, we know that “the serpent” is interpreted as Satan in the New Testament (Rev. 12:9, 20:2). The Canaanite culture around the time Genesis was written also used the imagery of a “dragon” and “sea monster” to “symbolize the destructive water of the sea and in turn the forces of chaos that threaten the established order” (netbible.org/note 4). Remember this for the rest of the way.

“Darkness” is constantly representative of evil itself, the very opposite of God (1 Jn 1:5, 2Cor. 6:14, Eph 5:8, Jn. 3:19).

“The deep” is only slightly more complicated.

The Hebrew word for “the deep”,  “tehom”, resembles another word used in another ancient creation account: “tiamat”. Many scholars believe that the author of Genesis was deliberately mimicking the word to make a point in reference to that other creation account: Enuma Elish. Here’s a link if you’re interested in all the parallels, and differences, between Enuma Elish and the Genesis account: Enuma Elish

There are a few things to note for our purposes. One is that the goddess Tiamat was representative of chaos. In Enuma Elish the god Marduk, after defeating Tiamat and cutting her up into pieces, uses her body to form the physical world. The following passage is telling (emphasis added):

137   He split her into two like a dried fish:
138   One half of her he set up and stretched out as the heavens.
139   He stretched the skin and appointed a watch
140   With the instruction not to let her waters escape.

I highlighted that last line of Enuma Elish because it re-emphasizes how water was representative of chaos for the canaanite culture around the Israelites. So, “the deep” was a sort of negative way of talking about the oceans and seas as they represented the forces that threatened the order of the world.  This will all help bring out the ways in which scripture turns these metaphors around to imply that it was “Yahweh” not “Marduk” or any other combination of Canaanite gods that was responsible for the order of creation.

Collectively, I think the scriptures below make it pretty clear that , if we’re looking at all of the Bible, God did have to overcome opposition to create the order of the world in Genesis 1. If this is true, then the “bondage of decay” is not something God imposed on creation, but, a corruption of reality that was present already; not eternal, but definitely pre-human.

This then opens up the possibility that the suffering which seems to be present in the world before humans entered the picture, was the working-out of this conflict between God and the forces that oppose him, the chaotic “waters”, the “darkness”, the “deep”, and “the serpent”; and this, at least in a general way to start, is a way to understand the problem I posed in the first post with regards to evolution. There’s much to be added, but that’s a glimpse of the general picture.

I’ll end with some of those passages I’ve referred to, and allow them to speak for themselves:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
Now the earth was without shape and empty,
and darkness was over the surface of the deep,
but the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the water.
And God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light!
God saw that the light was good, so God separated the light from the darkness.
God called the light “day” and the darkness “night.”
There was evening, and there was morning, marking the first day.- Genesis 1:1-6

Who shut up the sea with doors when it burst forth, coming out of the womb,
when I made the storm clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band,
when I prescribed its limits, and set in place its bolts and doors,
when I said, ‘To here you may come and no farther,
here your proud waves will be confined?” – Job 38:8-11 

When he established the heavens, I was there;
when he marked out the horizon over the face of the deep,
when he established the clouds above,
when the fountains of the deep grew strong,
when he gave the sea his decree
that the waters should not pass over his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth – Proverbs 8:27-29

You rule over the proud sea.
When its waves surge, you calm them.

You crushed Rahab [symbolic of the mythological sea serpent]  and killed it;
with your strong arm you scattered your enemies.
The heavens belong to you, as does the earth.
You made the world and all it contains. – Psalm 89:9-11

He established the earth on its foundations;
it will never be upended.
The watery deep covered it like a garment;
the waters reached above the mountains.
Your shout made the waters retreat;
at the sound of your thunderous voice they hurried off—
as the mountains rose up,
and the valleys went down—
to the place you appointed for them.
You set up a boundary for them that they could not cross,
so that they would not cover the earth again. – Psalm 104:5-9

You destroyed the sea by your strength;
you shattered the heads of the sea monster in the water.
You crushed the heads of Leviathan;
you fed him to the people who live along the coast.
You broke open the spring and the stream;
you dried up perpetually flowing rivers.
You established the cycle of day and night;
you put the moon and sun in place.
You set up all the boundaries of the earth;
you created the cycle of summer and winter. – Psalm 74:13-17

He marks out the horizon on the surface of the waters
as a boundary between light and darkness.
The pillars of the heavens tremble
and are amazed at his rebuke.
By his power he stills the sea;
by his wisdom he cut Rahab the great sea monster to pieces.
By his breath the skies became fair;
his hand pierced the fleeing serpent.
Indeed, these are but the outer fringes of his ways!
How faint is the whisper we hear of him!
But who can understand the thunder of his power?” -Job 26:10-14

Am I the sea, or the creature of the deep [or “dragon”]
that you must put me under guard? – Job 7:12

**All passages from new english translation of the bible
** Several of these passages, along with the relevance of Enuma Elish for this question, were brought to my attention in God at War by Gregory Boyd, Chapter 3: “Slaying Leviathan”