14

The problem I am submitting to you arises not about prayer in general but only about that kind of prayer which consists of request or petition.... I have no answer to my problem, though I have taken it to about every Christian I know... ~ C.S lewis

In Petitionary Prayer: A Problem Without An Answer (Clive Staples Lewis; Christian Reflections. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1967 pp. 142–151), Lewis observes that that there are two types of prayer, one which he calls the "A Pattern" and the other the "B Pattern". The crux of the problem is thus: the first pattern is given in the Lord's Prayer,

9“This, then, is how you should pray:

“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
10Your kingdom come,
your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.'"

~ Matthew VI (all quotations from the NIV)

and in the agony of Gethsemane,

42“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me;
yet not my will, but yours be done.”

~ Luke XXII

while the second pattern is seemingly at odds with the first, as in such examples as

13 "...I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.
14 You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it."

~ John XIV

and

7"Ask and it will be given to you;
seek and you will find;
knock and the door will be opened to you."

~ Matt VII

and

23"...my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.
24...Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete."

~ John XVI

How are we to reconcile these two seemingly diametrically opposed patterns of prayer? On the one hand we are to trust our Lord and Savior to lead and guide us in what He knows is best. This, of course, sounds perfectly reasonable. But at the same time we are told without qualification (except in a few cases where truly believing is requisite) that what we ask for will be granted.

I share Mr. Lewis' desire to know the truth, a workable and satisfactory solution to the problem, asking my friends, pastors, counselors, and some (ostensibly) well-studied men and women, to provide some kind of special, as of yet undisclosed insight. But as yet I am not satisfied. The problem remains unanswered in my experience, as apparently was C.S. Lewis'.

I have asked well-meaning, though not highly-sophisticated people, to try to provide answers. Here is an example of the typical response:

When Jesus instructed his disciples on how they should pray, he indicated that there was a positive causal role in prayer regarding the coming of the Kingdom. One aspect of the kingdom is the presence of the King, so Jesus could say that the kingdom of God is at hand! Another is the acceptance of kingly leadership and fealty (loyalty). This is imperfectly implemented at best. There is a pitched battle being waged over the seating of the king. Satan has usurped the throne and doesn't want to forsake it. The king of the present age is being defeated by saints who will pick up their crosses daily and follow Jesus and who will pray as led by the Holy Spirit - macro prayers for God's will to be done on earth as it is in heaven and micro prayers of petition for our individual needs (prayers that stimulate and deepen our individual relationships with God) and prayers of intercession as the Holy Spirit opens our eyes to the needs of others and gives us His heart of compassion.

This just doesn't seem to do justice to the question. It doesn't really address the issue at all. All this letter is saying, at bottom, is that we are to do both. I may be missing the point, but to me this letter just doesn't make for a good case.

I have been extremely frustrated over this issue, and hope that there are insights that have been gained over the many years since Mr. Lewis' question was first posed. In the meantime, although I draw closer to God in my relations to Him, e.g. in talking to Him about my life, my hopes, and my many other daily considerations, I have not been able to intercede.

In closing his paper, Lewis asks (reasonably), "How am I to pray this very night?", and many are the nights I have hit my pillow with the same thought.

Do any Christian denominations or prominent Christian thinkers address the apparent paradox of petitioning God, who apparently promises to answer all prayers, while also yielding to His will?

For more information, please see

C.S. Lewis and Petitionary Prayer (De Mentor), an overview of Lewis' views of prayer in general, and

C.S. Lewis on Prayer (Dr. Art Lindsley), a paper from a biographical viewpoint.

  • 1
    I'm sorry you're frustrated about this question, but this isn't the right place to come looking for that kind of Truth. See the FAQ and meta.christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/tagged/faq – David Stratton Jan 26 '13 at 0:56
  • So, David, I guess I have to assume that as you don't know the answer to the question, you doubt anyone else will. Is this a fair assessment? Also, what exactly is THAT KIND of Truth? – Thomas Kemper Jan 26 '13 at 1:28
  • 3
    Please read the links I provided before jumping all over me. I didn't set the site guidelines, I'm just trying to be nice, by being helpful and attempting to help a new visitor understand the purpose of the site. It took me forever to realize that this isn't a Christian forum in the sense you'd think it is. It's a secular Q and A site for studying Christianity from an academic standpoint. It's not about determining which Christian teaching is true. – David Stratton Jan 26 '13 at 1:41
  • 1
    Also, I find it humorous that the first half of The Lord's Prayer is cited to illustrate the submissive form of prayer since the second half of the prayer consists entirely of petitions! – svidgen Jan 26 '13 at 2:46
  • 1
    @ThomasKemper OK. I have edited the title and added a "root question" that I think is answerable within site guidelines. It's possible that no "correct" answer are out there. (I'll think on it from a Catholic perspective.) Please only accept an answer if it appears to objectively represent a denomination's or general Christianity's official beliefs. (Or if a C.S. Lewis scholar can provide an answer from C.S. Lewis himself, for instance.) – svidgen Jan 26 '13 at 2:54
6

Personally I have no difficulty with this apparent contradiction. Rather I expect it. This may be because very early in my Christian life it was explained to my satisfaction. It has to do with our basic view of the nature of prayer. Prayer is our response to God after he has put his Sprit within us. It is a ‘spirit’ of prayer. It is our unconscious yearning for his will, often expressed in words.

A constant ‘spirit’ of prayer is in the scripture:

pray without ceasing (1 Thes 5:17, ESV)

This spirit of prayer is a key element in the predicted outpouring of God’s kingdom ushered in through Messiah:

And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. (NIV Zechariah 12:10)

Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” (NIV Galatians 4:6)

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. (NIV Romans 8:26)

In this life we desire many things contrary to our prayers so when we express our desires in vocal prayer, sometimes we are asking what we do not want and what is not God’s will. However if we delight in the Lord's will he will gives us the desires of our heart, because our desires will be his will. (Psalm 37:4 ).

In the extreme case where God’s will is leading us into everything that is revolting to human nature and naturally opposed by us, even without sinning our prayer would become very difficult as our spirit would be willing but our flesh would be weak. In this case expressing God’s will in prayer would be to so, if it by thy will let this not happen (as nothing in me natural life desires it), nevertheless thy will be done (as my spirit desires this more, your will in the Spirit of prayer).

Related question:

What does the Bible say about how we should pray?

  • This does have the makings of a good answer. It would be better, I think, if it made a more explicit connection to the qualification made sometimes, but not always (as the question itself points out) that petitionary prayers are to be made in Jesus' name. Even that, though, does not address the fact that sometimes there is no such qualification. I also removed the paragraph impugning C.S. Lewis, since it adds nothing to the answer, and is rather gratuitous. Impugning the questioner does not answer the question. – Lee Woofenden Dec 13 '15 at 14:35
  • Also, after this answer was submitted, the question was edited to make it more clearly on-topic here. This answer would also be more on-topic if it were presented as the answer of a particular "Christian denomination or prominent Christian thinker." – Lee Woofenden Dec 13 '15 at 14:36
3

I don't know if this will help, but I tend to agree with your assessment that the answer you received doesn't do justice to the question. The typical response example that you provided doesn't, in my opinion, address the real issue. I do agree with the conclusion that it comes to, as my answer will show, but it is immensely unsatisfying because the way it's presented, it's just thrown out there seemingly without a lot of thought behind it.

In truth, there is probably plenty of thought behind it, but it's likely that the person who gave the answer did all the logical calculations I'm about to outline and just gave you the conclusion without taking you through the steps.

It's like trying to understand math if you're just learning. You can tell a first grader that 12 x 12 = 144. They may believe it, but doing so doesn't teach them how to multiply. They'll probably come back with a "why?", or they'll just ignore it. There's groundwork that needs to be understood before they can do the calculations themselves. Answers like the one you said make me feel like that kid.

If that's the problem for you... If you're saying that you understand that we're supposed to do both, but are looking for more of an explanation of how this computes theologically, because on the surface it just doesn't add up, and you'd like to see and understand how it adds up, maybe this will help. If not, then this answer will be of no use to you, and you can save some time and stop reading here.


I said in the first sentence, the answer seems to miss the main issue, which is that there is an apparent contradiction - a conflict, where one passage seems to be at odds with another. (Or several at odds with each other.)

There are certain established guidelines for understanding Scripture and for understanding apparent discrepancies. These guidelines are widely accepted in Protestant as well as Catholic and Orthodox doctrine.

I'll attempt to address this using that approach, to show the logical steps that go from "Hey, there's a contradiction here" to "Oh, I get it - both seemingly contradictory statements can be true because..."

  • First, and you're probably already familiar with this, most traditions believe in Biblical inerrancy and infallibility.

This is explained in greater detail here, but the short version is that the Bible can't be wrong because it was given by God Himself, but that doesn't mean you can take it to extremes.

  • The second principle, strongly related to the first, deals with what it means to take the Bible literally. Hyper-literalism is a mistake, as described here.

The authors, per the doctrine of plenary inspiration, wrote as God moved them, but they were able to use their own literary style. When reading it, we are simply to use common sense in determining if something is a figure of speech or a real statement. When you get overly literal, you run into problems. For example, if a Biblical author were to say, "I'm so hungry I could eat a horse", a reasonable person would be able to understand that he couldn't really eat a horse - it's just a hyperbole, and what he means is he's really hungry.

  • Next, there are well-defined guidelines for understanding apparent discrepancies, as documented here.

Short version: Apparent discrepancies tend to be either copyist errors (only the original manuscripts were considered inerrant) or misunderstandings of the context.

It is here that the conflict is resolvable.

The difference between these verses is entirely about the context in which they are used. And added to that, there tend to be overly-literal interpretations, of some of the verses, that are exacerbating the problems.

First, addressing the "If you ask anything in my name" question... This has already been addressed on this site. Someone asked what "anything" means because they saw the same apparent conflict. Richard gave a detailed, excellent answer, one that I couldn't shorten without butchering. Please, take a second to check it out.

If you read it, you can see that, understanding this verse in context, it is not saying that you can ask for anything at all. You couldn't ask for God to lie, for example, and expect it to come true.

When you read each of these passages in context it becomes plain to see that we are to pray differently in different situations. And these verses are also in passages that are trying to teach different things. In some, He is teaching us to have faith and be surrendered to God. In others, He is teaching that we can come to Him and ask for things, having faith that He will answer them, if they're in His will.

Again, it's all about the context. Taken in context, there is no discrepancy. It's only when the verses are taken out of the context of the deeper meaning of the full passages they are contained within that there becomes a discrepancy.

  • Grr. That took forever to write, and I was writing it while @svidgen was making his edits. I did my best to provide an answer based on established doctrinal teachings, rather than from a specific perspective. The edits are good, but this question doesn't quite answer the edited version the way it does the original. – David Stratton Jan 26 '13 at 3:00
  • I haven't read this answer. But, if it fits site guidelines, I'd say, feel free to re-edit the question to suit your answer! ... Given that it was a valid answer when you wrote it! – svidgen Jan 26 '13 at 3:28
  • No, your edits improved the question. I just left that comment so people would see why I answered a different question. Ho harm, no foul. – David Stratton Jan 26 '13 at 3:30
  • 2
    It seems to me that this answer suggests that there is an answer, and lays out all the guidelines for providing an answer, but doesn't actually give an answer. If you're saying that the passages that say God will grant any prayers we ask in Jesus' name must be taken in context, then it's necessary to explain exactly how they are to be taken in context, and how that resolves the paradox, in order for this to be a real answer. Also, linking to Richard's answer without summarizing it (because it is complex) it is still in the nature of a "link-only" answer. – Lee Woofenden Dec 13 '15 at 14:25
  • Also, after this answer was submitted, the question was edited to make it more clearly on-topic here. This answer would also be more on-topic if it were presented as the answer of a particular "Christian denomination or prominent Christian thinker." – Lee Woofenden Dec 13 '15 at 14:36
2

This may be the height of arrogance to answer Lewis, but here goes...

Using the Lord's prayer, we see that we have get through: Our Father who art in Heaven, Hallowed be thy name.

This, and throughout scripture, God calls himself Father in a remarkable way that combines both his intimacy and grace with his holiness and truth. It is this God that we petition in prayer.

A God who is Father doesn't give his children whatever they ask for. Tim Keller says: "He gives us everything we would have asked for if we knew everything he knows." Our perspectives on what we think we need are terrible! Often they are bad for us. Think if a 5 year old always got his way. Things would be a disaster. Even my 25 year old self would have been a disaster if I got what I wanted. In His loving kindness as Father, he discerns what we need and what we want.

It's only if we think God is a Genie of the Lamp, instead of a Father, that we can read a verse that says "whatever you ask for, I will give it" and think if we don't actually get a brand new car there is a paradox in this particular scripture. God never shows himself to be a Genie of the Lamp that you rub and say some words and poof it's there.

Paul asked that God remove the thorn in his side so that he would be more effective for the Gospel. God says no to removing the thorn, but then says "my power is made perfect in your weakness." He took what Paul really wanted, to be effective, and made him effective through the thorn.

  • 1
    Welcome to Christianity.SE. Though your answer does look like a commonsense approach, it doesn't really address the paradox. In essence it simply denies the Bible passages that say that God will give us whatever we ask in Jesus' name. But the Bible does say that, so it must be addressed, not simply negated. Also, though you do quote Tim Heller, who could be seen as a "prominent Christian thinker," it's not clear that your whole answer represents his thought or the perspective of a Christian denomination, which is what the question asks for. – Lee Woofenden Dec 13 '15 at 13:58
  • In short, your answer might be editable so that it actually addresses the paradox, but in its current form it simply denies one side of the paradox. It also needs to be made clear that it represents the thought of "a Christian denomination or prominent Christian thinker," rather than being individual opinion. – Lee Woofenden Dec 13 '15 at 14:00
  • Having said all that, I do hope you'll stick around and browse some of the other questions and answers here. – Lee Woofenden Dec 13 '15 at 14:00
1

Let me offer one possibility, I will not claim that it is the answer you seek, but maybe perhaps you may consider it in the realm of possibility.

Let's start with another CS Lewis quote which is a rare find, you can find the text here: http://ced.cbcm.org/pastclasses%20storage/life_files/CSLewisonPrayer_ArtLin511.pdf

Lewis felt that prayer was not primarily something to talk about but something to “do.” He says, For many years after my conversion, I never used any ready made forms except the Lord’s Prayer. In fact, I tried to pray without words at all – not to verbalize the mental acts. Even in praying for others I believe I tended to avoid their names and substituted mental images of them. I still think that the prayer without words is the best – if one can really achieve it.”

Let's take this in the context of the Matthew 6, because we often think of the Lord's prayer, but I would say that the surrounding words of this chapter are just as meaningful about prayer.

5 And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. 6 But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly. 7 But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. 8 Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.

Verse 8 is a very important part. Your heavenly father knows what you need before you even ask of it. It is not unreasonable to believe that a creator of such complexity as to be able to create the universe with an intelligent design that we cannot comprehend could know your thoughts and what's on your mind and heart right in this very moment.

This also lines up with CS Lewis's comments of prayer, prayer is a time for reflection in which those mental images are brought up to reflect upon of all of the matters of the heart. Therefore, there is no need for vain repetitions with words, there is no need to pray with long verbal words and to be seen in the streets and synagogues. Does the Lord's prayer count as a vain repetition of words? No, because this was ordained to us in the gospel as literally how to pray. It's what's in the mind that comes to light during prayer on all of these other matters.

I am suggesting to you as an act of faith to trust in the Lord to provide what you need, because he already knows what you need even before you think, during prayer think about those pressing matters in your life as they come up.

To speak more verbally than this is truly assuming that there is a finite limit on God, as if continued speaking in prayer is the only way to be heard by a God who already knows your very thoughts right in this moment. God is far more powerful than our limited human comprehension can even begin to perceive. The Lord's Prayer also covers everything comprehensively, our daily bread, the forgiveness of our sins and others, deliverance from evil, and submission to the sovereign authority of God. When you take this in its new light, you may see at least from this viewpoint that the other verses which deal with asking of the Lord are about asking in thought during prayer. Whatever will be addressed in your mind during prayer will be brought to light, if indeed it's God will that it be brought up in prayer.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.