Graham Heslop
Graham Heslop Graham has an insatiable appetite for books, occasionally dips into theology, and moonlights as a lecturer in New Testament Greek at George Whitefield College, Cape Town. He also serves on the staff team at Union Chapel Presbyterian Church and as the written content editor for TGC Africa. Graham is married to Lynsay-Anne and they have one son, Teddy.

"Should I Even Pray About That?" C. S. Lewis Answers

The Lord’s Prayer opens with that quite peculiar request—”hallowed be your name” (Matthew 6:9); and two lines later has us praying “your will be done” (Matthew 6:10). Taken together, it becomes clear that prayer isn’t ultimately about us. Nor our needs. Prayer is about God and his glory. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism (Q101) puts it, “We pray, that God would enable us, and others, to glorify him in all those ways which he makes himself known, and that he would dispose all things to his own glory.” But does this leave any room for our more personal requests and little lives? Should we even bring our needs and problems to God?

When Is Something Important Enough to Pray About?

These are the questions C. S. Lewis addresses in his imagined correspondence, Letters to Malcolm. In Malcom’s words, “How important must a need or desire be before we can properly make it the subject of petition?” Lewis clarifies that word “properly,” suggesting that Malcom’s question is concerned with avoiding prayers that are irreverent or silly, possibly even sinful. Undoubtedly, many of us have wondered if our petitions are appropriate, because it’s not obvious how the smaller matters matter. When is something significant enough to find its place among the things that glorify God and make him known? How do I know if my worries are remotely related to God’s ways? Will God be hallowed if there’s less conflict between me and my son? Is it his will that my wife finds more work? God knows. Yet I’m sure all of us have wondered.

Now, one solution to the feeling that our prayers are inadequately taken up with the things of God is to try and persuade ourselves that they somehow are. For example, I mentioned that my wife is looking for more work. Better finances, I might tell myself, could free us up to serve more in our local church; we’d tithe more too; and they’d help us to be less anxious (Philippians 4:6). Praise Jesus. Hallelujah! But, if I’m honest, our personal finances aren’t a matter of God’s greater glory; they’re far more likely indicative of my own discontentment. Again the question comes: does this mean I shouldn’t pray about them?

It’s here that Lewis offers up two wonderfully liberating points on prayer, demonstrating that at least two questions are behind all of those I’ve asked above.

1. We Must Strive to Order Our Prayers and Desires

According to Lewis, the first question behind deeming our petitions too insignificant to trouble God with them can be stated like this: “How important must an object be before we can, without sin or folly, allow our desires for it to become a matter of serious concern for us? This, you see, is a question about what old writers call our ‘frame;’ that is, our ‘frame of mind.’”

His answer is short. “We all know the answer…in theory,” apparently. “We must aim at what St Augustine calls ‘ordinate loves.’ Our deepest concern should be for first things, and our next deepest for second things, and so on down to zero—to total absence of concern for things that are not really good, nor means to good, at all.”

In essence, Lewis is referring to ordering our priorities or desires—that is, our loves. Carried out perfectly, this would mean God’s greater glory is always the desire of our prayers and petitions. We wouldn’t simply be tacking ‘your will be done’ onto the end of our prayers, but praying perfectly in accordance with God’s revealed will. Our prayers would be nothing more than the earnest longing for God’s to be hallowed. Of course, that’s not the form a lot of our prayers take, bringing us to Lewis’ second question.

2. We Mustn’t Pretend to Be Someone We’re Not

Recognising that our concerns are not identical with God’s, can they “always be properly laid before God in prayer?” In answering this question, Lewis pastorally accommodates our humanity—as God undoubtedly does—when we pray. He exhorts us to pray for “the ordinate frame of mind” (above), and simultaneously warns us against treating it like “a fancy dress we must put on when we pray.”

It’s no good trying to mimic the prayers of our glorified selves. Instead let us pray as we are now. Or as Lewis puts it, “It is of no use to ask God with factitious earnestness for A when our whole mind is in reality filled with the desire for B. We must lay before him what is in us, not what ought to be in us.” In other words, let your prayers be sincere rather than a sham. While it’s our hope that we will increasingly prayer according to God’s will and have his glory as our greatest ambition, we must also beware growing inauthentic and impersonal in our petitions.

Furthermore Lewis asks: when we forcibly exclude those concerns close to our hearts, “don’t they wreck all the rest of our prayers? If we lay all the cards on the table, God will help us moderate the excesses. But the pressure of things we are trying to keep out of our mind is a hopeless distraction. As someone said, ‘No noise is so emphatic as the one you are trying not to listen to.’”

So we bring our requests to God, even those that might appear insignificant on the divine stage, unrelated to glorifying our Lord, and unlikely to result in his name being hallowed. We do this because when we pray God is graciously attentive rather than critically alert. In that wonderful phrase of Helmut Thielicke, God is no “fussy faultfinder.” He is a loving Father. As an imperfect earthly father, I’m pleased by my son’s requests, however unconcerned with the more serious matters of life they may be (Matthew 7:11). How much more can we confidently approach God, despite our disordered loves and desires?

“Let Your Requests Be Made Known to God”

Lewis concludes this chapter of Letters to Malcom by probing our reasons for not bringing minor petitions to God, and points out a grave danger in this hesitation. “Perhaps, as those who do not turn to God in petty trials will have no habit or such resort to help them when the great trials come, so those who have not learned to ask him for childish things will have less readiness to ask him for great ones. We must not be too high-minded. I fancy we may sometimes be deterred from small prayers by a sense of our own dignity rather than of God’s.”

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