To read more from Daniel, visit his blog: Sic et Non.
One of the most challenging issues for believers in the God of the Bible is the problem of unanswered prayer or, anyway, of prayers that seem to be unanswered—that is, prayers to which the answer is not what the petitioner desired. I am no stranger to this issue. Some of the most fervent prayers that I’ve ever offered were for the health, and then for the life, of a newborn granddaughter. I did not receive the answer for which I hoped.
I recently re-read C. S. Lewis’s posthumously published 1964 book “Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer.” It doesn’t rank among his most popular or approachable writings. Moreover, I frankly acknowledge that there are points where I disagree with what Lewis writes to his (fictional) friend Malcolm. Nevertheless, “Letters to Malcolm” is rich with interesting insights, quotable lines, and thought-provoking issues. It wouldn’t be a book by the incomparable C. S. Lewis if it weren’t.
He is forthright about one of the problems he addresses: “The New Testament,” he writes, “contains embarrassing promises that what we pray for with faith we shall receive. Mark XI, 24 is the most staggering. Whatever we ask for, believing that we’ll get it, we’ll get. No question, it seems, of confining it to spiritual gifts; whatever we ask for. No question of a merely general faith in God, but a belief that you will get the particular thing you ask. No question of getting either it or else something that is really far better for you; you’ll get precisely it.”
Lewis wants to know how we can reconcile this astonishing promise “with the observed facts.” It is, he comments, impossible to evade the fact that “Every war, every famine or plague, almost every death-bed is the monument to a petition that was not granted. At this very moment thousands of people in this one island are facing as a fait accompli, the very thing against which they have prayed night and day, pouring out their whole soul in prayer, and, as they thought, with faith. They have sought and not found. They have knocked and it has not been opened. “That which they greatly feared has come upon them.”” (These weren’t merely empty words: “Letters to Malcolm” was written shortly after the death of his beloved wife, Joy, and during his own ultimately fatal illness.)
I can’t see that Lewis ever really offered a reconciliation, nor that he could. These are deep issues with which we need to struggle within our own souls. “Ye receive no witness,” wrote the ancient prophet Moroni, who was acutely aware of pain, defeat, and loss, “until after the trial of your faith” (Ether 12:6). Unbelievers can deal glibly with the matter; there is, they say, no God, and accordingly prayer is simply speaking into the wind. For those, however, who have experienced the power and comforts of prayer, the answer isn’t so simple. President Spencer W. Kimball, another who faced more than his own share of trials and sufferings, offered these thoughts on the problem of God and prayer:
“Is there not wisdom in his giving us trials that we might rise above them, responsibilities that we might achieve, work to harden our muscles, sorrows to try our souls? Are we not exposed to temptations to test our strength, sickness that we might learn patience, death that we might be immortalized and glorified? If all the sick for whom we pray were healed, if all the righteous were protected and the wicked destroyed, the whole program of the Father would be annulled and the basic principle of the gospel, free agency, would be ended. No man would have to live by faith. If joy and peace and rewards were instantaneously given to the doer of good, there could be no evil—all would do good but not because of the rightness of doing good. There would be no test of strength, no development of character, no growth of powers, no free agency, only satanic controls. Should all prayers be immediately answered according to our selfish desires and our limited understanding, then there would be little or no suffering, sorrow, disappointment, or even death, and if these were not, there would also be no joy, success, resurrection, nor eternal life and godhood. Being human, we would expel from our lives physical pain and mental anguish and assure ourselves of continual ease and comfort, but if we were to close the doors upon sorrow and distress, we might be excluding our greatest friends and benefactors. Suffering can make saints of people as they learn patience, long suffering, and self-mastery. The sufferings of our Savior were part of his education.”
But back to Lewis: “I’m not asking why our petitions are so often refused,” he writes. “Anyone can see in general that this must be so. In our ignorance we ask what is not good for us or for others, or not even intrinsically possible. Or again, to grant one man’s prayer involves refusing another’s. There is much here which it is hard for our will to accept but nothing that is hard for our intellect to understand. The real problem is different; not why refusal is so frequent, but why the opposite result is so lavishly promised.”
It seems vitally important to note that the words in Mark 11:23-24 that Lewis found so challenging were addressed to Christ’s ancient apostles not long before Jesus was removed from among them, and just as he was sending them out to establish Christianity. These were special circumstances. Perhaps, I suggest, the promises recorded in Mark 11 were never intended to apply to all Christian believers, just as the promise given to the prophet Nephi at Helaman 10:4-11 was specifically for him, and not for all of us. Lewis offers a parallel explanation for Mark 11:23-24: “If that passage contains a truth,” he writes, “it is a truth for very advanced pupils indeed. I don’t think it is “addressed to our condition” (yours and mine) at all. It is a coping-stone, not a foundation. For most of us the prayer in Gethsemane is the only model. Removing mountains can wait.” “It seems to me,” says Lewis, “we must conclude that such promises about prayer with faith refer to a degree or kind of faith which most believers never experience.” (And perhaps too, I interject, to those with a different assignment than we’ve been given.) “A far inferior degree is, I hope, acceptable to God. Even the kind that says, “Help thou my unbelief”, may make way for a miracle.”
Accordingly, Lewis suggests, “These lavish promises are the worst possible place at which to begin Christian instruction in dealing with a child or a Pagan. You remember what happened when the Widow started Huck Finn off with the idea he could get what he wanted by praying for it. He tried the experiment and then, not unnaturally, never gave Christianity a second thought.”
Instead, we should consider the model suggested by Lewis—a model that is much more appropriate to our own situation. It is the prayer that the Savior offered in the Garden of Gethsemane. Many of his statements preserved in the New Testament indicate that Jesus expected to die, even specifically by crucifixion. And yet, in Gethsemane, he prayed that, if possible, that “cup” might pass from him. But the petition was not granted. Not even to God’s own divine Son.
“You see what this involves?” Lewis asks. “Lest any trial incident to humanity should be lacking, the torments of hope—of suspense, anxiety—were at the last moment loosed upon Him—the supposed possibility that, after all, He might, He just conceivably might, be spared the supreme horror. There was precedent. Isaac had been spared: he too at the last moment, he also against all apparent probability. It was not quite impossible . . . and doubtless He had seen other men crucified . . . a sight very unlike most of our religious pictures and images.”
We needn’t imagine that the Savior’s uncertainty about whether his petition would be granted was sinful. After all, he “did no sin” (1 Peter 2:22). So it can’t be sinful in our cases, either. And it is perfectly appropriate that, imitating his example, we petition the Father but then add something along the lines of “nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done” (Luke 22:42).
Lewis likens the Savior’s experience of an ungranted petition in Gethsemane to our own:
“Does not every movement in the Passion write large some common element in the sufferings of our race? First, the prayer of anguish; not granted. Then He turns to His friends. They are asleep—as ours, or we, are so often, or busy, or away, or preoccupied. Then He faces the Church [by which he means the Jewish leadership of ancient Jerusalem]; the very Church that He brought into existence. It condemns Him. This is also characteristic. In every Church, in every institution, there is something which sooner or later works against the very purpose for which it came into existence. But there seems to be another chance. There is the State; in this case, the Roman state. Its pretensions are far lower than those of the Jewish church, but for that very reason it may be free from local fanaticisms. It claims to be just, on a rough, worldly level. Yes, but only so far as is consistent with political expediency and raison d’état. One becomes a counter in a complicated game. But even now all is not lost. There is still an appeal to the People—the poor and simple whom He had blessed, whom He had healed and fed and taught, to whom He himself belongs. But they have become over-night (it is nothing unusual) a murderous rabble shouting for His blood. There is, then, nothing left but God. And to God, God’s last words are, “Why hast thou forsaken me?”
“You see how characteristic, how representative, it all is. The human situation writ large. These are among the things it means to be a man. Every rope breaks when you seize it. Every door is slammed shut as you reach it. To be like the fox at the end of the run; the earths all staked.
“As for the last dereliction of all, how can we either understand or endure it? Is it that God Himself cannot be Man unless God seems to vanish at His greatest need?” (42-44)
If the second person of the Godhead had such an experience in Gethsemane, we can scarcely expect that our petitionary prayers will always be answered as we would prefer. After all, as John 15:20 puts it, “The servant is not greater than his lord.” “The Son of Man hath descended below them all,” the imprisoned Joseph Smith was told at Doctrine and Covenants 122:8. And then came the piercing question: “Art thou greater than he?”
These are deep waters. Sooner or later, though, most of us will find ourselves struggling in them. Sadly, many will drown in them. To vary the metaphor: Most of us will wrestle, at some point or another, with loss, with death, with depression or addiction, with doubt or betrayal, with defeat and injustice and sorrow. John Taylor recalled words that Joseph Smith spoke to the Twelve not long before his own unjust death after a life filled with troubles: “You will have all kinds of trials to pass through. And it is quite as necessary for you to be tried as it was for Abraham and other men of God . . . God will feel after you, and He will take hold of you and wrench your very heart strings and if you cannot stand it you will not be fit for an inheritance in the Celestial kingdom of God.”
Nobody’s trial or test will be exactly like anybody else’s. Perhaps, though, we can all learn something from one of the most obscure and puzzling passages in the Hebrew Bible, the account of Jacob’s wrestling with a man, or an angel, or even with God, as recorded at Genesis 32:22-32. Their struggle lasted all through the night until the following dawn. And the “man” said, “Let me go, for the day breaketh.” To which Jacob replied, “I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.” And thereupon follows the blessing. Shortly thereafter, in fact, in Genesis 35:10, Jacob receives the new name of “Israel.”
The problem that is posed by the seeming failure of some of our most fervent prayers can be compared, I think, to the mysterious “man” with whom Jacob wrestled at the ford of the River Jabbok. We should not surrender. We should wrestle with them until we receive the blessing.
(All passages quoted from “Letters to Malcolm” in this column are drawn from pages 42-44 and 57-61 of the Harvest Book edition, published in 1964.)