This morning I revisited C.S. Lewis’s thoughts on Mark 11:24 in Letters to Malcolm. I like his take, and I’m going to quote him at length from his 11th chapter. He concludes by asking for his correspondent’s thoughts on the subject, and I oblige by giving some of mine below.
Here is Lewis:
The New Testament 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…
How is this astonishing promise to be reconciled (a) With the observed facts? and (b) With the prayer in Gethsemene, and (as a result of that prayer) the universally accepted view that we should ask everything with a reservation (“if it be Thy will”)?
As regards (a), no evasion is possible. 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.”
But (b), though much less often mentioned, is surely an equal difficulty. How is it possible at one and the same moment to have a perfect faith — an untroubled or unhesitating faith as St. James says (I:6) — that you will get what you ask and yet also prepare yourself submissively in advance for a possible refusal? If you envisage a refusal as possible, how can you have simultaneously a perfect confidence that what you ask will not be refused? If you have that confidence, how can you take refusal into account at all?…
As regards the first difficulty, I’m not asking why our petitions are so often refused. 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 that 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 is so lavishly promised.
Shall we then proceed on Vidler’s principles and scrap the embarrassing promises as “venerable archaisms” which have to be “outgrown”? Surely, even if there were no other objection, that method is too easy. If we are free to delete all inconvenient data we shall certainly have no theological difficulties; but for the same reason no solutions and no progress… The troublesome fact, the apparent absurdity which can’t be fitted in to any synthesis we have yet made, is precisely the one we must not ignore. Ten to one, it’s in that cover the fox is lurking. There is always hope if we keep an unsolved problem fairly in view; there’s none if we pretend it’s not there.
Before going any further, I want to make two purely practical points:
1. 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 that he could get what he wanted by praying for it. He tried the experiment and then, not unnaturally, never gave Christianity a second thought; we had better not talk about the view of prayer embodied in Mark XI:24 as “naif” or “elementary.” If that passage contains a truth, it is a truth for very advanced pupils indeed. I don’t think is 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.
2. We must not encourage in ourselves or others any tendency to work up a subjective state which, if we succeeded, we should describe as “faith,” with the idea that this will somehow insure the granting of our prayer. We have probably all done this as children. But the state of mind which desperate desire working on a strong imagination can manufacture is not faith in the Christian sense. It is a feat of psychological gymnastics.
It seems to me we must conclude that such promises about prayer with faith refer to a degree or kind of faith which most believers never experience. 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. Again, the absence of such faith as insures the granting of the prayer is not even necessarily a sin; for Our Lord had no such assurance when He prayed in Gethsemane.
How or why does such faith occur sometimes, but not always, even in the perfect petitioner? We, or I, can only guess. My own idea is that it occurs only when the one who prays does so as God’s fellow-worker, demanding what is needed for the joint work. It is the prophet’s, the apostle’s, the missionary’s, the healer’s prayer that is made with this confidence and finds the confidence justified by the event. The difference, we are told, between a servant and a friend is that a servant is not in his master’s secrets. For him, “orders are orders.” He has only his own surmises as to the plans he helps to execute. But the fellow-worker, the companion or (dare we say?) the colleague of God is so united with Him at certain moments that something of the divine foreknowledge enters his mind. Hence his faith is “evidence” — that is, the evidentness, the obviousness — of things not seen.
As the friend is above the servant, the servant is above the suitor, the man praying on his own behalf. It is no sin to be a suitor. Our Lord descends into the humiliation of being a suitor, or praying on His own behalf, in Gethsemane. But when He does so the certitude about His Father’s will is apparently withdrawn.
After that it would be no true faith — it would be idle presumption — for us, who are habitually suitors and do not often rise to the level of servants, to imagine that we shall have any assurance that is not an illusion — or correct only by accident — about the event of our prayers. Our struggle is — isn’t it? — to achieve and retain faith on a lower level. To believe that, whether He can grant them or not, God will listen to our prayers, will take them into account. Even to go on believing that there is a Listener at all. For as the situation grows more and more desperate, the grisly fears intrude. Are we only talking to ourselves in an empty universe? The silence is often so emphatic. And we have prayed so much already.
What do you think about these things? I have offered only guesses.
Well, C.S., thank you for asking. Here is my response to what you’ve said.
I like your honesty very much. You confront squarely the difficulties and questions we face when we try to understand this idea of “prayer in faith.” And at the end of this passage, you’re honest about your assessment of your own level of faith — so honest it makes me squirm a little.
You talk about spiritual maturity in a way that makes sense to me. It makes sense to me that there are levels of faith, and these levels may correspond to levels of maturity in our relationship with God.
I wish, though, that you had acknowledged that our level of faith/maturity is not predetermined. We can all grow beyond where we are. When Jesus says to the disciples, “I have called you friends,” isn’t it usual to assume he’s talking to us, too? Once we’ve been reconciled to God, we all have the same capacity to grow into a deep and mature friendship with Him.
It makes sense to me that in this passage, Jesus is laying out a vision for who His disciples can become as praying friends. Maybe they aren’t there yet. I’m certainly not. But it is attainable; faith can grow, and with this growth, the possibility of removing mountains can increase. We aren’t doomed to stay where we are.
That’s the only thing I don’t like about this chapter in Letters to Malcolm — the implication that we are “habitual suitors.” Maybe we’re suitors. But we don’t have to stay this way. In fact, if we’re going to impute inevitability to an aspect of our Christian faith, it’s growth — not stagnation or “habitual” struggle — that should be inevitable. Growth — and it seems that much of Jesus’s teaching suggests that growth is the result of persistence — in faith, and consequently in faith-saturated prayer, should be our natural state of being as Christians.
Incidentally, after writing this post, I found this online study guide to Letters to Malcolm. I am linking it here for future reference.