Prayer is essential in this ongoing warfare. Pray hard and long. Pray for your brothers and sisters. Keep your eyes open. Keep each other’s spirits up so that no one falls behind or drops out. And don’t forget to pray for me.
Ephesians 6:18-19 (The Message)
First, I must make a full disclosure: I am a Baby Boomer. I am part of that generation which made “if it feels good, do it”, into a way of life. We were told that if our heart wasn’t in whatever we were doing, we shouldn’t’ do it, lest we be hypocrites. Add to that “feel good” mantra the fact that I was reared in a church that emphasized “heart-felt faith” and the role of feelings in worship and service; some of which was good, and some not so good.
The not so good part is that I have often wrestled with the role of feelings in prayer and asked “what if I don’t feel like praying!” Perhaps you too have wondered about the absence of feelings when you pray, or excused yourself when you didn’t feel like praying.
Over the years C. S. Lewis has done a lot to set me free from the horrible tyranny of feelings and helped me in my praying. Lewis encourages me in making God the focus of my praying and not what I am feeling or not feeling. In that I do find myself praying more often, and with greater freedom and confidence.
Lewis was a shy man and reluctant to talk about himself or his spiritual life. He believed prayer was something for him to “do” rather than talk about. But Lewis’ personal letters to inquirers reveal how important regular, daily prayer was to him. His spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy, as well as The Screwtape Letters, and Reflections on the Psalms, give us his theology of prayer and his practices.
Lewis’ last book, published posthumously, was Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. In the book Lewis acknowledged hesitancy to write about prayer: “for me to offer the world instruction about prayer would be impudence”. Rather, he says that he writes to Malcolm as two strugglers who “want to know not how we should pray if we were perfect but how we should pray being as we are now”.
Lewis was well acquainted with dryness in prayer, or what the old monks called accidie. He understood the dark night of the soul and warned against looking for any kind of feelings as we pray. In a letter to Sister Penelope he writes: “I always tell people not to bother about ‘feelings’ in their prayers, and above all never to try to feel”.
In yet another letter to an inquirer, Rhona Bodle, Lewis writes: “It is the act of will…that God values, rather than the state of our emotions – the act being what we give to Him”.
But it was something that Lewis wrote in The Screwtape Letters that I most often remember as I pray. In this humorous and imaginative exchange between two devils Lewis provides insight into prayer. Lewis writes about a senior devil, Screwtape, instructing the younger tempter, Wormwood, on the dangers of letting a person pray: “Whenever they are attending to the Enemy Himself we are defeated.” But Screwtape writes about the many ways available to devils to keep people from praying:
The simplest is to turn their gaze away from Him towards themselves. Keep them watching their own minds and trying to produce feelings there by the action of their own wills…When they say they are praying for forgiveness, let them be trying to feel forgiven. Teach them to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling (emphasis mine); and never let them suspect how much success or failure of that depends on whether they are well or ill, fresh or tired, at the moment.
Lewis’s words free me up to keep my thoughts on God as I pray, rather than my feelings. That makes it easier for me to pray more often and with boldness. Good feelings are nice when I have them, but not necessary.
Every day I perform needed tasks without giving thought to what I am feeling. I send in the mortgage payment, take out the garbage, and brush my teeth without thought of what I am feeling. But doing those tasks or not doing them, make a difference in my life. How much truer of our praying or not praying every day!
In today’s Scripture text the Apostle Paul writes of our need for prayer. He says that it is “essential” in our ongoing spiritual warfare. As an Apostle of Christ, Paul commands us to pray for each other. He says that we need to pray in order to keep each other’s spirits up so that “no one falls behind or drops out”.
If you’re like me, there are times you don’t feel like praying. But let’s keep at it anyway! It’s what God wants, and what we all need. Remember what Lewis wrote to Rhona Bodle:
“It is the act of will…that God values, rather than the state of our emotions – the act being what we give to Him”.
Grace and peace,
P.S. To read online C. S. Lewis’ “Discerning the Enemy’s Schemes Against our Prayer Life” from The Screwtape Letters, see: