Petitionary prayer (that is, asking for God to do something or provide something) has long been a topic of genuine interest to me. I say “long,” but really it’s more of an off and on situation. Today, as it so happens, is one of those times.
We’re currently in the How to Write a Good Essay unit in my 9th grade English class, and I have the eager young minds start with good ol’ Clive Staples. (That’s C.S. Lewis, by the way.) So for the past few days, we’ve been reading and discussing the merits and demerits (there are far more merits, I assure you) of his essay “The Efficacy of Prayer.” Found (as it were) in the book below:
With the word “efficacy” in it, the title itself is enough to frighten the poor lads and lasses, I’m afraid. But now that all is said and done, I think they’d all admit it did them some good (the essay, mind, not just the title). I should hope so at least… otherwise they made merry with the concept of “honesty is the best policy” today in class.
The discussion, naturally, dealt with far more than the storyteller’s use of grammar. We were, much to my pleasure, forced to wrestle with the man’s argument. (It seems to me a major oversight, by the way, that high school students are expected to write good essays, but hardly ever are they taught to actually read them. It is one of my long-set goals to change this foolishness.)
Since you probably don’t have immediate access to the essay in question, I shall give you, in brief, the heart of Lewis’ argument (in his own words, of course). After some several pages developing the idea that prayer is neither mechanical nor magical (nor, I should add, testable in its effectiveness), he comes to the problem, so to call it, of prayer itself:
Can we believe that God ever really modifies His action in response to the suggestions of men? For infinite wisdom does not need telling what is best, and infinite goodness needs no urging to do it.
But neither does God need any of those things that are done by finite agents, whether living or inanimate. He could, if He chose, repair our bodies miraculously without food; or give us food without the aid of farmers, bakers, and butchers; or knowledge without the aid of learned men; or convert the heathen without missionaries. Instead He allows soils and weather and animals and the muscles, minds, and wills of men to co-operate in the execution of His will.
“God,” said Pascal, “instituted prayer in order to lend to His creatures the dignity of causality.” But not only prayer; whenever we act at all He lends us that dignity. It is not really stranger, nor less strange, that my prayers should affect the course of events than that my other actions should do so. They have not advised or changed God’s mind – that is, His over-all purpose. But that purpose will be realized in different ways according to the actions, including the prayers, of His creatures.
For He seems to do nothing of Himself which He can possibly delegate to His creatures. He commands us to do slowly and blunderingly what He could do perfectly and in the twinkling of an eye. He allows us to neglect what He would have us do, or to fail. Perhaps we do not fully realize the problem, so to call it, of enabling finite free wills to co-exist with Omnipotence. It seems to involve at every moment almost a sort of divine abdication. We are not mere recipients or spectators. We are either privileged to share in the game or compelled to collaborate in the work, “to wield our little tridents.” Is this amazing process simply Creation going on before our eyes? This is how (no light matter) God makes something – indeed, makes gods – out of nothing.
Tonight, to avoid the proverbial mouthful, I will leave you with just that. More on the subject on the morrow.