C. S. Lewis on the Unprovable Efficacy of Prayer

Recently, I came across this extended quotation from C. S. Lewis on prayer in a devotional I read each morning. Lewis’ writings on prayer are always refreshing to me in their vibrancy and practicality. He is willing to address some of the most perplexing issues about prayer but does so without drying all the lively faith out of prayer.

Some years ago I got up one morning intending to have my hair cut in preparation for a visit to London, and the first letter I opened made it clear I need not go to London. So, I decided to put the haircut off too. But then there began the most unaccountable little nagging in my mind, almost like a voice saying, “Get it cut all the same. Go and get it cut.” In the end I could stand it no longer. I went

Now my barber at that time was a fellow Christian and a man of many troubles whom my brother and I had sometimes been able to help. The moment I opened his shop door he said, “Oh, I was praying you might come today.” And, in fact, if I had come a day or so later, I should have been of no use to him.

It awed me; it awes me still. But, of course, one cannot rigorously prove a causal connection between the barber’s prayers and my visit. It might be telepathy. It might be accident.

I have stood by the bedside of a woman whose thigh-bone was eaten through with cancer and who had thriving colonies of the disease in many other bones as well. It took three people to move her in bed. The doctors predicted a few months of life; the nurses (who often know better), a few weeks. A good man laid his hands on her and prayed. A year later the patient was walking (uphill, too, through rough woodland) and the man who took the last X-ray photos was saying, “These bones are as solid as rock. It’s miraculous.”

But once again there is no rigorous proof. Medicine, as all true doctors admit, is not an exact science. We need not invoke the supernatural to explain the falsification of its prophecies. You need, not unless you choose, believe in a causal connections between the prayers and the recovery.

The question then arises, “What sort of evidence would prove the efficacy of prayer?” The thing we pray for may happen, but how can you ever know it was not going to happen anyway? Even if the thing were indisputably miraculous, it would not follow that the miracle had occurred because of your prayers. The answer surely is that a compulsive empirical proof such as we have in the sciences can never be attained.

Some things are proved by the unbroken uniformity of our experiences. The law of gravitation is established by the fact that, in our experience, all bodies without exception obey it. Now even if all the things that people pray for happened, which they do not, this would not prove what Christians mean by the efficacy of prayer. For prayer is request. The essence of request, as distinct from compulsion, is that it may or may not be granted.

C. S. Lewis, The World’s Last Night, as quoted in Reuben P. Job and Norman Shawchuck, A Guide to Prayer (Nashville, TN: Upper Room, 1983), 326-7.

What Does It Look Like to Step Out in Faith? [Peter and Faith, part 4]

image 2 - water

“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”

“Come,” he said.

Then Peter got down out of the boat. (Matthew 14:28-29)

Peter’s faith leads him to risk stepping out of the boat. He actually steps out in faith to follow Jesus onto the waters in the midst of the waves and wind. Peter shows us what faith looks like. He hasn’t waited for someday. He’s looked and listened for Jesus. And he steps out.

Philippe Petit, a French acrobat and high-wire artist, knows what it means to risk stepping out. In the early 1970s, he heard about the construction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York. When he saw a picture of their design, it was like he heard a voice calling him to do something startling and risky.

The 2008 documentary, Man on Wire, tells the story of how, after six years of planning, on August 7th, 1974, Petit and his friends secretly rode a freight elevator 104 stories up into the newly constructed twin towers of the World Trade Center. After stretching a ¾” metal cable across the 200 foot span between the towers, Petit illegally stepped out for a high wire act like no other. With the winds blowing, Philippe Petit was 110 stories—a quarter of a mile—above the sidewalks of Manhattan. 

Man on Wire

He walked the wire for 45 minutes, making eight crossings between the towers. He sat on the wire, gave knee salutes and, while lying on the wire, spoke with a gull circling above his head. After this spell-binding display, Petit was arrested, taken for psychological evaluation, and brought to jail before he was finally released.

Risky faith looks a bit like that. We hear a voice calling us to action. We respond. And then we step out. It may seem startling and risky, but we will do whatever Jesus says.

How Do We Hear Jesus? [Peter and Faith, part 3]

image 2 - water

“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”

“Come,” he said.

Then Peter got down out of the boat. (Matthew 14:28-29)

If faith sees Jesus and desires Jesus, how do we really hear from Jesus?

We see that Peters walk of faith comes after he hears Jesus’ invitation to join Him upon the waves. Now that is wondrous to read about but what does that mean for our own lives?

The first aspect of hearing from Jesus is that we ask and wait. Peter does not jump out of the boat before talking with Jesus. Yes, he is bold enough to take the initiative to ask Jesus but Peter is not so foolish to try and walk out there without first hearing Jesus’ invitation. Faith responds to God. Faith hears because God first speaks. Our framework for understanding the dynamics of a living interactive relationship with the Living God through Jesus Christ must always be shaped around the deep truth that God speaks first and our lives are always a response to Him. I had a friend in college who jokingly said that in prayer he told God what to do. Of course, prayer is not really like that, anymore than any important relationship in our life is like that. Prayer is an interaction with God based in a loving relationship of trust by which we hear Him first and respond.

Out of that place, we begin to develop a living relationship with God. Now, many will say that our life with Christ is not like Peter’s interaction here in Matthew 14. This is true in the sense that Peter is talking with the incarnate Jesus upon earth. But it is no less true that we, by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, can interact with the Living God through Jesus Christ. So, let me invite us to once again renew a living relationship of faith that listens for God. How do we do that? Well, the primary ways are through first and most importantly paying attention to the guidance of Holy Scripture. After that we also hear from God by attuning ourselves to the inward promptings of the Holy Spirit, listening to godly counsel, and paying attention to how God speaks through our circumstances. You may want to read more about this in my earlier post “How Do We Hear from God Today?”

Consider some questions with me about what this episode in Peter’s life means for us today:

  • What is God inviting you into these days? What steps of faith is God calling you into?
  • Are you listening for the inward promptings of the Holy Spirit?
  • Are you measuring those inward promptings against the Word of God – the Bible – which keeps us trustworthy and true?

May we be the sort of faith-filled disciples who not only fix our eyes on Jesus, but also open our ears to hear Jesus. As He said, “My sheep listen to my voice” (John 10:27).

Senior Pastor Video Update in the Time of COVID-19 (May 27, 2020)

Here is my latest video update for Eastbrook Church as we navigate the time of COVID-19. I will continue to re-post these weekly video updates here at my blog for those who have not seen it or who are not part of our church but could use the encouragement. You can watch it here or at the Eastbrook Church Vimeo channel.

In this update I highlight one theme of Hebrews related to hearing the word of God, both in Scripture and in Jesus. I focus that in by mentioning a verse from Psalm 119:

Your word is a lamp for my feet,
a light on my path. (Psalm 119:105)

If we want direction in the midst of confusion, there is no better source than turning to God’s Word. If we want light in the midst of darkness, there is no better source than the Scriptures.

If this theme captures your interest, you may also enjoy reading a few other posts on my blog:

Senior Pastor Video Update in the Time of COVID-19 (April 1, 2020)

Here is my latest video update for Eastbrook Church as we navigate the time of COVID-19. I will continue to re-post these weekly video updates here at my blog for those who have not seen it or who are not part of our church but could use the encouragement. You can watch it here or at the Eastbrook Church Vimeo channel.

At one point, I mention the opportunity to join in with 24-7 Prayer Movement here in the city of Milwaukee throughout the month of April. You can find out more information here.