C.S. Lewis on St. James and the Inherent Conflict in the Astonishing Promise of James 1:6

On July 25, Christians observe the Feast of St. James the Apostle.

C.S. Lewis offered a reflection on the apparent contradiction in the Scriptures, as exemplified in James 1:6,  that you will get what you ask for, and yet also prepare yourself submissively in advance for a possible refusal.

Be prepared to be frustrated:  He exposes the conundrum, but what he doesn’t offer is a solution that you can take to the bank.

The New Testament contains embarrassing promises that what we pray for with faith we shall receive.  Mark 11:24 is the most staggering.  Whatever we ask for, believing that we’ll get it, we’ll get….  How is this astonishing promise to be reconciled (a) With the observed facts? and (b) with the prayer in Gethsemane, 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 deathbed, 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….

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 (1:6)–that you will get what you ask for 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 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, bu why the opposite result is so lavishly promised.

Shall we… scrap the embarrassing promises a ‘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 very writers of the detective stories, not to mention the scientists, know better.  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. … There is always hope if we keep an unsolved problem fairly in view; there’s none if we pretend it’s not there.

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This essay was taken from a collection of The Inspirational Writings of C.S. Lewis.  The book includes four well-loved titles including The Business of Heaven, which includes brief meditations for each day of the year.


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