“Thy Will be Done” – C. S. Lewis on the Third Petition

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The following excerpt from C.S. Lewis’s Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer needs nothing in the way of introduction from me, really. With that said, I will be brief with my prefacing remarks.

This particular excerpt comes from Lewis’s description of his “festoonings” of the Lord’s Prayer — “the private overtones I give to certain petitions,” as he calls them — which he elaborates for his fictitious interlocutor, Malcolm, in the fifth chapter or “letter” of the book

I first discovered Lewis in a serious way when I was a senior in high school. Letters to Malcolm in particular — and even more particularly, the following excerpt — has remained one of my very favorite essays on Christian spirituality; moreover, it is simply one of the most profoundly helpful things I’ve ever read. May God use it in such a way for you, as well.

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Thy will be done. My festoons on this have been added gradually. At first I took it exclusively as an act of submission, attempting to do with it what Our Lord did in Gethsemane. I thought of God’s will purely as something that would come upon me, something of which I should be the patient. And I also thought of it as a will which would be embodied in pains and disappointments. Not, to be sure, that I supposed God’s will for me to consist entirely of disagreeables. But I thought it was only the disagreeables that called for the preliminary submission — the agreeables could look after themselves for the present. When they turned up, one could give thanks.

This interpretation is, I expect, the commonest. And so it must be. And such are the miseries of human life that it must often fill our whole mind. But at other times other meanings can be added. So I added one more.

The peg for it is, I admit, much more obvious in the English versions than in the Greek or Latin. No matter: this is where the liberty of festooning comes in. “Thy will be done.” But a great deal of it is to be done by God’s creatures; including me. The petition, then, is not merely that I may patiently suffer God’s will but also that I may vigorously do it. I must be an agent as well as a patient. I am asking that I may be enabled to do it. In the long run I am asking to be given “the same mind which was also in Christ.”

Taken this way, I find the words have a more regular daily application. For there isn’t always — or we don’t always have reason to suspect that there is — some great affliction looming in the near future, but there are always duties to be done; usually, for me, neglected duties to be caught up with. “Thy will be done — by me — now” brings one back to brass tacks.

Lewis smoking jacketBut now, more than that, I am at this moment contemplating a new festoon. Tell me if you think it a vain subtlety. I am beginning to feel that we need a preliminary act of submission not only towards possible future afflictions but also towards possible future blessings. I know it sounds fantastic; but think it over. It seems to me that we often, almost sulkily, reject the good that God offers us because, at that moment, we expected some other good. Do you know what I mean? On every level of our life — in our religious experience, in our gastronomic, erotic, aesthetic, and social experience — we are always harking back to some occasion which seemed to us to reach perfection, setting that up as a norm, and depreciating all others by comparison. But these other occasions, I now suspect, are often full of their own new blessing, if only we would lay ourselves open to it. God shows us a new facet of glory, and we refuse to look at it because we’re still looking for the old one. And of course we don’t get that. You can’t, at the twentieth reading, get again the experience of reading Lycidas for the first time. But what you do get can be in its own way as good.

This applies especially to the devotional life. Many religious people lament that the first fervours of their conversion have died away. They think — sometimes rightly, but not, I believe, always — that their sins account for this. They may even try by pitiful efforts of will to revive what now seem to have been the golden days. But were those fervours — the operative word is those — ever intended to last?

It would be rash to say that there is any prayer which God never grants. But the strongest candidate is the prayer we might express in the single word encore. And how should the Infinite repeat Himself? All space and time are too little for Him to utter Himself in them once.

And the joke, or tragedy, of it all is that these golden moments in the past, which are so tormenting if we erect them into a norm, are entirely nourishing, wholesome, and enchanting if we are content to accept them for what they are, for memories. Properly bedded down in a past which we do not miserably try to conjure back, they will send up exquisite growths. Leave the bulbs alone, and the new flowers will come up. Grub them up and hope, by fondling and sniffing, to get last year’s blooms, and you will get nothing. “Unless a seed die…”

[All emphases original.]

 

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2 Comments

  1. Lewis is indeed understands a great deal concerning spirituality, both of himself and human kind. As I read this, I could not help thinking of Luther's 'festoon' on this petition.

    "God’s will is done when He breaks and hinders every evil plan and purpose of the devil, the world, and our sinful nature, which do not want us to hallow God’s name or let His kingdom come; and when He strengthens and keeps us firm in His Word and faith until we die. This is His good and gracious will."

    I suppose that it might fall under Lewis's broad first category, but I think it remarkably different in that Luther recognizes that God's primary will, both for us personally and the world generally, is to destroy the evil that seeks to destroy us and to keep us in the one true faith.

    This petition certainly includes all Lewis's other festoons, and he displays them beautifully. It does seem that he wants to make the petition primarily into one of asking that we obey the law, submit to our crosses, and do God's work. Let us never forget the good news included here.

  2. Excellent point, Nathaniel. Really, though, I don't think Lewis need be read in opposition to a Lutheran understanding of this petition, or Lutheran theology of the cross writ large. I think he's making a non-soteriological point, actually. This bit here, for example, makes me think of the table of duties:

    "…[A] great deal of [God's will] is to be done by God's creatures; including me. The petition, then, is not merely that I may patiently suffer God's will but also that I may vigorously do it. I must be an agent as well as a patient. I am asking that I may be enabled to do it. In the long run I am asking to be given "the same mind which was also in Christ."
    Taken this way, I find the words have a more regular daily application. For there isn't always — or we don't always have reason to suspect that there is — some great affliction looming in the near future, but there are always duties to be done; usually, for me, neglected duties to be caught up with. "Thy will be done —
    by me — now" brings one back to brass tacks."

    While it is true that God's primary will is our salvation and the preservation of our faith, he does prepare duties for us to do, that we should walk in them, not in a meritorious sense, but in thankfulness to Him and love towards our neighbor.

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