C.S. Lewis: The Role of the Mind in Prayer

“Prayer without words is the best.”

– CS Lewis, Letters to Malcolm

For Lewis, the locus for prayer is the mind. In his correspondence with Malcolm (a fictional friend)*, he calls praying exclusively with the mind a “golden moment.” The golden moment does not happen often, though, due to a lack of “mental and spiritual strength.” However, if we can harness the roaming nature of our minds and focus on holy thought during times of prayer, we will experience soul-refreshing communion.

No doubt, many Christians find themselves in a similar situation. There exists a desire to commune with God whereby one comes away rejuvenated, but the unbridled nature of the mind is especially hard to corral. The war between the carnal mind and the Spirit during prayer is intense, but God promises victory and it is echoed in Lewis’s words.

Prayer Has a Purpose

“We must lay before Him what is in us, not what ought to be in us.”

Prayer is meant to affect our philosophy, our way of thinking. It is not a voicemail where requests are left. It is not a help line where insight can be gained to fix a part of one’s life. It is not a therapy couch where one can dump his heartaches and receive an understanding gaze. Prayer is not a bank where money can be obtained to fund a life of ease. Some of these may be aspects included in prayer, but they are not what prayer is. Prayer is a place where our minds are changed from being carnally bent to being permeated with holiness. Lewis points to honesty as the crucial, first step if one’s mind is to be changed—a confession of, “things that are not really good, nor means to good. … It is no use to ask God with factitious earnestness for A when our whole mind is in reality filled with the desire [innocent or sinful] for B.”

What is the outcome of such praying? What impact upon the mind? “The passive changes to the active,” Lewis says. “Instead of merely being known, we show, we tell, we offer ourselves to view.” God, indeed, knows our desires without an utterance from the lips. When one speaks of them, however, an “unveiling” occurs. One goes from being a “thing” [known by observation] to a “person” [known by self disclosure]. By making known one’s desires, the supplicant agrees with the Father about the state of his life and life as a whole. Hence, prayer is about mind change. Theologian Bruce Ware states it thusly, “I believe that I could not act more foolishly than to come to God in prayer suggesting to him that he see things my way. … Pray[ing] ‘according to God’s will’ and ‘in Jesus’ name’ indicate[s] our longing to have our minds … reshaped to be more like God’s.”

Decluttering the Mind

“The ordinate [ordered] frame of mind is one of the blessings we must pray for, not a fancy-dress we must put on when we pray.”

The disordered state of the mind is no friend. “The pressure of things we are trying to keep out of our mind is a hopeless distraction,” Lewis suggests. “No noise is so emphatic as one you are trying not to listen to.” The chaotic flurry of thoughts flooding the mind seems quite uncontrollable. In prayer, the body may be still, but the mind is far from it.

Distraction is only one form of helplessness plaguing the Christian’s mind. The Scripture reveals many more that we must battle in order to have an ordinate mind. Another form of helplessness plaguing the mind is deception. For example, we are often led to believe we are sovereign over life because of the many God-given talents given to us. On the contrary, Jeremiah explains our lives are in the hands of the potter [which is God]. He takes the clay and molds it into whatever vessel He wishes. The clay cannot make itself into anything useful, or beautiful, or valuable. It has no ability to move independent of the God as mover.

David describes our helplessness as ignorance. He calls God his shepherd and infers he is God’s sheep. In significant ways, sheep are ignorant creatures, as exemplified by their inability to understand where to walk and not walk. Take, for example, this situation from Turkey in 2005. Four hundred sheep fell 15 yards down and died in a ravine near Iran. They died and their bodies broke the fall of another 1,100 animals who fell on top of them. In the beginning of the incident, one sheep fell to his death and then, ignorantly, 1,499 other sheep followed. We’re like these sheep. We don’t understand the weaknesses inherent in our strengths, nor the true implications of our decisions. The Christian must be honest and confess this ever-present reality. As Lewis suggests in Letters to Malcolm and elsewhere, we must lay down everything before the Sovereign.

A Patient & an Agent of God

“I am asking to be given ‘the same mind which [is] also in Christ.’”

Lewis includes this phrase in his section about the petition, “Thy will be done.” He writes of God’s will being mainly done by people. He is amending the common thoughts associated with the phrase: God’s will is one of pains and disappointments, and the person is a patient upon whom the will of God is performed. God’s will may be accomplished in this manner, but there is another way. Lewis speaks of a person being an agent of God’s will as well as a patient. And there was never nor will ever be a greater agent of God on earth doing His will than Christ Himself. So what pervaded Christ’s mind, His thinking, as He accomplished God’s will on earth?

Paul explained the mind of Christ to the Philippians in this way:

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,

did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,

but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant,

being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form,
 he humbled himself by

becoming obedient to the point of death, 
even death on a cross.”

Christ exemplified humility to the greatest degree when He, as Creator, took the same form of one of His creations and then died, at the hands of His creation, in one of the most degrading ways possible—the ultimate form of, “[coming] not to be served, but to serve.” This humility also undergirds Christ’s unconditional love as evidenced by His perspective of those for whom He died and yet would never believe. Christ knew this reality at the beginning of time, and yet, He still died for them. Furthermore, He even prayed for their conversion while dying for them.

Humility is the key to having a mind like Christ’s. It is the “how” of mind renewal. Humility fueled His condescension to earth. It fueled His service on earth and now fuels His intercession for His brothers and sisters before our Father. Without humility, Christ cannot possess and demonstrate unconditional love.

Humility also determined Christ’s “manner” of prayer. One might assume that Christ, the God-man, would not pray often seeing He is God. The Text, however, says otherwise. Throughout His life, Christ prayed earnestly, “with loud cries and tears” (Heb. 5:7). He prayed very early in the morning (Mk. 1:35). He spent all night praying (Mk. 6:46, Luke 6:12). He also made the same supplication multiple times (Mt. 26:44).

In order to have the mind of Christ, we must seek God with the same fervor seeing we are also in such great need.

The mind of Christ exemplifies the mind the Christian should model. It is a mind aligned with God’s and thereby, it has an ordinate frame. The Christian should expectantly seek to have his carnal philosophy changed into that which aligns with the Creator, i.e. a mind where its every corner has been impacted with humility. With a mind such as this, the “golden moment” of sweet communion is possible.


This article originally published at HarperCollins’ CSLewis.com.

*Update: This article now includes a note indicating the fictional nature of Lewis’ friend, Malcolm.