For many of us prayer is something we talk a lot about but do far too little of. It is very often a mundane chore as opposed to a desire or a mere preference opposite a passion. This is to our own detriment. Yawnish, distracted, stunted prayers are an essential ingredient in producing the anemic spirituality that characterizes much of modern western Christendom. It is just such prayer the Lord of Hell gleefully glories in and desires for us. C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) speaks with piercing accuracy on this reality in The Screwtape Letters. In the excerpt below Lewis has the senior tempter Screwtape give advice to his demonic nephew Wormwood on how best to meticulously undermine the prayer life of a young Christian. Read with openness and conviction,
The best thing, where it is possible, is to keep the [Christian] patient from the serious intention of praying altogether. When the patient is an adult recently re-converted to the Enemy’s party, like your man, this is best done by encouraging him to remember, or to think he remembers, the parrot-like nature of his prayers in childhood. In reaction against that, he may be persuaded to aim at something entirely spontaneous, inward, informal, and un-regularized; and what this will actually mean to a beginner will be an effort to produce in himself a vaguely devotional mood in which real concentration of will and intelligence have no part…. That is exactly the sort of prayer we want…. At the very least, they [Christians] can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget, what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls. It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.
If this fails, you must fall back on a subtler misdirection of his intention. Whenever they are attending to the Enemy Himself [God] we are defeated, but there are ways of preventing them from doing so. The simplest is to turn their gaze away from Him towards themselves. Keep them watching their own minds and trying to produce feelings there by the action of their own wills…. Teach them to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling; and never let them suspect how much success or failure of that kind depends on whether they are well or ill, fresh or tired, at the moment.
But of course the Enemy [God] will not meantime be idle. Wherever there is prayer, there is danger of His own immediate action. He is cynically indifferent to the dignity of His position, and ours, as pure spirits, and to human animals on their knees He pours out self-knowledge in a quite shameless fashion. But even if He defeats your first attempt at misdirection, we have a subtler weapon. The humans do not start from that direct perception of [God]…. If you look into your patient's mind when he is praying…you will find that it is a composite object containing many quite ridiculous ingredients. There will be images derived from pictures…. I have known cases where what the patient called his "God" was actually located-up and to the left at the corner of the bedroom ceiling, or inside his own head, or in a crucifix on the wall. But whatever the nature of the composite object, you must keep him praying to it – to the thing that he has made, not to the Person who has made him. You may even encourage him to attach great importance to the correction and improvement of his composite object, and to keeping it steadily before his imagination during the whole prayer. For if he ever comes to make the distinction, if ever he consciously directs his prayers "Not to what I think thou art but to what thou knowest thyself to be", our situation is, for the moment, desperate. Once all his thoughts and images have been flung aside or, if retained, retained with a full recognition of their merely subjective nature, and the man trusts himself to the completely real, external, invisible Presence, there with him in the room and never knowable by him as he is known by it – why, then it is that the incalculable may occur. In avoiding this situation – this real nakedness of the soul in prayer – you will be helped by the fact that the humans themselves do not desire it as much as they suppose. There's such a thing as getting more than they bargained for! 
There are several points I would like to syphon out of this excerpt without draining its richness.
The Subtilty of What we Classify as “Prayer”
One of the most striking things in this excerpt is the most easily missed. It reveals a sadistically clever scheme all too often overlooked to our dismay. Screwtape says, “The best thing, where it is possible, is to keep the patient from the serious intention of praying altogether,” and then he says, “this is best done by encouraging him to remember, or to think he remembers, the parrot-like nature of his prayers in childhood.” Do you notice what he is saying? The Devil does not really care about us praying, as long as the type of prayer we do is a useful fiction. If we keep our prayers dreary-eyed, timely, thoughtless, and childish, he is content and undisturbed.
In such cases the Devil is content for us to live out the hellish inversion of John 5:16: “The ineffectual fervent-less prayer of a sluggish saint avails much for the Adversary of our souls.”
Lewis is giving meat here worth chewing. He is showing us that such feeble prayer really is not prayer at all! It is prayer masquerading as prayer, which makes us content and ineffective while at the same time delighting the demons. It is not real prayer because it is comfortable, quaint, and compels no real change. It is not real prayer because it categorically has no teeth to it! It is a milk-toast spirituality.
Real prayer is active, Spirit filled, intentional, habitual, God centered, humbling, relational, and power packed. Prayer is the specific, intentional, spiritual discipline of the Christian life. John Calvin (1509-1564), the great reformer, said it was “the chief exercise of faith.” The revivalist Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) said prayer,
“is as natural an expression of faith as breathing is of life…[and a] prayerless life [is a life] without God in the world.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), the 20th Century German pastor and martyr said,
“Prayer is the supreme instance of the hidden character of the Christian life. It is the antithesis of self-display.”
One of the things these men of old are getting at is that prayer is the chief means of distinguishing people who are of Faith versus the Faithless. It is an endeavor that displays in us an active acknowledgement of the presence of the divine in our lives on the daily! In short prayer reveals that we are aware, humbled by, and actively seeking more than matter and molecules; it reveals that we are a people who “look up” beyond our world to Someone Greater than ourselves for our ultimate answers, hope, peace, security, and future.
To fail to be a prayer is, in a very real sense, to live as a functional atheist. To live a “spiritual life” with a complete absence of ever seeking to touch the Spirit or communion is to deny the very foundations of Faith itself. It is living in the world on a regular basis as if God is not intimately and actively within and among you.
But this goes even further than mere awareness of the transcendent in our lives.
Prayer is also a fundamental means of awakening us to the reality of our present situations and to the Ultimate Fact that we stand naked before the eyes of a living God who knows us far more intimately than we could ever hope to. It reminds us that we cannot hide from God. He knows our facades. He knows our fakery. He knows our insecurities. He knows our needs. Prayer is that place where we reveal our souls to our God and He in turn reveals more intimately His heart to us. It is the meeting of wills. It is the meeting of souls. Lewis put it this way,
“It is a personal contact between…incomplete persons (ourselves) and the utterly concrete Person. Prayer is the sense of petition, asking for things, is a small part of it; confession and penitence are its threshold, adoration its sanctuary, the presence and vision and enjoyment of God its bread and wine.”
It is such rawness of prayer that the devils loath for us to experience. Thus they (along with the World and the Flesh) ensure we ingest enough busyness and distractions to keep us from ever reaching such intimacy. But really, as Lewis points out, the devils do not have to work too hard at this because most of us do not even care to experience such rawness before God. As Screwtape so candidly affirms,
“It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out…. [In fact to avoid] the real nakedness of the soul in prayer – you will be helped by the fact that the humans themselves do not desire it as much as they suppose. There's such a thing as getting more than they bargained for!”
This is to our own dismay for it is in such nakedness that we can truly be ourselves and see ourselves as we more clearly come to see the One who holds us.
It is in prayer that we stand before an Audience of One.
How Our Physical State Can Many Times Affect Our Prayer State
Another profound truth worth chewing is Lewis’ insight of how easily our physical states affect our spiritual states. He points out how the postures we make in prayer can reveal and even shape the sincerity and depth of focus we have before God. Do not misunderstand this! He is not saying we should bask in pagan asceticism or external posturing. What he is driving at is us coming to terms with how our bodies shape our souls as much as our souls shape our bodies.
In the history of the Christian Church there has been a consistent trajectory of teachings and reflections upon taking serious how we posture ourselves in worship and prayer. This is not out of a sign of stiff-necked ceremonialism but a recognition that we are a unified complexity of spirit, soul, and body that intertwine and interact with one another and therefore affect one another. A slouching posture can indicate a slouching spirit. A casual stature can reveal a casualness of soul which tends to express itself casually when coming before God in worship and prayer. God becomes a familiar to us – just “another relationship” among the myriads we have. We come into His presence and prop our feet upon Him instead of prostrating ourselves before Him in worship and reverence as the Cosmic King of Justice and Mercy He is.
I know this personally.
Tiredness physically leads to fogged mental states which inevitably misdirect my thoughts in prayer. I will start a prayer in earnest and within 40 seconds I begin to drift and think of all the work I have to accomplish, or I begin to daydream or become lethargic. Or I will pray as I drive to work, only to find my eyes wondering to a sign along the road or a pedestrian crossing the street. What is happening in all these? I am forgetting before Whom I stand when I am praying. I am slouching before God. I am yawning in His presence.
One way to fix this is to fix my physical state. Train the eyes, train the mind, discipline the body. If need be, stand to pray. Walk. Look upward. Lift hands. Kneel. Be uncomfortable. By doing these things one begins to take seriously the physical discipline of directing the body in the realm of spiritual life.
Generating Synthetic Piety
We can grow up on healthy doses of certain stylized versions of prayer. There are more liturgical types, more charismatic types, more blustery types, more tranquil types, and so forth. Lewis causes us to be reflective on this. We can begin to equate ‘true prayer’ with certain emotional expressions or experiences to the point that those expressions become the only means by which we define prayer (this also applies to all of spirituality).
This is where the danger creeps in.
Prayer is not less than emotion, but it is far more than emotion. This is what Lewis is wanting us to remember. True prayer is rooted in authenticity and reverence – an emptying or unclothing of oneself before God. It is not to be grounded in “turning our gaze towards ourselves and keeping watch on our own minds” as we think about how we are “feeling” as we are doing it. It isn’t about us! It is about Him! It is “other directed,” being lifted above our present circumstances into the realm of God Himself. It is only there that true answers, freedom, clarity, and focus takes place.
God is not interested in artificial emotionalism. He is not interested in syntax, He is interested in the sincerity. He is not interested in fervor, He is interested in faithfulness. He is not interested in hooping, He is interested in humility. Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) said it this way,
“The heart is the source, the seat, and the essence of supplication. Prayer with the heart is the heart of prayer: the cry of our soul is the soul of our cry.”
He went on to say, “There is as much grace in the bark of a dog or the grunt of a swine as in a form of prayer if the heart be absent.” It is not enough to go through a set of disciplines or emotions when it comes to prayer. The heart must be pruned. The heart must be nursed to desire the sweetness of communion with God.
Generating False Images
One of the easiest things we can do is to make images in our head of Who God is whenever we pray. As Lewis makes clear we can derive our images of God from pictures, we can focus on a composite object, or we can think of some distant image in our imagination. In all these there are two things happening: misdirection and distance.
When we pray to God with a preconceived vision of what we think He should be we miss the true beauty of Who He is. This misdirection skews our understanding of God’s nature, person, and work. As a result, when we worship and pray God tends to become who we are. He likes what we like, He approves of what we approve, He hates what we hate, and He will give what we ask. It is all a total misdirection of who God really is. This is not assigned to just heretics or spiritual relativists; this happens in regular Bible believing churches! But as Timothy Keller (1950-present) has said,
“If your god never disagrees with you, you might be worshiping an idealized version of yourself.”
But not only is such misdirection an outcome of this corrupted iconoclasm, there is also a distance created. Lewis makes the point that when we generate images of God in prayer, we can detach Him from our midst. He becomes an object among many within our minds eye. He becomes, as Lewis says, “located-up and to the left at the corner of the bedroom ceiling, or inside [our] own head, or in a crucifix on the wall.” What is he getting at here? He is showing that in a very real sense what happens is we tend to “see God” like an object or a person crossing before our eyes afar off. By doing this with prayer we lose the sense of inner intimacy of His presence within us and living around us.
Now, again, do not misunderstand Lewis here! He is not promoting some pagan pantheism or New Ageism mumbo-jumbo. What he is reminding us of is how easy it is to make God “away from us” as we pray. He becomes a detached deistic Being looking down far away from us as we call out to Him and look up at Him on Olympus. But such a vision doesn’t take seriously the immanence and intimacy of Who He is. God is not a detached Father. He is, as Jesus Himself taught us, our Heavenly Father (Matthew 6) – that impossible to contain, quantify, or composite Cosmic King Who is equally immanent, relational, and accessible to His children.
We need to recover this reality when we pray! This is what Lewis is getting at!
The Bible is profoundly clear that we have an intimate union with God through Christ that eliminates “distance” between us and Him (Romans 5 & 8, Galatians 2, Colossians 1, 1 Corinthians 6, 1 John 4). This understanding is an awareness of our “nakedness” (Lewis says that “real nakedness of soul”) before the eyes of God. This means that in prayer, we are baring ourselves before our Maker at the deepest levels. We are recognizing that God is not some celestial confession box but is the Great Knower of our souls.
Praying About Our Prayer
Prayer should be, and in fact is, the lifeblood of Faith. A prayerless faith is a dead faith. It is “the chief exercise of faith.” It trumps public worship, fellowship, and service. It is the key means through which we display dependence upon the Lord through humility. It is us actively taking time out of our mud and clay lives to acknowledge the transcendence and immanence of the God Who is in our midst and desires that we desire Him. Prayer really is “spiritual breathing” – the activity that sustains spiritual life itself. It is therefore no wonder that the Adversary of our souls works overtime in conjunction with our fleshliness to detour our efforts of such a fruitful spiritual discipline.
Sadly, I have found that many times my prayer life correlates to the level of comfort in my life. I say this with personal trepidation. When things are good, I pray less. When things are bad, I pray more. John Newton (1725-1807), the great 18th Century hymnist and abolitionist, spoke poignantly on such a point when he said,
“Experience testifies, that a long course of ease and prosperity, without painful changes, has an unhappy tendency to make us cold and formal in our secrete worship.”
I can say with shaken confidence this is true for me. I would venture to say it is true for you. There is a stinging truism here: we tend to be the most sincere and focused on spiritual things when we are faced with trouble and suffering. Good times tend to generate spiritual apathy and indifference in our lives. The more comfortable we are the more complacent we become before God’s presence.
Complacent prayer is most often born by satisfied and secure saints.
Must we then perpetually suffer in order for us to be made into the image of Christ? I would hope not. But perhaps so. Perhaps we need to experience suffering to be refined on our knees.
We need to pray about our praying.
We need to ask God to help us desire prayer all the more. We need to pray even when we are not feeling it. It is in those times of “not feeling it” that we often need it the most! It is in that time the Adversary is working his dark magic in our midst, slowly, methodically, driving a wedge between us and our Lord. It is in that time we need to push and fight for that sacred communion known as prayer.
God, help me to not just write about this but to live it in my life! Help me to demonstrate this instead of merely teaching it. Help me nourish my soul in this and not just taste it. Help me to pray.
I want to leave you with the poignant and encouraging words of Charles Spurgeon,
Now the tempter will whisper, "Do not pray just now; your heart is not in a fit condition for it." My dear brother, you will not become fit for prayer by keeping away from the mercy-seat, but to lie groaning or breathing at its foot is the best preparation for pleading before the Lord. We are not to aim at a self-wrought preparation of our hearts that we may come to God with them, but "the preparation of the heart in man, and the answer of the tongue, are both from God." If I feel myself disinclined to pray, then is the time when I need to pray more than ever…. Whatever thy position, if thou canst not speak, cry; if thou canst not cry, groan; if thou canst not groan, let it be "groanings that cannot be uttered;" and, if thou canst not even rise to that, let thy prayer be at least breathing—a vital, sincere desire, the outpouring of thine inner life in the simplest and weakest form, and God will accept it. In a word, when you cannot pray as you would, take care to pray as you can. 
 C.S. Lewis, Signature Classics, The Screwtape Letters (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2003), pg. 194-196
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville, KY: Westminister John Knox, 2011), 3.20 (pg. 850)
 Jonathan Edwards, The Works of President Edwards, Volume IV (New York, NY: Leavitt & Allen, 1852), pg. 481
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1995) pg. 163
 A good discussion on this can be found in Joe Rigney, Lewis on the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), pg. 119-122
 C.S. Lewis, “The Efficacy of Prayer,” in The World’s Last Night, pg. 8
 Consider reading this short little treatise on the postures of prayer by Isaac Todd (1787-1886) https://www.covenanter.org/reformed/2015/8/19/isaac-todds-the-posture-of-prayer-or-god-to-be-worshipped-with-the-body-as-well-as-the-mind
 Avail yourself to these resources on the topic: https://calvinistinternational.com/2015/04/09/calvin-on-posture-in-worship/; http://www.prca.org/resources/publications/articles/item/4651-the-posture-of-prayer; https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/why-posture-matters-in-worship/;
 Charles Spurgeon, Comfort for Those Whose Prayers are Feeble, Sermon given May 1872, accessed from https://www.spurgeon.org/resource-library/sermons/thought-reading-extraordinary/#flipbook/
 Timothy Keller, Twitter, Sep. 12, 2014, https://twitter.com/timkellernyc/status/510458013606739968?lang=en
 R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew: New International Commentary on the New Testament, (United Kingdom: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), pg. 244-246
 Michael Horton, John Calvin on the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), pg. 154-165
 Dane Ortlund, Jonathan Edwards on the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), pg. 124
 John Newton, Letter V, Cardiphonia or, The Utterance of the Heart (T. Nelson and Sons: United Kingdom, 1857), pg. 285
 Charles Spurgeon, Thought-Reading Extraordinary, Sermon given October 5, 1884, accessed from https://archive.spurgeon.org/s_and_t/feeble.php
Michael H. Erskine is a high school Social Studies Teacher, has an M.A. in History & School Administration, serves as a Bible teacher in the local church, and is happily married to his beautiful wife Amanda.