By Steve Manskar
Several years ago I saw a movie titled “Shadowland.” It is the story of the British writer, C.S. Lewis, and his relationship with the American poet, Joy Gresham. The two meet, fall in love and marry. Shortly after their marriage, however, Joy fell seriously ill and was found to suffer from an aggressive form of bone cancer. After months of painful treatments and hospitalization Joy’s cancer goes into remission.
C.S. Lewis was a professor at Magdalen College of Oxford University. During Joy’s months of treatment he spent much time at her bedside in prayer. When news spread that the cancer had gone into remission, Lewis, played by Sir Anthony Hopkins, resumes his teaching duties at the college. As he is preparing to meet with students Lewis is surrounded by several fellow professors, all congratulating him on the good news. One of them says, “It appears that your prayers have been answered.”
Lewis’ reply is powerful wisdom about the meaning and purpose of prayer. When I first heard it my understanding of prayer was transformed. In reply to his friend’s declaration that the remission of Joy’s cancer was proof that God had answered his prayers, Lewis said:
“In these many days of prayer at Joy’s bedside I have learned that my prayers do not change God; God changes me.”
This scene has stayed with me over the years because it helps me understand more fully the nature and purpose of prayer. It also tells us about the importance of practice and what happens when we live with a practice over time.
Prayer is a means of grace. A “means of grace” is a practice, ritual, place, or object that provides access to grace, which is the power and presence of God. Prayer is a practice that opens our hearts to the power of God’s love that heals and forms our character, damaged by sin, into the image of Christ. In prayer we become available to God and God’s love.
To understand prayer we need to understand that faith is a relationship with God who comes to us in the person of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Prayer is the way God gives us to regularly communicate with the One whose nature and name is Love (see 1 John 4:16-18). In relationships with others we participate when open our hearts and lives to the beloved through frequent, honest conversation. Because we love the other, we seek and desire frequent, intimate face-to-face time with the beloved. Prayer is conversation with God who loves us with a love beyond our ability to imagine; who knows us better then we know ourselves. When we habitually keep our appointments with God his love enables us to open ourselves to him. Over time his love becomes our love; his mind becomes our mind; his life becomes our life. Frequent, attentive prayer is how we become channels of God’s love for the world.
I think C.S. Lewis learned this about prayer during Joy’s illness. The many hours he spent in prayer opened his heart and mind to God in a new way. It helped him to understand that he didn’t have to convince God to heal his beloved wife. Lewis learned that when we pray we open our hearts and minds to the heart and mind of Christ.
When we surrender and open ourselves to his love in prayer Christ is able to heal our brokenness and give us “the mind that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5). We then become channels of that love for the healing of our loved ones and for the world.
Prayer doesn’t change God. When we pray we open ourselves to God and God changes us.