C.S. Lewis on the “duty” of submitting to God’s will

March 11, 2014
C.S. Lewis, the amateur theologian, could teach the pros how to write with clarity—especially, as he put it in a letter, "that awful theologian" Karl Barth.

C.S. Lewis, the amateur theologian, could teach the pros how to write with clarity.

Just yesterday, one of my clergy colleagues on Facebook posted the following:

Ok thoughtful people… I hear people say this phrase a lot “It’s ok. God is in control.” So answer for me: A. What do you mean by this phrase? or B. What do you think of when others use that phrase?

Since I’ve been writing and thinking a lot about God’s providence recently, I felt compelled to offer my two cents. After complaining about how Methodists, in general, have a deficient understanding of God’s providence, I said:

God answers our prayers or God doesn’t, and if he doesn’t, then we can assume that God has good reasons not to. When God allows bad things to happen, then we can assume God has his reasons and that these things are serving God’s good purposes.

If not, it’s hard to see how we aren’t left with a deistic God. It’s also hard to see, for instance, how Romans 8:28 is possibly true.

C.S. Lewis has influenced my thinking on this subject. I’ve written about the Appendix to his book Miracles before, and I’m returning to it here. In the following excerpt, he’s writing about how, since God knows from all eternity the prayers that we would pray, he enables our prayers to influence the outcome of history inasmuch as our prayer requests are congruent with his will. Often, in order for the thing for which we’re praying to come to pass, God has to set events in motion before we actually pray for that thing. This, of course, is no problem for God, since he’s outside of time. Lewis writes:

The following question may be asked: If we can reasonably pray for an event which must in fact have happened or failed to happen several hours ago, why can we not pray for an event which we know not to have happened? e.g. pray for the safety of someone who, as we know, was killed yesterday. What makes the difference is precisely our knowledge. The known event states God’s will. It is psychologically impossible to pray for what we know to be unobtainable; and if it were possible the prayer would sin against the duty of submission to God’s known will.[†]

Did you catch that? Although what Lewis writes is completely consistent with what I learned about providence in Systematic Theology class, Lewis writes with a clarity that would be unbecoming of a professional, as opposed to amateur, theologian. (Lewis was strictly an amateur, which is why the pros don’t think they need to pay attention to him!) What he’s saying is this:

What has happened in the past is God’s will. 

I know, I know… Our minds immediately go to worst case scenarios. Reductio ad Hitlerum. “What about this [insert unspeakably evil event here]? Are you saying that God willed even that?”

Yes…

In the following sense: Given that we live in a universe in which God usually allows predictable physical forces to run their course; honors human (and angelic) free will; and permits these free agents, human and demonic, to do evil if they choose, then God wills even evil events to happen when he knows that any other alternative would be worse.

Only God can possibly foresee all consequences of an event either happening or failing to happen.

Theologically, we know God doesn’t cause evil. Am I suggesting that God wills evil? All things being equal, certainly not! But all things aren’t equal: In his providence God often chooses between nearly infinite shadings of bad, worse, and worst.

Whatever ends up happening, therefore, does reflect God’s will—because we understand that God wants more than one thing. For instance, God wants people to live in peace, but not (usually) at the expense of overriding human freedom (which I hope we can agree is a good thing).

One day it will be perfectly clear, even to our finite human minds, that our Lord has governed our universe wisely. In the meantime, our duty is to trust that the Lord knows what he’s doing.

Not only do I believe this to be true, I find it far more pastorally comforting than to throw up my hands and say, “It’s a mystery why this happened, but God really, really feels bad about it!”

C.S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 292-3.

4 Responses to “C.S. Lewis on the “duty” of submitting to God’s will”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Great comment! I appeal again to my “doctrine of competing principles.” Two things on the table–to choose “the better of the two” is to choose the right thing, regardless that the “better” one has some bad in it (assuming there are no other options which do not have evil). And we have to choose free choice as very high on the list of good things, even though by necessity of the very thing itself (“free” will), it will cause some bad results. Worse to have a “robot” universe where all responses to God are “programmed.”

    As a humorous anecdote, just a couple of days ago I was commenting that I would like to grow my beard again, were it not getting so gray. My wife said, “Well, I would be praying that you NOT grow it, so I guess under your competing principles, we can’t both get our prayers answered yes.” Exactly! (She’s getting better at applying my theology than I am!)

    • brentwhite Says:

      Nice, Tom! You have also influenced my thinking on this subject. What can you say (or what would you have me say) about this, perhaps in a sermon or devotional, that might prove helpful to people?

      To me, in my life, it’s immensely helpful to believe (even though it’s a cliché) that “God is in control.” But is it as clear to others that God is in control even though, you know, the Holocaust or Sandy Hook or the Indian Ocean tsunami also happen?

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Well, I think your post goes a long way toward saying it! I might add that the bad which goes along with the good of the free choice is largely only TEMPORARY–every evil that occurs to a child of God will be more than made up for in eternity. “For I reckon that our present troubles are nothing in comparison to the glory which will be revealed in us,” Paul said, and Paul went through more hardships than most of us do! And that “glory” is for all eternity!

        Also, and I think I may have gotten this from Lewis somewhere myself, though I can’t recall exactly where–many of the things we look upon as good could not occur without the presence of the “evil” that free choice brings. No “heroes” without battles of some sort. No “compassion” or charity if no one is suffering loss or privation. No “longsuffering” if there is nothing to be patient about. Etc. So, God definitely knew what he was doing and did the very best thing that could be done when he gave us free choice in our universe as he designed it.

      • brentwhite Says:

        Of course! The Romans quote is obviously right on point.


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