My prayer life is incredibly selfish. I’m either proud of myself for doing my “duty” of prayer; or I feel sorry for myself that God expects me to attend to prayer when there are more urgent demands impinging on my time; or I’m obsessed with whether prayer is “working,” by which I mean, is God doing anything in response to my petitions—or worse, is prayer producing the requisite feelings of “love” or “peace” or “holiness” that I’m supposed to feel when I pray? Then there’s the ever-present temptation to look over my shoulder: Is prayer working as well for me as it is for others? Why am I worse at it than others?
Plus, don’t get me started on the public prayers I must do as part of my day job: that devilish voice in the back of my head, praising myself: “You’re really nailing it, Brent—you’re perfectly expressing what the people are feeling!” Or: “You’re performing, Brent. You don’t really mean these words; you’re just trying to sound eloquent.” Or: “People can see through you, Brent. You’re such a phony. If they knew what was really in your heart, they wouldn’t stand to listen to you.”
Or don’t get me started on the prayers I offer for my church. I pray for lives to be changed. I pray for souls to saved. But what’s underneath these prayers? Too often, it’s a selfish concern for professional success. If my church “grows,” after all, I’ll look good to my colleagues, my district superintendent, my bishop; I’ll get ahead; I’ll secure a better appointment in the future! Or, I’ll be able to hold my head high and not be shamed by the success of colleagues whose churches are growing, whose stars seem to shine brightly. What about my star?
So you see I’m a mess. God help me!
All these sinful thoughts turn me away from the Object of prayer. As C.S. Lewis writes in The Screwtape Letters, this is precisely what our Enemy wants; he’s as skilled as any magician in the art of misdirection. (Please note that when Lewis uses “Enemy,” writing from the perspective of Screwtape, a demon and senior tempter, he’s referring to our heavenly Father.)
Whenever they are attending to Enemy Himself 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 actions of their own wills. When they meant to ask Him for charity, let them, instead, start trying to manufacture charitable feelings for themselves and not notice that this is what they are doing. When they meant to pray for courage, let them really be trying to feel brave. When they say they are praying for forgiveness, let them be trying to feel forgiven. 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.[†]
† C.S. Lewis, “The Screwtape Letters” in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 195.