By Steve Manskar
Several years ago I saw the movie Shadowlands. It is the story of British writer C.S. Lewis and his relationship with American poet Joy Gresham. The two meet, fall in love, and marry. Shortly after their wedding, however, Joy falls seriously ill and is 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, many of Lewis’s university colleagues shared with him their delight at the good news. In the scene Lewis, played by Sir Anthony Hopkins, is preparing for a lecture. He 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’s 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 is proof that God had answered his prayers, Lewis says:
“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 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 make ourselves available to God and God’s love.
To understand the purpose and power of 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 we can regularly communicate with God. Like any important relationship we need to open our hearts and lives to our beloved through honest communication. If a relationship is important, then we desire frequent, intimate, face-to-face conversation. Prayer is how we open ourselves to God. It’s how God’s love can become our love. Prayer is how we become channels of God’s love for the world.
I think C.S. Lewis learned this about prayer during his wife’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 we don’t have to convince God to heal our loved ones or give us all we need to become fully human. Lewis learned that when we pray we open our hearts and minds to the heart and mind of Christ. When we surrender ourselves and fully open ourselves to his love then he 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 our loved ones and for the world.
Steve Manskar, D. Min., is Director of Wesleyan Leadership, Leadership Ministries Division, for Discipleship Ministries of The United Methodist Church.