Written by Vladimir Moss



   In one of his essays, the famous Anglican theologian C.S. Lewis presented a problem of the spiritual life to which he did not know the answer, in spite of having asked every authoritative Christian he knew about it.[1] However, as far as is known, he did not ask the Orthodox Church. Let us see how the saints of the Orthodox Church might have answered him in his quandary…

     Lewis’ problem is simply put. On the one hand, the Lord teaches us to pray “Thy will be done”, and to recognize that not all our petitions may be in accordance with the will of God and therefore may not be fulfilled by Him – for our own good. On the other hand, He exhorts us to pray without doubting in the slightest that our prayer will be answered – it is this kind of prayer that is always answered, that can even move mountains (Matthew, 21.21; Mark 11.23)… The problem is that these two commandments seem to be incompatible: if we must always pray with the condition: “so long as this is in accordance with Thy will”– which is exactly how the Lord Himself prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane (“Nevertheless, not My Will, but Thine be done” (Matthew 26.39)), - then it would appear to be impossible to pray with that absolute certainty in the fulfillment of our petition that is exhorted by the Lord and His apostles. For as the Apostle James says: “But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways, will receive anything from the Lord” (1.6-8).

     Let us first establish what faith is. According to the Apostle Paul in Hebrews, it is certainty: “the substance of things hoped for, the proof of things not seen” (11.1).  In other words, through faith we know that certain unseen things are true, not as a matter of hypothesis, which is always uncertain, but as undoubted fact for which we have proof. Such is the Christian faith in the Resurrection; for “He presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs” (Acts 1.3). But such certainty of faith extends beyond the present and the past into the future, into the realm of Christian hope. Thus we say in the Creed: “I believe… in the resurrection from the dead and the life of the age to come”, not as something that may or may not be true, but as undoubted fact.

     Let us now turn to another definition of faith, that of St. Symeon the New Theologian: "Faith is (readiness) to die for Christ's sake, for His commandments, in the conviction that such death brings life." According to this definition, only the man who is prepared for martyrdom has faith. Clearly, we are talking here about something that is not all or nothing, but has degrees. For some are more prepared to die for Christ than others, and the same man may think he is prepared at one point, and sincerely declares that he is, but in fact is not. Take the Apostle Thomas. Before the resurrection, he declared that he was ready to die for Christ, and there is no reason to doubt his sincerity. But his faith failed him during the Crucifixion, and he recovered it only later, on the eighth day after the Resurrection. Thereafter, however, he appears to have had a rock-solid faith and suffered martyrdom for Christ on the mission-field in India.

     The idea that faith can have degrees, can vary in strength between individuals and over time in the same individual, is clearly supported by the Gospel. The apostles had faith in Christ sufficient to work miracles in His name, but at a certain point they failed to cast out the demon from an epileptic boy, for which the Lord condemned the people as a “faithless and perverse generation”, told them that if only they had faith like a mustard seed they could move mountains, and said that “this kind [of demon] does not go out except by prayer and fasting” (Matthew 17.21). In other words, their faith, though real, was not strong enough to have their petition fulfilled in this case, and they needed to live a more ascetic life in order to raise their faith to the level required. At the same time, there are many cases recorded in the Gospels when the Lord healed people whose faith was weak or almost non-existent, or for the sake, nor of their faith, but of the faith of their friends. So petitions can be answered by God in His great mercy at any time and in answer to the petition of almost any person; but the faith to move mountains requires a degree and strength of faith that is only acquired through good works, the fulfillment of all the commandments of Christ. 

     So our definition of faith must be modified. Faith is not only certainty, but certainty that is stable and deep, not the whim of a single moment. And this certainty is acquired only through ascetic struggle, as the fruit of a whole life devoted to the fulfillment of Christ’s commandments. This wider definition gives us a clue to the solution of our problem. For it is precisely the man whose faith is stable and deep who will know better than those weak in faith what the will of God is in any particular situation, and will limit his petitions to those that conform with the will of God.

     Let us take three distinct cases.

     First there is the case of the man who is far from God, whose faith is weak and who prays to God rarely, or only when he is in trouble or when he wants something unlawful. Of such men the Apostle James says: “You do not have because you do not ask. [Or} you ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures” (4.2-3).

     Secondly, there is the man who is stronger in faith, but whose faith, like his life in general, is not yet perfect. As a result of this weakness and imperfection, he cannot be sure that all his petitions are in accordance with the will of God, and so he cannot be certain that they will all be fulfilled. So he is quite right to qualify his requests with the phrase: “If this is Thy will”. Indeed, who among us ordinary Christians can be certain, when he prays, for example, for recovery from an illness, that it is God’s will that he recovers? As experience shows, sometimes we recover, and sometimes we do not; if we recover, it was God’s will, if we do not it was also God’s will…

     This is not to say that we should not pray unless we are absolutely certain that our petition will be fulfilled. In the Lord’s prayer, just after the petition “Thy will be done”, we have the petition “Give us this day our daily bread.” So we are encouraged to petition God for our daily needs, with as much faith and striving of spirit and soul and body as we can muster – but only after we have prayed to submit ourselves in any case to God’s will. Faith grows through practice, and the heartfelt, compunctionate quality of the prayer of faith increases with our application to it; for we will never increase in faith if we do not apply such faith as we have to the needs and challenges of our daily lives. The more we pray – and not only for our daily needs, but also for an increase in faith and other virtues – the more our faith will imperceptibly increase, and the clearer we will see what is the will of God in any particular situation.

     Now let us turn to the third case, the case of the saint who is perfect, or near-perfect in faith. He knows what is the will of God in any particular case, and therefore he will never pray for what he knows is not the will of God. Conversely, when he prays he knows that his petition will be answered because he knows already that it is the will of God. 

     As an example, let us take the life of St. Seraphim of Sarov. Late in life, after many years spent in reclusion in very strict asceticism, he was commanded by the Mother of God to come out of reclusion and serve the people. Then there began the huge flood of healings, teachings and prophecies for which he has become so renowned. But did he carry out the petitions of all those who came to him? By no means! Thus he said of the very first person who came to him for healing, that she would be the first person whom he would heal – and she was healed. But of another woman who asked that he pray that she become a nun – surely a godly petition! – he said: “No, it is God’s will that you get married {to such and such a person)” – which she did. And to another woman who came at the same time and asked for his prayers that she marry, he said: “No, it is God’s will that you become a nun” – which she did. He knew the will of God because he had faith, and because he had faith and always asked for what he knew to be the will of God, his petitions were always answered…



     However, an objection to this account may be put forward from the practice of the Lord Himself: during His agonized prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane He petitioned the Father that this “cup” – that is, the cup of His sufferings and death on Golgotha – should “pass”. Nevertheless, He said, “not My will but Thine be done” (Matthew 26.39). Now the question arises: surely the Lord knew that His cup would not pass, that He was destined to die on the Cross for the salvation of mankind. So why did He pray for what He knew was not God’s will – even if He later prayed that God’s will be done nevertheless? Is this not an example of precisely the “double-minded” prayer that the Apostle James condemns?

     This objection fails because it fails to take into account the full motivation behind the Lord’s petition, and the full meaning of the petition as regards the “cup” He was about to drink. This is explained to us by Blessed Theophylact of Bulgaria’s comments on the prayer in the Garden as follows: “He was sorrowful and heavy in accord with the divine plan, so as to confirm that He was truly man. For it is human nature to fear death; it was against our nature that death entered, and for this reason our nature flees from it. At the same time, Christ was sorrowful so that the devil would unknowingly leap upon Him, the God-man, and bear Him down to death as though He were mere man, and thus the devil himself would be crushed. Moreover, if the Lord had rushed towards death it would have given the Jews the excuse that they did not sin in killing one who was so eager to suffer. From this we learn not throw ourselves into trials and temptations, but to pray that we may be delivered from them. For this reason, too, He did not move away a great distance, but was near the three disciples, that they might hear Him and remember when they themselves fell into temptations, and pray in the same manner. He calls this Passion a cup [as of wine], either because of the sleep which it brought, or because it became the cause of gladness and salvation for us. He wants the cup to be removed either to show that as a man subject to nature He pleads to escape death, as was said above, or because He did not wish the Jews to commit a sin so grave that on account of it the temple would be destroyed and the people perish. Yet He desires that His Father’s will be done, that we also may learn that it is precisely when our nature draws us away from obedience that we must obey God and fulfill His will.”[2]

     This God-inspired commentary is remarkable for its depth and concision. The saint reveals to us that the Lord’s motivation in His famous prayer was threefold: (i) to reveal that it is natural and not sinful for men to fear death, and therefore that it is not sinful to pray for deliverance from it; (ii) to deceive the devil into thinking that the Lord was a mere man; and (iii) to show that He was praying also that the Jews should not “commit a sin so grave that on account of it the temple would be destroyed and the people perish”.

     It is the third motivation that is the most relevant to our theme. This demonstrates that an event may be willed by God at one level and not willed by Him at another, so that we may at the same time pray for it to happen and pray for it to “pass”. For the Death of Christ on the Cross was at the same time the most joyful event in the history of mankind, since it made possible the salvation for eternity of the whole race of man, and one of the most tragic in that it signified the falling away from grace of the God-chosen people of the Jews. For if Christ had not died, accomplishing the most perfect Sacrifice to the Justice of God, we would still be in our sins and without hope. But the same blood that saved us condemned the Jews, bringing to pass the curse that they themselves had invoked upon themselves: “His Blood be upon us, and on our children” (Matthew 27.25).

     Thus when the Lord prayed that the “cup” should pass, He was not praying that He should not die and thereby accomplish the salvation of mankind. On the contrary, it was for this very purpose that He became man; as He said earlier: “I have a baptism to be baptized with [i.e. death], and how distressed I am till it be accomplished” (Luke 12.50). Rather, He was deeply sorrowful that the salvation of mankind as a whole, both Jews and Gentiles, should be accompanied by the falling away of His own people, the Jews, in their great majority.

     In fact, this prayer was not so much a petition as a cry of sorrow (and, as we have seen, of the natural and sinless fear of death). It was not so much a real attempt to avoid death, as an expression of horror at the nature of physical death, on the one hand, and at the spiritual death of the Jewish people, on the other. There was never any question but that God’s will would be done, and that Christ in His humanity, while repelled at the cost, would nevertheless pay the cost in full. But the cost was so great that He staggered under the burden, and an angel was sent to help Him in His suffering humanity. In the same way He staggered under the burden of His physical Cross on the way to Calvary, and Simon of Cyrene was sent to help Him in His physical – but not spiritual - weakness.

     And so His prayer could be said to have been “double-minded” in one way, but not in another. It was “double-minded” in the sense that He both wanted it and did not want the fulfillment of His request. But it was not double-minded in the sense that Christ did not pray a perfect prayer, full of the certainty of faith, the boundlessness of love and the unquestioning humility of absolute obedience to its consequences for Himself and others.

     We can put the matter in another way. The theologians distinguish between the primary and the secondary will of God. God’s primary will is that all men “come to a knowledge of the truth and be saved”. However, most men of their own free will do not come to the truth: “many are called, but few are chosen”. Therefore it is God’s secondary will that those who have shown themselves unworthy in this way should not be saved. Christ in Gethsemane affirmed His absolute acceptance of and obedience to the primary will of God by providing the perfect Sacrifice for sin. But He expressed horror at the prospect that His Sacrifice should be accompanied by the fulfillment of His secondary will – the abandonment of the Jews. To express such horror is not in itself a sin, a refusal to accept the secondary will of God. It is rather an affirmation of the continuing primacy of the primary will of God over the secondary, an expression of the burning desire that all men should be saved, even with the knowledge that not all men will be saved. We, following Christ, must long for the fulfillment of God’s primary will, while submitting in obedience to His secondary will. Thus while there is still hope – that is, before the Last Judgement – we must hope and pray for the salvation of all men, although we know that this prayer can be answered only in part. Only in the case of certain unrepentant sinners does the Apostle command that we must not pray (I John 5.16). In this way we fulfill the will of God and help towards the salvation of those who can be saved…


          In conclusion:-

1.     Undoubting prayer to God is always answered if it is in accordance with His will. Nor does it hinder the power of prayer that we inquire first whether its fulfillment is in accordance with God’s will. Thus a leper came to Christ “and besought Him, saying, Lord, if Thou wilt, Thou canst make me clean. And He put forth His hand, and touched him, saying, I will: be thou clean. Immediately the leprosy left him” (Luke 5.12-13).

2.     Since God is good to all, even the evil, He may fulfill the will of men even if their prayers are weak in faith. However, prayer that is full of the certainty of faith, or is prayed “in My name” (John 14.13-14), or, still better, “where two or three are gathered together in My name” (Matthew 18.19-20) – that is, in the community of the Church – are more powerful and certain of fulfillment than when these conditions are lacking. Faith is increased by a life lived in fulfillment of the commandments of God, which also gives a clearer, deeper understanding of the will of God. Therefore such a life increases the likelihood that petitions will be granted – “the effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much” (James 5.16).

3.     Sometimes even the prayers of righteous men, and of the whole Church, are refused, not because they are lacking in faith or displeasing to God, but because they are not in accord with His secondary will. Thus the Church will rightly and piously pray for peace and the salvation of the world, which is always His primary will. But the Lord, while accepting her prayer as pious, may refuse to fulfill it on occasion – for example, in 1914 - because the world as whole is not worthy of peace or salvation…

     Let us end with Blessed Theophylact on Matthew 21.21-22: “Great is the promise which Christ makes to His disciples, the ability to move mountains, if only we are not ambiguous in faith, that is, we do not hesitate. Whatever we ask, unhesitantly believing in God’s power, we shall receive. One might ask, ‘And if I ask for something unprofitable, and foolishly believe that God will give me this, will I indeed receive this unprofitable thing? How is it that God is said to love mankind if He would fulfill my unprofitable request?’ Listen then. First, when you hear ‘faith’, you should understand that it means not, ‘foolish faith’ but ‘true faith’; and when you hear ‘prayer’, understand it to mean that prayer which asks for things profitable, such as the Lord gave to us when He said, ‘Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from the evil one’, and petitions of similar nature. Then consider the words ‘doubt not’, [literally, ‘be ye not divided’, me diakrithete]. For how could a man who is united with God as one and not divided or separated from Him, how could that man ask for something unprofitable? So if you are undivided and inseparable from God, then you will ask for and receive things which are profitable for you.”[3]


Bright Monday, 2015.

[1] Lewis, “Petitionary Prayer: A Problem Without an Answer”, in Faith, Christianity and the Church, London: HarperCollins, 2000, pp. 197-205.

[2] The Explanation by Blessed Theophylact of the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew, House Springs, Mo.: Chrysostom Press, 1992, pp. 231-232.

[3]The Explanation by Blessed Theophylact of the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew, p. 180.

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