Review: Letters to Malcolm

Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer
by C. S. Lewis

In a series of letters to a fictitious friend, C. S. Lewis writes about prayer. He talks about how he envisions God, what he prays about, how he prays, and in the process tackles such topics as worship, heaven, and repentance.

I enjoyed the format of this book. Lewis could have written all of this as essays, but instead formatted them all as warm letters. I didn’t find out “Malcolm” was fictional until after I’d finished reading this slim volume, so convincing was Lewis’s reactions to letters he apparently had never received, since there is no Malcolm! Each letter runs five to six pages in my volume, which is a perfect bite-sized length for me.

There are definitely problems with this book, though. For instance, Lewis encourages praying for the dead. He also defends the idea of Purgatory, and in a chapter about the resurrection from the dead, I found his statements of belief to be less clear than I would desire. (He believes in resurrection from the dead, but not physically…? I’m not entirely sure!)

However, many of the problems I expected to encounter in a book about prayer were absent. Lewis carefully explains that pre-written prayers can be just as good as prayers that spring purely from the heart, and it all depends on the believer. Neither is better or worse. He also avoids talk of listening for God in prayer, a common problem.

In fact, Lewis’s humble character flows through so much of the volume. He carefully states over and over again that this is how he prays, but that he is not prescribing some formula. I appreciated that approach. He also is very open about his failures in prayer.

Despite some problems I have with the book, there are a number of fantastic quotes. For instance, Lewis talks about how we often don’t like praying for “little things:”

And perhaps, as those who do not turn to God in petty trials will have no habit of such resort to help them when the great trials come, so those who have not learned to ask Him for childish things will have less readiness to ask Him for great ones. We must not be too high-minded. I fancy we may sometimes be deterred from small prayers by a sense of our own dignity rather than of God’s. (23)

I have struggled with praying for myself in the past. I have fewer issues in this realm than before, but it’s still not something that comes naturally to me. It always felt selfish to me, as if we are forbidden to pray for our own needs, despite all the Psalms showing otherwise! Lewis tackles the reasons that someone might not pray for themselves:

I’m afraid, however, I detect two much less attractive reasons for the ease of my my own intercessory prayers [praying for others rather than self]. One is that I am often, I believe, praying for others when I should be doing things for them. It’s so much easier to pray for a bore than to go and see him. And the other is like unto it. Suppose I pray that you may be given grace to withstand your besetting sin (short list of candidates for this post will be forwarded on demand). Well, all the work has to be done by God and you. If I pray against my own besetting sin there will be work for me. One sometimes fights shy of admitting an act to be a sin for this very reason. (66)

Lewis also encourages honesty when praying. So often we put in “religious costumes” when we approach God in prayer, as if we have to show him our best self. That’s ridiculous – God knows who we are very well! At the same time, so often we dress God in our imaginations as opposed to talking to the God who reveals himself in the Bible. So Lewis advises, “The prayer preceding all prayers is ‘May it be the real I who speaks. May it be the real Thou that I speak to’” (82).

Overall I found the warm tone of the book and the topics discussed to be helpful to myself, despite some things I strongly disagree with. If you’re looking for something short that may lead you to think more deeply about prayer, you could do far worse than Letters to Malcolm!

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