In his fourth letter Screwtape deals with prayer; two elements of the letter focus on feelings and images of God. Screwtape writes that one tactic in defeating prayer is to, “…turn their gaze away from Him towards themselves. Keep them watching their own minds and trying to produce feelings there by the action of their own wills…Teach them to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling…” (Pages 16 – 17).
Feelings can have a place in prayer for feelings are an element of relationship; but feelings are not a measure of prayer’s fruitfulness or efficacy. The issue in prayer isn’t how we feel but rather whether we trust and obey our Father and Lord Jesus. Only God can determine prayer’s fruitfulness and efficacy, only He knows the essence and result and influence of our communion with Him. Only God knows how our prayers affect others, only He knows the trajectory of our intercession. Only God knows how our prayers and communion with Him affect our souls. Even when we think we know some of the foregoing, we know only in part, only in shadows. God is big and we are small, He is ever the adult and we are ever the children. He is the Father and we are sons and daughters.
When feelings are the focus and validation of prayer then we not only are self-focused as opposed to adoring and worshipping God, we have also slipped into a works-oriented religion where we must conjure feelings for validation – and we go away (assuming we are successful) with the approval of God. But which god? Whose god? The God who created us or the god we created?
This leads us a second element of the fourth letter, getting the “patient” (the Christian) to focus on self-created images of God and not on the true and living God. “But whatever the nature of the composite object [the image of God the Christian has created], you must keep him praying to it – to the thing he has made, not to the Person who has made him. You may even encourage him to attach great importance to the correction and improvement of his composite object, and to keeping it steadily before his imagination during the whole prayer. For if he ever comes to make the distinction, if ever he consciously directs his prayers ‘Not to what I think thou art but to what thou knowest thyself to be’, our situation is, for the moment, desperate,” (page 18).
As I like to say, on our best days we are still children before our heavenly Father and Lord Jesus. This is not to say that we shouldn’t be growing and learning and getting to know Him; it is simply that even as we learn to live as spiritual adults we are still children relative to the Almighty and All Knowing True and Living God.
When I was young I thought I knew Him but didn’t know Him; now that I am old I don’t think I know Him but I do know Him…and yet I am still coming to know Him. When I was young I thought I was the master of the Bible; now I realize that I need to be mastered by the Bible.
Feelings do have their place; but God must always have first place. It is not for the instrument to play its own heartstrings, but rather for it to submit to its Maker.