Lewis points to two patterns of prayer in a letter on November 28, 1953. I think it’s a great help for anyone who is thinking about how best to pray. Lewis says the two patterns are seen in the life of Jesus: (A) the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest and death, and (B), what he says earlier in his journey just after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem.
At Gethsemane, Jesus says, “Not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). This is in contrast to the assurance he gives in our second reference, “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:24).
“In the one, the prayer sees that what is asked may not be God’s will,” Lewis says, and, “in the other, he has complete faith not only ‘in God’ but in God’s giving him the particular thing asked for. If both are taken as universal rules we get a contradiction for no one (so far as I can see) [could] follow both in the same prayer.”
There seems to be a contradiction or a paradox, we might say. Lewis supposes that, “neither is a universal rule, that each has its place, and that when-and-if God demands faith of the B type, He also gives it, & we shall know that we have to pray in the B manner, and that this is what happens to miracle workers.”
Perhaps Jesus knew full well about God’s will, but his moment in the garden brings out a conversation that we may have had with God ourselves. In times of struggle or anxiety, when the world seems to be caving in on us, we might pray, “Not my will, but yours.” It’s a simple acknowledgment that we can’t make sense of our circumstances, but we have faith God holds and keeps the larger picture.
Lewis continues his letter by advising on the nature of will. “We must distinguish in God, and even in ourselves, absolute will from relative will,” he says. “No one absolutely wills to have a tooth out, but many will to have a tooth out rather than to go on with toothache. Surely in the same way God never absolutely wills the least suffering for any creature, but may will it rather than some alternative: e.g. He willed the crucifixion rather than that Man shd. go unredeemed (and so it was not, in all senses, His will that the cup shd. pass from His Son).”