Recently, Pastor Ken read Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God by Timothy Keller. Here is his review of that book.
Every believer in the Lord Jesus Christ knows that prayer is to be an ongoing practice in the Christian’s life. Yet a vibrant prayer life is so often a struggle for many Christians. In Prayer, Keller offers an instructional guide on this great subject. Thoroughly biblical and drawing from the writings of great heroes of the faith, he delves into the definition of prayer and covers its reasons and rules. He also provides the encouragement of practical steps one can take toward growing in a healthy and joyful life of daily prayer.
Prayer is the act of personal communion with the living God. In the act of prayer, we converse directly with the Creator of the cosmos, acknowledging that He is God and we are not. Keller writes, “To fail to pray, then, is not to merely break some religious rule—it is a failure to treat God as God. It is a sin against his glory” (26). Prayer is not only necessary to know God, however, it is also necessary to truly know ourselves. Our knowledge, even of our own hearts, is pitifully limited and finite, and in prayer we converse with the God who knows all, who sees into the deepest recesses of our souls. “Prayer means knowing yourself as well as God,” Keller states (30). The very fact that we so often find it hard to pray tells us something of ourselves, namely “our spiritual emptiness–and this lesson is crucial” (24). Prayer is then the means by which our emptiness is voiced to the God who can fill us, change us, and show himself to be the only real refuge for us.
Though prayer is practiced in some way by all people, Keller shows that true prayer is in fact initiated by God, for it is a response to him. We can truly pray only because God has revealed himself in Scripture and ultimately in the Person of Jesus Christ. Thus, Keller defines prayer “as a personal, communicative response to the knowledge of God” (45). We continue “a conversation that God has started through his Word and his grace, which eventually becomes a full encounter with him” (48). The encounter with God in prayer is possible only because the Triune God has made himself known; it is a response to his revelation. The Spirit has inspired the Scriptures and opens our eyes to understand the redeeming work of Christ, who died to reconcile us with God. Thus, we pray to the Father in the Spirit through the Son, in awe of the great “cost of prayer. Jesus paid the price so God could be our Father” (80).
Keller writes of learning to pray, drawing from the writings of Augustine, Martin Luther, and John Calvin. Of special note in this section of the book is the benefit of meditation on Scripture to ignite prayer. If prayer is indeed a response to God, then it is necessary to know and dwell on the things that God has said. Meditation on Scripture “ingeniously forces you off the theoretical plane to consider what the biblical truth you are pondering should actually do to you and in you” (91). Such meditation will enliven our hearts to praise and thank God for who he is, what he has done, and what he has promised to do. Such mediation will bring us to ask God to guide and strengthen us to do that which His Word commands us to do.
As he explores the practice of prayer, the author essentially expounds on what the Bible means when it speaks of living in the fear of the Lord. A right fear of God involves approaching him in reverence and awe. It is to approach God in praise for who He is, and this “awe-filled adoration of God corrects the other forms of prayer,” such as confession and petition (190). True prayer involves, then, an awareness of who we are before God: sinners in great need of His mercy and grace. True prayer also involves rejoicing in God’s revelation in Christ that He is indeed a God of abundant mercy and grace, faithful and just to forgive all who confess their sin and turn to Him. God has promised to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Therefore, “we must be inwardly grieved and appalled enough by sin – even as we frame the whole process with the knowledge of our acceptance in Christ—that it loses its hold over us” (212). And we come to God in prayer, asking for his strength to battle sin in our lives and knowing that He will hear and answer because, by faith in Christ, we are given the awesome status of children of God. Commenting on Luke 11:11-13, Keller writes, “There has never been a human father who wanted to answer his child’s petitions as much as God wants to answer yours” (238). As we grow in this biblical fear of the Lord, our prayer life will become more persistent, confident, and healthy.
One of the greatest strengths of this book is that it brings together, in one work, a thorough examination of prayer that is also extremely practical. Here is a book that can be recommended to anyone for growth in their prayer life. Keller digs deep into the foundational matters of what prayer is, why we so desperately need it as a practice in our lives, and how it is that we can approach God to begin with. Then, he comes up to the surface of the matter and concludes with simple, helpful tips to develop and maintain the daily prayer life one should have.
Throughout the book, the author sets before the reader the transcendence and the immanence of God, and these characteristics of God are so important for us to grasp. In prayer, we come to the God of heaven, the One who is thrice-holy and awesome in His perfection. Yet, He is a God who has drawn near to us and drawn us near to Himself. Though we did not know Him, God has revealed Himself to us. He is God with us. He is for us and not against us. His throne room in heaven has been opened to us by His Son’s saving work, and through the gift of the Spirit, we now call God Father. Keller writes that “while the biblical God is not Same-as-Me, he is also not utterly, inaccessibly Far-from-Me” (42). The God of heaven has an open and willing ear toward His children.
This grasp of God’s transcendence and immanence rightly shapes our prayers. Since the God of heaven sees all, we remember that “prayer brings you into God’s presence, where our shortcomings are exposed” (101). Since God has all power, we bring our petitions with confidence, “giving up control, a resting and trusting in God to care for our needs” (231). Since God is infinitely wise, we trust that he knows our needs before we even ask them, so the “final thought of every prayer must be for the help we need to accept thankfully from God’s hand whatever he sends in his wisdom” (136). Since God’s love is steadfast, we can bring to him every petition, casting all anxiety upon him, and in prayer we “experience a powerful confidence that God is handling our lives well, that our bad things will turn out for good, our good things cannot be taken from us, and the best things are yet to come” (73).
Remembering that prayer is initiated by God because it is a response to His first speaking to us is a helpful catalyst toward having our praying shaped by Scripture. I have sometimes heard people say, “I try to pray, but I run out of things to say after a few minutes.” Perhaps one of the reasons many of us have hit this barrier is because we have not understood that prayer is to be a conversation, and Keller devotes an entire chapter to this fact (145-64). He draws out the importance of meditating on Scripture, listening for God to speak to one’s heart, and then responding to Him in prayer. Such meditation will greatly deepen our prayers because we will then truly be in a conversation with God, hearing Him and responding to Him with praise, pleading, thanksgiving, petition, sorrow, and joy. A former pastor and mentor of mine once said, “You can be sure you are praying the will of God when you are praying the Word of God.” Meditation of God’s Word will help one to do that very thing.
God’s Word commands us to pray without ceasing (1 Thess 5:17). Our lives should be one of constant communion with God, so that whatever we are doing throughout the day, we have the definite sense of God’s presence with us. We can be in an ongoing conversation with our Father, with spontaneous prayer the norm. This kind of ongoing communion, however, is birthed out of a disciplined time of daily sequestering one’s self away with God in focused prayer. Keller’s wise advice is that “spontaneous and constant prayer during the day should be a habit of the heart. We will never develop it, however, unless we take up the discipline of regular, daily prayer” (240). We see this clearly in the first two chapters of Nehemiah, where Nehemiah spent days in focused prayer (Neh 1), and then as he stood before the Persian king in an intense moment of opportunity, there was an immediate instinct to turn to God in spontaneous prayer (Neh 2:4). To pray without ceasing, one has to be disciplined for the time alone with God daily.
Often, a Christian fails to pray daily simply because he does not plan to pray daily. Discipline requires planning, and Keller closes his book with several aides in cultivating a regular discipline of prayer. His outline of a pattern for daily prayer is helpful for anyone who has struggled with how to structure a regular, focused time with God. Keller also includes detailed plans for daily prayer, including suggested passages of Scripture to guide the praying and even plans for varying time lengths of prayer (252-55). By the end of the book, Keller has addressed the great subject of prayer from every angle: the what, the why, and the how of prayer.
Though every Christian knows the importance of prayer, maintaining a healthy prayer life is a constant struggle for many. Keller’s book is a comprehensive study on the subject of prayer that offers both instruction and great encouragement to grow in the discipline and delight of prayer. He explores the depths of what prayer is, what God accomplishes through it, and why we so desperately need it in our lives. Keller does not stop there, however, for he also offers very practical help in establishing and maintaining a discipline of daily prayer and a life of unceasing spontaneous prayer. This is a book that can benefit anyone to grow in experiencing awe and intimacy with God.