Sometimes you read something and think “Yes! This is now THE book I will recommend to people on this topic.” That was my response to Keller’s Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God.
Timothy Keller states that as a pastor he “didn’t have a first book to give someone who wanted to understand and practice Christian prayer”. I think he has certainly met his own goal, outlining the theological, experiential and methodological aspects to prayer in one volume. I’ve been challenged and encouraged by numerous books on the topic, such as A Praying Life, A Call to Spiritual Reformation, Praying the Scriptures for your Children, Pray for the World and books of prayers such as the Valley of Vision. I have done a series on praying with your family and once had a blog of prayers.
All this to say, I am deeply committed to prayer, but there is always more to learn, and I have been profoundly encouraged by Keller’s insights. He arranges his work into five logical parts:
1. Desiring Prayer.
As he explores both the necessity and the greatness of prayer, our vision is immediately lifted to seeing the extraordinary privilege of being able to pray and the need to prioritise it:
Prayer is the only entryway into genuine self-knowledge. It is also the main way we experience deep change—the reordering of our loves. Prayer is how God gives us so many of the unimaginable things he has for us. Indeed, prayer makes it safe for God to give us many of the things we desire. It is the way we know God, the way we finally treat God as God. Prayer is simply the key to everything we need to do and be in life. We must learn to pray. We have to. (18)
Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God
Prayer is central to the Christian faith, indeed, it is the main way we experience deep change. Yet so many people struggle with prayer – a struggle that Tim Keller himself has shared. This wise and inspiring book is the fruit of those struggles, offering a real and glorious vision of what it can mean to seek God in prayer.
Keller begins by giving a theological underpinning of what prayer actually is, before describing how we can learn to pray, and then deepen that prayer. Finally, he gives detailed, practical suggestions on how to make prayer a part of the reality of daily life.
Prayer is awe, intimacy, struggle—yet the way to reality. There is nothing more important, or harder, or richer, or more life-altering. There is absolutely nothing so great as prayer. (32)
2. Understanding Prayer.
Here Keller expands on the relationship between the personal encounter with God in prayer and the Bible. In prayer we are “continuing a conversation that God has started through his Word” (48). This conversation, therefore, must be tethered to our knowledge of God through Scripture:
Without immersion in God’s words, our prayer may not be merely limited and shallow but also untethered from reality. We may be responding not to the real God but to what we wish God and life to be like. (62)
3. Learning Prayer.
This was where I found the true gold. Taking us through the thoughts of Augustine, Calvin and Luther on the topic, Keller helps outline a way to closely link our Bible reading and our prayer.
I particularly appreciated Luther’s two patterns. The first is to look at every part of Scripture four ways: determine the point, praise God for the truths found in it, confess our failings regarding it, and pray for change for ourselves and others in response. I have started this practice myself and have been so encouraged by the breadth and depth to which I can understand and respond to God’s word. His second suggestion is to ‘riff’ the Lord’s prayer, taking each phrase in turn, and expounding on it in depth in prayer. I have heard this suggestion before, but am now encouraged to return to it in my own practice.
4. Deepening Prayer.
In this section Keller helps us think through what meditating on God’s word can look like, as well as encouraging us not to fear experiencing God in prayer. He expounds both the evangelical practice of careful Bible reading and the more mystical, experiential expressions of prayer, arguing there is a way forward which embraces the biblical aspects of both, so that we can truly experience the presence of God. Describing prayer, he says,
[it’s] an encounter with God that involves not only the affections of the heart but also the convictions of the mind. We are not called to choose between a Christian life based on truth and doctrine or a life filled with spiritual power and experience. They go together. (17)
5. Doing Prayer.
Finally, Keller concludes with a section on actually praying. He breaks prayer into three categories. Starting with awe and the importance of praising God, then moving to intimacy, or finding God’s grace—that is, rejoicing in forgiveness through confession and repentance. Thirdly, asking for help. Very insightfully, he applied Packer’s ideas as to what we should do when we ask God for things:
- Think about why we ask for it (this may revise our list to start with).
- Acknowledge God may will otherwise, with the assurance that he wants what is best for his children.
- Consider what we might need to do for the prayer to be answered (what does it tell us about our own motivation, sin, and so on). This can place limits on what we pray for.
He finishes with the strong encouragement to daily prayer, with his suggestion being 2-3 times per day.
After concluding the book’s content, Keller includes a selected bibliography of recommendations for further books on prayer, with accompanying elaborations. As a result, I have four more books on order! These will push my thinking further and also encourage me in my practice.
Did I have any hesitations? Only a few. His method of prayer rightly asserts that if you pray like this, you will not have time for long prayer lists, because you will be praying in much more depth about each person or thing. I agree, but I don’t want to reduce the range of people I pray for. I think praying for a wide variety of people and situations broadens our minds and hearts beyond merely those in our immediate circle. Similarly, I didn’t find a lot of encouragement to pray about the wider world—like conflicts, missions, and the persecuted church. I think it was implied, for praying God’s word should lead us to those far-reaching, outward-looking prayers, but I didn’t overtly see it.
I have learned much through Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God. I’ve come to understand how some of the great people of faith of the past (and surely some of the saints of today) spent hours in prayer. With these tools I am grasping, plus the desire to apply them, I now want more time to pray.
This book is theologically rich, pastorally astute and practically applicable. Keller has met his own goal and produced a definitive book on prayer for a generation. I have read and appreciated other excellent books, but for now, this is my favourite.
Originally published at MusingsinAdelaide