What is prayer? In my work as a youth ministries pastor, our team of leaders recently took our students through some of the core spiritual disciplines of the Christian life. When it came time for our group of groggy middle schoolers to define prayer on a Sunday morning, it didn’t take them long to spout out the answer that we had taught them. The first kid to raise his hand said, “Prayer is talking to God!”
This is an answer we all know; yet few of us feel we have mined the depths of what it means to talk to God. I know this because it is still one of the hardest spiritual disciplines for me, even though I grew up in the church. In Tim Keller’s newest book, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God, he seeks to do just that: to make clear what it means to talk to God. Keller states in the introduction, “This book will show that prayer is both conversation and encounter with God…Prayer, then, is both awe and intimacy, struggle and reality” (5).
Keller sets out to write a comprehensive book on prayer, one that deals with both theology and practice, drawing on a wealth of resources in the Christian tradition to speak to a modern audience. He does this in five different parts: “Desiring Prayer,” “Understanding Prayer,” “Learning Prayer,” “Deepening Prayer,” and “Doing Prayer.” I would have to print the entire book here to share everything I found helpful in it (which would be illegal), so it will suffice for me to simply whet your appetite to read Prayer.
Whetting Your Appetite for Prayer
The first part of Keller’s book is divided into two chapters about the necessity of prayer and the greatness of prayer. In the first of these chapters, Keller marks out his own struggles with prayer, as well as the experiences, authors, and Scriptures that led him into this mindset: “Prayer is simply the key to everything we need to do and be in life” (18). Keller also gives us insight into the vastness of what it means to converse with God, the emotions that conversation brings, and all of the wonderful benefits that we receive from prayer.
The next section, “Defining Prayer,” is one of the most heavily highlighted in my book. As Keller points out, prayer has become such a vacuous word in our culture at large because of the influences of Eastern spirituality, which he dissects. Keller, as he does so well, maps out the cultural landscape as it pertains to prayer and then corrects it with a biblical definition. He ends with one of the most helpful and repeated themes in his book: the importance of prayer and Scripture reading together. He states, “Prayer as a spiritual gift is a genuine, personal conversation in reply to God’s specific, verbal revelation” (46).
In my estimation, this theme is one of the most important aspects of Keller’s book, underlying the book as a whole. For if we truly want to have a more vibrant prayer life, we must truly know God more deeply through his verbal revelation, the Bible. Indeed, prayer turns the knowledge that we gain in Scripture into an experience of God, himself. Keller notes:
Prayer turns theology into experience. Through it we sense his presence and receive his joy, his love, his peace and confidence, and thereby we are changed in attitude, behavior, and character (80).
Keller then moves from defining to applying. The next three sections deal with the act of prayer. “Learning Prayer” specifically focuses on two letters about prayer, one by Augustine and one by Luther, and also focuses on the Lord ’s Prayer. Keller’s chapter on the Lord’s Prayer is a helpful guide to understanding it, though it could benefit from being a little longer.
“Deepening Prayer” looks at the two sides of the prayer coin: “Conversation” and “Encounter.” In the chapter on conversation, Keller looks at what it means to meditate on God’s Word and to prayerfully respond to it. But what does it mean to meditate on the Word? I think that Keller rightfully and helpfully points us to the end goal of meditation: “Jesus is supremely the one also on whom we meditate, because he is the mediation of God. He is God’s truth become “real,” made concrete, and applied” (164).
In prayer, we also encounter or, as Keller will explain, experience the person of God. Indeed, he notes that prayer is how we truly grasp and feel the weight of who God is. Keller raises the stakes of what it means to truly encounter God by saying:
The choice is ours. If we want to be sure to experience this vision by sight hereafter, we must know it by faith now. If we want freedom from being driven by fear, ambition, greed, lust, addictions, and inner emptiness, we must learn how to meditate on Christ until his glory breaks in upon our souls (178).
A Theology and Practice of Prayer
Keller’s final section on “Doing Prayer” is worth the whole price of the book. He brings such freshness to what it means to adore God, confess to him, and ask of God in our prayers. His section on confession is particularly helpful and is so needed in our time when confession is often trite or nonexistent. More than that, Keller also provides very practical steps for getting started in prayer, a guide for the prayer novice like myself.
You know that a prayer book is good when you are actually driven to prayer while reading it, which is precisely the experience I had with this book. There is no other book that I know of that brings together such clarity, passion, and illustration on the topic of prayer and such a wealth of materials (as seen in the 386 end notes). As Keller himself acknowledges in his introduction, there are few books that house both a theology and a practice of prayer under the same roof. As he wrote this book, that’s what Keller set out to do, and I think he did so marvelously.
Timothy Keller. Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God. New York, NY: Dutton, 2014. 321 pp. $26.95.