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Renowned pastor and New York Times bestselling author of The Prodigal Prophet Timothy Keller explores the power of prayer.
Christians are taught in their churches and schools that prayer is the most powerful way to experience God. But few receive instruction or guidance in how to make prayer genuinely meaningful. In Prayer, renowned pastor Timothy Keller delves into the many facets of this everyday act.
With his trademark insights and energy, Keller offers biblical guidance as well as specific prayers for certain situations, such as dealing with grief, loss, love, and forgiveness. He discusses ways to make prayers more personal and powerful, and how to establish a practice of prayer that works for each reader.
Dr. Keller’s previous books have sold more than one million copies. His Redeemer Presbyterian Church is not only a major presence in his home base of New York, it has also helped to launch more than two hundred fifty other churches in forty-eight cities around the world. His teachings have already helped millions, the majority of whom pray regularly. And with Prayer, he’ll show them how to find a deeper connection with God.
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TIMOTHY KELLER was born and raised in Pennsylvania and educated at Bucknell University, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and Westminster Theological Seminary. He was first a pastor in Hopewell, Virginia. In 1989 he started Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City with his wife, Kathy, and their three sons. Today, Redeemer has more than five thousand regular Sunday attendees and has helped to start more than two hundred and fifty new churches around the world. Also the author of The Songs of Jesus, Preaching, Encounters with Jesus, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, Every Good Endeavor, The Meaning of Marriage, Generous Justice, Counterfeit Gods, The Prodigal God, Jesus the King, and The Reason for God, Timothy Keller lives in New York City with his family.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Why Write a Book on Prayer?
Some years ago I realized that, as a pastor, I didn’t have a first book to give someone who wanted to understand and practice Christian prayer. This doesn’t mean there aren’t great books on prayer. Many older works are immeasurably wiser and more penetrating than anything I could possibly produce. The best material on prayer has been written.
Yet many of these excellent books are written in an archaic idiom inaccessible to most contemporary readers. In addition they tend to be primarily theological or devotional or practical, but seldom do they combine the theological, experiential, and methodological all under one cover.1 A book on the essentials of prayer should treat all three. Also, nearly all the classic books on prayer spend a fair amount of time warning readers about practices in their day that were spiritually unhelpful or even damaging. Such cautions must be updated for readers living in each generation.
Two Kinds of Prayer?
Recent writers on prayer tend to have one of two views on the subject. Most now emphasize prayer as a means to experience God’s love and to know oneness with him. They promise a life of peace and of continual resting in God. Such authors often give radiant testimonies of feeling regularly surrounded by the divine presence. Other books, however, see the essence of prayer not as inward resting but as calling on God to bring in his kingdom. Prayer is viewed as a wrestling match, often—or perhaps ordinarily—without a clear sense of God’s immediate presence. One book of this sort is The Still Hour, by Austin Phelps.2 He begins with the premise that a sense of the absence of God is the norm for the Christian at prayer, and that the experience of God’s presence is difficult for most people to find.
Another book with the same approach is Donald G. Bloesch’s The Struggle of Prayer. He criticizes what he calls “Christian mysticism.”3 He resists the teaching that prayer’s ultimate goal is personal communion with God. He thinks this makes prayer a selfish “end in itself.”4 In his view, the highest aim of prayer is not peaceful reflection but fervent supplication for the kingdom of God to come to fruition in the world and in our own lives. The ultimate aim of prayer is “obedience to God’s will, not the contemplation of his being.”5 Prayer is not mainly for an inner state but for conformity to God’s purposes.
What accounts for these two views—what we could call “communion-centered” and “kingdom-centered” prayer? One explanation is that they reflect people’s actual experience. Some discover that their emotions are unresponsive toward God and that even paying attention in prayer for more than a few minutes is extremely difficult. Others regularly experience a feeling of God’s presence. This accounts at least in part for the different views. However, theological differences also play a role. Bloesch argues that mystical prayer fits more with the Catholic view that God’s grace is infused directly into us through baptism and the Mass rather than with the Protestant belief that we are saved through faith in God’s word of gospel promise.6
Which view of prayer is the better one? Is peaceful adoration or assertive supplication the ultimate form of prayer? That question assumes that the answer is completely either-or, which is unlikely.
Communion and Kingdom
For help, we should turn first to the Psalms, the inspired prayer book of the Bible. There we see that both experiences of prayer are well represented. There are Psalms such as Psalm 27, 63, 84, 131, and the “long hallelujah” of Psalms 146–150 that depict adoring communion with God. In Psalm 27:4, David says that there is one primary thing he asks of the Lord in prayer—“to gaze on the beauty of the Lord.” While David did in fact pray for other things, he means at the very least that nothing is better than to know the presence of God. Therefore he says: “O God . . . my soul thirsts for you. . . . I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory. Because your love is better than life, I will praise you” (Ps 63:1–3). When he adores God in his presence, he says his “soul is satisfied as with the richest of foods” (Ps 63:5). This is indeed communion with God.
There are, however, even more Psalms of complaint, of cries for help, and of calls for God to exercise his power in the world. There are also stark expressions of the experience of God’s absence. Here we indeed see prayer as a struggle. Psalms 10, 13, 39, 42–43, and 88 are just a very few examples. Psalm 10 begins asking why God “stands far off” and “hides” himself in times of trouble. Suddenly the author cries, “Arise, Lord! Lift up your hand, O God. Do not forget the helpless” (Ps 10:12). Yet then he seems to speak almost to himself as well as to the Lord. “But you, O God, do see trouble and grief. You consider it to take it to hand. . . . You are the helper of the fatherless” (Ps 10:14). The prayer ends with the psalmist bowing to God’s timing and wisdom in all matters yet still fiercely calling out for justice on the earth. This is the wrestling match of kingdom-centered prayer. The Psalter, then, affirms both the communion-seeking and kingdom-seeking kinds of prayer.
Besides looking at the actual prayers of the Bible, we should consider also the Scripture’s theology of prayer—the reasons in God and in our created nature that human beings are able to pray. We are told that Jesus Christ stands as our mediator so that we, though undeserving in ourselves, can boldly approach God’s throne and cry out for our needs to be met (Heb 4:14–16; 7:25). We are also told that God himself dwells within us through the Spirit (Rom 8:9–11) and helps us to pray (Rom 8:26–27) so that even now by faith we may gaze and contemplate the glory of Christ (2 Cor 3:17–18). Thus the Bible gives us theological support for both communion-centered and kingdom-centered prayer.
A little reflection will show us that these two kinds of prayer are neither opposites nor even discrete categories. Adoring God is shot through with supplication. To praise God is to pray “hallowed be thy name,” to ask him to show the world his glory so that all would honor him as God. Yet just as adoration contains supplication, so seeking God’s kingdom must include prayer to know God himself. The Westminster Shorter Catechism tells us that our purpose is to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.” In this famous sentence we see reflected both kingdom-prayer and communion-prayer. Those two things—glorifying God and enjoying God—do not always coincide in this life, but in the end they must be the same thing. We may pray for the coming of God’s kingdom, but if we don’t enjoy God supremely with all our being, we are not truly honoring him as Lord.7
Finally, when we consult many of the greatest of the older writers on prayer—such as Augustine, Martin Luther, and John Calvin—we see that they do not fall neatly into either camp.8 Indeed, even the prominent Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar has sought to bring balance to the mystical, contemplative prayer tradition. He warns against turning inward too much. “Contemplative prayer . . . neither can nor should be self-contemplation, but [rather] a reverent regard and listening to . . . the Not-me, namely, the Word of God.”9
Through Duty to Delight
Where, then, does this leave us? We should not drive a wedge between seeking personal communion with God and seeking the advance of his kingdom in hearts and in the world. And if they are kept together, then communion will not be just wordless mystical awareness on the one hand, and our petitions will not be a way of procuring God’s favor “for our many words” (Matt 6:7) on the other.
This book will show that prayer is both conversation and encounter with God. These two concepts give us a definition of prayer and a set of tools for deepening our prayer lives. The traditional forms of prayer—adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication—are concrete practices as well as profound experiences. We must know the awe of praising his glory, the intimacy of finding his grace, and the struggle of asking his help, all of which can lead us to know the spiritual reality of his presence. Prayer, then, is both awe and intimacy, struggle and reality. These will not happen every time we pray, but each should be a major component of our prayer over the course of our lives.
J. I. Packer and Carolyn Nystrom’s book on prayer has a subtitle that sums all this up nicely. Prayer is “Finding Our Way through Duty to Delight.” That is the journey of prayer.
The Necessity of Prayer
“We’re Not Going to Make It”
In the second half of my adult life, I discovered prayer. I had to.
In the fall of 1999, I taught a Bible study course on the Psalms. It became clear to me that I was barely scratching the surface of what the Bible commanded and promised regarding prayer. Then came the dark weeks in New York after 9/11, when our whole city sank into a kind of corporate clinical depression, even as it rallied. For my family the shadow was intensified as my wife, Kathy, struggled with the effects of Crohn’s disease. Finally, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
At one point during all this, my wife urged me to do something with her we had never been able to muster the self-discipline to do regularly. She asked me to pray with her every night. Every night. She used an illustration that crystallized her feelings very well. As we remember it, she said something like this:
Imagine you were diagnosed with such a lethal condition that the doctor told you that you would die within hours unless you took a particular medicine—a pill every night before going to sleep. Imagine that you were told that you could never miss it or you would die. Would you forget? Would you not get around to it some nights? No—it would be so crucial that you wouldn’t forget, you would never miss. Well, if we don’t pray together to God, we’re not going to make it because of all we are facing. I’m certainly not. We have to pray, we can’t let it just slip our minds.
Maybe it was the power of the illustration, maybe it was just the right moment, maybe it was the Spirit of God. Or, most likely of all, it was the Spirit of God using the moment and the clarity of the metaphor. For both of us the penny dropped; we realized the seriousness of the issue, and we admitted that anything that was truly a nonnegotiable necessity was something we could do. That was more than twelve years ago, and Kathy and I can’t remember missing a single evening of praying together, at least by phone, even when we’ve been apart in different hemispheres.
Kathy’s jolting challenge, along with my own growing conviction that I just didn’t get prayer, led me into a search. I wanted a far better personal prayer life. I began to read widely and experiment in prayer. As I looked around, I quickly came to see that I was not alone.
“Can’t Anyone Teach Me to Pray?”
When Flannery O’Connor, the famous Southern writer, was twenty-one years old and studying writing in Iowa, she sought to deepen her prayer life. She had to.
In 1946 she began keeping a handwritten prayer journal. In it she describes her struggles to be a great writer. “I want very much to succeed in the world with what I want to do. . . . I am so discouraged about my work. . . . Mediocrity is a hard word to apply to oneself . . . yet it is impossible not to throw it at myself. . . . I have nothing to be proud of yet myself. I am stupid, quite as stupid as the people I ridicule.” These kinds of declarations can be found in the journal of any aspiring artist, but O’Connor did something different with these feelings. She prayed them. Here she followed a very ancient path, as did the psalmists in the Old Testament, who did not merely identify, express, and vent their feelings but also processed them with brutal honesty in God’s presence. O’Connor wrote of
effort at artistry in this rather than thinking of You and feeling inspired with the love I wish I had. Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon . . . what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing. I do not know You God because I am in the way.10
Here O’Connor recognizes what Augustine saw clearly in his own prayer journal, the Confessions—that living well depended on the reordering of our loves. To love our success more than God and our neighbor hardens the heart, making us less able to feel and to sense. That, ironically, makes us poorer artists. Therefore, because O’Connor was a writer of extraordinary gifts who could have become haughty and self-absorbed, her only hope was in the constant soul reorientation of prayer. “Oh God please make my mind clear. Please make it clean. . . . Please help me to get down under things and find where You are.”11
She reflected on the discipline of writing out her prayers in the journal. She recognized the problem of the form. “I have decided this is not much as a direct medium of prayer. Prayer is not even as premeditated as this—it is of the moment and this is too slow for the moment.”12 Then there was the danger that what she was writing down wasn’t really prayer but ventilation. “I . . . want this to be . . . something in praise of God. It is probably more liable to being therapeutical . . . with the element of self underlying its thoughts.”13
Yet with the journal she believed, “I have started on a new phase of my spiritual life . . . the throwing off of certain adolescent habits and habits of mind. It does not take much to make us realize what fools we are, but the little it takes is long in coming. I see my ridiculous self by degrees.”14 O’Connor learned that prayer is not simply the solitary exploration of your own subjectivity. You are with Another, and he is unique. God is the only person from whom you can hide nothing. Before him you will unavoidably come to see yourself in a new, unique light. Prayer, therefore, leads to a self-knowledge that is impossible to achieve any other way.
Cutting through everything else in O’Connor’s journal was a simple longing to learn truly how to pray. She knew intuitively that prayer was the key to everything else she needed to do and to be in life. She wasn’t content with the perfunctory religious observances of her past. “I do not mean to deny the traditional prayers I have said all my life; but I have been saying them and not feeling them. My attention is always fugitive. This way I have it every instant. I can feel a warmth of love beating me when I think and write this to You. Please do not let the explanations of the psychologists about this make it turn sudd...
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