What is prayer? And how are we, as Christians, to pray? At a basic level, these are two questions that can be answered quickly and simply. But on a much deeper level, these are two very loaded questions, and two massively important ones.
Tim Keller, NYC pastor and prolific author, noticed a gaping hole in the world of Christian literature when trying to find a book that offered Biblical and comprehensive answers to these two questions. Sure, there are many books on defining what prayer is, without much emphasis on the practical outworking, the how, of prayer. On the other hand, there are good books out there on some of the practical things of prayer, without much focus on defining what prayer actually is. And then there are some older books, particularly from the Puritans, that are great combinations of the two, but are written with archaic and inaccessible language to the ordinary church-goer wanting to grow in his or her prayer life.
It was this burden of not having one, comprehensive book on prayer to give to someone who wanted to understand and practice Christian prayer that led Keller to write his new book, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God. In this book, it is Keller’s goal to show the reader that “prayer is both conversation and encounter with God” (5). Pushing back against both extremes seen in the Evangelical world today — cold, distant, rote prayer on the one hand, and mystical, Eastern-influenced rituals on the other hand — Keller offers a biblical and balanced understanding of prayer, as well as incredibly helpful, practical considerations for the Christian to grow in his or her prayer life.
The book is split into five parts:
- Desiring Prayer
- Understanding Prayer
- Learning Prayer
- Deepening Prayer
- Doing Prayer
What It “Is”
The first two of these five parts discuss what prayer is and is not. Keller discusses the confusing landscape that the Christian will encounter today concerning prayer, particularly with the influx of Eastern mysticism influence on much of the popular Evangelical works on prayer. After discussing the confusing landscape, Keller offers a biblically balanced definition of prayer: “Prayer is continuing a conversation that God has started through his Word and his grace, which eventually becomes a full encounter with him” (48). He continues:
“We know who we are praying to only if we first learn it in the Bible. And we know how we should be praying only by getting our vocabulary from the Bible…If the goal of prayer is a real, personal connection with God, then it is only by immersion in the language of the Bible that we will learn to pray, perhaps just as slowly as a child learns to speak” (54-55).
Later in the same chapter, Keller reminds the reader of this great truth:
“Without immersion in God’s words, our prayers 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).
And a page later, after recounting the famous story of George Whitfield having supposed “divine assurance” and “revelation” that he should name his son John because he would be a preacher of the Gospel, only then to suffer the agony of his son dying at just four-months old, Keller reminds us:
“The lesson here is not that God never guides our thoughts or prompts us to choose wise courses of action, but that we cannot be sure he is speaking to us unless we read it in the Scripture” (63).
The first two parts that describe what prayer is take up 80 pages of the book, and Keller gives the reader many good insights and reminders in those pages. I hope that what I have shared has sufficed to give you a taste of Keller’s commitment to prayer biblically defined, and to the primacy of the Word of God as it relates to prayer and God speaking to His people.
“How” To Do It
The rest of the book, then, deals with the practical side of prayer. With a correct understanding of what prayer is, the question that begs to be answered is, “How, then, are we to pray?” There is a ton of good stuff here in these chapters, including a look at letters and articles from Church History from the likes of Augustine, Luther, & Calvin, as well as a phrase by phrase exposition of the Lord’s Prayer, or the “Prayer of Prayers,” in Part 3. Keller also looks at what it means that prayer is a “conversation” with God as well as an “encounter” with God in Part 4. And finally, in Part 5, he looks at how we are to “do” prayer by identifying the three basic kinds of prayer to God:
- Upward Prayer – Praise and thanksgiving that focuses on God himself.
- Inward Prayer – Self-examination and confession
- Outward Prayer – Supplication and intercession
Finally, Keller includes a wonderfully helpful chapter titled, “Practice: Daily Prayer,” in which he discusses how the Christian should structure his daily prayer by looking both to Biblical examples and Church History. What I sincerely appreciated in this chapter (and really throughout the entire book) was the continued emphasis on the primary role that the Word of God plays in our prayer life. I have encountered far too many teachers and/or books on prayer that speak of all kinds of practices and techniques, but which glaringly omit the primary role that the Word should play in kindling and guiding our prayers. Keller did an excellent job at drawing that out.
I was greatly encouraged and helped by Keller’s book on prayer. As I think about my own prayer life, and the times that I have had the honor and challenge of teaching on prayer, I greatly resonated with Keller in the opening chapter of the book:
“Prayer is nonetheless an exceedingly difficult subject to write about. That is not primarily because it is so indefinable but because, before it, we feel so small and helpless. Lloyd-Jones once said that he had never written on prayer because of a sense of personal inadequacy in this area” (18).
I, too, have often had that same feeling. But thanks be to God that our authority as to what prayer is and how we are to pray does not come from me, nor from Tim Keller, nor anyone else, but from the Word of God. And it is upon this Word that Keller stands in this book on prayer. This will absolutely be my go-to book on prayer for some time to come. I would encourage you to grab a copy for yourself, because I have the feeling that you will walk away saying the exact same thing.
For some additional helpful reviews and interviews on this book, check out the following:
In accordance with FTC regulations, I would like to thank Dutton Publishers for providing me with a review copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review.