Thursday, November 19, 2015

Prayer by Tim Keller (Book Review #89 of 2015)

Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God
Keller is one of my favorite author/pastors and this was the third book I'd read (Every Good Endeavor, The Reason for God). While this book is important, it is not great. I think Keller failed to achieve the goal in his preface: to write the first book he would want to give people on prayer. The References are a full 1/3 of the book, and Keller comments extensively on them, which is annoying for the reader. When you're 50% through the book and you already have 300 footnotes, that's a slog. I would give someone R.C. Sproul's Does Prayer Change Things as a first book, it better summarizes the conclusions Keller spends pages reaching. Sadly, Keller does not include that in his literature review.

Keller himself admits: "The best material on prayer has been written" (loc. 70). This book is both an attempt to survey that literature, work out a theology of prayer, examine various Christian forefathers' approaches to prayer, and offer some methods of prayers to the reader. The section looking at Augustine, Luther, and Calvin's approaches to prayer and all three of their takes on the Lord's Prayer is worth three stars in itself. It should be published as a shorter book in itself. (Really, this book is three or four books in one). The practical methods of prayer at the end are also good, but somewhat depressing unless you, like Luther, want to spend four hours praying every day. It strikes me that Keller admits he had been a pastor a long time before he really developed a prayer life, sounds like he did so after his kids were out of the house. I highlighted too much in this book to review entirely.

For example, Keller highly recommends that you  first approach God with precursory prayer, choose from a number of short scriptures to pray from to get your mind right. Then, engage in Bible reading and meditation. Read a passage 3-4 times, list anything that it tells you about yourself; list any examples to be followed, commands to obey, promises to claim. Choose the verse that is most striking and helpful, and paraphrase it in your own words. But don't take it out of context-- this should be in addition to separate time of really studying Scripture with the use of commentary. You shouldn't meditate on a passage until you understand it, and you shouldn't combine your deeper Bible study with your prayer/meditation Bible study (how many hours are there in a day?). (Note: I've been reading some texts for years with a ton of commentaries, sermons, and aids, and still don't "understand" them completely.) So, the outline above is for a passage you already know.
When meditating, ask the following (loc. 3334):
"What does this text show me about God for which I should praise and thank him? What does this text show me about my sin that I should confess and repent of? What false attitudes, behavior, emotions, or idols come alive in me whenever I forget this truth? What does the text show me about a need that I have? What do I need to do or become in light of this? How shall I petition God for it? How is Jesus Christ or the grace that I have in him crucial to helping me overcome the sin I have confesed or to answering the need I have? Finally: How would this change my life if I took it seriously-- if this truth were fully alive and effective in my inward being? Also, why might God be showing this to me now? What is going on in my life that he would be bringing this to my attention today?"

Then, pray with adoration, confession, petition, and thanksgiving. Pray for your needs and those of others. Then, take a final time to "enjoy him and his presence." There are other helps to pray through Scripture or to use something like the Book of Common Prayer to get you started. But you should avoid relying on these alone and avoid prayer lists that your church may hand out as it may just cause you to read and not think, not actually reach out to God with your mind and heart. In addition, set aside time in the evening to read and pray a Psalm, work through the Psalms twice a year in addition to a reading plan that takes you through the entire Bible in a year. An Appendix lists Calvin's daily prayer method, what he does when he gets up, when he eats lunch, before bed, etc.

If that sounds overwhelming, you're not alone. But the book is full of insights and wonderful quotes from the aforementioned plus Packer, Spurgeon, Jonathan Edwards, John Owen, etc. He notes that Owen, a Puritan, was remarkably spiritual-- prayer involved an emotional experience of God. "The irony is that many conservative Christians...neglect the importance of prayer and make no effort to experience God, and this can lead to the eventual loss of sound doctrine. Owen believes that Christianity without real experience of God eventually will be no Christianity at all" (loc. 2390).

There are also some wonderful retelling of Gospel truths. That when we confess and repent, we need to do so in light of what Jesus did for us and not make it "self-flagellation, even a self-crucifixion, through which we try to convince God (and ourselves) that we are so truly unhappy and regretful that we deserve to be forgiven" (loc. 2733). The Gospel changes our repentance.

Keller also goes through the various contexts of prayer, for various needs, by ourselves, congregationally, etc. Presbyterians, like other more liturgical churches, tend to have common creeds and prayers that Keller says are helpful in educating people to pray (loc. 3242):

"Calvin wanted Christians to learn private prayer from the public prayers and the Psalm singing in gathered worship. Luther wrote that he prayed twice a day, either by hurrying to his room 'or, if it be the day and hour for it, to the church where a congregation is assembled.' This shows how important it was for the great teachers of the church that our prayer life not be completely privatized. It is right and necessary that we learn to pray not merely from reading the Psalms and the rest of the Bible but by hearing and reading the prayers of the church.
Many churches today, especially those with what is called contemporary worship, give congregants almost no help with prayer at all in this way. The only prayers congregants hear are 'spontaneous' expressions of worship leaders, or the final prayer of the preacher at the end of the sermon. Time-tested and carefully considered prayers are not provided as they were in times past. This means that many Christians today will have to search out such prayers, and that is where Cranmer’s matchless 'collects' as well as other resources, such as Phyllis Tickle’s The Divine Hours or Arthur Bennett’s The Valley of Vision, can be helpful."

I learned a lot from the book and it was a slog to get through. I would recommend it to anyone looking to deepen their prayer life and have an overview of what that has looked like in works by Christian authors through the centuries. But for a new Christian or someone just wanting some basics, this is not your book. The best advice is just to pray, and keep praying. 3 stars out of 5.

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