Synthesizing Years of Pastoral Wisdom
Whenever Tim Keller publishes a book, I’ve already pre-ordered several months beforehand. At this point, Keller seems to be synthesizing years of pastoral wisdom into his almost yearly publications. Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God is a prime example.
Keller explains in his introduction why he is writing. While there are many books on prayer out there, there are few books that combine theological, experiential, and methodological wisdom into one. Further, in addition to the many current voices on prayer, there are voices from the past that offer substantial wisdom for the present. Putting all of this into a single volume is Keller’s goal.
Part One: Increasing Our Desire to Pray
The book itself is split into five parts. The first part aims at increasing our desire to pray. In the first formal chapter, Keller explains his own personal journey of learning how to pray. He passes on the illustration his wife used that came at a turning point in his own life:
“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” (pp. 9-10).
Taking this to heart resulted in Keller developing and maturing his own personal prayer life. The wisdom that he has gathered in doing so is the substance of the present book.
The following chapter focuses on the greatness of prayer as a means of knowing God. Using Paul’s prayers as examples, Keller explains that a person’s private prayer life is an important test of spiritual integrity. Combined with the previous chapter, these two chapters lay the foundation for the sections of the book that follow.
Part Two: Defining Prayer
Chapter 3 begins the second part of the book, the purpose of which is to define and explain exactly what prayer is. Keller defines prayer as “personal, communicative response to the knowledge of God” (p. 45), and sees this knowledge coming primarily through the Word and Spirit.
In chapter 4, Keller explains how prayer functions as a conversation with God. He stresses the importance of wedding our prayer life to Scripture since that is how God speaks to us. When we listen to God through His Word, we then respond to God in prayer. This leads to the discussion in chapter 5 on encountering God through prayer. Here, Keller brings out an emphasis on God as Triune. He points that through prayer, we encounter God the Father, through God the Spirit, by God the Son.
Part Three: Historical Examples
The following four chapters comprise the third part of the book. While the transition here is to more practical nuts and bolts, the avenue taken to get there is through key historical figures and their writings on prayer.
Chapter 6 highlights the contributions of Augustine and Luther respectively. Each wrote a classic treatise on prayer which Keller exposits and applies to the present. Chapter 7 focuses exclusively on John Calvin who formulated “rules” for prayer. These function as a means to help orient us to God rather than “magic bullets” for getting the answers we want. Chapter 8 combines the insights of all three theologians so far but in reference to their teaching on the Lord’s Prayer, which Keller exposits section by section.
This part of the book is concluded by chapter 9 where Keller offers “touchstones” of prayer. These are useful for testing the quality of our praying against both the insights of the theologians he has used so far, and more importantly the wisdom of Scripture. Keller explains that “A touchstone is a small rock containing silica that was rubbed against a piece of gold or silver to test its degree of purity or genuineness” (p. 121). With that in mind, he offers four categories of touchstones: “What Prayer Is” (pp. 121-124), “What Prayer Requires,” (pp. 124-129), “What Prayer Gives” (pp. 129-134), and “Where Prayer Takes Us” (pp. 134-139). Using these touchstones can be a valuable means to building a healthy prayer life.
Part Four: Practical Insights
The following two chapters make up the fourth part of the book. Here, the focus is still a mix of historical retrieval and practical insight. Specifically, the subject is meditation and the conversation partners are Luther (chapter 10) and John Owen (chapter 11). The former chapter treats prayer more as a conversation and begins to offer insights for integrating meditation into one’s prayer life. The latter chapter treats prayer more as an encounter with God that leads to hearts and affections stirred for Him.
Part Five: ACTS
The final part of the book transitions away from historical considerations into an even more intensive practical focus that further integrates the insights from earlier chapters. Keller loosely organizes the remaining four chapters following the familiar ACTS model.
Keller, of course, tweaks it and makes it his own. In his layout, there are three forms of prayer. First, there is upward prayer, which is the focus of chapter 12. This corresponds to the A (Adoration) and the T (Thanksgiving) in the ACTS model. Keller distinguishes the former as focused on who God is and the latter on what God has done. Second, there is inward prayer, which is the focus of chapter 13. This corresponds to the C (Confession) in the ACTS model, and Keller offers a very useable model for biblical self-examination and confession. Lastly, there is outward prayer, which is the focus of chapter 14. This corresponds to the S (Supplication) in the ACTS model. It is fitting that this is treated last, since it is probably the part of prayer that comes most easily. However, it will have a substantial reorientation if it flows from upward and inward prayer first.
The final chapter serves as a kind of conclusion where Keller outlines his advice for the daily practice of prayer. Loosely, Keller’s pattern begins with an evocation (calling on God) followed by meditation on Scripture. Then he suggests using Word prayer (praying Scripture or scriptural prayers) before moving to free prayer (following the outline in the previous three chapters) and finally to contemplation.
A Closing Analogy
Keller then offers advice on praying the Psalms before offering a very useful closing analogy. He says, “Imagine that your soul is a boat, a boat with both oars and a sail” (258). The question then is whether we are sailing, rowing, drifting, or sinking. Sailing is a vibrant spiritual life. Rowing is a spiritual life that is moving, but takes much effort and is still at times dry and difficult. Drifting combines this dryness and difficulty with a lack of effort. The next step is sinking—the loss of forward motion altogether and an absence of any kind of spiritual vitality.
In this light, “we see that there are some things we are responsible for, such as using the means of grace—the Bible, prayer, and church participation—in a disciplined way. There are many other things we do not have control over—such as how well the circumstances in our lives are going as well as our emotions” (p. 259). Taking care of responsibility in spite of the storms wards off drifting and sinking. As Keller says, “Praying is rowing, and sometimes it is like rowing in the dark. You won’t feel that you are making any progress at all. Yet you are, and when the winds rise again, they surely will, you will sail again before them” (p. 260).
A Wealth of Resources for Our Prayer Life
Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God by Tim Keller is a resource that should be part of not only every pastor’s library, but every counselor and counselee as well. It might be a bit hyperbolic to suggest every Christian should read this, but that wouldn’t be too far from the mark. Everyone’s prayer life has room for growth, and this book provides a wealth of resources to help that. In addition to Keller’s own exposition and resulting pattern for prayer, he offers an appendix of other patterns, a 6-page annotated bibliography pointing readers to other great works, and his nearly 50 pages of endnotes offers further in-depth analysis for the interested reader.
On the whole, it is hard to think of a more clear, concise, and pastoral writer than Keller. Certainly John Piper is in the mix, but Keller’s ability to communicate through his writing is hard to match. Certainly he and Piper both share a unique ability to make the insights of theologians past seemed accessible and fresh as the latest Christian living title. But, what Keller has done here with his book on prayer is hard to match. It nails all the goals he set out to hit, and provides the reader with encouragement, advice, and ultimately motivation to take prayer seriously, and take steps toward growing in that area of their spiritual life. It is equal parts biblical exposition, theology, history, and application. In short, it’s what all great practical theology should look like, and this book will continue to benefit readers beyond the initial reading.