Timothy Keller. Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God. New York, NY: Dutton, 2014. 321 pp. $26.95.
Two potent images come into my mind as I try to describe the gift Tim Keller has given to the church in his masterful Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God [interview | 20 quotes]. The first is of a veteran war captain preparing one of his soldiers for battle. He leads the warrior into an arsenal the soldier scarcely dreamed existed and shows him a vast array of weaponry with which he will fight the battle. The foes are strong: the world, the flesh, and the Devil. But the prize awaiting the victors is eternally glorious: the advance of the kingdom of Jesus Christ. The arsenal is ancient, tested, and powerful under God to defeat this three-fold foe. With skill, Keller plays the role of a proven commander outfitting a soldier for the battle—picking up this weapon or that shield and showing the soldier how powerful each will be on the battlefield (Eph. 6:10–18). The second image is of a wealthy manor house owner spreading a sumptuous feast for his guests. He seats each in his place at the banqueting table and proceeds to bring out of his storehouse treasures new as well as old. The feast is the infinite greatness of God himself, and the old and new treasures are vessels from the past that deliver the attributes and actions of God to the banqueting table (Matt. 13:52).
These two images directly correspond to the two types of prayer Keller finds in Scripture: kingdom-centered and communion-centered. One seeks assertive supplication and the other peaceful adoration. The pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City weaves the two together throughout his book—seeking intimacy with God while yearning to advance the kingdom of Christ on earth.
As I continue to grow in my walk with Christ, I feel more and more yearning for a rich, full prayer life. Though I feel the indwelling Holy Spirit beckoning me upward to greater awe and intimacy with God, I am frequently disappointed in prayer. My experience is not an isolated one, either. Almost everyone I’ve spoken to about their prayer life expresses some kind of disappointment. Keller’s book will be a powerful antidote to the constant Satanic suggestion whispered into our minds: “Give up! Stop praying! It doesn’t achieve anything. Why continue?”
In the two great patterns of prayer, we face constant disappointment. In our prayers for kingdom advance, we often see little or no effect—everything seems to go on just as it would if we’d never prayed. In our prayers for increased intimacy, we often wrestle with boredom, sin, and guilt—and we turn away unfilled and let down. Keller stands with us at those key moments of temptation toward disappointment and helps us understand how we can “always pray and never give up” (Luke 18:1).
Keller draws on three significant fountains of wisdom that give his book depth. First is his own experience in prayer; as a man suffering cancer, a husband of a wife suffering Crohn’s disease, and the pastor of a church in New York City in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy, Keller felt a desperate urgency to grow in prayer. He is in the battle along with us, drawing on his experiences on a spiritual pilgrimage to intimacy with God. Moreover, Keller demonstrates a practiced skill in searching out the states of mind and complex motives that hinder our prayer lives. Not surprisingly, he speaks eloquently and directly to the idols that draw our affections away from God. We are reading a seasoned pastor who yearns to shepherd his flock toward a healthy prayer life.
The second fountain of wisdom from which Keller draws vivifying water is the church, especially the writings of leaders in the past. In one powerful section he draws from Augustine, Martin Luther, and John Calvin to give us new insights on the Lord’s Prayer. Keller doesn’t merely quote these three great men but rephrases their timeless words to make them accessible and clear. This is the role of a skilled teacher—rewording something succinctly, clearly, and with startling freshness. The footnotes in this book are staggering for their breadth and depth—Keller is amazingly well-read. And while he is readily aware of new and recent books on prayer, he will readily tell you the best stuff comes from deep in the cellar of church history. Not only do these three great men speak to us, but so do the Puritans (like John Owen, Richard Baxter, Richard Sibbes), Jonathan Edwards, and others. Keller even makes a careful case for reading the Christian mystics of the middle ages, commending their clearly superior intimacy with God while carefully filtering their doctrinal imperfections. As he emerges with “old treasures” from these great writers, Keller makes them new with a 21st-century perspective. He draws from these guides “rules for prayer,” while at the same time showing how prayer cannot be finally reduced to a set of unchanging rules.
But by far the greatest fountain of wisdom Keller draws on is Scripture. As mentioned above, the centerpiece of Keller’s scriptural presentation on prayer is the Lord’s Prayer, and he uses insights from Augustine, Luther, and Calvin to help us see how the various aspects of history’s most famous prayer can serve as a daily guide to our own. Keller also makes the Psalms a centerpiece for increasing intimacy with God, as every human condition or emotion is in some way addressed in them. Beyond these, Keller brings out the prayers of Paul in the epistles and the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels to root our prayers in a strong foundation.
Theological and Practical
Keller does an excellent job of speaking not only theologically but also practically about prayer. Though practical advice flows throughout the book, it is helpfully consolidated near the end in a chapter on steps to take to increase order and intimacy in your prayer life. Keller advocates set times for prayer, using both written prayers from church history (he especially loves the collects of Thomas Cranmer) and prayers that flow free from your own heart, led by Scripture. He warns against mindlessly following our soul’s internal voice, advocating instead an “intelligent mysticism”—doctrinally sound and deeply rich in spiritual experience. There is much in this book on how to turn sound scriptural exegesis into deep meditation, resulting in richer prayer. If your prayer life is disorganized and you need help knowing even where to begin, Keller measures out an array of patterns you can follow to get you moving toward power and intimacy with God.
Prayer is full of memorable illustrations as well. I loved the one about how the fear of the Lord is like holding a precious Ming vase in our hands: we don’t fear it hurting us; we fear damaging it. So also Christians should fear bringing dishonor to Christ who shed his blood for us. Or again, we’re like a 4-year-old boy who has just inherited $100 million but cries to his daddy that his toy truck is broken. Since we can’t conceive of how wealthy we are in the kingdom of Christ, we go on presenting insignificant issues to God as though all our happiness depends on them. Perhaps the most powerful image for me was of a college student refusing to speak to her roommate for days and days. When the roommate, hurt by the silence, confronts her, she’s met with the answer: “I don’t enjoy talking to you at all; you’re boring, and my mind drifts every time we speak. I get nothing out of this relationship, so I have decided to give up speaking to you.” Imagine how dishonoring those words would be, how hurtful, how rude. Yet I was convicted that I effectively say this to God when I refuse to push through the dryness in prayer to a deeper relationship with him.
It is customary in book reviews to earn credibility by discussing not only strengths but weaknesses. But imagine instead that I’m a friend from whom you’re asking advice on prayer. If I commend a book to you, we both understand I’m not saying the book is perfect—just that it will be remarkably helpful to you. In that spirit I strongly commend this book to you. Its flaws (whatever they might be) are not on my mind. I am just delighted that I can say with confidence, if you follow Keller into the arsenal, you will be powerfully equipped to overcome the world/flesh/Devil and see your prayers for kingdom advance answered by almighty God. And if you follow Keller to the banqueting table, you will increasingly feast on new and old treasures of awe and intimacy with your heavenly Father.