I recommend the book “Prayer: Experiencing Awe & Intimacy with God” by Timothy Keller for readers who seek well-researched, well-thought-out answers about prayer.
In my last post, I gave my first impressions: “This is not light reading.” I remembered while drafting this review that I had a similar experience with another author I labeled “difficult.” I almost quit trying to read that author’s works altogether. That would have been a tragedy. OK, not exactly a tragedy. I just couldn’t help that last part because I’m talking about William Shakespeare.
I want to say it was 1990 when I first dropped out of the Shakespeare class I attended at Kent Stark in Canton, Ohio. The reading stressed me out. I dropped classes I thought might end in disaster. I feared failure. I had to have a drop sheet signed. I remember going to see the Shakespeare professor, Dr. Joseph Wagner. He said, “Give it a week,” and he promised I’d get the hang of the old language. I still dropped. I ended up taking Dr. Wagner’s class a semester or two later and agreed with him. Shakespeare was my main man.
I decided to make a reading plan. I read one chapter a day and took notes. Some days I read part of a chapter and finished the second half the next day.
When Keller began his pursuit to better understand prayer, he didn’t turn to contemporary books. Instead, he turned to historical texts from Christian theology he’d studied in graduate school with a focus on knowing and experiencing God through prayer, such as Thomas Cranmer (Common Book of Prayer), St. Augustine’s and Martin Luther’s letters on prayer, and John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.”
Each time I started into a chapter, I felt like I entered a lecture hall where Keller stood sharing what he learned from the Bible, as well as from pioneers in the Christian faith. I can see why pastors like to pull from his books to use quotes in sermons. He did much of the advance research for me on prayer. Keller’s notes in the back of the book correspond by number in the text for those who want to dig deeper.
Keller described prayer as both conversation and encounter between believers and God. Prayer is a conversation God started (50); we didn’t start the conversation. God’s word is alive and active. His word is how He speaks to us. But we don’t naturally seek God, he said. God draws near to us, which prompts us to pray. That made me feel loved. It’s a comfort to think of God encouraging a conversation with me.
He wove throughout his discourse how and why we have the privilege of prayer. (It’s interesting to me that I’m reading this book before Easter.) Before Jesus, temples, priests, and sacrifices were needed to go between us and God (74-75). “The costly sacrifice of Jesus the True Son” is the reason we have access to God (125). When we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we have access to the Father through Him. He becomes our brother. He’s our mediator and High Priest Hebrews 4:14-16 (NLT):
14 So then, since we have a great High Priest who has entered heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to what we believe. 15 This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. 16 So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most.
Keller reminded me Jesus prays for me as I pray. The gift of the Holy Spirit within us means we have a Helper who prays for us. Why do I ever worry about my imperfect prayers when I have Jesus and the Holy Spirit praying for me?
Keller accomplished what he set out to do in this book. He gave the essentials for prayer straight out of Scripture, including what can hinder us in our prayer lives. He steered clear of anything that sounded like he somehow had unlocked a mystical, magical, hitherto unknown secret to prayer. “Prayer is a balanced interaction of praise, confession, thanks, and petition,” Keller said, and we pray in Jesus’ name, which is short-hand for His divine nature and the saving work he did for us on the cross (125).
If I’m following this order, by the time I move to the “petitions” part of my prayer, my heart’s attitude and focus will change. The saying goes: “God > highs > lows.” Bringing God into what’s on my heart will change me. I hopefully won’t base my inner peace on my outward circumstances.
In my mind, the practical advice Keller gave on meditation – to ponder & thoroughly question — God’s word became the best part of this book. He said meditation will stimulate our analytical minds to reflect on the glory and grace of God (150). While reading scripture, he said to take note of a part we wish to reflect on and move from meditating on a part of God’s word to talking with Him. Because God speaks and acts through His word, we can use Scripture to speak to Him and in turn begin to know God better.
Keller gave four changes he made in his own prayer life that sound like a great jumping off point: A. Read through the Psalms, summarizing and praying through each one. B. Add a transitional time of meditation between Bible reading and prayer time. C. Pray in the morning and evening. D. Pray “with greater expectation” (17). From past to present, Keller said the Psalms were the greatest source for learning about prayer. He worked through the Psalms twice a year at least, summarizing, meditating, and praying through them. He turned to the very first Psalm to show what the Bible said about the importance of meditating on God’s Word.
In Psalm 1, the blessed man “delighted” and “meditated on the law of the Lord,” and the Psalmist said:
“He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.“Psalm 1:3
Meditating on the verses we read “is likened to roots taking in water” and growing down deep, keeping us firmly grounded in doctrine and truth (150).
Keller gave several ways for how to meditate on a text:
A. Memorizing verses was one of the best ways. He said the words committed to memory will come back when we most need them.
B. Read a passage of scripture slowly and then answer, “What does this teach me about…?”
- God and His character
- Human nature, character, and behavior
- Christ and His salvation
- The church or life in the people of God (153)
C. Or read a passage and answer “Are there any…:
- Personal examples to emulate or avoid
- Commands to obey,
- Promises to claim,
- Warnings to heed.
D. Read a crucial verse, close your Bible, and try to restate it. Then open your Bible and see how much you missed. “Putting it in your own words – your own heart and language – will send it down into your inner being more easily,” Keller said (157).
E. Do a word-by-word deep mining expedition of a verse of Scripture. Keller said to “ask what each word uniquely contributes to the meaning of the text, or what meaning would be lost from the statement if that particular word were removed” (156).
Keller said reading and meditating on God’s word is how we truly hear God. If I ever feel like I have nothing to say, I will go to Scripture. I can’t say I don’t hear God – unless I’m not reading my Bible. I can’t blame God if I think He’s silent when I don’t do my part by reading my Bible and going to Him in prayer.
One of the writers Keller studied was one of my favorite Southern storytellers, Flannery O’Connor. She found that “prayer leads to a self-knowledge that is impossible to achieve any other way” (12). Keller said a few pages later: “Prayer is the only entryway into genuine self-knowledge. It is also the main way we experience deep change – the reordering of our loves” (18). Prayer is the only way we can see ourselves and become our true selves. I’m glad I came back to this book. I found ways to have a better prayer life, but also become a better Bible student.
To read some of the many great quotes from this book, go to: https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/40236354-prayer-experiencing-awe-and-intimacy-with-god.
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