Bible study · Book review · Christian Living · Christianity · Nonfiction · Uncategorized

Prayer and Intimacy with God

Christian author and pastor Dr. Timothy J. Keller died today after a three-year struggle with pancreatic cancer. I thought back to his valuable book on prayer, a well-researched, well-thought-out answer to so many questions I had about the topic. Dr. Keller told his family two days before he passed,

“I’m thankful for all the people who’ve prayed for me over the years. I’m thankful for my family, that loves me. I’m thankful for the time God has given me, but I’m ready to see Jesus. I can’t wait to see Jesus. Send me home.”

Today on Instagram, his family said Dr. Keller waited until he was alone with his wife and took his last breath. He told them, “There is no downside for me leaving, not in the slightest.” As sad as I am that he has died, I know that he has seen Jesus face to face. He’s cancer free.

I thought today that I’d go back to this review on his book, “Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God.” I had said “this is not a light read.” It’s a scholarly read, for sure. I tackled this tome by reading one chapter a day and took notes. (I recommend loose-leaf paper and clipboard. I used to write in spirals, but I amassed too many.) Each chapter is long, so sometimes I read part of a chapter one day and finished the second half the next day.

Each time I started into a chapter, I entered a lecture hall where Dr. Keller shared all 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. Dr. Keller’s notes in the back of the book correspond by number in the text for those who want to dig deeper.

When Dr. Keller began his pursuit to better understand prayer, he said he didn’t turn to contemporary books. He researched historical texts from Christian theology he’d studied in graduate school. He focused on how to know and experience God through prayer from Thomas Cranmer (Common Book of Prayer) to St. Augustine’s “Confessions,” Martin Luther’s letters on prayer, and John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.”

While reading, I take notes. I like to summarize chapters and write down quotes.

Dr. Keller described prayer as both conversation and encounter between believers and God. Prayer is a conversation God started (50), not us. God’s word is alive and active (Hebrews 4:12). His word is how He speaks to us. Dr. Keller said we don’t naturally seek God, rather 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.

Dr. 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. (Hebrews 7:25) Why do I ever worry about my imperfect prayers when I have Jesus and the Holy Spirit praying for me to Father God? 

Dr. 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,” Dr. Keller said.

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 is greater than my highs and greater than my lows.” Bringing God into what’s on my heart will change me with internal peace as a reward, despite any chaos in my outward circumstances.

In my mind, the practical advice Dr. 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.

Dr. 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, Dr. 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.” 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). Dr. 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…”

  1. God and His character
  2. Human nature, character, and behavior
  3. Christ and His salvation
  4. The church or life in the people of God (153)

C. Or read a passage and answer “Are there any…

  1. Personal examples to emulate or avoid
  2. Commands to obey,
  3. Promises to claim,
  4. 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” (157).

E. Do a word-by-word deep mining expedition of a verse of Scripture. “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).

Reading and meditating on scripture is important in the Christian life because God speaks to us through His word. We need to filter everything we hear as “coming from God” through scripture these days because sometimes what sounds right is dead wrong. Dr. Keller impressed on me this need to read my Bible. When no words come to mind in prayer, I can turn to the pages of my Bible. And 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 Dr. 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). He 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).

I loved this book and highly recommend it. 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:

To Dr. Keller’s friends and family, you have my deepest condolences. I will pray for you as you remember him and celebrate his life here and homecoming in Heaven.


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