Addressing fellow believers, J. C. Ryle once wrote, "If I know anything of a Christian's heart, you are often sick of your own prayers." The sickness is drearily familiar: You can't think of what to say. Or you tell God he's majestic, but then you recall that the Subaru needs an oil change. You promise God that you'll fight the good fight and doze off as you speak. You feel stagy and self-conscious at prayer. You try to confess your sins, but your shifty psyche won't come clean. (Both of these fine new books quote C. S. Lewis, who fought his dishonest prayers by beginning like this: "May it be the real I who speaks; may it be the real Thou that I speak to.")

A Heart for Prayer

J. I. Packer (a CT senior editor) and Carolyn Nystrom start us off with a character sketch of God. Knowledge of God's character makes him more real to us and makes us more aware of his presence. "God is personal, plural, perfect, powerful, purposeful, promise-keeping, paternal, and … praiseworthy."

To Packer and Nystrom, the key to healthy prayer is not technique. It's a pure heart that wants to please God. Much of this book focuses on the person who is praying. One lovely chapter is all about brooding over Scripture and about soliloquy in God's presence. You "plead with yourself," God as your witness. The authors write of praising God: Like all prayer, it's both a duty and a delight. They remind us that our prayers need periodic checkups, self-examinations that test for mixed motives and self-deception.

One chapter on asking admits our difficulty: We want to pray in accord with God's will, but God's will is complex. Still, say the authors, ask and give God reasons for your request. Affirm that if God has something different in mind for you, it will be better even if it doesn't look better. Other good chapters—"Complaining," "Hanging On," and "Joining In"—discuss our need to lament in prayer, to wait for God ("How long?"), and to pray inside the church.

Praying is an insightful and orderly study, clearly written and abounding in well-chosen quotes, including passages of Scripture. The authors raise questions about prayer and the Christian life, and then they answer them with remarkable assurance.

Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference?
by Philip Yancey
352 pages, $21.99

Praying: Finding Our Way Through Duty to Delight
by J. I. Packer and Carolyn Nystrom
InterVarsity Press
319 pages, $18.00

Less Buttoned-Down

Philip Yancey's Prayer has a less buttoned-down feel. Yancey writes more as a journalist, with a sharp eye for detail and an investigative unwillingness to force conclusions. Chapters are short, but brimming with juice. Stories abound. Part of the time, Yancey just wonders about prayer. And Yancey, a ct editor at large, is a mighty fine wonderer. Here are some vintage observations and wonderments:

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• What can we learn from the fact that Jesus prayed over the calling of his disciples and got Judas as one of the answers?
• Why would Jesus need to pray so much?
• The church's hymnbook is the Psalter, and some of its psalms are not only exultant, but also angry and whiny. What do we do with the raw prayers of the Bible—the ones that show so little serenity?
• Job is bitter and impatient, but he's the one God vindi- cates, not his polite, rational friends.
• Jesus taught his disciples that "your Father knows what you need before you ask him." He then taught his disciples to ask for the same things God knows we need.

One of the chief benefits of Philip Yancey's work is that he'll go where the evidence leads. What's the right way to pray? What's the right style of prayer? Yancey's reply: "Ask young parents what is the correct way for their toddlers to approach them, and you will probably get a puzzled look." In fact, Scripture tells of people who kneel to pray, who stand, sit down, lie flat, pray in poetry, pray in prose, and sing their prayers.

The sober truth is that, in the end, the human practice of prayer to God includes enormous variety and mystery. So Yancey's main recipe has only three ingredients: "Keep it honest, keep it simple, and keep it up."

And keep books like these on prayer coming.

Cornelius Plantinga Jr. is president of Calvin Theological Seminary.

Related Elsewhere:

Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference and Praying: Finding Our Way Through Duty to Delight can be purchased at and other retailers. also has a special shop on Yancey's books.

Zondervan's author page for Philip Yancey includes a list of his books and a link to his site.

An excerpt from Praying: Finding our Way Through Duty to Delight is available at InterVarsity, along with author pages for J.I. Packer and Carolyn Nystrom.

Cornelius Plantinga's most recent for Christianity Today is Dr. Willard's Diagnosis.

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