This past summer, my husband and I wanted to teach one of our youngest sons, age 6, to ride his bike. His twin brother, Colin, had already mastered the skill and was nearly keeping up with his older brother. But despite our cajoling—“It’s fun to ride a bike!”—Andrew could not see the merit of potentially skinning his knees, and our attempts ended in vain tears. (You can guess whose.)
Then suddenly, in early August our little boy outgrew his fears. Nearly instantaneously, the mechanics of balancing, steering, and simultaneously pedaling became almost easy. The fears and tears dissolved, and Andrew forgot that riding a bike had ever been hard.
When it comes to prayer, most of us feel clumsy. We don’t recall someone running alongside us, shouting instructions as we learned. Instead, most of us found our balance by a hodge-podge of imitation and experimentation. Once we’ve learned to ride a bike, we can be sure we’re doing it right. Can anything remotely similar be said about prayer?
In his new book, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (Dutton Adult), Timothy Keller, founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, invites readers to systematically learn to pray. Although he claims there are both right and wrong ways to pray, Keller admits that he, like us, has struggled with prayer. In fact, it wasn’t until midlife—after the catastrophic events of 9/11 and family health crises—that he found his bearings.
“I was barely scratching the surface of what the Bible commanded and promised regarding prayer,” Keller said. So he began to make changes to his prayer habits. He added to his established devotional regimen evening prayer as well as the practice of meditation. He imitated the holy boldness of the Psalms, praying with greater expectation. Finally, he dedicated himself to studying prayer and the writings of long-dead theologians (Augustine, Martin Luther, John Owen, and John Calvin, to name a few). In Prayer, Keller offers a comprehensive account of what he has learned about the theology, devotion, and practice of prayer. It should prove to be a helpful resource for generations to come.
Abiding the Tensions
Prayer is theologically lucid and nuanced, as those familiar with Keller will expect. Some will reject his apprehension about medieval mysticism, and others will lament his neglect of the more supernatural elements of prayer, in terms of both miraculous experience and effect. Nevertheless, it’s clear that Keller has deftly addressed what seem to be the inherent contradictions of prayer. In keeping with his customary approach to theological matters, he repudiates the simplicity of either/or answers, favoring instead the mystery of both/and propositions.
As one example, Keller explains that prayer is a means for knowing both God and ourselves. Though effective praying requires immersion in the Scriptures (“We know how we should be praying only by getting our vocabulary from the Bible”), prayer is also “the only entry way into genuine self-knowledge.” Keller doesn’t indulge navel-gazing in prayer, but he does insist that communing with God reveals much about us.
As another example, Keller asserts that prayer depends on both grace and effort. “There is every indication in the Bible,” he writes, “that we should be striving to pray rightly.” We must learn about God from the Scriptures and tether ourselves to that revelation as we pray, for apart from immersion in God’s words, “we may be responding not to the real God but to what we wish God and life to be like.”
While we should try to pray “rightly,” Keller gently reminds us, there are no perfect prayers or perfect pray-ers. “All prayer is impure,” he says, corrupted by our ignorance and willful sin. We should try and yet can fail at prayer—an encouraging piece of news, when we remember that grace is there to sustain us.
As a final example, Keller urges us to pray with both boldness and surrender. Desire, he writes, should take its rightful place in prayer. This is certainly the model we have in Scripture, and desire often guides us in understanding our obligations to God. But even as we submit our petitions, we must accept the wisdom of God’s will. “In short, God will either give us what we ask or give us what we would have asked if we knew everything he knew.” In Keller’s vision of prayer, we have every right to ask audaciously—and every reason to trust.
Throughout the book, Keller abides the tensions of prayer. He allows for both God’s sovereignty and our participation, asking us to engage both mind and heart. Maintaining these kinds of paradoxes will infuriate readers looking for mechanical formulas, but it will liberate those willing to participate in mysteries they do not understand.
Wanting to Pray
Perhaps a book on prayer is best judged by the extent to which it animates our desire to pray. Keller’s book is not overly anecdotal, and more could have been shared about his experience with prayer as a husband, father, and pastor. Nevertheless, as the chapters move from theology to practice, he coaxes readers toward the dependence and intimacy of prayer. Only as we pray, writes Keller, do we “experience a powerful confidence that God is handling our lives well, that our bad things will turn out for good, our good things cannot be taken from us, and the best things are yet to come.” As those promises seem nearly irresistible, readers will find themselves wanting to pray—and having a better grasp of how.
Keller also forces us to count the cost of our prayerlessness. “A minister may fill his pews,” Keller writes, quoting Puritan theologian Owen, “but what that minister is on his knees in secret before God Almighty, that he is and no more.” Prayer, like no other spiritual discipline, reveals the extent to which we trust and revere God. It’s far more than mere rudeness to fail to “address your Maker, Sustainer, Redeemer, to whom you owe your every breath,” Keller soberly reminds every too-busy-to-pray reader.
In the book’s annotated bibliography, Keller shares a helpful list of recommended resources, one of which is Calvin’s Institutes (Book 3, Chapter 20). “Calvin,” he writes, “is both theological and practical, and as usual very comprehensive. This is a rarity—deep theology with a spiritually elevated tone and savor that makes the reader want to pray.”
One could very well praise Prayer in much the same way. Keller’s robust theological understanding helps readers find their balance in prayer; his practical, devotional wisdom gives them confidence to pedal. But even more, his words inspire the desire to take to the road—despite all the hard work that entails.
As Keller concedes, “[Sometimes] you won’t feel that you’re making any progress at all, [and fellowship with God] may be fitful and episodic.” But when your prayers are lifted toward a God of grace, at just the unexpected moment, you find that you know how to pedal, and that you are headed toward home.
Jen Pollock Michel is the author of Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition and the Life of Faith (InterVarsity Press).
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.