Timothy Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God. Dutton, 2014. 321 pp. $26.95
“Writing a book in your 50s will go twice as fast and be twice as good as if you try the same book in your 30s. It’s just good stewardship to wait.”
That was Tim Keller’s advice to pastors who desire to write. And he would know, since by my count, Keller has written nine books in the last two and half years. Talk about prolific writing!
Keller’s latest work is simply entitled Prayer. As he explains in the introduction, his aim is to combine the theological, experiential, and methodological in one book (1). He wants to drive home that prayer “is both conversation and encounter with God” (5).
We must know the awe of praising his glory, the intimacy of finding his grace, and the struggle of asking his help, all of which can lead us to know the spiritual reality of his presence. Prayer, then, is both awe and intimacy, struggle and reality. These will not happen every time we pray, but each should be a major component of our prayer over the course of our lives. (5)
Keller begins by acknowledging that he “discovered” prayer in the second half of his life with a series of moments: his teaching through the Psalms, the events of 9/11 (his wife implored him to pray together every night), and after his treatment for thyroid cancer (9ff.). This book, then, is the fruit of what he learned and what over the years, in both reading and in practice, he has discovered. Rather than giving a thorough review of this work, I will simply offer a couple of points that landed powerfully on me.
Warmth and Light
Keller repeatedly emphasizes the need for both sound doctrine and vibrant devotion—or what John Murray called “an intelligent mysticism” that steers clear of cold assent to truth on the one hand and passion devoid of truth on the other. Keller writes,
That means an encounter with God that involves not only the affections of the heart but also the convictions of the mind. We are not called to choose between a Christian life based on truth and doctrine or a life filled with spiritual power and experience. They go together. I was not being called to leave behind my theology and launch for ‘something more,’ for experience. Rather, I was meant to ask the Holy Spirit to help me experience my theology. (17)
Prayer, according to Keller, is a way to experience one’s theology. Using the thought of John Owen, Keller writes that “we must be able to existentially access our doctrinal convictions. If doctrinal soundness is not accompanied by heart experience, it will lead eventually to nominal Christianity … and eventually to nonbelief” (180). Of course, there is also a danger in other direction where affections “outrun” light. Despite this caution, both Owen and Keller agree that it is better to have more light than truth. I was surprised by this point and suspicious at first.
If we are going to be imbalanced, better that we be doctrinally weak and have a vital prayer life and real sense of God on the heart than that we get all our doctrine straight and be cold and spiritually hard. (182)
Perhaps it was the inner Pharisee in me or the instinctive Protestant rejection of my childhood Roman Catholicism, but I squirmed at this notion, especially when Keller encourages us to read “the medieval mystics with appreciation but also plenty of caution” (184). But after reflection, I came to understand what he is saying. He quotes Carl Trueman: “If the theology [of the medieval mystics] often leaves much to be desired, it would seem that the answer is not to reject the ambition of the mystics but to combine this ambition with appropriate theology” (184).
Augustine, Luther, and Calvin
After constructing a theology of prayer in the first five chapters, Keller tackles the more practical components of prayer. For this he enlists three seminal figures—three “master teachers of prayer” (108). In chapter 6 he looks at the the letters of Augustine and Martin Luther on prayer and in chapter 7 he highlights Calvin’s 5 rules for prayer. These two chapters distill a treasure trove of historical wisdom regarding the practice of prayer. But perhaps most illuminating is chapter 8 wherein Keller focuses on each line of the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9-13. Like before, he incorporates insights from all three theologians. I will highlight one insight.
Calvin, in his concluding remarks on the Lord’s Prayer, notes that the prayer as a whole was given to us in the plural form—“Us.” As such, “the prayers of Christians ought to be public … to the advancement of the believer’s fellowship” (118). According to Michael Horton, Calvin believed “public ministry shapes private devotion, not vice versa” (118). Keller underscores this well:
Prayer is … not a strictly private thing. As much as we can, we should pray with others both formally in gathered worship and informally….
C. S. Lewis argues that it takes a community of people to get to know an individual person. Reflecting on his own friendships, he observed that some aspects of one of his friend’s personality were brought out only through interaction with a second friend. That meant if he lost the second friend, he lost the part of his first friend that was otherwise invisible. ‘By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets.’
If it takes a community to know an ordinary human being, how much more necessary would it be to get to know Jesus alongside others? By praying with friends, you will be able to hear and see facets of Jesus that you have not yet perceived…. Knowing the Lord is communal and cumulative, we must pray and praise together. (118-119)
This is a timely word in our individualistic age. Private prayers are to be shaped by the corporate worship of God’s people. Each Lord’s Day as we gather with the church, we are learning how better to seek the Lord in secret.
It is a disservice to leave the review here. Keller’s discussion on the “touchstones of prayer” (ch. 9) merit more attention. His final section on “doing prayer” (chs. 12-14) are chock-full of wisdom. His concluding chapter on daily prayer provides some helpful and varied patterns of prayer that all readers can incorporate into their lives.
Even his endnotes deserve mention. In almost all cases I prefer footnotes over endnotes, yet in this work I appreciated how the endnotes allowed for an uncluttered and undistracted reading. But I made it a point to read all 386 of the endnotes afterward and I learned several things: (1) Keller has thought about prayer for many, many years (hence there’s wisdom when he says to wait until your 50s to write books); (2) Keller has done extensive, eclectic reading on the topic of prayer and has gained wisdom from many streams; and (3) Keller is extremely thorough in his presentation without being cumbersome (some endnotes can be articles unto themselves).
I devoured this book in a matter of days. It is the kind of book that invites multiple re-readings since we never master prayer. Keller showed me how cold I often am before the Lord (seen in an impoverished and anemic prayer life), but he also pastorally pointed to a better way to truly experience “awe and intimacy” with God. Frequently I was compelled to close the book, apply its rich truths, and seek the Lord in secret—and with God’s people. If it has the same effect on others, I think Keller—and the Lord—will be pleased.
In accordance with FTC regulations, I would like to thank Dutton for providing me with a review copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review.