Category Archives: prayer

Book Review: Prayer

Keller Prayer

Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God. Timothy Keller, New York: Dutton, 2014. Hardcover, 336 pages, $31.00.

There is a disturbing phenomenon we’ve seen in the last few years. It involves celebrity pastors and their fans. It seems these pastors can teach, write and do anything they want and their fans (let’s call them “fanboys”) will defend them come what may. Certainly Tim Keller is a celebrity pastor with a “fanboy” following as well – there are some for whom the man can do no wrong. This is a dangerous way to regard sinful and fallible fellow human beings. However, one can also react wrongly in a different direction. Seeing a few significant problems with a popular writer, one might be inclined to write off everything he says. It’s true that some “Christian” celebrities are so far gone that they should be written off – they are false teachers with a false gospel and believers need to be warned to stay clear, lest they be deceived and led astray. However, I am not convinced that Tim Keller falls into that category. Keller does have significant problems in some areas – I’m thinking especially of his openness to theistic evolution and his approach to apologetics – but he has also made helpful contributions in other areas.

This book on prayer is the best Keller book I’ve read so far. Prayer is a very easy thing to talk about (“I’ll pray for you”), but an incredibly challenging thing to practice, particularly to practice biblically. Keller breaks down the topic in an easily understandable fashion. Undoubtedly one of his greatest strengths is a clear writing style and Prayer fully capitalizes on that strength.

Keller wrote this book to help people understand and practice Christian prayer. His aim was to explain the theological, experiential, and methodological aspects of prayer and, for the most part, he succeeds. He draws from the Scriptures and especially from the Lord’s Prayer and the Psalms (“the prayer book of the Bible”). However, he also builds on what previous generations have taught on prayer. This book is notable for its extensive use of Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Owen. Keller persuasively shows how these godly men of the past can still teach us today a lot about “experiencing awe and intimacy with God.”

I especially appreciated Keller’s emphasis on prayer as a response to God. In fact, he defines prayer as “personal communicative response to the knowledge of God” (45). Christians should listen to God speaking in his Word and then prayer is the appropriate response. One’s devotional life is therefore a two-way street. Though Keller himself doesn’t say this, I would compare it to the covenantal dialogue we experience in public worship: God speaks through his Word and his people respond. It’s the same with our private worship or devotions – it should have a conversational nature reflecting the relationship between you and your God.

One of the most remarkable aspects of this book is Keller’s critique of contemplative spirituality and mystical prayer practices. He is rather vocal in criticizing those who would teach that prayer involves emptying the mind and escaping rationality. So, for example, he spends several paragraphs explaining how Roman Catholic author Thomas Merton contradicts biblical teaching on prayer (see pages 56-59). Practices like mantras, centering prayer, the Jesus prayer, and lectio divina are all censured to varying degrees by Keller. That does leave one a bit baffled, however, by the fact that the church that Keller pastors, Redeemer PCA in New York City, promotes lectio divina on its website. In the past, Redeemer has also offered classes in some of the practices that Keller warns readers about in this book.

Somewhat related to the foregoing, I also want to express some concern about a quote from Martin Luther. Luther wrote a little booklet entitled “A Simple Way to Pray” and Keller makes extensive use of it. Near the end of chapter 6, he mentions that Luther taught that one should always be alert and ready to hear the preaching of the Holy Spirit within. While in prayer, a believer can suddenly be overcome by good and edifying thoughts and then he or she should sit still and listen. Says Luther, “The Holy Spirit himself preaches here, and one word of his sermon is better than a thousand of our prayers. Many times I have learned more from one prayer than I might have learned from much reading and speculation.” This is one of the most abused quotes of Luther. Authors like Sarah Young (in Jesus Calling) appeal to this quote to justify their belief that God has spoken directly to them. Luther was often given to very expressive and over-the-top language and I doubt that he wished to provide support to the modern-day descendants of those Anabaptists who claimed to receive direct revelation from God. Instead, Luther’s intent was to remind Christians of how we may sometimes receive illumination from the Spirit – he can sometimes enlighten our hearts and bring us to breakthroughs in our understanding of spiritual truths found in God’s Word. I’m convinced Keller knows this too: “Luther is talking about the eyes of our hearts being enlightened (Eph. 1:18) so that things we know with the mind become more fully rooted in our beings’ core” (96). Yet, because this quote is so easily misunderstood with its use of the word “preach,” I wish that Keller had explained more clearly that this is not speaking of extra-biblical revelation and gives no support to those, like Sarah Young, who claim that the Lord spoke to them in their quiet time.

This volume will answer a lot of the common questions that believers have about prayer. For instance, there is a solid biblical answer for the oft-discussed question of whether we have the freedom to pray to our Lord Jesus or to the Holy Spirit (see pages 125-126).  Another question: does prayer change things? If so, how does that relate to God’s sovereignty? (see pages 223-225). Unfortunately, there are other questions that are left unanswered. I would have liked to see some discussion of the mechanics of corporate prayer. How exactly do we pray together in a group, such as in public worship? This is not often given much thought.

Keller’s book on prayer is both readable and practical. Readers will come away with a good grasp of how to improve this aspect of their personal devotions so that they grow in their relationship with God through our Saviour Jesus. Remarkably, I found this book at my local Chapters bookstore – not at a Christian outlet. Though I’m still not a big fan of the author, I’m thankful that Keller’s celebrity status helps books like this get out to a wider audience and I do hope that it will bless many readers with a better and more biblical understanding of this vitally important topic.


Tim Keller on Prayer Directly to Jesus

Tim Keller

Regular readers of this blog know that I am not a Tim Keller “fanboy.”  He has his devotees — those for whom the man can say and do no wrong.  I have been critical about Keller’s approach to apologetics and his views on creation, especially his openness to theistic evolution.  However, I recognize that Keller is helpful in some areas.  I recently started reading his book, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God.  I’m about half-way through and, so far, I am impressed.  As an example, in chapter 9, he deals with the question:  “Are we to pray only to the Father and not to the Son or to the Spirit?”  Here’s his answer:

Jesus invites his disciples to pray to him (John 14:13-14, Matt. 11:28).  Nevertheless, Jesus also taught his disciples to pray to our Father, and while we are not bound to the exact words of the Lord’s Prayer, that initial direction must be taken seriously.  Only three times after Jesus’ ascension — in the rest of the New Testament — is prayer addressed directly to Jesus.  In the vast majority of cases, prayer is addressed to the Father.  While it is not at all improper to address the Son or the Spirit, ordinarily prayer will be addressed to the Father with gratitude to the Son and dependence on the Spirit.  Packer uses an interesting rule of thumb.  “I pray to the Father through the mediation of the Son and the enabling of the Holy Spirit.  I may speak also to the Son and the Spirit directly when this is appropriate: that is, when I am praying about something that Scripture specified as the direct concern of either.” (125-126)

In other words, our normal practice will be to pray to God as Father, but we have the freedom to address each of the persons of the Trinity as well.  To forbid such a thing goes beyond what Scripture teaches.  I fully agree — you can read more here.


Outward Looking Church: Current Craze or Christ’s Commission? (5)

Revised from a presentation for the Spring Office Bearers Conference held March 22, 2014 in Burlington, ON.  See here for part 1here for part 2here for part 3 and here for part 4.

Some Possible Objections and Concerns

Someone might be thinking, “In our church communities, we’re already so busy.  It sounds like you’re pushing more busyness.  That’s the last thing we need.”  To be clear, I am not saying that Scripture and our Confessions are calling us to be busy with more programs or projects.  For many of us, we are already too busy.  There’s something to the warning attributed to Corrie ten Boom:  “Beware of the barrenness of a busy life.”  This is not about adding extra activities to our church agenda.  Being an outward looking church is first and foremost a matter of attitude, perspective, or vision.  How do we look at the world around us?  Do we look at it with fear and suspicion or with godly compassion?  How do we view the church’s calling to the community?  Do we even think about it?  Even reflecting on and discussing these types of questions is a step in the right direction.

While that outward oriented attitude doesn’t necessarily lead to more programs clogging up our weekly agenda, it will affect the way we do many things in the church.  One example would be the church website.  Is it designed with an outward looking perspective or does it communicate a ghetto mentality, i.e. this website is for a select few?  Another example would be hospitality.  There is a Reformed church in our area that exemplifies biblical hospitality.  When you visit there, they take notice of you right away and they seek you out and welcome you.  They make sure that you’ve found everything you need, including the nursery, a church bulletin, a song book, etc.  Our family was visiting there a while back and for some reason we had to leave right away afterwards.  People from the church literally chased us down in the parking lot and invited us to come back in and join them from coffee and refreshments.  Having a friendly eye for visitors on Sunday definitely indicates an outward looking church.

Now if a church wants to add a program to enhance its outreach, there can’t be any objection to that.  All I’m saying is that the teaching of Scripture and our confessions does not necessarily compel us to add new projects and programs.  It compels to us to adjust our perspective and consider how that re-formed perspective might impact what we already do as a church.

Another person might be thinking, “We need to take care of the people inside the church first before we can start thinking about looking outward.  Our first priority needs to be our brothers and sisters already in the church.  This will distract us from our first priority.”  It sounds rather noble, perhaps even biblical.  But there is a dilemma being created here where there need not be one.  This dilemma was one of the false dilemmas addressed by Rev. Van Dooren over thirty years ago.  Where an outward looking church originates is a heart for people in general.  This is about engendering love for those around us, love which expresses itself in empathy, compassion, and respect.  When a believer recognizes this as the teaching of Scripture, it affects how you deal with everybody, both outside and inside the church.  You’re going to have a heart, not only for your lost coworker, but also for your hurting sister two pews in front of you.

There are people like this in our churches already.  In one of our neighbouring churches in Hamilton, there is a widow in her 70s who has a fantastic reputation for this.  She has the big heart of our Saviour for her neighbours.  She’s not afraid of the unbelievers around her.  She gets to know them by delivering papers and striking up little conversations along the way.  She finds out where they’re hurting and tries to show love in word and deed.  At appropriate moments, she shares the gospel with them.  But none of that comes at the expense of the communion of saints.  Within the church, she does the same thing.  When someone in the church needs a meal or some babysitting, she’s right there to offer.  She shows the love of Christ and gives a helping hand or a listening ear, whatever is needed.  In Acts we meet the believer named Dorcas, “she was full of good works and charity.”  This woman in Hamilton is a modern-day Dorcas, outward looking, full of love for the lost, but also for her brothers and sisters.  There’s no dilemma because that kind of heart is the heart of our Saviour.  Taking the instruction of Scripture seriously will mean that we’re not only empathetic, compassionate, and respectful to the lost, but also to our brothers and sisters in the church.  Aren’t we fond of saying that life is one?  This is another reason why being a healthy church is inextricably connected with being an outward looking church.  If the love of our Saviour is not there for outsiders, it won’t really be there in any meaningful way for insiders either.  Healthy churches increasingly reflect the love of our Saviour.

A lot more could be said, but I’ll end here and turn to my conclusion.

Conclusion

There is a profound irony in the history of our churches.  At the very beginning, there was a question of what our churches would be called.  The name “Canadian Reformed Churches” was eventually chosen because we wanted to be churches for Canada and for Canadians.  It’s fair to argue that we’re called “Canadian Reformed” because we wanted to be outward looking from the beginning.  How ironic it is that in our communities our churches have often been known as “the Dutch church” or “a Dutch church”!  It’s understandable in some sense, because our history is tied up with Dutch immigration and then this characterization becomes unavoidable.  But this sometimes goes further and there is, at least in some places with some people, a perception that our church communities are virtually impenetrable Dutch ghettoes.  There’s nothing wrong with having a Dutch heritage – that’s who we are, we can’t deny it and don’t need to.  Rather, it’s that perception of being impenetrable ghettoes that we want to work at addressing, especially when that perception is held among ourselves and considered to be a good thing.  This is changing in some places and has been for a while already.  There are Canadian Reformed churches where the church directory reveals a remarkable diversity of ethnic backgrounds.  However, there is always room for growth.  So the question I want to end with is:  if Scripture and our confessions lead us in this direction, how do we guide our churches to be more outward looking?

This is a question of leadership.  The calling of church leadership is to provide direction, to think big picture, to have an idea of what the church is and where and how it needs to be growing.  In our personal spiritual growth, we should never be satisfied with the status quo.  There is never a point in this age where we can say that we have arrived at the full measure of maturity in Christ.  We believe that sanctification is a process.  What is true for us as individual Christians is also true for us as the body of Christ in this age.  We have not arrived.  There is always a direction that we need to be moving in.  If we are not growing in Christ, then we are backsliding.  There is no neutral place where you’re simply stagnant or static.  The church is always going in one direction or another.  The calling of office bearers is to lead the church in the direction indicated in God’s Word.

But how?  That really is another topic altogether.  Let me suggest that it begins with being intentional.  If we’re convinced that Scripture and our confessions lead us in this direction, then perhaps our office bearers need to lay that out in some form and thereby lead our congregations in that direction.  What form might that take?   I would suggest that a vision or a vision statement might be helpful.  While the idea is new to our churches, our schools and other organizations have effectively made use of this concept for some time already.  Mission boards also typically work with this idea – why not churches?  Without some intentionality about this, it’s easy to hear it once or occasionally, and then forget about it.  It then no longer factors into our discussions around the table about all kinds of issues.  Having some intentionality and having that explicitly expressed in the form of a vision statement has the potential to keep this aspect of the church’s purpose before us at all times.

Another important aspect is prayer.  Here too, the church must lead from the front.  Our pastors need to remember to pray for the lost.  We have to plead not only for their salvation, but also that our hearts would break for them in view of the eternity that awaits them if they do not repent and believe.  Many of our members have family members who are lost – pray for them.  Many of our members work with people or live next to people who are lost – pray for them.  Pray also for opportunities to share the gospel with these lost folks God has providentially placed in our lives.  We should also pray for God to give us more lost people that we can care about and share the gospel with.  If this is regularly made a matter of public prayer in the church, then we might reasonably expect a trickle-down effect into the family and private prayers of our people.  All these prayers will shape an outward looking church.

Unfortunately, we’ve only scratched the surface of this topic.  I haven’t addressed every angle with you.  Yet I hope my goal has been attained and you’ve either been convinced of or reaffirmed in a conviction that the very nature of the church is outward looking.  I’ll let Rev. Van Dooren have the last word.  He wrote of the necessity of the church of Christ being an “open church.”  That was his way of saying “outward looking.”  This is part of what he said about that and it bears repeating all these years later:

By the expression ‘an open Church’ we do not only stress that, according to her nature, the Church of Jesus Christ welcomes everyone who desires to join her in true faith but also that she looks around, opens her arms, ‘goes out’ to bring in the lost.  In one word, the Church bears the image of her Saviour, Jesus Christ.   (Get Out, 9)


Even the Arians Prayed to Christ

I’ve been brushing up on my knowledge of early church history with the help of Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition.  In chapter 4, he tackles the Arian controversy.  As is well-known, the Arians denied the divinity of Christ.  They maintained that he was merely a creature and therefore subordinate to the Father.  Interestingly, the Arians failed to carry through with the logical consequences of their view.  Together with the orthodox in the church, they continued to pray to Christ.  Says Pelikan, “The Arians found prayer to the Logos an unavoidable element of Christian worship” (Pelikan, 199).  The Arians continued to worship Christ, even praying to him, all the while arguing that he was less than God.  There was an inconsistency between their dogmatic principle and liturgical practice.  However, Pelikan also notes that some of the Arians may have revised the Gloria Patri in an effort to be more consistent.  The orthodox form of the Gloria Patria, “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit…”  The Arian revision read, “Glory be to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit…”


Pray with an Eye on our Father and His Love (Lord’s Day 46 Sermon Excerpt)

This is an excerpt from last Sunday afternoon’s sermon at the Providence Canadian Reformed Church.  The catechism lesson was Lord’s Day 46 of the Heidelberg Catechism:

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Having God as our Father is a basic Christian teaching.  We have a Father in heaven, because we have a Saviour who came to earth.  We have a Saviour who reconciled us to our Maker, and because of that reconciliation, we are in a relationship of fellowship with God.  That relationship is described in terms of a Father and his children.  God is our Father, and we are his children.  It’s a beautiful gospel reality.

Our Master teaches us to open our prayers with an eye on God as “our Father.”  Right away, we need to be clear about what that means.  There are those who say that Jesus is referring to the Father as one of the persons of the Trinity.  They say that we are then to pray only to the Father as that person of the Trinity.  The conclusion is that Jesus is teaching us only to pray to the Father, as distinct from the Son and from the Holy Spirit.  However, brothers and sisters, there is another way of looking at this, and it is a better way.

When Jesus said, “Our Father in heaven,” he was not introducing something new to Jewish ears.  In the Old Testament, the word “Father” is found several times in reference to God.  When it’s found in the Old Testament, the word “Father” refers to Yahweh.  The word refers to God in himself, not as the person of the Father distinguished from the Son and the Holy Spirit.  A good example of this is in Malachi 1:6.  God is rebuking his people there.  He says, “A son honours his father, and a servant his master.  If then I am a father, where is my honour?…”  God is a Father to his people.  There, the word “Father” is being used in connection with Yahweh’s relationship to his people, not to the relationship between the persons of the Trinity.  This is the pattern of the Old Testament usage of the word “Father” for God.  It refers to Yahweh.

Our Master continues in that pattern with the Lord’s Prayer.  Jesus is not speaking about God the Father as distinct from the Spirit and the Son, but God our Father as distinct from the creatures who call upon him.  This is not a reference to the Trinity, but to God as One.  Therefore, we cannot conclude that our Master is teaching us to address one particular person of the Trinity to the exclusion of the others.  That’s not in the picture here at all.  This is confirmed by other prayers that we see in the New Testament.  For example, when Stephen was being martyred in Acts 7, he prayed to Jesus, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”  Paul uses the prayer, “Maranatha, come Lord Jesus” and other examples could be added.  We have the freedom to do likewise.

With the opening of the Lord’s Prayer, Christ is simply teaching us to look up to Yahweh as our Father and call upon him with an attitude of childlike reverence and trust.  We need to trust that our God loves us and will take care of our needs.  This is laid out beautifully in Matthew 7, further in the Sermon on the Mount.  There too, Christ is speaking about our Father in heaven, Yahweh, as he relates to his children.  Jesus makes a comparison between earthly fathers and our heavenly Father.  Earthly fathers will normally take care of their children and provide for their needs.  A child who asks for bread is not going to get a stone from his dad.  Or even worse, if a child asks for some fish, his father is not going to throw him a cobra.  People are evil and yet they still give good things to their children.  But then there is God.  He is perfectly good.  So, what would make you think that he wouldn’t give good gifts to those who ask him?  So, the conclusion:  ask your Father in heaven for good things, and because he loves you, expect that he will follow through and provide you with what you need.  We have a Father in heaven who loves us and it’s to him that we need to pray expectantly.

But that’s a lot easier to say than to do, isn’t it?  Trials and difficulties can easily muddy this teaching in our minds and even make it sound glib.  For example, one of the hardest things in life is to lose a baby.  My wife and I have gone through that and many of you have too.  You have hopes and dreams for that baby in your womb and then the Lord decides otherwise.  It’s hard to take.  Glenda Mathes is a sister from the United Reformed Churches and she has a helpful book on early infant loss.  It’s called Little One Lost.  I highly recommend it.  In the book she tells the story of Brad and Stephanie.  They were pregnant with their second child.  Caleb would be only fifteen months younger than their firstborn Joshua.  They had dreams of the two boys playing together and they planned to homeschool both.  Stephanie had an induction scheduled, and the day before they did an ultrasound and everything looked normal.  The next day they came in for the induction and there was no heartbeat.  They were devastated.  Later a medical examination revealed that there was no discernible reason why Caleb died before he was born.  Brad and Stephanie struggled with that.  “We had prayed for a healthy baby,” they said, “why had God chosen to answer us with a dead baby?”

That’s a tough question to answer.  In Matthew 7, Jesus says, “your Father in heaven will give good things to those who ask him.”  The Catechism paraphrases that in QA 120.  Isn’t a healthy baby a good thing?  Why would God withhold that from Brad and Stephanie or from any of us who have gone through this?  It’s easy to understand why tragedies like that would make you question our Father’s love.  Stephanie did that.  She says that, after losing Caleb, she questioned God and found prayer and Bible reading to be extremely hard.

Yet, in time, Brad and Stephanie came to peace with what God had done with Caleb.  Through this tragedy, they came to closer fellowship with the believers in their church.  Their brothers and sisters surrounded them with love and encouragement.  They came to see that their little baby boy was spared the heartbreak of sin.  Because of the covenant God has with believers and their children, Caleb is enjoying perfect blessedness.  Stephanie says, “There is peace in knowing that Caleb is safe, that God is taking infinitely better care of him than I ever could.  Though we never knew our baby, it is assuring to know that he was and is known by God.”  In time, this couple came to see that what happened was not inconsistent with what we confess about the love of our heavenly Father.  He does know what is best for each of us at any given moment.  It’s sometimes difficult to acknowledge that, but yet this is what the Scriptures teach.

One of the keywords in QA 120 is “childlike.”  When it comes to prayer, we have to be like children, because we are, well….like children.  We are not the equal of our Father, nor are we anywhere close.  We don’t have the understanding of our Father.  We don’t have the comprehensive knowledge of our Father.  We don’t have his wisdom.  We are finite, he is infinite in every way.  Really, we are like little children before him.  He has the full picture and full plan of our lives in his mind.  He knows everything from its beginning to its end, and we know very, very little. We have ideas about what is good for us, but they don’t always line up with what he knows for certain to be good for us.

Loved ones, we need to trust what Scripture says about our Father.  We need to believe his promise that because of Christ, he loves us and will provide what we truly need.  If we struggle with that, we can and should pray about that too.  We can pray and be honest with God and say, “I’m having a hard time believing that you love me because of all these trials – please help me to trust your Word.”  Even that would be an expression of childlike reverence and trust, the kind of thing taught to us by our Master.