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.