An excerpt from Timothy Keller’s “Prayer”

Updated

Introduction

Why Write a Book on Prayer?

Some years ago I realized that, as a pastor, I didn’t have a first book to give someone who wanted to understand and practice Christian prayer. This doesn’t  mean  there  aren’t  great  books  on  prayer. Many older works are immeasurably  wiser and more  penetrating than  any- thing I could possibly produce.  The best material on prayer has been written.

Yet many of these excellent books are written  in an archaic idiom inaccessible to most contemporary readers. In addition  they tend  to be primarily theological or devotional or practical, but seldom do they combine  the  theological,  experiential,  and methodological all under one cover.   A book  on the essentials of prayer should  treat  all three. Also, nearly all the classic books on prayer spend a fair amount  of time warning readers about  practices in their day that  were spiritually unhelpful or even damaging.  Such cautions must be updated  for readers living in each generation.

Two Kinds of Prayer?

Recent writers on prayer tend to have one of two views on the subject. Most now emphasize prayer as a means to experience God’s love and to know oneness with him. They promise a life of peace and of continual resting in God.  Such authors  often  give radiant  testimonies  of feeling regularly surrounded by the divine presence. Other  books, however, see the  essence of prayer not  as inward resting  but  as calling on  God  to bring in his kingdom.  Prayer is viewed as a wrestling match, often—or perhaps ordinarily—without a clear sense of God’s immediate presence. One  book  of this sort is The Still Hour,  by Austin Phelps.   He begins with the premise that a sense of the absence of God is the norm for the Christian at prayer, and that the experience of God’s presence is difficult for most people to find.

Another  book with the same approach is Donald  G. Bloesch’s The Struggle of Prayer. He criticizes what he calls “Christian  mysticism.”

He resists the teaching that prayer’s ultimate goal is personal communion with God.  He thinks this makes prayer a selfish “end  in itself.”

In  his view, the  highest  aim of prayer is not  peaceful reflection  but fervent supplication  for the  kingdom  of God  to come to fruition  in the world and in our own lives. The ultimate aim of prayer is “obedience to God’s will, not the contemplation of his being.” Prayer is not mainly for an inner state but for conformity to God’s purposes.

What accounts for these two views—what we could call “communion- centered” and  “kingdom-centered” prayer? One  explanation  is that they reflect people’s actual experience.  Some discover that  their  emotions are unresponsive  toward  God  and that  even paying attention in prayer for more than a few minutes is extremely difficult. Others  regularly experience a feeling of God’s presence. This accounts at least in part for the different views. However, theological differences also play a role. Bloesch argues that mystical prayer fits more with the Catholic view that God’s grace is infused directly into  us through baptism  and the Mass rather than with the Protestant belief that we are saved through faith in God’s word of gospel promise.

Which view of prayer is the  better  one? Is peaceful adoration or assertive supplication  the ultimate  form of prayer? That  question  as- sumes that the answer is completely either-or,  which is unlikely.

Communion and Kingdom

For help, we should turn first to the Psalms, the inspired prayer book of the Bible. There we see that both experiences of prayer are well represented. There are Psalms such as Psalm 27, 63, 84, 131, and the “long hallelujah” of Psalms 146 –150 that depict adoring communion with God.  In Psalm 27:4,  David says that  there is one primary thing he asks of the Lord  in prayer—“to  gaze on the beauty of the Lord.” While David did in fact pray for other  things,  he means at the  very least that nothing is better  than to know the presence of God. Therefore he says: “O God … my soul thirsts for you… . I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory. Because your love is better than life, I will praise you” (Ps 63:1–3). When he adores God in his presence, he says his “soul is satisfied as with the richest of foods” (Ps 63:5).  This is indeed communion with God.

There  are, however,  even more  Psalms of complaint,  of cries for help, and of calls for God to exercise his power in the world. There are also stark expressions of the  experience  of God’s  absence.  Here  we indeed see prayer as a struggle.  Psalms 10, 13, 39, 42–43,  and 88 are just a very few examples. Psalm 10 begins asking why God “stands far off ”  and  “hides”  himself in times  of trouble.  Suddenly  the  author cries, “Arise, Lord! Lift up your hand, O God. Do not forget the help- less” (Ps 10:12). Yet then he seems to speak almost to himself as well as to the Lord.  “But you, O God,  do see trouble  and grief. You con- sider it to take it to hand.  … You are the  helper of the  fatherless” (Ps 10:14). The prayer ends with the psalmist bowing to God’s timing and wisdom in all matters yet still fiercely calling out for justice on the earth.  This is the  wrestling  match  of kingdom-centered prayer. The Psalter, then,  affirms both  the communion-seeking and kingdom- seeking kinds of prayer.

Besides looking  at the actual prayers of the Bible, we should  consider also the Scripture’s theology  of prayer—the reasons in God and in our created nature that human  beings are able to pray. We are told that Jesus Christ stands as our mediator  so that we, though undeserving in ourselves, can boldly approach God’s throne  and cry out for our needs  to  be met  (Heb  4:14 –16;  7:25).  We are also told  that  God himself dwells within us through the Spirit (Rom 8:9–11)  and helps us to pray (Rom  8:26–27) so that  even now by faith we may gaze and contemplate the glory of Christ (2 Cor 3:17–18). Thus the Bible gives us theological  support  for both  communion-centered and kingdom- centered  prayer.

A little reflection  will show us that  these  two kinds of prayer are neither  opposites  nor  even discrete categories.  Adoring  God  is shot through with supplication.  To praise God is to pray “hallowed be thy name,” to ask him to show the world his glory so that all would honor him  as God.  Yet just as adoration contains  supplication,  so seeking God’s kingdom  must include prayer to know God himself. The West- minster Shorter Catechism tells us that our purpose is to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.” In this famous sentence we see reflected both kingdom-prayer and communion-prayer. Those two things—glorifying God and enjoying God—do  not always coincide in this life, but in the end  they  must  be the  same thing.  We may pray for the  coming  of God’s  kingdom,  but  if we don’t  enjoy God  supremely  with  all our being, we are not truly honoring him as Lord.7

Finally, when we consult many of the greatest of the older writers on prayer—such as Augustine,  Martin  Luther,  and John  Calvin—we see that  they do  not  fall neatly into  either  camp.8   Indeed, even the prominent Catholic theologian  Hans Urs von Balthasar has sought  to bring  balance  to  the  mystical,  contemplative   prayer  tradition. He warns against turning  inward too  much.  “Contemplative prayer … neither  can nor should  be self-contemplation, but [rather]  a reverent regard and listening to … the Not-me, namely, the Word of God.”

Through Duty to Delight

 Where, then, does this leave us? We should not drive a wedge between seeking personal communion with God and seeking the advance of his kingdom  in hearts and  in the  world.  And if they are kept together, then  communion will not be just wordless mystical awareness on the one hand, and our petitions will not be a way of procuring  God’s favor “for our many words” (Matt  6:7) on the other.

This book will show that prayer is both  conversation  and encounter with God. These two concepts give us a definition of prayer and a set of tools for deepening  our  prayer lives. The  traditional  forms of prayer— adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication—are concrete practices as well as profound experiences. 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.

J. I. Packer and Carolyn Nystrom’s  book  on prayer has a subtitle that sums all this up nicely. Prayer is “Finding  Our Way through Duty to Delight.” That is the journey of prayer.

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An excerpt from Timothy Keller's "Prayer"

Updated