Living on a Prayer

To take a moment, be still, and pray is a challenge in today’s relentless age of consumption. What does it mean to stop and have a conversation with God? Before his discussion on the show, I sat down with New York Times bestselling author and renowned pastor Reverend Tim Keller to talk about the power of prayer and his new book, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy.

Laura Kim: What’s the point of prayer?

Rev. Tim Keller: Prayer is a response that people feel when they sense insufficiency. People reach out, even if they’re not sure that there’s a God, when they don’t feel self-sufficient, either their wisdom isn’t sufficient for the moment or their strength or something else. Since almost everybody, at some point, feels that insufficiency, and since there’s almost, not an absolute universal, but there’s a very widespread sense that there’s almost an absolute power behind the universe that when the insufficiency comes, it triggers prayer. It’s almost an instinct. 

LK: So, when big world affairs, like 9/11, happen, you saw…

TK: That’s a great point. We had, like, over double, most churches in New York more than doubled in the week or two after 9/11. People who never went to church ever suddenly showed up in church to pray and just to feel connected to other people.

LK: The things you daydream about could reveal what you’re most concerned about. What do your prayers reveal about you?

TK: Well, I would tend to think that the things that you daydream about tend to be the things that you aspire to, and generally speaking, most people tend to pray when things are bad. When we’re worried, we’re more likely to pray. People also pray for things that they aspire to. … But generally speaking, I think people pray more in response to difficulties, troubles and fears than they do to aspirations.

LK: When people pray for things, can that become transactional?

TK: You mean, transactional, in the sense that if they say, God, if you do this, I’ll do this?

LK: Yes.

TK: I think that in some ways, prayer can be transactional, because you do have to say, “Lord, there’s no reason for you to be answering me, unless I give myself to you.” In that broad sense, it’s transactional. I think it’s very bad to say, “I’ll start going to church if you get me this job.” Because then what you’re doing is that you’re buying God. You’re treating God, as if He’s a vendor, and not God.

LK: Why don’t people pray?

TK: We live in a culture that puts tremendous amount of emphasis on being self-sufficient, and there’s lots and lots of people who don’t do anything, where they feel that they need to pray. They stay away from things, where they feel over their head. They just stay away. They stay away from relationships. They stay away from everything, where they’re not comfortable, so they avoid suffering. They avoid difficulty. I think the reason that a lot of people don’t pray is because they’re avoiding difficult circumstances, but if they’re feeling insufficient, they will pray.

LK: What do you think of the fatalistic approach to prayer?

TK: In some ways, you have to say, “Of course, God can’t change His mind.” Because when people say, “Do you think God changed His mind?” I say, “Do you think God’s ever surprised? How could He be surprised and be God? If He knows everything, how could He be surprised? And if he knows everything, how could He change His mind?” On the other hand, if God’s a father, there’s lots of things He won’t give a child, give us, if He thinks we haven’t asked for them. If we don’t ask for things, He’s not going to give them to us because we would become self-sufficient and hard. We’d feel that I got that with my own wisdom and savvy and strength. So, there’s lots of stuff that God will not give us, unless we ask for it. And so, even though we don’t change God’s mind, the fact is that we’re going to get all kinds of things, from Him if we ask, that we wouldn’t get otherwise. So, the important thing is, on the one hand, I don’t want to think that God’s not wise. I want to think He’s got a plan. I don’t like the idea that somehow I could monkey with God’s plan. On the other hand, I have to have incentive to know that if I don’t pray things won’t happen. I do think the Bible says, James 4, you have not because you ask not.

LK: What do you make of the push made by some churches to embrace contemplative prayer, like lectio divina?

TK: The problem is that with the word “contemplative” and even the term, lectio divina, if I ask five different people to define it, they’re going to give me five different definitions, so I can’t count on one definition in people’s minds. I would say, here’s all I know, I think you don’t try to get beyond words in order to pray because I think God’s personal. I don’t believe He’s the impersonal ground of all being, so that you get beyond all rational thought in order to have oneness with all of the world. That’s a Buddhist eastern concept. It’s not the Christian concept because the Christian concept of God is that He’s personal, and therefore, you don’t get beyond rational thought. You fill your mind with rational thought. Lots of things. Words. Truth. And it should be grounded in the Scripture, if I’m going to hear from God, I want to know where has God spoken to me? He speaks in the Word, so in that sense, don’t get beyond the Bible. Contemplative, if that’s what that means, then I wouldn’t be for it.

LK: What encouragement can you give to people who feel like their prayers aren’t being answered?

TK: Think of parenting of little children. So, let’s just say you love your five-year old. How often do you say no to your five-year old? Constantly. Constantly. However, if your five-year old comes to you and says, “Mommy or Daddy, I want to play with this toy.” And you know the toy would be dangerous for them, and you say, “No, honey. You can’t play with the toy.” Then, they scream. Well, what are you going to do? You don’t just say, “Stuff it.” What you say, “Well, honey, play with this toy.” In other words, the child’s request, even if you have to say no to it, evokes in you a response, so that you’re still going to let them find fun some other way. I do think that if you really ask God for something sincerely, and He doesn’t give it exactly to you… I think God will give you what you would have asked for, if you knew everything He knows. 

Explore:

Religion

Living on a Prayer