Books We Love: Timothy Keller’s Prayer

By Mitch Wiley

Perhaps one of the most difficult and convicting topics in the lives of modern Christians is prayer. Most of us acknowledge the insufficiency of our prayer lives, myself included. Part of what makes prayer so difficult is our confusion and lack of knowledge on where to begin and how to persevere in daily prayer. Christian bookstores are filled with books on prayer, but few of them are theologically sound and biblically accurate. Fortunately, New York City pastor, Tim Keller, gives us his 2014 book Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy With God. Here are five reflections I’d love to share from reading the book.

Prayer is how we encounter God himself.

One of Keller’s main themes is that prayer is not merely done with the head and our thoughts, and it’s also not only done with our heart and our feelings. He takes a both-and approach of “awe” and “intimacy.” Awe comes from a correct view of who God is (head/theology) and intimacy flows out of a real experience that should engage our emotions (heart/affections). Keller says, “There is no choice between truth or Spirit, between doctrine or experience.”

The Lord’s Prayer is Jesus’ model prayer for us.

It’s amazing that in the gospels (Matthew 6 & Luke 11) we have a story of Jesus teaching his disciples how to pray. For those of us who struggle to pray, this is where we start: Jesus’ prayer class. Keller breaks down each phrase that Jesus utters and what that means for us and how we should pray. At first glance, the Lord’s Prayer is simple. Upon closer inspection, it could be prayed in different ways for years and it would never grow mundane. Keller says, “The Lord’s Prayer must stamp itself on our prayers, shaping them all the way down… the Lord’s Prayer is a summary of all other prayers, providing essential guidance on emphasis and topics, on purpose and even spirit.”

Meditation on Scripture should precede and drive our prayer.

Don Whitney’s helpful small book Praying the Bible goes into much depth here, but Keller essentially agrees with him. A solution to not knowing what to pray is using the Scriptures to start and guide our prayer time. There is no shortage of topics to pray and we know we are praying God’s will because it’s God Word! Keller asserts that too much of our “quiet time” is spent studying God’s Word and not enough time is given to meditating on a passage and translating that to prayer. Keller says, “Many of us have a devotional life in which we jump from fairly academic study of the Bible into prayer. There is a ‘middle ground’ however, between prayer and Bible study, a kind of bridge between the two.” This middle ground is Bible meditation.

Pray in Jesus’ name.

Why do we typically end our prayer with “in Jesus’ name, amen?” Perhaps it is either habit or an assurance to ourselves that what we are praying is for Jesus – like a secret code to seal the envelope, assuring God hears us. Keller notes that praying in Jesus’ name means praying to God with your assurance and hope being in Jesus’ sacrifice and love for you. We pray to God because Jesus died for us and bridged the gap between God and us. Keller says, “We know God will answer us when we call because one terrible day he did not answer Jesus when he called… He got the Great Silence so we could know that God hears and answers.”

Pray the Psalms.

The Psalms are God’s prayer book he has given to us to pray back to Him. Again, Don Whitney’s Praying the Bible proves helpful, as he provides a great treatment on how to start praying through the Psalms. Keller also recommends this practice, which has been done by Christians since the early Church. Keller’s three ways of praying the Psalms includes:

Verbatim praying – praying the Psalm line by line.

Paraphrasing and personalizing the Psalms – taking each verse and praying its meaning to God.

Responsive praying – reading through a Psalm and praying your own response to it.

The Psalms are a wonderful place to begin praying through the Bible. Start small and try to pray one Psalm per day. Over time, the Psalms will color our prayer lives and our view of God.

Other helpful books on prayer:

Praying the Bible – Donald Whitney

A Praying Life – Paul E. Miller

Praying: Finding Our Way Through Duty to Delight – J.I. Packer

A Simple Way to Pray – Martin Luther

Letters to Malcolm – C.S. Lewis