In general, I think Tim Keller is pretty good. I think he is great at engaging with skeptics and seekers, but I don’t agree entirely with his philosophy of ministry. I like Dever’s The Church more than Keller’s Center Church. He’s good, but I don’t think he is great. That is, until I read his recent work Prayer! I confess that this is one of the best books…that I have ever read. Yup. I was probably just as stunned by this admission as you are now! As I review my notes I am hard-pressed to choose what to highlight and what to leave aside.
Now in one sense, much of what I loved about this book was not about prayer. So in that sense, I may have missed the boat. But one of Keller’s chief insights is providing a stinging, accurate, charitable, and comprehensive response to false theologies of revelation and prayer that are exceptionally helpful for my own walk and thought. For that, I am profoundly grateful! For example, he spends much of the early chapters of the book contrasting the more Catholic/medieval view of prayer (mysticism) with the Protestant (and biblical) view of prophetic prayer. For example, on page 5 he stresses that God is both transcendent and immanent. Any theology of prayer that neglects one of these two, ultimately neglects the God who possesses both of these attributes. Or later Keller writes, “Mystical prayer climaxes in tranquility without words, while prophetic prayer finds its final expression in words of praise and an outburst of powerful emotions” (40). Brilliant!
Along the same lines, Keller notes that sometimes God feels transcendent and other times he feels immanent. Sometimes it is duty. Sometimes it is delight. Can any Christian testify otherwise? Yet while many modern evangelical theologies of prayer lead the Christian into a sort of pietism that neglects Scripture (and enters into emotionalism), Keller rightly steers a biblical course between the two feelings. Should prayer always seem like duty? No. Should it always seem like delight? Realistically, no. So the biblical perspective on prayer is for the believer to persevere through duty into delight. Yes! I found my heart rejoicing as he quoted Packer on this point. Here Keller provides the arm around the shoulder that says that I am not alone in some of my struggles, and the kick in the rear to tell me to persevere!
But perhaps the most instructive, helpful, stunning, and glorious idea was Keller’s discussion of ‘intelligent mysticism’, or the role of doctrine/revelation and experience in prayer. This idea was peppered throughout the early pages of the book, though chapter four provides a particularly breathtaking vista of God’s glory in his written word. Do we want only doctrine? Or only experience? Neither! As D.A. Carson notes, “Which shall we choose? Experience or truth?…Damn all false antithesis to hell”. Amen! Theology must lead into doxology. This is such a helpful corrective for my own soul. Keller’s thesis of prayer seems to appear on page 45 when he writes, “We can define prayer as personal, communicative response to the knowledge of God…prayer is profoundly altered by the amount and accuracy of that knowledge”. This explains why almost all cultures and people everywhere pray. They all have the knowledge of God through natural revelation. But Christians! Oh the gift we have been given. We have God’s special revelation—his very Word.
Keller also quotes John Murray as saying, “communion with God is the crown and apex of true religion” (16). This is what existed in Genesis 1-2. And this is what will exist in Revelation 21-22. Yet how do Christians know and walk with the Lord until his return? We commune with God through prayer! What could be more important than that? What could be more glorious? What could be more enjoyable? This helps explain what I am to do in prayer as well. While Keller emphasizes that no one form of prayer (confession, adoration, thanksgiving, or supplication) is better than others, he notes that knowing God naturally takes place while adoring God (77). This provides a helpful corrective to me and my tendency to approach God as a genie or as Santa Claus. I tend to think of prayer as more of a way to get things, instead of a way to get God. But when I adore and praise God, the one thing I get is the experience and privilege of worshipping him! God becomes my supreme treasure (Matthew 13:44).
On page 22 the pastor and minister finds a sharp rebuke and warning. Keller notes that the external beauty of a believer (e.g. good works) must be attended to devotion to the inner life. The minister is to be devoted to his own spiritual life. Keller quotes John Owen who states, “A minister may fill his pews, his communion roll, the mouths of the public, but what that minister is on his knees in secret before God Almighty, that he is and no more” (22). And this by the most celebrated Puritan theologian! Golly. I am undone. All my learning? All my fluency? All my theology? Not to put the matter too strongly, but without prayer I am nothing. Help O Lord.
And yet I can already feel my flesh flaring up. ‘Prayer is hard. It takes perseverance. It is real spiritual work. Give up’. But Keller responds. “I can think of nothing great that is also easy. Prayer must be, then, one of the hardest things in the world” (24). Why? Because it is the greatest thing in the world! It is communion with God. For reasons of space, I must end this review. I must go pray. O Lord, teach us to pray.