I chose to go through this book with my Bible study group. I enjoy Tim Keller and this was a subject I needed to delve into.
I came to this book in some desperation. I believe a number of things that are not evidenced by my daily life. We all feel this to some extent. For me, prayer is the area of my life that least resembles what I believe. Insofar as I am able, I’ve had to ask myself Is it really belief? Part of me thinks and feels in black and white. We believe something, we act in accordance. If the action is not there it is because true belief hasn’t taken place- doubt is in the mix. The other part of me knows all too well that the spirit can be willing and the flesh still weak. This is the murky condition in which I opened this book to read and to work out these inconsistencies alongside some others. If you are one of those others, thank you for the patience, the honesty, and the safe place you have been each Tuesday night this past semester. I know some weeks I came ready to fight and at other times, clearly indifferent.
If I was hoping to get some clear answers, this was not the book. Luckily, that wasn’t what I was looking for. I tend to find wanting the man or woman who has all the answers. I was looking for help- a space and a people and a guide to help me wrestle. This book was the guide, and I recommend it wholeheartedly. But if you really want to dive deep, I would recommend reading this with at least another person to robustly discuss it with. Within some bounds, Keller is open to several different methods of prayer and gives the reader a multitude of different tools. This widened my natural understanding of prayer and gave me the freedom to pray differently than I have historically.
One of the early questions we discussed as a group was How did you learn to pray? Did your parents teach you, did you only hear prayer from the pulpit, or was it at school? We all had widely varying answers, coming from a multitude of different backgrounds religiously, but the bottom line was we weren’t taught. Prayer is not something usually taught. It is something you watch and try to copy, but not directly instructed. I can understand some reasons for this, but overall, it seemed to have negatively affected many of us in the room to have never had any instruction. In that way, this book was helpful without being too narrow on how one should pray.
If you enjoy Luther, Calvin, or Augustine, then you will particularly appreciate some of the history of thought surrounding Christian prayer. It was a bit long, and toward the end, I was just ready to be done with it. My biggest critique of the book was that it took 300 pages to give instructions for how to pray, how not to pray, and extensive examples of prayer that would take significant amounts of time (some of the referenced theologians had the habit of praying for three hours a day). This seemed in stark contrast to the Lord’s Prayer, which was Jesus’ answer to the plea teach us to pray. The Lord’s Prayer: a simple, short, direct, thoughtful, unsophisticated prayer. To Keller’s credit, not all of the methods required an hour or more, he encouraged the reader to start small, and raised up the Lord’s Prayer as the ultimate example. Even still, one could come away from such reading overwhelmed and a bit disheartened. This does not, for me anyway, override the amount of helpfulness the book contained. And based on our group’s reflection on never having been taught how to pray, its existence is absolutely necessary.