Pastor and author Tim Keller was our guest this week on the Ask Pastor John podcast. Keller has a new book on prayer, releasing next week, titled Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God.
He talked with us from his office in New York City about this often-neglected discipline, and we served him up 10 rapid-fire questions.
Here’s a lightly edited transcript of the conversation.
Question 1: Prayerlessness
Among Christians today, how widespread is prayerlessness — and what does that reveal about our spiritual health?
We know from empirical secular studies that everyone in our Western society today has less solitude. There is less and less of our days or our months or our weeks in which we are unplugged, when we are not listening to something or talking to somebody or texting. This is due to the pervasiveness of social media, the Internet, and various sorts of electronic devices. In the past, most people couldn’t avoid solitude. But now there isn’t any.
This is anecdotal, but everybody I talk to seems so busy, and is communicating so incessantly, and around the clock, that I do think there is more and more prayerlessness. There is less and less time where people go into a solitary place to pray. And I am sure that we are more prayerless than we have been in the past, and that says our spiritual health is in freefall.
Question 2: Praying the Psalms
Your new book is clear: a profitable prayer life is impossible without solitude, but it’s also impossible without God’s word. You explain a time in your life when you were driven by desperation to pray, and so you opened the Psalms and prayed through them. Explain how you did this and what you learned from this season.
I am glad to talk about that. I came to see that the Psalms are extremely important for prayer. Perhaps that is because I read a book some years ago by Eugene Peterson called Answering God. He makes a strong case that we only pray well if we are immersed in Scripture. We learn our prayer vocabulary the way children learn their vocabulary — that is, by getting immersed in language and then speaking it back. And he said the prayer book of the Bible is the Psalms, and our prayer life would be immeasurably enriched if we were immersed in the Psalms. So that was the first step. I realized I needed to do that, but I didn’t know how.
Then I spent a couple of years studying the Psalms. At one point, I realized that there were a fair number of the Psalms that seemed repetitious or difficult to understand, so I couldn’t use them in prayer. So I decided to work through all 150 of them. I used Derek Kidner’s little commentaries on the Psalms (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries), Alec Motyer’s commentary on the Psalms (The New Bible Commentary, 21st century edition), and Michael Wilcock’s commentaries on the Psalms (Bible Speaks Today).
I worked through all 150 Psalms and wrote a small outline and a small description of what I thought the Psalm was basically about, and key verses that I thought were useful for prayer. Using nine-point font, I basically broke out all 150 Psalms on about 20 pages, which I now use in the morning when I pray.
By the way, I use the Book of Common Prayer schedule. I read Psalms in the morning and the evening, and then I pray. Sometimes I actually pray the psalm, but many times I just read the psalm and then pray. I do this morning and evening and get through all 150 Psalms every month. So that is what I learned and that is what I do now.
I love this intentional and disciplined approach. I presume over time you found Peterson’s point to be true, that this practice shaped your prayer language?
Yes. That is the reason why you don’t have to literally take the psalm and turn it into a prayer, though that can often be powerful. Just reading all the Psalms every month all the way through, and then praying after reading a psalm, changes your vocabulary, your language, your attitude.
On the one hand, the Psalms actually show you that you can be unhappy in God’s presence. The Psalms, in a sense, give you the permission to pour out your complaints in a way that we might think inappropriate, if it wasn’t there in the Scriptures. But on the other hand, the Psalms demand that you bow in the end to the sovereignty of God in a way that modern culture wouldn’t lead you to believe.
Alec Motyer said the Psalms are written by people who knew a lot less about God than we do, and loved God a lot more than we do. And by that, he meant that because they didn’t know about the cross, there are a number of places where you could say they don’t know as much about God’s saving purposes as I do now. But, he says, even though many of the psalmists don’t know God as well as we do, they loved God more than we do.
Question 3: Meditation
Throughout your new book on prayer, you warn readers about moving from Bible study to prayer, skipping over one crucial step in the middle — meditation. Why are we quick to skip right over meditation?
It’s possible that we are quick to miss this step because we live in a culture that doesn’t encourage solitude and reflection. It is also possible that evangelicalism is a little bit too shaped by the rationality of Rationalism. So our approach to the Bible sometimes is to get the meaning through the grammatical, historical exegesis, and once you have got the meaning, that’s all you need, and you don’t have to work it into your heart.
I’m concerned about approaches to reading the Bible that say: read the Bible, but don’t think about theology, just let God speak to you. I’m concerned about that, because God speaks to you in the Bible, after you do the good exegesis and you figure out what the text is saying. Martin Luther believed you need to take the truth that you have learned through good exegesis, and once you understand that, you need to learn how to warm your heart with it — get it into your heart.
And it diminishes our prayer life that our hearts are cold when we get into prayer. Without meditation, you tend to go right into petition and supplication, and you do little adoration or confession. When your heart is warm, then you start to praise God and then you confess. When your heart is cold, which it is if you just study the Bible and then jump to prayer, you are much more likely to spend your time on your prayer list and not really engage your heart.
So a key to a fruitful prayer is the conviction that the Bible was really and truly written to me personally.
Yes, it is. Deuteronomy 29:29 says, “The secret things belong to God, but the things that are revealed are revealed that you may do them.” The Bible is the part of God’s will and mind that he wants us to know. But the way you determine what he is saying in the Scriptures is through sound theological exegesis. But then, once you discern the meaning, you have to work it into your heart to make sure it does become a personal word to you and not just a concept you hold with the mind.
Question 4: Prayer Distractions
Last December on Twitter you were asked, “Why do you think young Christian adults struggle most deeply with God as a personal reality in their lives?” You replied, “Noise and distraction. It is easier to Tweet than pray!” Sadly true. And we are fickle people. For all the many benefits of digital technology, we are tempted to get distracted from prayer by tweets and our Facebook feeds and texts and emails on our phone. In a sense, we want to be distracted! You’ve already identified this as a problem earlier. So what counsel would you give to a Christian who finds himself or herself lured to distractions when they are trying to pray?
I may have just answered the question. I mean, there is no way around just simply saying: This is something that I must spend time doing.
In the book, I tell the story of how my wife used an illustration on me: If the doctor said you have a fatal condition, and unless you take this medicine every night from 11:00 to 11:15, and swallow these pills, you will be dead by morning. If that was the case, she said, you would never miss. You would never say, I was too tired, or, I didn’t get to it, or, I was watching a movie, and I didn’t leave time. You never would do that.
And so when people ask: How am I going to get to prayer? How am I going to deal with [distractions]? I say, maybe you don’t believe you need prayer. And that is a theological, spiritual problem, and there is nothing I can do except tell you to get your heart and your mind straight on that.
Having said that, once you determine you must do it, inside your prayer time, it is hard sometimes to keep from being distracted. That is where meditation helps. Martin Luther said that if you warm your heart through meditation on the Scriptures, so that your heart starts to really warm up, you go into prayer because you want to pray, because you want to praise him for what you see, and you want to confess your sins.
Meditation on a passage of Scripture keeps me from being distracted in prayer. You say: Okay, what does it mean to me? How do I praise God for this? How do I confess for this? How do I petition for this? Meditation warms the heart and absorbs the mind so I am not as distracted.
So the answer is twofold. You must decide prayer is something you must do, and there is nothing I can do to help you with that. But once you are inside, meditation keeps your mind from wandering.
Question 5: Unhappy Before God
Back to being unhappy in the presence of God: In the book you talk about lamenting to God — complaining to God — for the way things are going on earth. We know God is in control of all things. So when and how should we express lament in prayer, like the Psalmist? In other words, how do good Calvinists complain?
My belief is that Calvinists do understand that though God’s decree is the final reason for everything that happens, there is a concurrence. That is, God’s will and our responsible choices fit together. God predestines things through our choices. You don’t want to flatten things so that basically you believe our efforts and our crying out and our petitions and our actions really don’t matter. According to Scripture they do. Both Don Carson’s book Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility and J.I. Packer’s classic Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God point out the fact that those are two things that seem to be in tension in our mind, but they are not in God’s understanding of things.
We must not flatten one for the other, or say because it is all God’s will anyway, there is no reason to cry out. God is going to do what he wants to do. So why pray?
If you take a kind of flat Calvinism and say God is in control of all things, then all prayer would be useless. So if prayer is not useless, why would laments be useless? If asking God for your daily bread isn’t useless, why would crying out and complaining about what is going on be useless? It wouldn’t be. So you must keep these things together.
So what does this look like for you? Can you share with us a season in your life when you did complain to God in prayer? What does your lament look like?
When people die, and it sure looks like it doesn’t seem to help the kingdom at all. That goes back a long way with me. The Christian church doesn’t have great leaders growing on trees. And when something comes along and takes a leader out of commission, either through death or something else, I can struggle with that and say: God, it doesn’t look like you know what you are doing.
Now that is a horrible thing to say, but the Psalms are filled with that kind of thing. So there have been times in my life in which I have wrestled and struggled and said: You know, Lord, thy will be done, and you do know best, but honestly I am struggling. This doesn’t make any sense to me.
Question 6: Entering God’s Happiness
The book is drenched in God-centered joy. On page 68, you write, “Prayer is our way of entering into the happiness of God himself.” Unpack that sentence for us.
I bring that up in the place where I am talking about Jonathan Edwards’s great work The End for Which God Created the World. Edwards’s thesis there, which, of course, John Piper has been hammering at, and promoting in his own way for decades, is that God is happy because he enjoys his own glory. That is trinitarian — the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit are glorifying each other.
But the fact is that God is infinitely happy because of who he is, and he is just happy in his own glory. When you are especially glorifying him, when you are adoring and glorifying him, that is when you, in a sense, are entering into his happiness, because you are doing what he does, and you are experiencing the same joy he has. So that is where I talk about that.
Question 7: Praying to a Father
We have passages like Luke 11:11–13 that seem to say a fruitful prayer life requires a foundational conviction that God is my Father, he is totally for me, without hesitation on his part, he is wholly for my good. Just how key is this conviction for our prayer life?
It has to be foundational or Jesus wouldn’t have started the Lord’s Prayer with the words “Our Father.” Some Bible scholar may find an exception to what I am about to say here, but I don’t think Jesus ever addressed God without calling him Father. And so it must be foundational. And I would say it is foundational because in the word Father — that you are my Father — is the gospel in miniature. If God is my boss or my employer, then even though he might be a good boss or a good employer; nevertheless, in the end, he is not unconditionally committed to me. If I act up, he may give me a break or two, but eventually my boss will terminate me.
And so if I forget that God is my Father, I may come to him in prayer in a mercenary way, saying: I am going to do this and this and this, and now you owe me this and this and this. First, that destroys the ability to adore God. You are basically in petition. Secondly, it makes prayer a way of manipulating God.
I have three sons, and growing up they were always at different places. But if one of them was acting up, if one of them was actually being a little more disobedient, a little more rebellious or something like that, as a father my heart went out to him more. It actually got me more involved with him, because I am not his boss, I am his father. And so when I know that when I call God Father I know I am coming in Jesus’s name. I am coming only because of God’s grace. I know because Jesus died for me, now God is committed to me.
By the way, to say that God is my Father and I can always know that he will hear me and I can rest and I can adore him, that doesn’t mean I can sin away. And the reason is, of course, that if you break your boss’s rules, that doesn’t hurt your boss as much as if you break your father’s rules, because that is trampling on your father’s heart.
So I would say calling God Father means, on the one hand, I’m assured of grace and assured that he is always going to hear me. So that makes my petitions stronger. But on the other hand, it also means that I have to confess my sins because this wonderful God who has done all this for me and has brought me into his family at infinite cost of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, that I need to obey him because of his good grace.
So to call God Father enhances everything you do in prayer. If you don’t know that God is your Father, it flattens and reduces and thins out every prayer.
Question 8: Prayer and Self-Knowledge
Here is perhaps the thing I was least expecting to learn, and found most surprising to see in your book. You say prayer gives us an accurate knowledge of ourselves. Explain this. How does prayer lead to self-knowledge?
C.S. Lewis gives an image. If you are a proud person, you will never be able to see God, because a proud person looking down on everyone cannot see something that is above him, bigger than him. And from that image, I get that it is in God’s presence that I learn humility. I really don’t know how sinful I am unless I am in the presence of a holy God. That is what happened to Isaiah. When Isaiah is in the presence of the “Holy, holy, holy God” in Isaiah 6, what is the first thing he says? He does not say: “Oh, you are so holy.” He says, “I am a man of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5). So right away, he senses his sin just like the brighter a light is, the more you can see the dirt on your hands.
The more beautiful a person is, the more we unbeautiful people see that we are not good looking. In other words, when you get close to superlativeness, you see your flaws. And so there is absolutely no way that you will really existentially know that you are sinner, and know what is wrong with you, unless you draw near to a holy God in prayer.
Is this why we don’t pray? We don’t want to see the dirt on us?
Yes. Prayer is humbling. For example, if I am really upset, it is hard for me to stay upset when I get in God’s presence, because I say: Lord, you are wise, and I really don’t need to be this upset. You know what you are doing. It is hard to stay on a high horse and be self-righteous and then turn around and pray. It just knocks you off your horse right away.
Question 9: Prayers That Don’t Work
In passages like James 4:3, we are told there’s a type of prayer that doesn’t work, an idol-centered prayer, asking for something with wrong motives. Can you explain this? What type of prayer doesn’t work?
When James talks about prayers in which you are asking for something selfishly or just to spend on selfish desires, I would say this would be a sub-heading under an even bigger heading.
God is not going to give you something that is bad for you, just like I, as a father, wouldn’t give my children something they ask for if they don’t realize it would not be safe and they would probably hurt themselves. J.I. Packer in his book on prayer actually says that ultimately there is no such thing as unanswered prayer. And even John Calvin says that God grants our prayer even if he does not always respond to the exact form of our request. That is a pretty amazing thing for Calvin to say.
So what Packer and Calvin are saying is that we might ask for something that is just not good for us, and God, being a good Father, tries to give us what we would have asked for if we knew everything he knew, or give us what we are after even though he won’t give it in the form that we ask for.
Now that is the general heading of things that are bad for us. But inside, there are some things that we are asking for with bad motives. We don’t know about it at the time. It could be selfish or proud or maybe there are things that assume an overblown assessment of our own gifts. And those things that are actually badly motivated, God particularly can’t give us because that would just fuel pride. And so I would say that is a sub-heading. It is something that is not good for us.
Now you could ask for something that is not good for you with the best of motives. You are not being selfish. It is not idol-driven. It is just unwise, and he is not going to give it to you. But then the idol-driven kinds of requests would even be worse and he just simply won’t do it.
Question 10: The New Book
Of course, there are a lot of books on prayer, and some especially good ones. So what do you think will surprise readers about your book? Or what do you think makes your book on prayer unique?
I will give you three, and I think people will probably come away with at least one of these three.
First, it is a more comprehensive book. The reason I wrote it was because there is a lot of great books on prayer, but the books on prayer either go into the theology of prayer or they go into the practice of prayer or they troubleshoot it. And I didn’t have one book I could give to people that was basically covering all the bases — a biblical view of prayer, the theology of prayer, and methods of prayer. So some people might say it’s balanced and comprehensive, but not too long.
Second, and this might be surprising, I really go deeply into John Owen, not only his book on the role of the Holy Spirit in prayer, but also his book on the grace and duty of being spiritually minded. John Owen is mystical. He really believes that you can have a faith-sight of Jesus Christ — really see the glory of God, not with your physical eyes, but with the eyes of the heart. He says your affections have to be involved. There must be deep, deep, deep joy in prayer. So he is mystical in that sense. But at the same time, he is down on Catholic mysticism and down on an awful lot of the ways in which evangelicals are trying to bring in Catholic contemplative prayer practices.
That is what is unusual about the book. Most books I know that are critical of contemplative prayer, as I am, do not turn around and try to give you a robustly Reformed and Protestant approach to affectionate prayer and meditation. Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, and John Owen give you that. But many people trying to get away from the contemplative prayer practices are afraid of talking about meditation at all, and they are afraid of talking about deep experiences and encounters with God. I try to say: No, we have to get there. And these guys are good guys. But at the same time, we need to be pretty critical of a lot of the contemplative prayer practices that are being brought into the Church right now. I think that is what I think a lot of people would probably find pretty interesting.
Third, in the end the book is practical. I do find an awful lot of books are afraid of actually saying: Here is a way to actually spend 15 or 20 minutes in prayer. I try to get pretty practical at the end. I think some people would expect a Reformed, evangelical type like me to be a little bit more: Here is the exegesis, and now you go and apply it for yourself.
The book is surprisingly practical and comprehensive. You have accomplished something remarkable with this book. Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God releases on November 4. Get it, read it, and perhaps even read it with a friend or a group of friends.