If you had to choose five adjectives to describe God, would holy appear on the list? I trust so. Righteous probably would too. No doubt merciful or loving would be a shoo-in. But what about this divine descriptor: happy? Would that make your list?
It may sound somewhat strange, but God is happy. Happier than the happiest person you’ve ever known. Even before there was time, he was happy — infinitely happy within a triangle of love. From all eternity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (one God in three persons) delighted to share the joy of divinity with one another.
So, why did the triune God create the universe? Did he need something to complete him? No. Creation was an overflow of joy — not a filling up, but a spilling out. In extravagant generosity, the persons of the Trinity decided to share their boundless gladness with the work of their hands. You were made to be happy in a happy God.
And all of this has everything to do with your prayer life.
When Keller Discovered Prayer
Few people have taught me more about prayer than Tim Keller. He himself taught eloquently on the subject for decades before (at least in his estimation) he truly learned to pray. In a wide-ranging interview not long before his death, Keller was asked, “Looking back, is there anything you wish you had done differently in ministry?”
“Absolutely,” Keller replied. “I should have prayed more.”
In many ways, Keller’s Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God records experientially what he had long affirmed theologically. What happened is worth quoting at length:
In the second half of my adult life, I discovered prayer. I had to.
In the fall of 1999, I taught a Bible study course on the Psalms. It became clear to me that I was barely scratching the surface of what the Bible commanded and promised regarding prayer. Then came the dark weeks in New York after 9/11, when our whole city sank into a kind of corporate clinical depression, even as it rallied. For my family the shadow was intensified as my wife, Kathy, struggled with the effects of Crohn’s disease. Finally, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
At one point during all this, my wife urged me to do something with her we had never been able to muster the self-discipline to do regularly. She asked me to pray with her every night. Every night. She used an illustration that crystallized her feelings very well. As we remember it, she said something like this:
“Imagine you were diagnosed with such a lethal condition that the doctor told you that you would die within hours unless you took a particular medicine — a pill every night before going to sleep. Imagine that you were told that you could never miss it or you would die. Would you forget? Would you not get around to it some nights? No — it would be so crucial that you wouldn’t forget; you would never miss. Well, if we don’t pray together to God, we’re not going to make it because of all we are facing. I’m certainly not. We have to pray; we can’t let it just slip our minds.”
For both of us the penny dropped; we realized the seriousness of the issue, and we admitted that anything that was truly a nonnegotiable necessity was something we could do. (9–10)
Tim and Kathy maintained this unbroken streak night after night for more than twenty years — all the way through until the end of his life. But it wasn’t just a nightly discipline that changed him. He also began reading and studying, searching for help:
Kathy’s jolting challenge, along with my own growing conviction that I just didn’t get prayer, led me into a search. I wanted a far better personal prayer life. I began to read widely and experiment in prayer. As I looked around, I quickly came to see that I was not alone. (10)
Spoiler alert: his quest ultimately led to deeper engagement with, and fresh appreciation for, his own theological heritage. From Augustine in the fifth century all the way to Martyn Lloyd-Jones in the twentieth, Keller realized anew he didn’t have to choose between robust theology and vibrant experience. His own tradition featured both. “I was not being called to leave behind my theology and launch out to look for ‘something more,’ for experience. Rather, I was meant to ask the Holy Spirit to help me experience my theology” (16–17).
Keller has enriched my own experience of God by helping me to meditate on his Word, marvel at my adoption, adore him for his character, and step into divine joy.
1. Meditate Your Way to Delight
Can you relate to the disconnect between theology and experience? I sure can. God is the most glorious and satisfying person in the universe — I know this, I preach this, I write articles about this — and yet, before the splendor of his majesty, my heart can feel like a block of ice. The reason is often quite simple: I haven’t slowed down enough to really warm my heart — to thaw it — before the fire of God’s Word. I merely glance over a passage and get on with my day.
That doesn’t work. We must slow down and linger over the words of life. Biblical meditation is the music of prayer and involves a kind of two-step dance: first, Keller says, we think a truth out, and then we think it in until its ideas become “big” and “sweet,” moving and affecting — until the reality of God is sensed upon the heart (162).
This doesn’t mean we are chasing an experience; it means we are pursuing a living God. Above all, prayer isn’t merely “a way to get things from God but a way to get more of God himself” (21). This is staggering. Despite our distracted, fidgety, wandering defiance, he beckons us in and — wonder of wonders — offers us himself. And this is precisely what we need, since hearts wired for intimacy were made to be swept up into the life of the Trinity (e.g., John 17:21; 2 Peter 1:4; 1 John 1:3). As Keller explains, “We can see why a triune God would call us to converse with him, to know and relate to him. It is because he wants to share the joy he has. Prayer is our way of entering into the happiness of God himself” (68).
2. Remember Why He Listens
Another key to unlocking joy in prayer is to marvel at the doctrine of adoption — the glorious truth that God not only acquits believers in heaven’s courtroom but also welcomes us, as it were, into the living room.
Pondering this familial bond, and the intimacy it secures, has unparalleled power to nurture joy in drowsy hearts. The seventeenth-century minister Thomas Goodwin once recounted seeing a man and his young son walking along. Suddenly the father stopped, lifted up his boy, and said, “I love you.” The boy hugged his dad and said, “I love you too.” Then the father put him down and they kept walking. Now, here’s the question: was the child more legally a son in his father’s arms than when he was on the street? Of course not. But through the embrace, he vibrantly experienced his sonship.
This is what prayer offers us. The most ordinary believer in the world has access to “the most intimate and unbreakable relationship” with the Lord of the world. Just imagine, Keller says, what it takes to visit the president of the United States. Only those who merit his time and attention are granted entry. You must have credentials, accomplishments, and perhaps a power base of your own — unless, of course, you’re one of his children. That detail changes everything. Likewise, in prayer, we lean experientially — not just theologically — into the Father’s loving embrace (70).
Or as Keller put it in a sermon, in one of the most lovely images I’ve ever contemplated: The only person who dares wake up a king at 3:00 a.m. for a glass of water is a child. We have that kind of access.
3. Begin Your Prayers with Adoration
The pages of Scripture brim with summons to boldly approach our Father and lay our requests at his feet (e.g., Matthew 7:7–8; Philippians 4:6; Hebrews 4:16; James 4:2). Danger arises, though, when adoration becomes a mere afterthought — which reveals more about our self-absorbed hearts than we may care to acknowledge. Reflecting on the parable of the prodigal sons (Luke 15:11–32), Keller warns against an “elder-brother spirit” that robs our ability to enjoy the assurance of fatherly love. How might we detect if we’re succumbing to this danger?
Perhaps the clearest symptom of this lack of assurance is a dry prayer life. Though elder brothers may be diligent in prayer, there is no wonder, awe, intimacy, or delight in their conversations with God. . . . Elder brothers may be disciplined in observing regular times of prayer, but their prayers are almost wholly taken up with a recitation of needs and petitions, not spontaneous, joyful praise. (The Prodigal God, 72–73)
Though unsettling to admit, difficult things in life move us to petition far more readily than happy things move us to praise. One of the most practical “next steps” for your prayer life, then, is simply this: spend some unhurried time reveling in who God is. If you begin there — contemplating his character, gazing at his glory, praising him for his promises — then your heart will be ready to bring requests to his throne.
4. Pray to Get God Himself
God never promises to give believers all good things on our terms. What he promises, rather, is to work all things — even the bad — for our ultimate good (Romans 8:28). And when we don’t receive a good thing we want, we can rest in the knowledge that we already have the best thing. We have him. As Keller puts it, in God we have the headwaters of all we truly desire — even if a tributary of our joy goes dry.
And yet, God wants us to ask things of him. To protect us from pride and self-sufficiency, he rarely gives us what we want apart from prayer. But through prayer, our Father withholds nothing good from his children (Matthew 7:11). God delights to give himself in his gifts. Keller concludes:
Prayer is how God gives us so many of the unimaginable things he has for us. Indeed, prayer makes it safe for God to give us many of the things we most desire. It is the way we know God, the way we finally treat God as God. Prayer is simply the key to everything we need to do and be in life. (18)
The ability to converse with the King of the universe isn’t just an honor — it’s the glorious union of two disparate truths: awe before an infinite being and intimacy with a personal friend. Because we’re made to know a triune God — a merry, generous, hospitable community of persons — prayer is the furthest thing from a sterile concept or boring duty. It’s an invitation into unimaginable joy.