We are joined again by pastor and author, Tim Keller. He has a wonderful book coming out soon, titled Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God. It may just be the best Christian book of 2014. He joins us from New York City to talk about prayer. I asked him two questions yesterday. Here we go.
Dr. Keller, 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?
Well, it is 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 Rationalism, 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 the meaning, that’s all you need, and you don’t have to work it into your heart. So maybe we are too rationalistic. And maybe we don’t have the solitude.
Meditation that Warms the Heart
I am a little concerned about some approaches to reading the Bible that say, Read the Bible, but don’t think about theology, just let God speak to you. I am very concerned about that, because the way God speaks to you in the Bible is 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.
“It really diminishes our prayer life that our hearts are cold when we get into prayer.”
And it really diminishes our prayer life that our hearts are cold when we get into prayer. And I think without meditation you tend to go right into petition and supplication, and you do very 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 much.
A key to a fruitful prayer is the conviction that the Bible was really and truly written to me personally.
“A key to a fruitful prayer is the conviction that the Bible was really and truly written to me personally.”
Well, yes, of course it is: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29). And so, of course, 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 word of God 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.
Meditation that Takes Time
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. We want to be distracted! So what counsel would you give to a Christian who finds himself or herself lured to distractions when they are trying to pray?
Well, I may have just answered the question. I mean, primarily, there is no way around the simple discipline of saying, This is something that I must spend time doing.
“Meditation warms the heart and absorbs the mind so you are not as distracted.”
In my book on prayer, I tell a story about how my wife used an illustration on me, and she basically said, “If the doctor said you have a fatal condition, and unless you take this medicine every night from 11:00 to 11:15, and unless you swallow these pills, you will be dead by morning — you would never miss the medicine. You would never say, ‘I was too tired.’ You would never say, ‘I didn’t get to it,’ or, ‘I was watching a movie and I didn’t leave time.’ You never would do that. Anything that you know you have to do, you do.”
And so, when people ask, How am I going to get to prayer? How am I going to deal with (this problem) — I am sorry, you don’t believe you need prayer. And that is a theological, spiritual problem, and there is nothing I can do except tell you, You need to get your heart straight and your mind straight on that.
Meditation that Defeats Distraction
However, having said that, once you have determined you must do it, inside your prayer time it is sometimes hard to keep from being distracted. That is where meditation helps. Martin Luther said that you warm your heart through meditation on the Scriptures so that your heart starts to really warm up, and 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 actually, in my case, keeps me from being distracted, because it means you have to figure this out. You have to 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, I guess the answer is twofold: One is, you must decide it is something you have to do — and there is nothing I can do to help you with that. But once you are inside, meditation keeps you from having your mind wandering during your prayer time.