This week on the Ask Pastor John podcast we are joined by pastor and author Tim Keller. He has an excellent book coming out soon, titled Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God. And he joins us today from his office in New York City to talk about prayer. This week, I plan to ask ten rapid-fire questions, two questions per episode this week. So here we go. Here’s question number one: Dr. Keller, I want to begin with a broad question. Among Christians today, how widespread is prayerlessness? And what does it reveal about our spiritual health?
Well, I think that is a broad question, but it is also not that hard a question to answer.
The Pervasiveness of Prayerlessness
I know that from just from empirical secular studies, everyone in our Western society today has less solitude. Everybody says that. There is less and less of our day or our months or our weeks in which we are unplugged, when we are not listening to something or talking to somebody or texting. It is because of how pervasive social media is and the Internet is along with various sorts of electronic devices. And, therefore, most people in the past couldn’t avoid solitude to some degree. 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 time or place to pray. And I am sure that we are more prayerless than we have been in the past, and that does say that our spiritual health is in freefall.
Sobering. Okay, on to question number two. Your book is very clear: a profitable prayer life is 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, what it did to you, and what you learned from this season.
The Psalms: A Source for Prayer
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 very strong case that we only pray well if we are immersed in Scripture, so that we learn our prayer vocabulary the way children learn their vocabulary — that is, they are immersed in language, and then they speak it back.
And he said that the prayer book of the Bible is the Psalms, and we should be immersed in the Psalms, and our prayer life would be immeasurably enriched if we were immersed in the Psalms. So that was, I guess, the first step.
The Psalms: A Practice of Prayer
And then I realized that 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 psalms that seemed repetitious or difficult to understand, so I couldn’t use them in payer. So, I decided to work through all 150 of them, and I used Derek Kidner’s little commentaries on the Psalms — the first on Psalms 1–72 and the second on Psalms 73–150, Alec Motyer’s commentary on the Psalms, and Michael Wilcock’s first and second commentaries on the Psalms.
What I did was 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. Every one of these psalms was a very small paragraph. Now, admittedly, I am using nine-point font, but basically I break out all 150 psalms on about twenty pages, which I use now in the morning whenever I am praying.
By the way, I use the Book of Common Prayer schedule. I read psalms in the morning and in the evening, and then I pray. Sometimes I actually pray the psalm, but many times I just read the psalm and then pray, and I do it 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 really shaped your prayer language?
Praying in the Language of the Psalms
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 very powerful. Just reading all the psalms every month all the way through, and then praying after reading a psalm absolutely changes your vocabulary, your language, your attitude. On the one hand, the Psalms actually show you that you can be very unhappy in God’s presence.
The Psalms, in a sense, give you the permission to pour out your complaints in a way that, probably if it wasn’t for the Psalms, we might think inappropriate. 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 were 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, 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 on this side of the cross. But, he says, even though many of the psalmists don’t know God as well as we do, they love God more than we do. So that insight, by the way, has also helped me through some of the psalms where there are calls for vengeance and things.