Audio Transcript

Welcome back to the Ask Pastor John podcast. This week we’re joined by pastor and author Tim Keller, who has written several great books, and adding to his collection is a book on prayer coming out soon. It’s titled: Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God. You will want this one, too. Tim joins us again to talk about prayer.

Being unhappy in the presence of God — we talked about this Monday, but I want to pick this up again. 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? This seems very hazardous.

Well, 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 the Scripture they do.

Praying to the Sovereign God

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. But we can’t flatten one for the other. We can’t 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 to say God is in control of all things, then all prayer would be kind of 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. You have to just keep those things together, I think.

Complaining to God?

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 did lament look like in your life?

Well, I think about when people die, and it sure looks like it doesn’t 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 really 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.

There have been times in my life in which I have wrestled and struggled and said, “Lord, thy will be done, and you do know best, but honestly I am struggling. This doesn’t seem like this makes any sense to me at all.”

Enter God’s Happiness

Your book is drenched in God-centered joy. I love it. On page 68 you write, “Prayer is our way of entering into the happiness of God himself.” Wow. Okay, unpack that sentence.

When I saw the question, which you sent me ahead of time, I actually looked into my own book and, of course, I bring that up in the place where I am talking about Jonathan Edwards’ great work, The End for Which God Created the World. Edwards’ thesis there, which John Piper has been hammering at and promoting in his own Piperian way for decades, is that God is happy because he enjoys his own glory. I mean, part of that is trinitarian — the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are glorifying each other.

But the fact is that God is infinitely happy because of who he is, and he is happy in his own glory. When you are especially glorifying him — probably not when you are confessing your sins so much, but 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.

(1950–2023) was an author, theologian, and apologist. He was the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, New York, and a co-founder of The Gospel Coalition.