Prayers That Don’t Work
All week long we have been joined by pastor and author Tim Keller. He has a wonderful book coming out soon: Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God. It will be released on November 4. He joins us once more from New York City.
We are nearing the finish line. Question number nine is this: James 4:3 speaks of a type of prayer that doesn’t work, an idol-centered prayer. This sort of prayer asks with wrong motives. Can you explain this? What type of prayer doesn’t work?
Good Father, Good Gifts
James is talking about prayers in which you are asking for something selfishly, merely to spend on your own selfish desires. This type of prayer is only a subheading under an even bigger heading.
We need to understand at the outset that God will not give you anything bad for you. If he is your Father, he will not give you anything bad for you. I wouldn’t give my children something they ask for if they didn’t realize it’s unsafe and they would probably hurt themselves.
“Ultimately, there is no such thing as unanswered prayer.”
In his book on prayer, J.I. Packer says that ultimately, there is no such thing as unanswered prayer. John Calvin says that God grants our prayer even if he does not always respond to the exact form of our request. I’m amazed that John Calvin says that. Packer and Calvin are saying that we might ask for something that is just not good for us. God, being a good Father, gives us what we would have asked for if we knew everything he knew. Or he gives us what we’re after even though he won’t give it like we asked.
Asking for Snakes
The larger heading describes things God doesn’t give us — namely, things that are bad for us. But under that are things we ask for with very bad motives. We don’t know about it at the time. We could be very selfish or very proud. Maybe we ask for things assuming a very overblown assessment of our own gifts. God particularly won’t give us those badly motivated requests, because it would just fuel pride. So, I would say “badly motivated requests” is a sub-heading under the overall heading “things not good for us.”
Now, you could ask for something not good for you with the best motives. You are not being selfish. Your request is not idol-driven. It is just unwise, and God will not give it to you. But the idol-driven kinds of requests are even worse, and he simply won’t grant them. That is what I think James means.
Very good. Finally, we arrive at question ten, the last question of the week: There are a lot of books on prayer, some of them very good. What do you think will surprise readers about your book? What do you think makes your book on prayer unique?
I will give you three. I think people will probably come away with at least one of these three.
First, I believe I crafted a more comprehensive book. I wrote this book because, though many great books on prayer have been written, most either go into the theology of prayer, or they go into the practice of prayer, or they troubleshoot. I didn’t have one book I could give people that basically covered all the bases: a biblical view of prayer, the theology of prayer, and some methods of prayer. I didn’t have a good first book to give somebody. I hope people find it balanced and comprehensive, but not too long.
Second (this might be surprising), I go deeply into John Owen. I not only talk about his book on the Holy Spirit’s role in prayer, but also his book on the grace and duty of being spiritually minded. John Owen is very mystical. He really believes that you can have a faith-sight of Jesus Christ — that is, really see the glory of God, not with your physical eyes, but with the eyes of your heart. Your affections must be involved. You need deep, deep joy in prayer. He is very mystical in that sense. But at the same time, he discouraged Catholic mysticism. He discouraged the many ways in which evangelicals were trying to imitate Catholic contemplative prayer practices.
“If God is your Father, he will not give you anything bad for you.”
I think Owen’s influence makes my book unusual. Most books critical of contemplative prayer, as mine is, do not turn around and try to give you a robustly Reformed, Protestant approach to affectionate, meditative prayer. I think Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, and John Owen give you that. Many people trying to get away from contemplative prayer practices fear to talk about meditation at all. They fear talking about deep experiences and encounters with God. They fear to go there. I try to say, “No, we have really got to get there.” These guys are good guys. But at the same time, we need to be pretty critical of a lot of contemplative prayer practices people are bringing into the church right now. I hope many people find that discussion interesting.
Down to Earth
Third, in the end, the book is practical. I find an awful lot of books are afraid to actually say, “Here is a way to spend fifteen or twenty minutes in prayer.” I try to get very practical at the end. Some people would probably expect a Reformed, evangelical type like me to say, “Here is the exegesis; now you go and apply it for yourself.”