This week we are joined by pastor and author Tim Keller, who is soon to release a new book titled Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God. It’s a dandy. Tim joins us again to talk about prayer.
God as Our Father
We are moving on to Question 7 of 10 this week: We have passages like Luke 11:11–13 that seem to say a fruitful prayer life requires a foundational conviction that God is my Father, he is totally for me — without hesitation on his part — and he is wholly for my good. Just how key is this conviction for our prayer life?
It has to be foundational or Jesus wouldn’t have started the Lord’s Prayer with the words “Our Father.” Some Bible scholars may find an exception to what I am about to say here, but I don’t think Jesus ever addressed God without calling him “Father.” So, it must be foundational. And I would say it is foundational because in the word Father — that you are my Father — you essentially have the gospel in miniature. If God is my boss, if he is my employer, then even though he might be a very good boss or a very good employer, nevertheless, in the end he is not unconditionally committed to me. If I act up, he may give me a break or two, but eventually my boss will say, “I am sorry, you are terminated.”
“I really do not know how sinful I am unless I am in the presence of a holy God.”
So, if I forget that God is my Father, I may come to him in prayer basically in a mercenary way, saying, “I am going to do this and this and this, and now you owe me this and this and this.” First, that destroys the ability to adore God. You are basically in petition. Second, it makes prayer a way of manipulating God.
I have three sons, and I know when they were growing up, they were spiritually always at different places. But if one of them was acting up — if one of them was being a little more disobedient, a little more rebellious or something like that — if anything, as his father, my heart went out to him more. My heart actually got more involved with him, because I am not his boss. I am his father. So when I know that — when I call God “Father,” I know I am coming in Jesus’s name. I am coming only because of God’s grace. I know because Jesus died for me, now God is committed to me.
By the way, to say that God is my Father, and I can always know that he will hear me, and I can rest, and I can adore him, doesn’t mean I can sin away. And the reason is, of course, that if you break your boss’s rules, that doesn’t hurt your boss as much as if you break your father’s rules, because that is really trampling on your father’s heart.
So, calling God “Father” means on the one hand, I’m assured of grace and assured that he is always going to hear me. That makes my petitions stronger. But on the other hand, it also means that I have to confess my sins because this wonderful God who has done all this for me and has brought me into his family at the infinite cost of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ — I need to obey him because of his good grace.
To call God “Father” enhances everything you do in prayer. If you don’t know that God is your Father, it flattens and reduces and thins out every other kind of prayer.
Prayer to Self-Awareness
So true. Moving on to Question 8 of 10 — and this is perhaps the thing I was least expecting to learn and was most surprised to see in your book. It now makes sense to me — You say prayer gives us an accurate knowledge of ourselves. Explain this. How does prayer lead to self-knowledge?
C.S. Lewis gives this image: If you are a proud person, you will never be able to see God because a proud person who is looking down on everyone cannot see something that is above him, bigger than him. From that image, I get that it is in God’s presence that I learn humility. I really do not know how sinful I am unless I am in the presence of a holy God. That is what happened to Isaiah. Do you know the first thing that Isaiah says when he is in the presence of “holy, holy, holy” God in Isaiah 6? He does not say, “Oh, you are so holy.” He says, “I am a man of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:3–5). So right away, he senses his sin, just like the brighter a light is, the more you can see the dirt on your hands.
The more beautiful a person is, the more we unbeautiful people see that we are not very good looking. In other words, when you get close to superlativeness, you see your flaws. There is absolutely no way that you will really existentially know that you are a sinner and what is wrong with you unless you draw near to a holy God in prayer.
So is this why we don’t pray? We don’t want to see the dirt on us?
Yes. Prayer is very humbling. For example, if I am really upset, I find it very hard to stay upset when I get in God’s presence, because I say, “Look, Lord, you know you are wise, and I really don’t need to be this upset. You know what you are doing. It is very hard to stay on a kind of high-horse, self-righteous spot and then turn around and pray. It just knocks you off your horse right away.