There’s no shortage of good books on prayer. Martin Luther’s Simple Way to Pray, Answers to Prayer by George Müller, CH Spurgeon’s The Pastor in Prayer, A Call to Pray by J.C. Ryle… These are some of the finest books on prayer I’ve read, and Christians would be doing themselves a disservice in not reading them.
While there are many wonderful classic books on this essential discipline, I’ve noticed a severe lack of good modern books on the subject. Most modern books tend to fall into a couple of categories: wicked and stupid. The wicked ones accuse people who pray things like “if it’s your will” of being cowards who are afraid to pray boldly. The stupid ones encourage us to pray like pagans.
And then Timothy Keller went and wrote a book on prayer. Keller, “wicked,” and “stupid,” are words that do not belong together. And he only further proves this in Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God.
Theology before practice
Keller doesn’t jump straight into the mechanics. Instead, he begins by helping readers develop a right theology of prayer ahead of principles for its practice.
This is important because most of us (likely) don’t have an articulated theology of prayer that goes beyond “I pray because I’m supposed to.”
While that’s true, there’s significantly more to it than that. Prayer, Keller explains, is both an instinct and a spiritual gift. “As an instinct, prayer is a response to our innate but fragmentary knowledge of God… As a gift of the Spirit, however, prayer becomes the continuation of a conversation God has started” (50). So, on an instinctual level, the “I’m supposed to” is correct—we just don’t understand why. This instinct is why prayer is a nearly universal phenomenon; regardless of their specific beliefs, nearly all humans have a concept of prayer, though the forms and purposes differ drastically.
But in describing prayer as a gift of the Spirit, Keller wants us to understand that prayer is both a conversation and encounter with God. It’s not “plunging into the abyss of unknowing and a state of wordless unconsciousness,” but something tethered to God’s Word, the place from which we learn of and hear from God. Thus, “if the goal of prayer is a real, personal connection with God, then it is only by immersion in the language of the Bible that we will learn to pray, perhaps as slowly as a child learns to speak” (55).
Keller’s emphasis on keeping prayer connected to the Bible is important, and something sorely lacking today. He doesn’t advocate for is a type of rote “just pray what the Bible says.” Instead, we pray through the Scriptures as Martin Luther encouraged. To let the Word guide and shape our prayers.
Leaning on the wisdom of the past
What I appreciate most about Prayer—beyond practical principles provided—is that Keller doesn’t attempt to be original. (And let’s be honest: when we do this, we usually just get ourselves into trouble). Instead, he leans heavily on the wisdom of those who have gone before us. Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Owen, Edwards, and Torrey are all highlighted. More recent voices like Lewis, Clowney, and Packer are as well. And there’s even a dash of the Westminster Catechism thrown in for good measure.
Could one ask for better influences?
This is where the book’s strong emphasis on being tethered to the Word in prayer comes from. Augustine, the Reformers, the Puritans, and faithful modern saints understood this better than many of us do today. We tend to give a verbal hat tip, whereas they see the Scriptures as vitally important to our prayer life. Luther advocates for a spiritual riffing off of the Word—taking the words of, say, the Lord’s Prayer and making them our own. Calvin encourages us to hold a joyful fear of God in prayer; to always be reverential in our stance toward Him and pursue humility as we pray. And Clowney likewise suggests “prayer involves an honesty that has no real parallel in human relationships” (135)
We repeatedly come to this conclusion throughout the book: if praying is both an instinct and a gift, we need to pray in light of what God has said about Himself—and about us.
Awe, intimacy, and struggle
Prayer is not “easy.” There are times when I am consistent in praying; there are others when praying at all feels perfunctory, even powerless. Often my own sinfulness, stubbornness, and even some insecurity are the cause. When the weight of the world feels as though its pressing down, it’s difficult to even know where to begin. When praying feels forced and feeble, it’s hard to muster up the power to continually pursue it.
And yet, this is what God desires of us. He wants us to embrace the struggle. because “prayer is awe, intimacy, struggle—yet the way to reality. There is nothing more important, or harder, or richer, or more life-altering. There is absolutely nothing so great as prayer” (32).
As I read this book, I continually found myself surprised by how much I needed to underline. It is rare to find a page in my copy where I don’t have a note, squiggle or marking of some sort because I was confronted or challenged by what I’d just read. And yet, I did not walk away from the book disheartened.
Keller’s message challenges us—far more than the “pray more harder” of so many of today’s books—even as it reminds us of the grace of God. This is what I believe those struggle in their prayer life desperately need. They don’t need another book to beat them up. They need encouragement and guidance. This is what Prayer offers. It is rich in its theology, winsome in its approach and wise in its application. There may be few good modern books on the discipline, but Prayer is one of them—and among the finest I’ve read of any era.
This article was first published November 26, 2014. It was updated in May 2023 for style and content.