As Americans gather together this week and pause to give thanks to God for our many blessings as individuals, families and a nation, prayer seems to be held in lower and lower esteem, but Pastor Timothy Keller’s new book says instinctively humbling ourselves before God is critical in our relationship with the Lord and in making our society as strong as possible.
Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. His latest book is “Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God.” Long after starting his church, Keller confesses he still struggled to have a consistent prayer life. Around the time the 9/11 terrorist attacks struck his city, he and his family were going through other crises, including a cancer diagnosis for him. Keller says his wife challenged him to be much more diligent about prayer and drove the point home in an unforgettable way.
“I was never disciplined enough about prayer until my wife gave me an illustration. She says, ‘Imagine that the doctor told you that you had a fatal disease or it would be fatal if you didn’t take a medicine. What if he said to you that every night at 11:00, you have to take a pill. If you forget or you don’t take that pill, you’ll be dead by morning.’ She said, ‘Would you ever forget that pill? Would you ever say oh, I was too busy or I just didn’t remember it? No, you would never forget and you would never miss because you knew you had to,” said Keller.
He says the light went on about the critical importance of prayer at that moment.
“The reason we’re constantly saying, ‘Oh, I got too tired’ is because we really don’t believe we have to pray. We really don’t believe it. If we believed we had to pray. If we believed it was absolutely as necessary for us to make it in life and to have a relationship with God and to be what God wants us to be, if we see that it’s absolutely necessary, we’re going to do it every night. And you know what, the penny dropped for me,” said Keller.
According to Keller, there exists a tension in the approach to prayer of many people. One the one hand, he says, humanity is hard-wired to know there is a God who is infinitely more powerful than they are.
“Most people have an instinct that there’s something bigger out there and also that we are dependent on it. And in times of insufficiency, when we feel we don’t have the wisdom, we don’t have the ability, we don’t have the strength to do something, when we feel insufficient we just instinctively reach out to that greater, higher power,” said Keller.
But if the instinct is there, why is it so difficult for even many devout believers to maintain a disciplined prayer life? Keller chalks it up to another human nature.
“I think the instinct of prayer is there. At the same time, the practice of prayer on the other end is very, very difficult because we don’t like being insufficient. That’s the answer,” said Keller.
“When you’re feeling insufficient, it leads you to pray, but nobody likes to stay in that condition. Because we want to be self-sufficient, we feel like we should be self-sufficient so we don’t find prayer, in another sense, very comforting or satisfying. So it’s instinctive but difficult because we are insufficient but we don’t like not feeling self-sufficient,” said Keller.
Whose prayers does God actually hear? Keller says the Bible provides some interesting case studies on this question. He points to a Psalm that states, ‘If I cherish iniquity in my heart, He will not hear me.’ However, a passage in the book of Jonah shows unbelieving people in Ninevah crying out to God and being heard. In another account, God even answers prayer from the evil Israeli King Ahab. Keller says the truth on this issue is somewhat layered.
“If you’re not praying in Jesus’ name, God is under no obligation to hear your prayer. If you don’t have faith in Christ, if you’re not praying in Jesus’ name, He has no obligation to hear. But sometimes, just out of His Mercy and in His wisdom, He does,” said Keller.
The Bible is full of many different kinds of prayer. Prayers of thanksgiving, prayers of praise to God, prayers for God to act in a certain way and even prayers for the destruction of enemies can be found among others. There are different approaches to prayer throughout Christianity. Some believers insist on spontaneous prayer, others prefer heartfelt recitations of written prayers while still others follow a consistent structure of prayer without anything on paper. Which approach does Keller endorse?
“Yep!” he quipped, clearly approving of all of the above.
“Seriously, I mean that. Running through an acronym like adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication (ACTS), so it’s a discipline. Just pouring your heart out. Just saying here’s what’s on my heart. Written prayers, where you actually take a prayer out of some prayer book. Spontaneous prayers. You really do need to do all those things. There needs to be a balance of that,” said Keller.
Keller’s book also comes at a time of intense political division and a culture that appears to be coarsening by the day. Keller says prayer absolutely has a place in the solution but there’s a bigger immediate challenge.
“Our public culture now doesn’t even respect religion much. They see it as a problem. At the very, very least, there needs to be respect for people of faith or we’re really going to be going in a very, very bad direction,” said Keller.
He says there is no doubt a nation turned towards God and engaged in prayer would witness vast improvement.
“The more people who turn to God in prayer, the more people that seek to follow His will, we’re salt and light. There will never be a completely godly society. There couldn’t be. There never has been. But the more people who are seeking Him, the more salt and light and the healthier society will be,” said Keller.