Review: Timothy Keller’s Prayer


I confess. I struggle with daily, personal prayer. When I do prayer, I fight to concentrate and when I do concentrate I often feel like my prayers are rote. It was encouraging to hear Tim Keller share his own struggle with prayer and the way he now has experienced God through a daily prayer life. “The greatness of prayer is nothing but an extension of the greatness and glory of God in our lives” (26). So prayer for Keller and many before him in the Reformed tradition is a reflection of who God is (see 45).

Prayer begins by examining two major streams of prayer in the broad Christian tradition—mystical and prophetic. I’ve heard murmurs for years about Keller and mysticism, but regularly in Prayer Keller is critical of mysticism (see 43, 59, and 150). I also wanted to point out that when discussing meditation Keller centers the practice on Jesus. “Meditate on Jesus, who is the ultimate meditation of God” (164 see also 177)—a clear blow to the kind of mindless meditation in some mysticism. He argues prophetic prayer is closer to what we see in Scripture, but also doesn’t reject mystical experiences (not the same as mysticism). Keller notes, “[P]rayer is ultimately a verbal response of faith to a transcendent God’s Word and his grace, not an inward descent to discover we are one with all things and God. . . . [However,] we need to recognize that prayer also can lead regularly to personal encounter with God, which can be indeed a wondrous, mysterious, awe-filled experience” (43 see also 66 and 179-85). This balance of biblical, prophetic rootedness in knowledge of God and a certain expectation of “a wondrous, mysterious, awe-filled experience” with God fills the pages of Prayer.

After laying this foundation, Keller explores what prayer should look like—the how of prayer. In this regard especially, Keller paints skillfully on canvas of the Reformed tradition. Primarily the how is rooted in Scripture (64) and discovered through the Psalms, the Reformers broadly as expositors of Scripture, and the prayer life of Jesus. So Prayer can described most aptly as an experiential theology of prayer through the Reformed tradition.

This historical rootedness is something sorely missing in many theologies today. It was refreshing to survey how those before us prayed—St. Augustine, John Calvin, Martin Luther, and John Owen—and not just their teaching, but their practice. For instance, Keller shows John Calvin’s rules for prayer:

  • “Calvin’s first rule for prayer is the principle of reverence or the ‘fear of God’” (97).
  • “Calvin’s second rule for prayer is ‘the sense of need that excludes all unreality’” (99).
  • “His third rule is that we should have a submissive trust of God” (101).
  • “[The fourth rule is praying] with confidence and hope” (101).
  • “The fifth rule is actually a major qualification of the very word rule. He says: ‘What I have set forth on the four rules of right praying is not so rigorously required that God will reject those prayers in which he finds neither perfect faith nor repentance, together with a warmth of zeal and petition rightly conceived’” (103).

Chapter eight “The Prayer of Prayers” ministered to me most personally. Keller here exposits the Lord’s prayer and teases out the full width and breadth of what Jesus sought to teach in it. Two observation were most helpful. First, as we pray “Our Father” we are not praying to a distant deity, but to a committed and loving Father who we have a relational communion with because of Jesus Christ. Also, he observes that praying for our daily bread also reminds us that we must not take more than our daily bread so that others might also receive their daily bread. “Therefore, to pray ‘give us—all the people of our land—daily bread’ is to pray against ‘wanton exploitation’ in business, trade, and labor, which ‘crushes the poor and deprives them of their daily bread” (114).

Prayer ends with the habitus—the daily doing of prayer. He gives four: (1) awe, (2) intimacy, (3) struggle, and (4) practice. In awe, Keller reminds us that we must praise God for who he is, just believing he is great is not enough. We are what we love. In intimacy, Keller leans hard on the forgiveness of sin we have in Christ. He emphasizes its freeness, while also reminding us to kill sin via the instruction of John Owen who encourages Christians to not kill sin with the law, but “‘by the spirit of the gospel’” (217). In struggle, Keller reminds us that many of our prayers our answered by changing our own hearts or giving us the ultimate good (the prayer we would have offered had we known everything God knows). He ends again with Jesus. “We know that God will answer us when we call ‘my God’ because God did not answer Jesus when he made the same petition on the cross” (239). Good news indeed. In practice, Keller connects daily prayer to the life of the church, offers helpful tips, and encourages us that communion with God is within our grasp.

Keller’s Prayer was a one of my favorite books of the year. Its depth and breadth will be invaluable for those struggling to pray for two reasons. First, Keller speaks experientially and theologically—a balance through out. Second, he also shows that prayer grows out of Scripture and also points to the fathers of our faith as our teachers and guides. A rare combination for any book dealing with such a practical and important topic.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Mathew B. Sims is the author of A Household Gospel: Fulfilling the Great Commission in Our Homes and a contributor in Make, Mature, Multiply (GCD Books). He completed over forty hours of seminary work at Geneva Reformed Seminary. He also works as the managing editor at Gospel-Centered Discipleship and the assistant editor at CBMW Men’s Channel. He regularly writes for a variety of publications. Mathew offers freelance editing and book formatting. He is a member at Downtown Presbyterian Church in Greenville, SC.