Pastor and author Tim Keller was our guest to answer questions on prayer this week on the Ask Pastor John podcast. Keller has a new book on prayer, releasing next week, titled Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy With God.
He talked with us from his office in New York City about this often-neglected discipline, and we served him up 10 rapid-fire questions on prayer.
Here’s a lightly edited transcript of the conversation.
Question 1: Prayerlessness
Among Christians today, how widespread is prayerlessness—and what does that reveal about our spiritual health?
We know from empirical secular studies that everyone in our Western society today has less solitude. There is less and less of our days or our months or our weeks in which we are unplugged, when we are not listening to something or talking to somebody or texting. This is due to the pervasiveness of social media, the Internet and various sorts of electronic devices. In the past, most people couldn’t avoid solitude. But now there isn’t any.
This is anecdotal, but everybody I talk to seems so busy, and is communicating so incessantly, and around the clock, that I do think there is more and more prayerlessness. There is less and less time where people go into a solitary place to pray. And I am sure that we are more prayerless than we have been in the past, and that says our spiritual health is in freefall.
Question 2: Praying the Psalms
Your new book is clear: A profitable prayer life is impossible without solitude, but it’s also impossible without God’s word. You explain a time in your life when you were driven by desperation to pray, and so you opened the Psalms and prayed through them. Explain how you did this and what you learned from this season.
I am glad to talk about that. I came to see that the Psalms are extremely important for prayer. Perhaps that is because I read a book some years ago by Eugene Peterson called Answering God. He makes a strong case that we only pray well if we are immersed in Scripture. We learn our prayer vocabulary the way children learn their vocabulary—that is, by getting immersed in language and then speaking it back. And he said the prayer book of the Bible is the Psalms, and our prayer life would be immeasurably enriched if we were immersed in the Psalms. So that was the first step. I realized I needed to do that, but I didn’t know how.
Then I spent a couple of years studying the Psalms. At one point, I realized that there were a fair number of the Psalms that seemed repetitious or difficult to understand, so I couldn’t use them in prayer. So I decided to work through all 150 of them. I used Derek Kidner’s little commentaries on the Psalms (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries), Alec Motyer’s commentary on the Psalms (The New Bible Commentary, 21st century edition), and Michael Wilcock’s commentaries on the Psalms (Bible Speaks Today).
I worked through all 150 Psalms and wrote a small outline and a small description of what I thought the Psalm was basically about, and key verses that I thought were useful for prayer. Using nine-point font, I basically broke out all 150 Psalms on about 20 pages, which I now use in the morning when I pray.
By the way, I use the Book of Common Prayer schedule. I read Psalms in the morning and the evening, and then I pray. Sometimes I actually pray the psalm, but many times I just read the psalm and then pray. I do this morning and evening and get through all 150 Psalms every month. So that is what I learned and that is what I do now.
I love this intentional and disciplined approach. I presume over time you found Peterson’s point to be true, that this practice shaped your prayer language?
Yes. That is the reason why you don’t have to literally take the Psalm and turn it into a prayer, though that can often be powerful. Just reading all the Psalms every month all the way through, and then praying after reading a psalm, changes your vocabulary, your language, your attitude.
On the one hand, the Psalms actually show you that you can be unhappy in God’s presence. The Psalms, in a sense, give you the permission to pour out your complaints in a way that we might think inappropriate, if it wasn’t there in the Scriptures. But on the other hand, the Psalms demand that you bow in the end to the sovereignty of God in a way that modern culture wouldn’t lead you to believe.
Alec Motyer said the Psalms are written by people who knew a lot less about God than we do, and loved God a lot more than we do. And by that, he meant that because they didn’t know about the cross, there are a number of places where you could say they don’t know as much about God’s saving purposes as I do now. But, he says, even though many of the psalmists don’t know God as well as we do, they loved God more than we do.
Question 3: Meditation
Throughout your new book on prayer, you warn readers about moving from Bible study to prayer, skipping over one crucial step in the middle—meditation. Why are we quick to skip right over meditation?
It’s possible that we are quick to miss this step because we live in a culture that doesn’t encourage solitude and reflection. It is also possible that evangelicalism is a little bit too shaped by the rationality of Rationalism. So our approach to the Bible sometimes is to get the meaning through the grammatical, historical exegesis, and once you have got the meaning, that’s all you need, and you don’t have to work it into your heart.
I’m concerned about approaches to reading the Bible that say: Read the Bible, but don’t think about theology, just let God speak to you. I’m concerned about that because God speaks to you in the Bible, after you do the good exegesis and you figure out what the text is saying. Martin Luther believed you need to take the truth that you have learned through good exegesis, and once you understand that, you need to learn how to warm your heart with it—get it into your heart.
And it diminishes our prayer life that our hearts are cold when we get into prayer. Without meditation, you tend to go right into petition and supplication, and you do little adoration or confession. When your heart is warm, then you start to praise God and then you confess. When your heart is cold, which it is if you just study the Bible and then jump to prayer, you are much more likely to spend your time on your prayer list and not really engage your heart.