Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God, by Timothy Keller

As I said in a previous post, Timothy Keller is one of the wisest speakers I have ever listened to, and now he is definitely my favorite author of the last 3 or 4 years. “Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God” is a 5-star book and a comprehensive study about Prayer, with several mentions to the writings of very important people in church history, specially Augustine, Martin Luther and John Calvin. Despite being a Calvinist himself, Keller writes this book almost as a textbook and does an excellent job of providing different views of each of the points he is explaining.

“Prayer is the only entryway into genuine self-knowledge. It is also the main way we experience deep change — the reordering of our loves. […] It is the way we know God, the way we finally treat God as God. Prayer is simply the key to everything we need to do and be in life. We must learn to pray. We have to.”

This is how the author arguments that prayer is necessary for us and it is the unique way we can have real self-knowledge. The first part of the book focuses on why we should desire to pray and the first motive is its necessity. However, doing something just by necessity is called obligation, not desire. Thus, we should also comprehend the greatness of prayer as “a personal, communicative response to the knowledge of God”.

As John Calvin points out, “There is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity”, and the instinctive prayer is like a response to this general sense of God’s reality. However, the better understanding of who God is, the better our prayers are. Since prayer is a conversation with God and this conversation already started through his Word, the Bible is the way to actually hear God, to know who we are praying to, and how we should be praying. This conversation leads to an encounter with God, through it we sense his presence, receive his love, and we are changed in attitude, behavior, and character.

Then, the author starts to analyze what Augustine, Martin Luther, and John Calvin taught about prayer. Here we can see Augustine’s theology applied to prayer:

“We must see that our heart’s loves are ‘disordered,’ out of order. Things we ought to love third or fourth are first in our hearts. God, whom we should love supremely, is someone we may acknowledge but whose favor and presence is not existentially as important to us as prosperity, success, status, love, and pleasure. Unless at the very least we recognize this heart disorder and realize how much it distorts our lives, our prayers will be part of the problem, not an agent of our healing.”

Luther introduces the concept of contemplation (or meditation as it’s better known these days) and how we should paraphrase the Lord’s Prayer to do our petitions:

“Luther proposes ways to focus our thoughts and to warm and engage our affections for prayer. […] He advises what he calls ‘recitation to yourself’ of some part of the Scripture […] This recitation is a form of meditation (or ‘contemplation,’ as Luther calls it) of the Scripture, but it is not mere Bible study. It is taking words of the Scripture and pondering them in such a way that your thoughts and feelings converge on God. […] This meditation on the Word is then a kind of bridge as you move from a more formal study of the Bible to prayer. […] Luther suggests that after meditating on the Scripture, you should pray through each petition of the Lord’s Prayer, paraphrasing and personalizing each one using your own needs and concerns.”

Calvin’s Institute of the Christian Religion contains a major treatment of his “rules of prayer”. Each of the rules are summarized below:

John Calvin’s Institute of the Christian Religion

Calvin’s first rule for prayer is the principle of reverence or the ‘fear of God.’ Calvin calls Christians first of all to have a due sense of the seriousness and magnitude of what prayer is. It is a personal audience and conversation with the Almighty God of the universe. […] Calvin’s second rule for prayer is […] referring to what could be called ‘spiritual humility.’ It includes both a strong sense of our dependence on God, in general, and a readiness to recognize and repent our own faults in particular. […] His third rule is that we should have a submissive trust of God. […] The fourth rule is […] to pray with confidence and hope. Calvin writes, ‘[Though] cast down and overcome by true humility, we should be nonetheless encouraged to pray by a sure hope that our prayer will be answered.’ […] Calvin’s fifth rule is the rule of grace. He urges us to not conclude that following any set of rules could make our prayers worthy to be heard. Nothing we formulate or do can qualify us for access to God. Only grace can do that — based not on our performance but on the saving work of Christ.”

After their main ideas regarding prayer, Timothy Keller analyzes the Lord’s Prayer based on the works of these three great Christian thinkers and goes on to define, finally, what prayer is: a duty and a discipline; conversing with God by responding to his Word; and a balanced interaction of praise, confession, thanks, and petition. This conversation also requires us some things: must be in Jesus’ name, based on the gospel; the heart should be engaged in loving awe; and should accept weakness and dependence. Remembering Augustine, the author says:

“[You] should not begin to pray for all you want until you realize that in God you have all you need. That is, unless we know that God is the one thing we truly need, our petitions and supplications may become, simply, forms of worry and lust. We can use prayer as just another way to pursue many things that we want too much.”

Going back to the topic brought by Martin Luther, pastor Keller says that prayer will only be a true conversation with God, if “preceded by listening to God’s voice through meditation on the Scripture”. Meditation allows people to have deep convictions and good reasons behind their actions. We must understand what the author meant to say to his readers so that we can personalize the idea and bring it to our daily lives. Martin Luther teaches us to seek to understand what the passage shows about the character of God (praise), what it shows that is wrong about yourself (repentance), and what it shows that is needed in your life or some neighbor’s life (petition).

“You can’t delight in the law of the Lord without understanding Jesus’ whole mission. Without him, the law is nothing but a curse, a condemnation, a witness against us (Gal 3:10–11). He obeyed the law fully for us (2 Cor 5:21), so now it is a delight to us, not an everlasting despair.”

In the last part of the book, New York’s pastor tells us how we should pray, using all the things we have learned in the book. He makes clear that there is no closed formula for prayer, but gives us several sketches that we could use in our prayers. He describes three types of prayer: upward prayer, “praise and thanksgiving that focuses on God himself”; inward prayer , “self-examination and confession that bring a deeper sense of sin”; and outward prayer, “supplication and intercession that focuses on our needs and the needs of others in the world”.

Daily prayer has been a biblical practice for long time and, as much as spontaneous and constant prayer during the day should be present in our lives, “we will never develop it, however, unless we take up the discipline of regular, daily prayer. Tim Keller then adds he finds morning and evening prayers the best for him, but also tries to do some quick midday prayer to reconnect to morning insights. I’ll end with a starting plan for daily prayer the author gives in the final pages of the book:

APPROACHING: Think of the privilege of prayer. Realize God is present. Ask him to help you pray.

MEDITATION: Read a Scripture passage. Discern one or two truths you learn there. Choose the one that most impresses you and write it in a sentence. Now ask: How does this truth help me praise God? How does it show me a sin to confess? How does it show me something to ask God for?

WORD PRAYER: Now turn the answers to the three questions into a prayer — adoration, petition, and supplication.

FREE PRAYER: Pray about whatever needs are on your heart. Also spend time thanking God for the ways you see him working in your life and caring for you.

CONTEMPLATION: Take a moment to thank and admire God for what he has showed you today. End with a note of praise.”

Timothy Keller photo

Feel free to comment below on what you think about the author’s ideas and questions on what you didn’t understand. I hope these texts are being useful for someone, but as I said in some other post, I do not intend to do a full book review, but to emphasize the parts I mostly appreciated in the book. I have already started to read my next book, which is finally a proper philosophy book, “God, Freedom, and Evil” from Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga. And you can now follow me on Twitter, @heltonduarte.



Philosophy & Theology nerd (MA degree). Christian. Software Eng. Brazilian. Doubt the premises; find the hidden assumptions; live the conclusions consistently.

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Helton Duarte

Philosophy & Theology nerd (MA degree). Christian. Software Eng. Brazilian. Doubt the premises; find the hidden assumptions; live the conclusions consistently.