Book Review: ‘Prayer’ by Timothy Keller Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God


Learning to pray has been a priority for Christians from the days of the disciples to today. Luke writes that Jesus “was praying in a certain place, and when He finished, one of His disciples said to Him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, just as John also taught his disciples.'” (Luke 11:1) Paul, in reaching his conclusion on how we are to stand against “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens” explains how his readers should pray: “Pray at all times in the Spirit with every prayer and request, and stay alert in this with all perseverance and intercession for all the saints.” (Ephesians 6:18) Learning how to pray was an integral part of the lives of the disciples, Jesus’ followers, and the early church, and should be as important to us today.

Which is why Timothy Keller’s book Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God is such a valuable addition to the wealth of teaching on prayer.

Prayer - Timothy KellerNewsweek, no doubt aiming for just such a pull-quote, describes Keller as “A C.S. Lewis for the twenty-first century.” Personally, I think that C.S. Lewis is a C.S. Lewis for the twenty-first century, but I understand the point nonetheless. Timothy Keller, who is the Senior Pastor at (and founder of) Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, has built himself up as one of the leading evangelical and conservative minds in Christian teaching in the twenty-first century. His books are best-sellers wherever they are sold, his sermons are listened to around the world, and his work with The Gospel Coalition (which he also helped found) is helping to support the current generation and build up the next generation of Reformed Christian leaders.

It was therefore only a matter of time before Timothy Keller wrote a book on prayer.

Published in 2014, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God does an admirable job of comprehensively covering prayer from top to bottom. The book’s Table of Contents outlines exactly how thorough Keller was in this endeavour:

Part One:  Desiring Prayer
1.  The Necessity of Prayer
2.  The Greatness of Prayer
Part Two:  Understanding Prayer
3.  What is Prayer?
4.  Conversing with God
5.  Encountering God
Part Three:  Learning Prayer
6.  Letters on Prayer
7.  Rules for Prayer
8.  The Prayer of Prayers
9.  The Touchstone of Prayer
Part Four:  Deepening Prayer
10.  As Conversation: Meditating on His Word
11.  As Encounter: Seeking His Face
Part Five:  Doing Prayer
12.  Awe: Praising His Glory
13.  Intimacy: Finding His Grace
14.  Struggle: Asking His Help
15.  Practice: Daily Prayer
Appendix:  Some Other Patterns for Daily Prayer[1]

Each chapter represents exactly the sort of in-depth exposition and instruction fans of Keller have come to expect. Similarly, however, Keller writes with the same compassion and experience we’ve come to appreciate. Keller does not write from a place of divine inspiration or egotistical oversight, but rather as that of a man who has had to struggle with learning to pray, how to pray, and what to pray. From the opening page, Keller places himself alongside the reader as just another journeyman pray-er, who “discovered prayer” in the second half of his adult life when a series of events over a short space of time cast a significant pall over his life.[2]

Furthermore, from the second page, Keller adds maybe the most comforting aspect of his preaching and writing — a reliance upon those who have come before him. Throughout the whole book, Keller draws upon the experiences and teaching of men and women from the entire age of Christianity — from C.S. Lewis to Flannery O’Connor. Keller also spends the better part of four chapters (chapters 6-9) drawing on the teachings of St. Augustine, Martin Luther, and John Calvin, to begin to understand the practical questions about prayer. C.S. Lewis and John Owen also add their own contributions through Keller’s teaching, helping us to understand the deeper role prayer can and should play in our lives.

However, maybe the most valuable tool provided in this book are four chapters (and an appendix) dedicated to practical application. Unlike some authors who remain living in the theoretical and theological, Keller does as a good preacher should and brings these doctrinal truths into the realm of application with a number of resources, tools, and examples that readers can follow to start, improve, and deepen their own prayer lives.

Maybe the only drawback one can take from this book is the sheer overload of theological and practical information. Readers absolutely must be willing to acknowledge their own maturity and progression, so as not to feel overwhelmed by all the examples they are not doing. Similarly, even those who have matured somewhat in their spiritual life are going to find that not every tool or trick in this book is applicable to them. Keller is writing a book that will be read by every type of person, and therefore must write in a way that helps every type of person. However, not everything Keller writes is helpful for every type of person. As an intellectual-type, with some societal restrictions, and suffering from depression and anxiety, I had to come to terms with the realisation that not everything Keller was suggesting could be translated into my life — while at the same time seeing where I can grow and must stretch.

This will be the case for all readers, especially as they read through the last four chapters. An attempt to apply every example and tool would not only be impossible, but would leave the reader worse-off than before they had read the book.

This aside, Prayer remains a deeply rewarding and challenging read, and has helped me understand the need for certain modifications, improvements, and additions to my prayer life.[3] The need for awe and praising God, as explained through the words of C.S. Lewis, was of tremendous impact to me. This book is most certainly for anyone, of any level of spiritual maturity — with the caveat that you go in knowing you don’t need to accomplish everything Keller suggests and examples immediately.

That’s the main lesson from this book, in fact, that prayer is a lifelong journey — a perpetual attempt to understand and deepen the awe and intimacy with which we experience God.

[2] Prayer, Timothy Keller, p. 9
[3]Timothy Keller has no problem recommending the work of others, especially the likes of Matthew Henry, as helpful tools that go into further depth than his own work. Subsequently, I can heartily recommend A Method for Prayer: Freedom in the Face of God by Matthew Henry, and edited by Ligon Duncan.