I started reading Timothy Keller’s book, “Prayer,” a few days ago. I’ve been working through it slowly, reading about a chapter or two per day. I started reading it for a couple of reasons. Firstly, one of the assistant pastors at my church had recommended it in a sermon. Second, I had read a couple of excerpts from it in a You Version Bible reading plan. And third, my parents had given me a copy for my birthday (which was four months and three days ago). As I started to read it, I expected to learn a bit and probably be challenged. What I didn’t expect was for Dr. Keller to almost completely change my understanding of how prayer works.
Let me explain—ever since I was little, I’ve understood that prayer was talking to God, but I thought that I was starting a conversation with Him whenever I wanted to. At times, I’d sit on my bed at night after I had finished praying, and wait for Him to answer me. After a while of not hearing anything, I’d just assume that I was either drowning Him out somehow, or that he was going to talk to me another time. (I was waiting for a voice to say something)
You see, as Dr. Keller says, “the Bible is the way to actually hear God speaking and also to meet God himself.” He goes on to say that when we read and receive God’s Word, we respond to God in prayer. God’s word is who He is. When he said, “Be still” to the Sea of Galilee, the storm immediately ceased. God saying something is the same as God doing something. Since God’s word is who He is, we understand His character through His Words in the Bible. Just like you need to know someone in order to have a deeper relationship with them, you need to get to know God through His word to intimately speak with Him.
Now let’s go back to my story. As a little kid, I would “start a conversation with God” and wait for Him to respond. What I was missing was that since God gave us His word to get to know Him thousands of years ago, he is the one who started the conversation. A mature Christian will realize that when we read His Word and pray, we respond to Him. We praise Him, thank Him, ask of Him, and/or confess to Him, either one at a time or all at once.
In contrast, the prayer of an unbeliever is comparable to asking a stranger on the street for help changing a flat tire. You can ask them for help, thank them for their time, and have a casual conversation, but you won’t start to have the deep, intimate conversations with them that you would with a close friend. In the same way, the unbeliever who goes to God in prayer can ask Him for help, thank Him for His help, just talk to Him, but they won’t be able to have the deep, heartfelt, friendly conversation with Him that someone who has come to know God’s character (through reading His word) can have with God.
So how does that shape our prayer lives? Well, it tells us that as Christians, we need to spend time reading the Bible in order to get to know God better. Reading the Bible fuels our prayers; it lets us know who God is, and what he has to say before we pray. It’s like saturating our spiritual sponges before they do their work (Keller). However, as Dr. Keller says, “This does not mean, of course, that we must literally read the Bible before each individual prayer,” but that we should regularly spend time reading and studying the Bible in order to fill our lives with a knowledge of God and His Word. When our spiritual sponge is full, it, “needs to be saturated in water only periodically in order to do it’s work.”
As a kid, even though I understood that prayer is a conversation (which involves responses from both parties), I misunderstood both how God spoke and how it all started. Now that I understand that our prayers actually start as responses to God’s words and goodness, I can look at prayer in a completely different way. Instead of getting frustrated from a “lack of response,” I can realize God has filled his word with “responses,” and that when I don’t pray, that I’m the one who’s not responding to that all God has to say is in His Word. Realizing that God takes the initiative allows us to praise Him even more. Because He initiates, it shows that He cares, and that is comforting.
What’s the best way to sum this up? With a couple of verses from 2 Peter. In verses 2-4 of chapter one, Peter has this to say:
May grace and peace be multiplied to you through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. His divine power has given us everything required for life and godliness through the knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and goodness. By these He has given us very great and precious promises, so that through them you may share in the divine nature, escaping the corruption that is in the world because of evil desires.
We will grow in grace and peace as we get to know God through His word, what a wonderful promise.