Prayer. Is there anything in the world less glamorous and more important?

In his new book, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (Dutton) [20 quotes | review], Tim Keller distills decades of experience and biblical wisdom into a theologically informed, practically shaped guide for life on our knees. Blending sociological, theological, devotional, and methodological insights, he has produced a gift for anyone desiring to “gaze upon the beauty of the LORD” (Ps. 27:4), petition him with humble boldness, and watch him respond with infinitely wise love.

A vibrant prayer life is often grueling and rarely convenient. It’s hard-won. And it’s absolutely worth it. Nothing compares to the experience of knowing and revering and enjoying and receiving from the King of the universe—all of which, Keller demonstrates, is available to you through prayer.

I asked the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City about mysticism, the problem with quiet times, how he’s taught his congregation to pray, advice for the distracted, and more.

You argue for a “radically biblical mysticism” a la John Owen and Jonathan Edwards—or what John Murray called an “intelligent mysticism.” How should we view the intersection between theology and experience when we’re on our knees?

Biblical meditation means, first, to think out your theology. (That means having it clearly in your mind. Know what you believe.) Second, it means to work in your theology. (That means self-communion, talking to yourself. For example, “Why are you cast down, O my soul?” It is asking yourself, “How would I be different if I took this theological truth seriously? How would it change my attitudes and actions if I really believed this from the bottom of my heart?”) Third, it means to pray up your theology. (That means turning your theology into prayer, letting it trigger adoration, confession, and supplication.) Do those things, and your theology will intersect with your experience.

In what ways is our evangelical concept of a “quiet time” lacking? 

Most conceptions of the evangelical “quiet time,” at least as I was instructed in them, tended to focus mostly on inductive Bible study. So it was more information-driven and less oriented toward communion with God. However, in reaction, we see lots of people talking about lectio divina—which can be defined in a lot of ways. But I’ve often heard it described as reading the Bible not for theological truth, but in order to “hear a personal word from God.” The trouble is that you hear what God is saying to you in any particular place by discerning the text’s theological meaning. You can’t be sure that anything that happens to hit you that day is God speaking to you in the Bible. Yet if you spend all your devotional time using commentaries and other texts to figure out a passage, it takes up all the time and energy, and your prayer time is often perfunctory.

I’ve concluded that most people should set aside regular time in which we are studying the Bible, seeking to understand its meaning. Then, out of this study, we should choose passages to meditate on during our times of prayer. Martin Luther and John Owen believed (rightly) that before prayer it was important to meditate on biblical truths until our affections and hearts were as deeply engaged as possible. I find that their instructions on communion with God fit in with neither the typical evangelical “quiet time” nor the new emphasis on lectio divina.

How have you taught your congregation to pray?

I have preached sermon series on prayer six or seven times, and I’ve had years in which I trained my leaders in prayer. We have also had seasons of congregational prayer. Finally, I hope my pastoral prayers—especially the ones that are not written out—would be instructive. Spontaneous public prayers can reveal a lot about a person’s private prayer life. In that way, I can be something of a model. Having said all this, I don’t believe I’ve been particularly good at teaching my church to pray.

You recall being convicted upon realizing that the apostle Peter “assumed an experience of sometimes overwhelming joy in prayer was normal” (1 Pet. 1:8). How do we rightly pursue such joy, especially when it feels far more elusive than normal?

You just have to be faithful and regular in prayer. Most of us pursue joy in prayer, don’t get it, and then don’t stick at it. But as the Puritans used to say, “Mind your work, not your wages.” Prayer is a duty—even if we don’t get much out of it emotionally, we nevertheless owe it to God. Christians necessarily believe we depend on God for everything—a prayerless Christian, then, is a contradiction in terms. But if there is a secret to this, it may be right here. When we seek God for himself, not for some emotional payoff, and we develop habits of regular prayer, the sense of joy and of his presence is more likely to come and come more often.

Why is it so crucial to pray in Jesus’s name? What are some ways we pray in our own names instead?

To pray in Jesus’s name means to acknowledge that we only have access to the Father’s attention and grace through the mediation and work of our Savior. So just using the words “in Jesus’s name” is not sufficient. We use the words to reinforce the required attitudes and motives. To pray “in Jesus’s name” is to come before God in both humility (knowing we don’t deserve God’s help) and confidence (knowing that we are clothed in Christ’s righteousness and worthiness), as well as grateful joy.

To pray in Jesus’s name, then, is to be aware of the grace of the gospel as the basis of prayer, and to have our attitude in prayer deeply enriched—both humbled and exalted. When we consciously or unconsciously expect God to hear our prayer because of our relative freedom from overt sin or because of our service and moral effort, we are praying in our own name.

What advice would you give to those who struggle with getting distracted and losing their train of thought while praying?

Martin Luther suggested meditation. For example, if you paraphrase the Lord’s Prayer, as Luther counsels, it forces you to concentrate. Almost any method of meditation can focus the mind and then engage the affections so that when you turn to prayer you won’t be distracted. It should go without saying—but I will say it—that what I mean by “meditation” is not any of the contemplative practices that aim at getting beyond words and rational thought into pure awareness of our oneness with God. Biblical meditation, rather, is filling the mind with Scripture and then “loading the heart” (to use John Owen’s phrase) with it until it affects not only the emotions but the entire life.