Over the weekend I read the best book on prayer I’ve ever read. Yes, over the weekend: that’s how engaging this book is. And yes, I’ve read quite a few books on prayer. Paul Miller’s A Praying Life beats them all.
Four reasons why Miller’s book is that good:
1. It’s not simplistic. Miller engages the difficult questions about prayer without falling into naïve God-speak or smug cynicism. As an example, he starts the book by punching the reader in the mouth with this story:
I was camping for the weekend in the mountains of Pennsylvania with five of our six kids… I was walking down from our campsite to our Dodge Caravan when I noticed our fourteen-year-old daughter, Ashley, standing in front of the van, tense and upset. When I asked her what was wrong, she said, “I lost my contact lens. It’s gone.” I looked down with her at the forest floor, covered with leaves and twigs. There were a million little crevices for the lens to fall into and disappear.
I said, “Ashley, don’t move. Let’s pray.” But before I could pray, she burst into tears. “What good does it do? I’ve prayed for Kim to speak, and she isn’t speaking.”
My daughter Kim struggles with autism and developmental delay. Because of her weak fine motor skills and problems with motor planning, she is also mute. One day after five years of speech therapy, Kim crawled out of the speech therapist’s office, crying from frustration. My wife Jill said, “No more,” and we stopped speech therapy.
Prayer was no mere formality for Ashley. She had taken God at his word and asked that he would let Kim speak. But nothing happened. Kim’s muteness was a testimony to a silent God. Prayer, it seemed, doesn’t work.
Can you relate to this feeling? I can.
2. The author writes as both a fellow journeyer and a spiritual leader. To make me listen to what you have to say about prayer, you need to be skilled enough in prayer to know what you’re talking about, but real enough to relate to the rest of us. Miller walks this line perfectly. He isn’t afraid to claim that he knows something about prayer: “I never started out to write a book on prayer. I simply discovered that I’d learned how to pray. Life’s unexpected turns had created a path in my heart to God; God taught me to pray through suffering.” Okay, I’m listening. This guy has the smell of wisdom. But at the same time, he doesn’t over-promise: “What does it feel like to grow up? It is a thousand feelings on a thousand different days. That is what learning to pray feels like… a praying life isn’t something you accomplish in a year. It is the journey of a lifetime… There is not one magic bullet but a thousand pinpricks that draw us into [a praying life].” And that’s Miller’s stated goal: not for you to make impressive resolutions or pray for only a season, but to help you develop a praying life.
3. The book acknowledges both the poetry and the precision of effective prayer. To those who trust in formulas and structures, Miller has this rebuke: “Many attempts to teach people to pray encourage the creation of a split personality. You’re taught to ‘do it right.’ Instead of the real, messy you meeting God, you try to re-create yourself by becoming spiritual… So instead, begin with who you are. That’s how the gospel works. God begins with you. It’s a little scary because you’re messed up.” On the other hand, just when you start to make “praying like a child” an excuse for laziness, he retorts: “Many people… are suspicious of all systems. They feel it kills the Spirit. Systems seem to fly in the face of what we learned about childlike praying. But all of us create systems with things that are important to us. Remember, life is both holding hands and scrubbing floors. It is both being and doing. Prayer journals or prayer cards are on the ‘scrubbing floors’ side of life. Praying like a child is on the ‘holding hands’ side of life. We need both.”
4. The book is full of powerful sentences. If an author, time and again, grabs me by the throat with a single sentence, I know I’m reading a book that has punch. Hence the reason I enjoy Lewis, Tozer, and Chesterton. Miller is not in the same category as those great writers, but his book does have its share of thought-provoking turns of phrase. Among them:
- Learning to pray doesn’t offer us a less busy life; it offers us a less busy heart.
- If you are not praying, then you are quietly confident that time, money, and talent are all you need in life.
- Less mature Christians have little need to pray… there is no complexity to their worlds because the answers are simple.
- Cynicism is the air we breathe, and it is suffocating our hearts. Our only hope is to follow Jesus as he leads us out of cynicism.
- The persistent widow and the friend at midnight get access, not because they are strong but because they are desperate. Learned desperation is at the heart of a praying life.
- I do not understand prayer. Prayer is deeply personal and deeply mysterious. Adults try to figure out causation. Little children don’t. They just ask.
- Everything you do is connected to who you are as a person and, in turn, creates the person you are becoming. Everything you do affects those you love. All of life is covenant.
- We think spiritual things – if done right – should just ‘flow.’ But if you have a disability, nothing flows, especially in the beginning.
- There is a tendency among Christians to get excited about ‘listening to God’ as if they are discovering a hidden way of communicating with God that will revolutionize their prayer lives… This subtly elevates an experience with God instead of God himself. Without realizing it, we can look at the windshield instead of through it.
- How would you love someone without prayer? People are far too complicated; the world is far too evil; and my own heart is too off center to be able to love adequately without praying.
Whether you’re just learning to pray or seeking to deepen your practice of prayer, do yourself a favor and read A Praying Life. It will feed your soul. We’ll have a few copies available at the Coram Deo book table next week.