The book is drenched in God-centered joy. On page 68, you write, “Prayer is our way of entering into the happiness of God himself.” Unpack that sentence for us.
I bring that up in the place where I am talking about Jonathan Edwards’s great work The End for Which God Created the World. Edwards’s thesis there, which, of course, John Piper has been hammering at, and promoting in his own way for decades, is that God is happy because he enjoys his own glory. That is trinitarian — the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit are glorifying each other.
But the fact is that God is infinitely happy because of who he is, and he is just happy in his own glory. When you are especially glorifying him, when you are adoring and glorifying him, that is when you, in a sense, are entering into his happiness, because you are doing what he does, and you are experiencing the same joy he has. So that is where I talk about that.
Question 7: Praying to a Father
We have passages like Luke 11:11–13 that seem to say a fruitful prayer life requires a foundational conviction that God is my Father, he is totally for me, without hesitation on his part, he is wholly for my good. Just how key is this conviction for our prayer life?
It has to be foundational or Jesus wouldn’t have started the Lord’s Prayer with the words “Our Father.” Some Bible scholar may find an exception to what I am about to say here, but I don’t think Jesus ever addressed God without calling him Father. And so it must be foundational. And I would say it is foundational because in the word Father — that you are my Father — is the gospel in miniature. If God is my boss or my employer, then even though he might be a good boss or a good employer; nevertheless, in the end, he is not unconditionally committed to me. If I act up, he may give me a break or two, but eventually my boss will terminate me.
And so if I forget that God is my Father, I may come to him in prayer in a mercenary way, saying: I am going to do this and this and this, and now you owe me this and this and this. First, that destroys the ability to adore God. You are basically in petition. Secondly, it makes prayer a way of manipulating God.
I have three sons, and growing up they were always at different places. But if one of them was acting up, if one of them was actually being a little more disobedient, a little more rebellious or something like that, as a father my heart went out to him more. It actually got me more involved with him, because I am not his boss, I am his father. And so when I know that when I call God Father I know I am coming in Jesus’s name. I am coming only because of God’s grace. I know because Jesus died for me, now God is committed to me.
By the way, to say that God is my Father and I can always know that he will hear me and I can rest and I can adore him, that doesn’t mean I can sin away. And the reason is, of course, that if you break your boss’s rules, that doesn’t hurt your boss as much as if you break your father’s rules, because that is trampling on your father’s heart.
So I would say calling God Father means, on the one hand, I’m assured of grace and assured that he is always going to hear me. So that makes my petitions stronger. But on the other hand, it also means that I have to confess my sins because this wonderful God who has done all this for me and has brought me into his family at infinite cost of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, that I need to obey him because of his good grace.
So to call God Father enhances everything you do in prayer. If you don’t know that God is your Father, it flattens and reduces and thins out every prayer.
Question 8: Prayer and Self-Knowledge
Here is perhaps the thing I was least expecting to learn, and found most surprising to see in your book. You say prayer gives us an accurate knowledge of ourselves. Explain this. How does prayer lead to self-knowledge?
C.S. Lewis gives an image. If you are a proud person, you will never be able to see God, because a proud person looking down on everyone cannot see something that is above him, bigger than him. And from that image, I get that it is in God’s presence that I learn humility. I really don’t know how sinful I am unless I am in the presence of a holy God. That is what happened to Isaiah. When Isaiah is in the presence of the “Holy, holy, holy God” in Isaiah 6, what is the first thing he says? He does not say: “Oh, you are so holy.” He says, “I am a man of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5). So right away, he senses his sin just like the brighter a light is, the more you can see the dirt on your hands.
The more beautiful a person is, the more we unbeautiful people see that we are not good looking. In other words, when you get close to superlativeness, you see your flaws. And so there is absolutely no way that you will really existentially know that you are sinner, and know what is wrong with you, unless you draw near to a holy God in prayer.
Is this why we don’t pray? We don’t want to see the dirt on us?
Yes. Prayer is humbling. For example, if I am really upset, it is hard for me to stay upset when I get in God’s presence, because I say: Lord, you are wise, and I really don’t need to be this upset. You know what you are doing. It is hard to stay on a high horse and be self-righteous and then turn around and pray. It just knocks you off your horse right away.
Question 9: Prayers That Don’t Work
In passages like James 4:3, we are told there’s a type of prayer that doesn’t work, an idol-centered prayer, asking for something with wrong motives. Can you explain this? What type of prayer doesn’t work?
When James talks about prayers in which you are asking for something selfishly or just to spend on selfish desires, I would say this would be a sub-heading under an even bigger heading.
God is not going to give you something that is bad for you, just like I, as a father, wouldn’t give my children something they ask for if they don’t realize it would not be safe and they would probably hurt themselves. J.I. Packer in his book on prayer actually says that ultimately there is no such thing as unanswered prayer. And even John Calvin says that God grants our prayer even if he does not always respond to the exact form of our request. That is a pretty amazing thing for Calvin to say.
So what Packer and Calvin are saying is that we might ask for something that is just not good for us, and God, being a good Father, tries to give us what we would have asked for if we knew everything he knew, or give us what we are after even though he won’t give it in the form that we ask for.
Now that is the general heading of things that are bad for us. But inside, there are some things that we are asking for with bad motives. We don’t know about it at the time. It could be selfish or proud or maybe there are things that assume an overblown assessment of our own gifts. And those things that are actually badly motivated, God particularly can’t give us because that would just fuel pride. And so I would say that is a sub-heading. It is something that is not good for us.
Now you could ask for something that is not good for you with the best of motives. You are not being selfish. It is not idol-driven. It is just unwise, and he is not going to give it to you. But then the idol-driven kinds of requests would even be worse and he just simply won’t do it.
Question 10: The New Book
Of course, there are a lot of books on prayer, and some especially good ones. So what do you think will surprise readers about your book? Or what do you think makes your book on prayer unique?
I will give you three, and I think people will probably come away with at least one of these three.
First, it is a more comprehensive book. The reason I wrote it was because there is a lot of great books on prayer, but the books on prayer either go into the theology of prayer or they go into the practice of prayer or they troubleshoot it. And I didn’t have one book I could give to people that was basically covering all the bases — a biblical view of prayer, the theology of prayer, and methods of prayer. So some people might say it’s balanced and comprehensive, but not too long.
Second, and this might be surprising, I really go deeply into John Owen, not only his book on the role of the Holy Spirit in prayer, but also his book on the grace and duty of being spiritually minded. John Owen is mystical. He really believes that you can have a faith-sight of Jesus Christ — really see the glory of God, not with your physical eyes, but with the eyes of the heart. He says your affections have to be involved. There must be deep, deep, deep joy in prayer. So he is mystical in that sense. But at the same time, he is down on Catholic mysticism and down on an awful lot of the ways in which evangelicals are trying to bring in Catholic contemplative prayer practices.
That is what is unusual about the book. Most books I know that are critical of contemplative prayer, as I am, do not turn around and try to give you a robustly Reformed and Protestant approach to affectionate prayer and meditation. Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, and John Owen give you that. But many people trying to get away from the contemplative prayer practices are afraid of talking about meditation at all, and they are afraid of talking about deep experiences and encounters with God. I try to say: No, we have to get there. And these guys are good guys. But at the same time, we need to be pretty critical of a lot of the contemplative prayer practices that are being brought into the Church right now. I think that is what I think a lot of people would probably find pretty interesting.
Third, in the end the book is practical. I do find an awful lot of books are afraid of actually saying: Here is a way to actually spend 15 or 20 minutes in prayer. I try to get pretty practical at the end. I think some people would expect a Reformed, evangelical type like me to be a little bit more: Here is the exegesis, and now you go and apply it for yourself.