The giving away of good books is a fruitful habit too seldom practiced. And the reading (and re-reading) of old “classics” is an edifying discipline too easily neglected.
Among contemporary books, the two books I most often give away or recommend are Tim Keller’s The Reason for God and D.A. Carson’s A Call to Spiritual Reformation. (Bryan Chapell’s Christ-Centered Preaching is also up there.)
Because Carson’s book is older and perhaps not as widely circulated as some of his other books, I thought it might be helpful to reproduce on my blog here a selection from its Introduction. The book explores 12 Pauline prayers, and each chapter concludes with a series of questions for discussion and reflection. Its structure, format, and length make it an ideal book for small groups to use, so if you are looking for a book to go through for a small group or book study this fall, it would make a great option.
I believe Carson’s diagnosis of the Western church, and his consequent call for reformation and God-centeredness, is as relevant today as it was 22 years ago when the book was first published. Or more.
When it comes to knowing God, we are a culture of the spiritually stunted. So much of our religion is packaged to address our felt needs—and these are almost uniformly anchored in our pursuit of our own happiness and fulfillment. God simply becomes the Great Being who, potentially at least, meets our needs and fulfills our aspirations. We think rather little of what he is like, what he expects of us, what he seeks in us. We are not captured by his holiness and his love; his thoughts and words capture too little of our imagination, too little of our discourse, too few of our priorities.
In the biblical view of things, a deeper knowledge of God brings with it massive improvement in the other areas mentioned: purity, integrity, evangelistic effectiveness, better study of Scripture, improved private and corporate worship, and much more. But if we seek these things without passionately desiring a deeper knowledge of God, we are selfishly running after God’s blessings without running after him. We are even worse than the man who wants his wife’s services—someone to come home to, someone to cook and clean, someone to sleep with—without ever making the effort really to know and love his wife and discover what she wants and needs; we are worse than such a man, I say, because God is more than any wife, more than the best of wives: he is perfect in his love, he has made us for himself, and we are answerable to him.
Even so, this is not a book that directly meets the challenge to know God better. Rather, it addresses one small but vital part of that challenge. One of the foundational steps in knowing God, and one of the basic demonstrations that we do know God, is prayer—spiritual, persistent, biblically minded prayer. Writing a century and a half ago, Robert Murray M’Cheyne declared, “What a man is alone on his knees before God, that he is, and no more.” But we have ignored this truism. We have learned to organize, build institutions, publish books, insert ourselves into the media, develop evangelistic strategies, and administer discipleship programs, but we have forgotten how to pray.
Most pastors testify to the decline in personal, family, and corporate prayer across the nation. Even the recently organized “concerts of prayer” are fairly discouraging from an historical perspective: some of them, at least, are so blatantly manipulative that they are light-years away from prayer meetings held in parts of the world that have tasted a breath of heaven-sent revival. Moreover, it is far from clear that they are changing the prayer habits of our churches, or the private discipline of significant numbers of believers.
Two years ago at a major North American seminary, fifty students who were offering themselves for overseas ministry during the summer holidays were carefully interviewed so that their suitability could be assessed. Only three of these fifty—6 percent!—could testify to regular quiet times, times of reading the Scriptures, of devoting themselves to prayer. It would be painful and embarrassing to uncover the prayer life of many thousands of evangelical pastors.
But we may probe more deeply. Where is our delight in praying? Where is our sense that we are meeting with the living God, that we are doing business with God, that we are interceding with genuine unction before the throne of grace? When was the last time we came away from a period of intercession feeling that, like Jacob or Moses, we had prevailed with God? How much of our praying is largely formulaic, liberally larded with clichés that remind us, uncomfortably, of the hypocrites Jesus excoriated?
I do not write these things to manipulate you or to be engendering guilty feelings. But what shall we do? Have not many of us tried at one point or another to improve our praying, and floundered so badly that we are more discouraged than we ever were? Do you not sense, with me, the severity of the problem? Granted that most of us know some individuals who are remarkable prayer warriors, is it not nevertheless true that by and large we are better at organizing than agonizing? Better at administering than interceding? Better at fellowship than fasting? Better at entertainment than worship? Better at theological articulation than spiritual adoration? Better—God help us!—at preaching than at praying?
What is wrong? Is not this sad state of affairs some sort of index of our knowledge of God? Shall we not agree with J. I. Packer when he writes, “I believe that prayer is the measure of the man, spiritually, in a way that nothing else is, so that how we pray is as important a question as we can ever face”? Can we profitably meet the other challenges that confront the Western church if prayer is ignored as much as it has been?
My aim, then, in this series of meditations, is to examine the foundations again. Many different approaches might have been chosen, but the one adopted here is simple. Just as God’s Word must reform our theology, our ethics, and our practices, so also must it reform our praying. The purpose of this book, then, is to think through some of Paul’s prayers, so that we may align our prayer habits with his. We want to learn what to pray for, what arguments to use, what priorities we should adopt, what beliefs should shape our prayers, and much more. We might have examined the prayers of Moses, or of David, or of Jeremiah. But here we focus on Paul, and especially on Paul’s petitions, acknowledging that the focus is limited. We shall constantly try to grasp not only the rudiments of Paul’s prayers but also how Christians can adopt Paul’s theology of prayer in their own attempts to pray. And since lasting renewal, genuine revival, and true reformation spring from the work of the Holy Spirit as he takes the Word and applies it to our lives, it is important for me as I write this, and for you as you read it, to pause frequently and ask that the Holy Spirit will take whatever is biblically faithful and useful in these meditations and so apply it to our lives that our praying will be permanently transformed.