Getting Serious About Knowing God in Prayer

Keith KettenringChristian Living, Prayer & Fasting, The Uncommon Journey

Since starting to establish a online platform, I receive 10-12 email messages everyday from people eager to inform and sell me their insights on how to have a successful internet platform. They’re telling me how to blog, podcast, use Facebook and Twitter, write, develop online courses and ebooks, publish, do webinars and videos, and build a recognized brand. But, none of these successful entrepreneurs help me know God better. None of them teaches me how to commune with God. Why would I think they could? That’s not their purpose or goal. 

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Jeff Goins, a successful writer and internet entrepreneur, doesn’t help me to refurbish an antique desk. He’s a writer who helps other writers. Jeff may know some furniture restoration techniques. Yet, he’s not the “go to” guy on restoring antique furniture.  

Let’s apply this to praying.

Isn’t it fascinating that we look to and trust people to teach us about prayer who don’t know prayer? They take a stab at it now and then. They read a book about it and pass on some ideas they glean from their reading. They talk about a passage of scripture on prayer. They cry out to God when they’re desperate enough. 

However, communing with God in prayer is not their daily, ordinary, regular way of living. They have too many other, more important, things to tend to. 

Yet, we try to learn prayer from people who are inconsistent, somewhat ignorant, and less than committed to real communion with God. 

Why should we expect to learn how to pray from a pastor who struggles to find 15 minutes a day to meet with God?

Is this one reason why our prayer lives are so anemic? We have many teachers but no one who genuinely models for us a life of prayer whom we can follow. 

A Typical Approach to Prayer, Unfortunately

I recently read the book entitled Prayer by Timothy Keller. While I appreciate much about what he writes on prayer – “[Prayer] is the way we know God, the way we finally treat God as God. Prayer is simply the key to everything we need to do and be in life” – he falls far short of exploring the fullness of knowing God in prayer. By focusing on the prayer writings of Augustine, Martin Luther, and John Calvin, Keller objectifies prayer as this “thing” we do rather than the way we live. I imagine that’s how he approaches prayer himself – academic not experiential. 

Prayer seems to be an object of study to Keller. As helpful as this might be, he totally misses the reality of prayer. Prayer is participating in the life of the Trinity not an object that’s dissected for comprehension.

I grew weary of his constant referencing of “prayer styles” into categories like, “communion-centered” or “kingdom-centered” prayers. This “straw man” dichotomy must be destroyed. Prayer is God-centered or it is nothing. I use the word “communion” for prayer since it best reflects a participation in the life of the Trinity which is our privilege and responsibility as Christians. When we commune with/participate in God, categories mean nothing. The relationship is everything. 

And that is what’s missing in most modern approaches to prayer – relationship. I’m talking intimate union with Mercy and Truth. In 321 pages of Keller’s Prayer, I don’t recall seeing the word “relationship” even once.

Keller illustrates that most teaching on prayer we’re exposed to comes from people who read books about how others pray or exegete passages from the Bible about how others pray. They rarely pray themselves. Keller only referenced his own experience of prayer a couple times. One has to wonder why. 

Just because Christian leaders may know a lot of theology or Bible information doesn’t automatically make them proficient about knowing God in prayer. They may be able to help you know more about God. However, your heart seeks to actually know God. 

Knowing God Means Experiencing God in Prayer

The Psalmist David writes of seeking the Lord (prayer): “This is the generation of those who seek Him, who seek the Face of the God of Jacob.”

He then poetically exclaims:

Lift up your gates, O you princes, and be lifted up, O everlasting doors, and the King of glory shall enter. 

Who is this King of glory? The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle!

Lift up your gates, O you princes, and be lifted up, O everlasting doors, and the King of glory shall enter. 

Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts, He is the King of glory! (Psalm 24.6-10)

David knows that our heart yearns to know God. To know the might of his power and glory in us. To know his strength in our weakness. To know his might in our struggles. To know his glory in our mundane.

Our role is to open the door of our heart and let Him enter. 

More than knowing the Bible or how to do certain spiritual disciplines, we want to truly experience the reality of the Trinity in our life. 

Greater and Lesser Lights 

Do you know there are men and women who devote their whole day to communion with God? They have learned and continue to learn what it’s like to abide in Christ every moment. 

Why do we ignore the brilliant rays of enlightenment beaming from holy men and woman and rely on “lesser lights” to guide us? 

  • We’re unaware of their lives. 
  • We’ve been told they are extremists, other worldly, with whom we cannot relate. 
  • We reject them because they don’t fit into our theological framework. 

When someone who has devoted their life to God in prayer says something about prayer, we need to pay close attention. Such is the case with the abbot of a monastery on Vashon Island in the Puget Sound, Washington. Abbot Tryphon says:

We all need a good dose of silent prayer each and every day. Finding that perfect place in your home that can become your cave or your prayer closet gives you that space where you can go deep into the heart and connect with God…The Jesus Prayer is that perfect prayer for it is a place of adoration and praise and a place that proclaims Jesus is Lord who can grant you mercy. The simple prayer which evokes the holy name of Jesus can transform your life and take you into the very heart of God. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”…This prayer accomplishes St. Paul’s admonition that we should pray always. It is a prayer that takes you out of yourself and into communion with Christ. It is a prayer that can change your life… (from Ancient Faith Radio podcast, May 2, 2018)   

When a man of prayer speaks about prayer, we need to listen and follow his instruction. 

Jesus, totally living his life here on earth in communion with the Father and Spirit, can teach us a thing or two about prayer. The Apostles who learned from Jesus how to pray, write what we need to read. Men and women who answer God’s call to a life of prayer can teach us much about relating to God in prayer. Why would we go to anyone else? 

Though we cannot live as these lived, we can accept some of their ways and benefit from their experiences of knowing God in prayer. 

  • We can read the saints who devote hours each day in private and communal prayer. 
  • We can take the scriptures on prayer to heart. Wrestle with Jesus’ teaching, Paul’s example, and James’ writings. 
  • We can read and pray the Psalms which is the prayer book of the Church. 

Helpful Books 

Books can be of some benefit depending on the author. But the best way to commune with God is to commune with God even when you don’t know what you’re doing. Because it’s not so much about doing the right things as being with God. 

I can recommend two books on prayer that will challenge you to pray, written by men devoted to God in prayer. These are not easy books because they confront our ignorance and invite us to real prayer. They are also written by authors who are probably outside your tradition. All the more reason to read them. 

       Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (Richard J. Foster)

Foster is a good writer. In this book, he draws from centuries of prayer literature and praying people to compose a masterpiece on prayer. Though I don’t endorse all that he writes, there is certainly much more good here than not. I appreciate his referencing real ancient writers like Gregory of Nyssa and St. Symeon the New Theologian. Distinguishing 21 “types” of prayer is unnecessary. But if you ignore the labels and focus on the content, you’ll benefit from this book. 

       Prayer of the Heart (George Maloney) 

If you’re ready for it, this is the one book that comes close to presenting prayer in all its fullness. Maloney, a Roman Catholic priest, explores the Eastern Orthodox approach to God in prayer. Don’t let that scare you off. Take from it what you can and then keep coming back for more when you’re hungry again. There is so much available here for the good of your relationship with God. If you possess a burning to know God in prayer, this book will feed the flame. 

Skip the superficial prayer drivel (Lucado, Omartian, Wilkins, Hybels, Yancey) and take seriously your desire to know God in prayer. The best help comes from those who’ve devoted their lives to knowing God in prayer. Find them. Listen to them. Let them lead you into the heart of God. 

Share your thoughts below. 

Dr. K