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A Praying Life
June 01, 2009
Any time I write a review of a book dealing with prayer I feel the need to point out that bookstore shelves are already groaning under the weight of such books. There are hundreds, thousands probably, of books on prayer. A new one is going to need to be good—very good—to supplant the excellent resources already available. Paul Miller, perhaps a bit reluctantly, takes on this challenge in his new book A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World. I was drawn to this book by David Powlison’s Foreword in which he gives it his highest recommendation and says, “A Praying Life will bring a living, vibrant reality to your prayers. Take it to heart.” And what Christian does not want to learn to pray better? What Christian would claim that his prayers are as powerful as ever he would want them to be? The vast number of books on this subject testifies to the Christians’ desire to pray more and to pray better.
A Praying Life is the fruit of the prayer seminars that Miller has led scores of times over the years. And in the structure, in what it teaches, it has the practical, real-life feel of a seminar. The meat of the book is family stories—not dramatic tales, but just small vignettes of daily life and survival. These stories do not only offer that personal touch that takes the book out of the abstract, but they also provide a measure of cohesion, tying chapter-to-chapter and part-to-part.
The book begins with a brief reflection on why Christians struggle so much with prayer. Miller says rightly, I’m sure, that many people fail to pray properly because they are pursuing prayer rather than God. Ironically, they make prayer their focus instead of focusing on the one to whom they are praying. Prayer becomes an end in itself rather than the means to relationship with God. No wonder, then, that we struggle! “Consequently, prayer is not the center of this book. Getting to know a person, God, is the center.” Another source of the frustration that many people feel when they reflect on their prayer lives comes from working on this discipline in the abstract, separated from the rest of life. This is why Miller advocates a praying life, a life of prayer and not just small moments of prayer. This is something that needs to be learned over time and that needs to be nurtured. “A praying life isn’t something you accomplish in a year. It is a journey of a lifetime.”
Miller teaches prayer in thirty-two (!) chapters divided into five parts. In the first part, he writes about praying like a child, writing about the childlike trust and wonder that so moved Jesus and caused him to use children as an example to his disciples. Miller wants readers to learn to talk with their Father, to learn to love spending time with their Father, to learn to be helpless as children are before their father and to learn to cry “Abba” continually just as Jesus did. In Part 2 he encourages readers to “trust again,” to put aside the cynicism that is endemic to our culture. This cynicism is a large part of what keeps us from enjoying God and trusting him in prayer. Part 3 is dedicated to learning how to petition God, to ask for things in prayer and to do so with confidence. He shows why we find it so hard to ask and teaches the grounds by which we can ask. He then looks at God’s promises regarding daily bread and “your kingdom come” along with Jesus’ extravagant promises that “whatever you ask in my name, I will do.” The fourth part is about living in the Father’s story, about seeing prayer as part of the grand story God is weaving into the lives of his people. The fifth and final part, “Praying in Real Life,” is the most practical part of the book, teaching real-life praying through journaling, using prayer cards, and so on. This is the small bit of practical application that follows a lot of good teaching.
A Praying Life is a very quotable book that offers many excellent lines, sentences, reflections. Here is just a single example of one that caught my attention. Miller asks, “How would you love someone without prayer? I mean, what would it look like if you loved someone but couldn’t pray for that person? It was a puzzle to me. I couldn’t figure out what it would look like. Love without being able to pray feels depressing and frustrating, like trying to tie a knot with gloves on. I would be powerless to do the other person any real good. 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. I need Jesus.”
From the earliest chapters to the last, the book is full of good teaching. Miller says very little that is not immediately supported by Scripture and, even in a book that is full of stories of his family, is able to keep himself out of the limelight. This is a book foremost about God—the God who asks his people to come to him and to come with him in confidence that he hears and answers prayer. He offers constant challenges to first understand prayer properly and then to pray, knowing that God desires that his people pray.
I do want to point out what I consider a weakness in the book, and it has to do with some of the people Miller quotes. Those who have read other books on prayer may well see that Miller is indebted to the mystics; he has clearly derived at least a portion of his theology and practice of prayer from them. At times there is a certainly mystical quality in what he teaches. We can begin to see the source of this in the several times he quotes Thomas Merton. Now I do know that many people quote Merton as an authority on prayer; I have not read his books on prayer so cannot comment. However, necessarily, as a Roman Catholic Trappist monk, Merton’s theology will get worse the closer he gets to the cross. Hence I think an author would wish to quote him only with the utmost care. My concern with Miller’s book is that he may lead people to investigate Merton and read there not only what Merton wrote on prayer but also what he wrote on other subjects. Thus there is good reason to be just a little bit cautious here. This mystical emphasis on prayer runs as an undercurrent through the book, not destroying it but at times, I feel, detracting from it.
Leave aside that concern, I still do not hesitate to recommend A Praying Life. Perhaps the greatest strength of this book is Miller’s unrelenting emphasis that prayer cannot be an add-on to the Christian life; it cannot be supplemental but must always be instrumental. This book will equip you to understand prayer properly and, on that firm foundation, to commit yourself to it, with confidence that God is willing and able to hear and answer your prayers.
A Praying Life