Timothy Keller on the Hardness of Prayer

January’s monthly sale includes books and courses to help Christians grow throughout 2020, highlighting authors such as J. I. Packer, R. C. Sproul, and Timothy Keller.

The excerpt below is adapted from Keller’s Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God, part of the Tim Keller Collection (now 25% off).

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I can think of nothing great that is also easy. Prayer must be, then, one of the hardest things in the world. To admit that prayer is very hard, however, can be encouraging. If you struggle greatly in this, you are not alone. . . . 

The first thing we learn in attempting to pray is our spiritual emptiness—and this lesson is crucial. We are so used to being empty that we do not recognize the emptiness as such until we start to try to pray. We don’t feel it until we begin to read what the Bible and others have said about the greatness and promise of prayer. 

Then we finally begin to feel lonely and hungry. It’s an important first step to fellowship with God, but it is a disorienting one.

When your prayer life finally begins to flourish, the effects can be remarkable. You may be filled with self-pity and be justifying resentment and anger. Then you sit down to pray and the reorientation that comes before God’s face reveals the pettiness of your feelings in an instant. All your self-justifying excuses fall to the ground in pieces. 

Or you may be filled with anxiety, and during prayer you come to wonder what you were so worried about. You laugh at yourself and thank God for who he is and what he’s done. It can be that dramatic. It is the bracing clarity of a new perspective. Eventually, this can be the normal experience, but that is never how the prayer life starts. 

In the beginning the feeling of poverty and absence usually dominates, but the best guides for this phase urge us not to turn back but rather to endure and pray in a disciplined way, until, as Packer and Nystrom say, we get through duty to delight.

We must beware of misunderstanding such phrases, however. Seasons of dryness can return for a variety of causes. We don’t spend a discrete amount of time in dryness until we break through permanently into joy and feeling. Instead, the vivid reorientation of mind, and the overall sense of God on the heart, comes more frequently and sometimes in startling ways—interspersed with times of struggle and even absence. 

Nevertheless, the pursuit of God in prayer eventually bears fruit, because God seeks for us to worship him (John 4:23) and because prayer is so infinitely rich and wondrous.

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This post is adapted from Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God by Timothy Keller

Shop the monthly sale today and save up to 43% on the Tim Keller Collection and other resources on prayer, faith, stewardship, and more.

The title of this post is the addition of the editor. The author’s views do not necessarily represent those of Faithlife.

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