A Prayer Life That Nourishes Your Relationship to God
by Tim Keller
Every year I look forward to the slower pace of the summer months because of the
opportunity it gives me to re-invigorate my prayer life. It's not that I
don't pray during the year, but
rarely, in the press of hectic scheduling, am I able to consistently devote the hours necessary to
reawaken the intimacy with God
that not only I crave, but which is
my only defense against burnout.
Just as the old discussion of
quality time versus quantity time
with your family is a red herring
(there IS no quality time, except
that which occurs in the midst of a
large quantity of time), so with
God. The richness of my experience of God in prayer only occurs
in the midst of much time set aside
to be with him. That said, there are
several other things I do which
might be helpful to some of you
who also will have increased flexibility of time in the coming months,
and who want to connect with God
in a deeper way.
The main way I do this is to seek
an increase in the amount of my
meditation. It is no accident that the
first two Psalms in the Psalter are
not prayers per se, but rather meditations. In fact the very first Psalm,
the doorway into the prayer book
of the Bible, is a meditation on
meditation. Why? We are being
taught that while it is certainly possible for deep experiences of the
presence and power of God to hap
pen in innumerable ways, the ordinary way for 'going deeper' spiritually is through meditation. It is in
meditation that we get into deeper
self-surrender, then into higher,
clearer faith-sights of his beauty,
and finally into powerful, dynamic
prayer for the world.
What is meditation?
In most Protestant traditions, the
'personal devotional' life consists of
two parts: Bible study and prayer.
But meditation is neither and both.
The Puritan Richard Baxter wrote:
"Solemn or stated meditation is
distinguished from the study of the
word, wherein our principle aim is
to learn the truth; and also from
prayer, whereof God himself is the
immediate object. But meditation is
the affecting of our own hearts and
minds with love, delight, and humility toward the things contained
[in the Word]."
An example of meditation is
found in Psalm 103:1-2: "Bless the
Lord, O my soul, and all that is
within me bless his holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits." Notice that
this is not the same thing as prayer.
He is not speaking directly to God,
though it is clear that David is extremely aware of being in the presence of God. The object of the meditation is his own heart. David is
'talking to himself' - to his soul.
But the subject of the meditation is
truth about God - "forget not all
Obviously, David has not intellectually forgotten that God has
forgiven his sins, redeemed his life,
and so on (Ps.103:2ff.) Rather, he is
taking Biblical truths and driving
them into his own heart until it is
affected, delighted, and changed
by them. Peter Toon has written
that meditation is the descent of the
mind with Biblical truth into the inmost heart until the whole being
yearns for God.
The kind of meditation we see in
the Psalms is neither the anti-rational 'spirituality' of New Age religion, nor is it the over-rational
'spirituality' of much modern
evangelical religion. On the one
hand, New Age religion takes its
cues from Eastern philosophy and
thinks of meditation as a calm,
serene emptying of the mind of all
rational thought. David's meditation, however, is furiously rational.
"Why are you cast down, O my
soul? And why are you disquieted within me?" he says in Psalm 42,
literally arguing and reasoning
with his heart. On the other hand,
much evangelical religion is afraid
of any mystical, experiential element. It conceives of a 'devotional
life' as only the study of the Bible
and then prayer for the strength to
practice it. David's meditation, however, is deeply mystical. "One
thing I seek - to gaze upon the
beauty of the Lord" (Ps.27:4). He is
looking for a transformation of the
affections of his heart as he prays.
Jonathan Edwards speaks of this
very thing in his own practice of
meditation. "In reading [the Scripture] I seemed often to see so much
light, that I could not get along in
reading - almost every sentence
seemed to be full of
wonders....I...found, from time to
time, an inward sweetness, that
used, as it were, to carry me away
in my contemplations. I felt alone...
sweetly conversing with Christ,
and wrapped and swallowed up in
God. The sense I had of divine
things, would often of a sudden as it were, kindle up a sweet burning
in my heart; an ardor of my soul,
that I know not how to express..."
Notice how his meditation ("contemplations") on the Word led into
a deep sense of intimacy in prayer.
That is why a Psalm on meditation
begins the Biblical book on prayer.
How to meditate
Of course, the best way to learn
to do anything is to watch a "master" at work. If you read Psalms 1,
42, 77, 103, and 119 you get this
very thing. However, we all need
to begin as beginners. There is no
better 'Beginner's Guide to Meditation' than the model that Martin
Luther gave in his letter "A Simple
Way to Pray" written to his barber,
Peter Beskendorf, in 1535. Luther
directed that we should "warm the
heart up" through meditation before we prayed. Based on Luther's
insights, I use the following outline
for a short (30 minutes or less) time
of Bible reading, meditation, and
prayer. After reading a portion of
the Bible slowly, and choosing one
or two things or insights that especially helped me, I take each insight
and ask the following questions:
- Adoration - How can I love
and praise God on the basis of this?
What do I see here that I can praise
- Repentance - How do I fail to
realize this in my life? What wrong
behavior, harmful emotions or attitudes result when I forget this?
- Gospel Thanks - How can I
thank Jesus as the ultimate revelation of this attribute of God (#1)
and the ultimate answer to this sin
or need of mine (#2)?
- Aspiration- How does this show me what I should or can be
and do? How would I be different
if this truth were powerfully real to
After I have thought out and at
least sketchily written out answers
to each question, then I proceed to
pray my praises, confessions, and
supplications to God directly. Often, as you are meditating, or as
you are praying, you may feel your
heart warm or even melt with a
spiritual sense of the reality of God.
Sometimes, of course, nothing happens at all! And very rarely, you
can have life-changing experiences
of the presence of God that you
never forget. The number and
power of these encounters are completely out of your control. The
Spirit blows wherever he pleases
(Jn 3:8). But it has only been with
the practice of meditation that my
own experience of God's reality
has become at all regular and progressively deeper.
"Blessed is the man [whose] delight
is in the law of the Lord, and on his law
he meditates day and night."