In his excellent and highly practical book Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (Dutton, 2014), Tim Keller uses a great analogy to show that on their own, our prayers do not have power to make God listen to us or to earn us favor with him. Those who have trusted in Christ already have these things, and so prayer is more of the mechanism by which we connect our hearts to God and avail ourselves of the access to him that has been purchased by Christ, our great High Priest (Hebrews 4:14-16).
“When you flick on the light switch, the bulbs illuminate. Does the light switch provide the power for the bulbs? No – that comes from the electricity. The switch has no power in itself, but rather it connects the bulbs to the power. In the same way, our prayers have no virtue to procure us access to the Father. Christ has done that. Prayers that are in accord with a gracious God, however, can connect us to him.” (104)
One of the best things about St. Augustine’s Confessions (397-8) is the bishop’s deeply personal, searching expressions of praise to God. These are not only fascinating statements by perhaps the most important and influential mind in the history of Western Christianity, but also fine examples of prayers of confession and praise. Here’s another short excerpt that struck me for its beauty and which I wanted to share:
“Eternal Truth, true Love, beloved Eternity – all this, my God, you are, and it is to you that I sigh by night and day…I gazed on you with eyes too weak to resist the dazzle of your splendor. Your light shone upon me in its brilliance, and I thrilled with love and dread alike. I realized that I was far away from you. It was as though I were in a land where all is different from your own and I heard your voice calling from on high, saying, ‘I am the food of full-grown men. Grow and you shall feed on me. But you shall not change me into your own substance, as you do with the food of your body. Instead you shall be changed into me'” (147).
I just started my second reading of Augustine’s Confessions (I first read it in the spring of 2012), a work that merits multiple readings both for its importance in the canon of Christian literature and as a richly edifying meditation on the self in relation to God. There are many translations of this classic work, and a couple of years ago I came across the one I’m now finally reading at the Barnes & Noble on M Street, which, sadly, has been replaced by a Nike store (You take back those Air Jordans and give us back our books!). This version, translated by Maria Boulding, a Benedictine nun, is incredibly readable and accessible to a modern audience. In other words, It’s not stuffy, making it easy to get swept away in Augustine’s deeply personal, earnest, and brilliant self-examination before the God he loves and longs to know more deeply. You can expect more posts with excerpts from this book, but for now, I’m happy to share this doozy of a passage – an expression of praise to God worthy of the theological mountain that was the Bishop of Hippo (the town of his bishopric in North Africa):
“What are you, then, my God? What are you, I ask, but the Lord God? For who else is lord except the Lord, or who is god if not our God? You are most high, excellent, most powerful, omnipotent, supremely merciful and supremely just, most hidden yet intimately present, infinitely, beautiful and infinitely strong, steadfast yet elusive, unchanging yourself though you control the change in all things, never new, never old, renewing all things yet wearing down the proud though they know it not; ever active, ever at rest, gathering while knowing no need, supporting and filling and guarding, creating and nurturing and perfecting, seeking although you lack nothing. You love without frenzy, you are jealous yet secure, you regret without sadness, you grow angry yet remain tranquil, you alter your works but never your plan; you take back what you find although you never lost it; you are never in need yet you rejoice in your gains, never avaricious yet you demand profits. You allow us to pay you more than you demand, and so you become our debtor, yet which of us possesses anything that does not already belong to you? You owe us nothing; yet you pay your debts; you write off our debts to you, yet you lose nothing thereby” (5).
Here are my top five books of this year. All are excellent in their own way, but I’ve ordered them with the ones I consider the most widely helpful and applicable at the top.
5. Born Again by Charles Colson
Before he was “born again” by putting his faith in Christ, Charles Colson was Special Counsel to President Nixon and known as Nixon’s “hatchet man,” “incapable of humanitarian thoughts” and willing to do anything to get the job done. With the Watergate scandal, Colson fell from the summit of power to the depths of nationally-televised trials, a conviction, and seven months in prison. This experience showed him the emptiness of power, revealed his ugly pride, and opened his heart to a new and infinitely better boss: Jesus Christ. This candid, moving, and powerful autobiography takes the reader into the smoke-filled rooms where Nixon men schemed of ways to destroy their opponents, through the heady days of Watergate, and illustrates the power of the Gospel to transform one’s life in ways nobody thought possible.
4. Good and Bad Ways to Think About Religion and Politics by Robert Benne
Don’t mind the ugly cover; this book is an excellently reasoned guide to thinking about politics from a Christian perspective. Benne rejects what he sees as two wrong ways to relate religion and politics: “separationism” and “fusionism.” The first would have Christians reject all political engagement, and the second fuses religion and politics in an unwarranted manner that ends up distorting both. He offers a better way: a helpful framework for discerning how the Christian faith informs political stances and involvement. This is a helpful read for those who are wary of the use of Christianity by politicians and political parties who are more interested in scoring political points than being faithful to the teachings of religion. It is also good that Benne does not say what positions Christians should hold on specific issues, though he does use a few, such as abortion, as examples for his framework.
3. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
In this book Stevenson, an attorney who runs a non-profit legal defense group in Montgomery, Alabama, shares how he went from a directionless Harvard Law student who didn’t connect with his studies to becoming a passionate defender of the poor and disadvantaged whose lives are being stolen, and for some, threatened by an electric chair, by a broken criminal justice system. The people Stevenson represents are typically poor, uneducated, and often with disabilities, many of whom don’t receive the attention and care necessary to address the struggles they face. Full of harrowing real-life stories, Just Mercy is eye-opening, infuriating, tragic, yet ultimately hopeful. And if you pick it up, make sure you keep some tissues with you.
2. What’s Best Next? How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done by Matt Perman
As those who know him say, there is probably no one who has thought more about the relationship between the Gospel and productivity than Matt, and I think this book proves it. He first lays out the theological basis for caring about productivity, arguing that real productivity is not just getting things done, but getting the right things done. Christians are called to be rich in “good works,” which means we should seek to be productive not only because this brings glory to God, but also because our good works and effectiveness in doing them blesses our family, friends, or co-workers. Beyond being theologically sharp, Matt is full of practical advice, showing through his example and that of others who’ve written on productivity and management how to create a “life vision,” set goals, plan out your week, process e-mail, and so much more. Want to start the new year with a bang? Do yourself a favor and get this book!
1. Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering by Tim Keller
In his characteristically thoughtful way, Tim Keller, who is the pastor of a large church in Manhattan, tackles the subject of suffering and offers biblical counsel on how to “walk with God” through trials and suffering. He begins by showing how our modern culture fails to see the uses of suffering that many in ages past recognized, resulting in inadequate ways of dealing with suffering. Keller then looks at the various reasons for and types of suffering (if you’re in the middle of suffering and just really need a hug, skip the entire first half of this book), and then shows us how the Bible depicts suffering and offers examples, such as Job, of how we can respond to and redeem our suffering. The biblical answer, as he describes, is compelling, in that it tells us to not ignore or run away from our suffering, but to trust the God who knows our pain and walk through the suffering as we talk to God (prayer) and hold him by the hand.
Prayer is essential for the Christian. It’s the mark of a meaningful relationship with God, and a daily, even constant, necessity: it’s as vital for the soul as food and water are for the body. It’s also a wonderful privilege, for it means that you can talk to the Creator of the universe at any time and with complete honesty; you don’t have to pretend with God – you can come to him just as you are!
Concerning the time of prayer, Scripture and the testimony of countless saints in the history of the Church commend the early morning as an appropriate time for extended prayer. The Gospels show Christ rising early, “while it was still dark,” to pray to God the Father, giving us not only a clear example but impressing on us our great need for prayer, since even Jesus, the perfect man, felt the need to pray. This prayer was also key to the power and peace which followed Christ through all his activity, showing how one may be very busy while remaining peaceful and focused at heart. I believe this is what the great German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was getting at in his book, Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible (Augsburg, 1970):
“The entire day receives order and discipline when it acquires unity. This unity must be sought and found in morning prayer…the morning prayer determines the day. Squandered time of which we are ashamed, temptations to which we succumb, weaknesses and lack of courage in work, disorganization and lack of discipline in our thoughts and in our conversations with other men, all have their origin most often in the neglect of morning prayer.
“Order and distribution of our time become more firm where they originate in prayer. Temptations which accompany the working day will be conquered on the basis of the morning breakthrough to God. Decisions, demanded by work, become easier and simpler where they are made not in the fear of men but only in the sight of God” (64-65).
We’ve all heard the well-intentioned exhortation: “Just listen to your heart.” In one sense, we should listen to our heart, by which I mean, pay attention to your mind and soul. It’s helpful to regularly take stock of the movements of your soul in response to the events and people you interact with. This is what Socrates meant when he said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” However, Scripture teaches that the heart is “deceitful above all things,” so it’s foolish to simply follow your heart and live according to what you feel it tells you without regard for wisdom, love, and duty to guide you to what is good for yourself and others.
The passage below, from Tim Keller’s Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (Dutton, 2013), shows us that we should not only listen to our hearts, but turn this listening into prayer – honest, real conversation with God – by pouring them out before him. This is encouraging, for it means that we’re not left to ourselves to plumb the depths of our heart and then wonder what to do with the mess that we find, but we can offer our naked soul before the God who hears our every cry, notices our every tear, and promises to be with us through it all.
“Psalm 42 is an intense, sustained, and eloquent prayer. He is ‘pouring out his soul’ to God. What does that mean? First, to ‘pour out your soul’ means to get into one’s own heart. It is an ancient and healthier version of what is sometimes now called getting in touch with your feelings. It means to look honestly at your doubts, desires, fears, and hopes. But notice that this is not abstract self-examination but, rather, something he does before God. This man is not over in a corner looking at himself, he is exposing his inner being to God. This is crying, longing, reflecting, remembering – all before God.”
So it was a significant event in my reading life when, as I turned the last pages while sitting in the plane during our recent flight, I realized I had found my favorite book: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together (Harper, 1954).
This was actually the second time I read this book. I first read it two years ago, in preparation for a fellowship program that I didn’t end up doing (I got married instead!). The first time I read it, it was excellent. But it was as if I took a few bites, tasted it. The second time, I enjoyed the full meal, and it was so rewarding that before I finished it I was already anticipating the next time I would read it.
Bonhoeffer – a German theologian and pastor who was murdered by the Gestapo for plotting to assassinate Hitler – wrote the book while teaching an underground seminary in Nazi Germany. He instructs on doing life together in Christ, as a community of Christians or as a family, and deals with topics such as prayer, common devotions, daily work, solitude, and serving one another. It’s a small book, running just over a hundred pages, but it is rich in wisdom and practical instruction. If you want to grow as a member of your community or your family, I cannot think of a better book you can read than this one.
Here are three excerpts to pique your interest. More posts will follow.
“Only he who gives thanks for little things receives the big things. We prevent God from giving us the great spiritual gifts He has in store for us, because we do not give thanks for daily gifts” (29).
“Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate” (30).
“The exclusion of the weak and insignificant, the seemingly useless people, from a Christian community may actually mean the exclusion of Christ; in the poor brother Christ is knocking at the door” (38).
From J.D. Greear’s Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary (B&H, 2011), this is a four-part prayer aimed at saturating oneself in the truths of the gospel. As he says, “There’s nothing magical about this prayer. It’s not an incantation to get God to do good things for you,” but “simply a tool to help you train your mind in the patterns of the gospel. The point is not the prayer; the point is thinking in line with the gospel” (40).
Pray this consistently, and watch how God transforms you:
“In Christ, there is nothing I can do that would make You love me more, and nothing I have done that makes You love me less.”
“Your presence and approval are all I need for everlasting joy.”
“As you have been to me, so I will be to others.”
“As I pray, I’ll measure Your compassion by the cross and Your power by the resurrection.”