I began reading Timothy Keller's book Prayer last summer and had to return it to the library during the fall. I intended to get back to it sooner than this, but life (and my cancer diagnosis) put a lot of things on hold.
I'm back to it now. My tired brain couldn't remember quite where I left off, so I dived in somewhere in the second section. I soon realized that I'd gone too far back because I was re-reading bits I'd remembered. Today I moved into the "learning" section (section 3) but I can tell I've still not caught up to where I was before (partly because it finally dawned on me I might have blogged about it last year....which I did....in this post here on Letting the Holy Spirit Preach to Our Hearts).
Fortunately, Keller's work bears up to re-reading and to repeated reflection. So even though I'm backpedaling a little, I thought I would spend some time today summarizing his summary (grin) of Augustine's advice on prayer.
I think this small section hit my heart with renewed vigor today because I have also recently begun to dip my toes into James K.A. Smith's You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. It's a lovely follow-up to his book Desiring the Kingdom, which I read and loved in 2014. Smith reaches deep into Augustine to talk about how what we love shapes us. And Keller is drawing on that same well when he teaches about Augustine's guidance on prayer and how our relationship with God helps us to rightly order our "disordered loves."
He summarizes Augustine's advice about prayer, advice given to a widow named Anicia Faltonia Proba who wrote to Augustine "because she was afraid she wasn't praying as she should" (84). (Side note: this sounds a lot like a conversation my daughter was having with me last night. Augustine and Anicia corresponded in the 400s. I love how the really important questions in life don't change, even over 1600 years!)
Here are the four principles on prayer Augustine laid out, as presented by Keller and then further simplified by me -- because I need to rewrite things and break them down in order to fully reflect on them and carry them with me.
1) Before we can begin to pray, to really know how to pray or even what we should be praying for, we need to take stock of our own lives. We need to recognize and acknowledge that "our heart's loves are 'disordered...'" (84). In other words, things that we should love on a lesser scale have a place of too much importance while "God, whom we should love supremely, is someone we may acknowledge but whose favor and presence is not existentially as important to us as prosperity, success, status, love, and pleasure" (84-85). If we don't understand how disordered our hearts are, then when we pray, we're just going to be praying out of that disorderedness without realizing how much it messes us up. He uses as an example someone whose loves are disordered in the direction of giving financial security first place. Financial disaster threatens or hits, and that person prays "help!" but their prayer is "little more than 'worrying in God's direction.' Even when the prayer is done, they are still worried and anxious because they have not yet realized that their only real security is to rest in God.
So we have to "settle" this. Grasp the character of our hearts. Admit our desolation (opposite of consolation) apart from Christ. THEN we can start praying. And when we pray, we can pray "for a happy life" (85) says Augustine, recognizing that our true happiness comes ultimately from God and not from good but fleeting things.
2) That does not mean, he hastens to add, that we pray to know and love God and stop there. The Lord's Prayer itself shows us that we should pray for other things, including our daily bread. But God is our "greatest love" (86). And when we remember that, "it transforms both what and how we pray for a happy life" (86). We learn to not "rest" our happiness in our circumstances, and to recognize what we have in Jesus. We're not always good at this and we need God's help. "Christians lack the spiritual capacity to realize all we have in Jesus" (86). We lack joy. It's why Paul prays for the Christians in Ephesus that they will grasp "the height, depth, breadth, and length of Christ's salvation" (86). The order of what we pray for, as given to us in the Lord's Prayer, also helps us here. First we remember God's greatness and we reignite our love for him. Then we can turn to praying for ourselves and our daily needs and our happiness.
3) To recap numbers one and two: we become aware of our disordered hearts and where we can find true and lasting joy. Then we learn the specifics of how to pray from the prayer that Jesus taught us. Jesus gave us this prayer and we can model our own prayers on it. It contains "adoration, petition, thanksgiving, confession" (87). We want our own prayers to line up with it. If we pray that God will make us wealthy, powerful, famous, but only because we want these things for themselves, and not to benefit others or seek God's will, then we will find that our requests aren't lining up with the Lord's Prayer. (I'm a little muddy on the diction of the Augustine passage he quotes here, so I hope I'm grasping the essential point clearly.) I think the point is that, if we model our prayer on Jesus', we will begin to see where our prayers fall short and where they need to be reshaped.
4) Even after we put all these things in place, however, there is still the trouble of knowing how and what to pray in dark times. "Even the most godly Christians can't be sure what to ask for when we are enmeshed in difficulties and suffering," writes Keller (87). We know that sometimes sufferings can actually benefit us (because God is in the business of redeeming them, I would add) but they are still hard. So do we pray that God takes the hard thing away? Or that he gives us strength to get through it? The answer seems to be both/and. Augustine points to Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane, when he asks his Father to take away the cup of suffering, but then says "nevertheless, not my will but thine be done." Augustine also points to Romans 8, reminding his prayer correspondent that the Spirit guides our groaning prayers when we can't find the words, and that God still hears our prayers, even though they are imperfect. We are told to pour out our hearts to him, remembering that he is good and wise. Sufferings can even become a "shield" to us, according to Augustine, because they defend us from the illusion that we can be self-sufficient. Instead, we can have a rich prayer life marked by passion, one that helps us to find peace no matter what is going on around us.
I find myself chewing on these four basic principles in the context of my own life and my daughter's questions about prayer. I think the first point, that we need to recognize and acknowledge our own disorderedness, sounds like bad news when we first consider it but actually is wonderful news. We don't have to hide who we are from God. And the fact that our loves are disordered (and they will be, because it's part of being human and broken and living in a world broken by sin) does not disqualify us in any way from praying!
What I hear Augustine and Keller saying here is that we don't have to clean ourselves up before we can get to the business of praying, or before God will let us respond to him in prayer....always remembering that God speaks first and invites us into relationship with him. We can't clean ourselves up. That's part of the point. When we realize we're struggling because we love other stuff more than God, we can acknowledge that clearly (it's what we do in confessional prayer) and then move on. We can ask God to help us reorder our loves, and we can confidently expect that when we pray, he will start to do that work in us. The prayer itself will help begin to transform us and what and who we love.
My daughter, last night, told me very honestly she has not been feeling very close to God lately, and that it was hard to pray during the months when I was so ill and going through chemo. She does not always feel she loves God enough. "But I want to," she said, and I wanted to cry "yes!" with a fist-pump (I said something gentler, but I was fist-pumping inside). Wanting to love God is a great first step. We take that step and we ask him to change our hearts and order our loves rightly. And we can trust that he will, and that our prayers will become more transformed as we are transformed, so that we begin to love God more and love what he loves and desires what he desires...for ourselves, for others, for the world. I learn so much from my daughter's honesty. I am not always as good at admitting or acknowledging where my own love is lacking and disordered.
I also am feeling extremely thankful for the wisdom in point four. The past several months have been suffused with suffering on levels I could never have anticipated. I have suffered physically and emotionally and I am worn out. I am still walking through a season of suffering. And yes, there have been times when I was too worn out to pray, and times when my prayers were all mixed up. I have not always known how to pray in the midst of this mess. I still don't. I sometimes pray for strength, just enough to get me through the next step. I sometimes pray that God will heal me completely...and heal me NOW! (Sometimes uttered with boldness and desperation.) I think both prayers are appropriate. I think God hears both. I don't know yet how he will choose to answer me ultimately in terms of the cancer that my body still battles. But I do know that I can still pray with confidence and peace in his goodness and his wisdom. And I can even pray with gratitude for what this suffering has already taught me about how much and how deeply I need Jesus, and how it has helped me to pray for and respond to others' suffering.