This article takes a look at Timothy Keller’s book Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God and presents some areas of concern therein. And because it is deemed relevant, this article also covers some past and current resources about prayer offered by his church, Redeemer Presbyterian. Mr. Keller is the founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan and vice president of The Gospel Coalition. This article tends to focus more on concerns than on positive things that could be said about Prayer. That is not my usual style of critiquing others, but there was a lot to share and time and energy are limited. Though this article is long, it could have been longer. There are other areas of concern left unaddressed. Lord willing, they will receive attention at another time.
Mr. Keller’s teachings on prayer, while good and informative in some ways, has some problem areas. A main concern is that Mr. Keller’s teachings could potentially leave some open to harmful practices like contemplative prayer and borrowing from medieval mysticism.
Timothy Keller’s church and contemplative prayer and mysticism
That this is a real possibility can be seen even in his own church, Redeemer Presbyterian Church. His teachings on prayer both in his book and elsewhere have evidently failed to protect them from contemplative prayer and mysticism. In fact, Redeemer Presbyterian has offered instruction in them for a while. For example, in 2009 his church offered a daylong workshop called “The Way of the Monk”. The day offered various classes including one in centering prayer. Another one called “Prayer Rope” offered instruction in a type of rosary-like prayer that is based on visions of “Jesus” (known as the Divine Mercy) that were received by a Polish nun. (There are more details about these and other offerings below.) Learning about this certainly elevated the level of concern that I already had after spending time with his book.
In Prayer: Good teachings mingled with openness to mystics and contemplatives
The above may sound quite impossible at first since Mr. Keller does take a stand against certain practices in his book. He teaches against mindless prayer and believes meditation should be grounded in the Bible. That is excellent. He writes a lot of good things. (pp. 51, 55, 57, 62, 123, 149)* And it may be because of these good things (and multiple quotes from Reformers and other well-known Protestants and Mr. Keller’s reputation) that one might not discern the problems, but they are there. Along with the good, there is also an openness to mysticism; and some of his writings on meditation, prayer, and contemplation, if mingled with this openness, could possibly lead to some crossing a line into unbiblical practice. Also, I did not see a place in his book where he personally condemns contemplative prayer outright. The closest thing to even a warning that I can see is when he mentions it as part of a group of “ancient meditation and contemplative practices” that have grown in popularity in recent years. He says this has caused “dangerously choppy waters for many inquirers.” (p. 13) If read carefully (something that is greatly needed in this book), this does not appear to be a flat out condemnation. It is dangerous for many. He does not say all. And two other contemplative practices in the group with contemplative prayer are practices his church has offered instruction in: centering prayer and lectio divina. These offerings are a clear indication of acceptance of contemplative practices, not condemnation.
Mr. Keller is widely read on the topic of prayer. (p. 10) He seems to have created his approach to prayer in part by considering practices of Protestants, Catholics, and Quakers. While one may not be surprised to see him draw from prominent Protestants like John Owen, John Calvin, and Martin Luther, it might be surprising to know that he also considers Catholic medieval mystics and contemplatives to be a good source to draw from to learn about prayer. He recommends them in his book. (pp. 183, 274)
While words of caution are given, this is a surprising and risky thing to do. Not all readers would have the discernment to handle such an exercise. Mr. Keller writes that we should read the medieval mystics with appreciation. (p. 184) Considering the content of the mystics’ experiences, their practices, and their beliefs about God and salvation, I wonder what is there to appreciate and why a Christian should turn there for tutelage in prayer. I was raised Catholic and have studied many aspects of the church for decades including its doctrines and the lives of saints and mystics for apologetic/evangelistic reasons. As of yet, I have found nothing worth emulating that didn’t come with the price of unbiblical doctrine attached to it. For sure, there is an allure in Catholic mysticism and contemplation; but it’s a counterfeit spirituality that works incredibly hard to reform the sinner and experience God. Where there is no true regeneration, all that can be done is attempt character change by human effort and strive to “know” God by the imagination. (There is reason enough there to look elsewhere even before mentioning the possibility of demonic influence and encounters in their experiences and visions.)
Bible believing Christians who have the true gospel and are indwelt by the Holy Spirit have a different doctrinal and spiritual reality. We have the Bible to teach us about prayer, and we can consider the practices of Spirit-born, biblically-sound fellow Christians. I wouldn’t turn to a wealthy mob boss for advice on my finances or real-estate holdings, and I wouldn’t turn to a medieval mystic for advice on prayer.
Timothy Keller’s longstanding affinity for mystics and contemplatives
That Mr. Keller did not close the door to the mystics and even encourages turning to them is disappointing to say the least. There is real potential there to lead some readers down a bad path. It also raises the question of their influence in his teachings. Mr. Keller has had this openness to mystics for quite a while. Back in 1998, he gave a message titled “Meditation – What it Is” that had similar content to parts of his book Prayer. For instance, he gave a similar message about Psalm One. (pp. 145 -146) In the 1998 message, which is available on his churches website, he shares something quite remarkable. He says, “For various historic reasons, we’ve got at least two other streams that are filled with good, helpful material on meditation, the Catholic stream and the Quaker stream.” (22:30) (emphasis mine) From there he goes on to speak well about a book written by contemplative (and spiritual formation leader) Quaker Richard Foster. Soon after, he speaks highly of some Catholic mystics in regards to the topic of the “art of meditation and contemplation”. Mr. Keller says, “The best things that have been written almost are by Catholics during the counter-reformation, Ignatius Loyola, Saint Francis de Sales, John of the Cross, Saint Theresa of Avila. Great stuff.” (24:40) His affinity for them was clear and his belief that they are worth considering remains in his book Prayer. This must be kept in mind when considering the big picture of Mr. Keller’s teaching on prayer.
General indicators of a need for caution
There are in fact, several reasons why Mr. Keller’s book should be approached with caution. While, we should always be discerning when we read Christian authors, there is extra incentive here. I do think a reader could go through the book and draw good things from it, but there is reason enough for all to be on guard.
First, as was shared above, Mr. Keller encourages his readers to learn from medieval mystics and contemplatives. This is big. We have also seen that he has been open to them since at least 1998. This raises some questions. For instance, how many of his ideas about prayer have been influenced by these unbiblical sources and why is he open to them?
Mr. Keller writes that there are similarities and differences between Catholic mystic/contemplative prayer and Protestant prayer. While pointing out the differences, he tends to be more informative than decisive about which is biblical. When covering various prayer and meditation practices that are contrary to sound practice, he is not always strongly dismissive of them. He tends to analyze them more through the writings of other people than with his own voice. (pp. 38-43, pp. 309-310) This can come across more as a comparison than a condemnation. There is a real need in Mr. Keller’s book to read carefully to try to figure out what he personally believes about some things and realize that in some areas, he is not telling us. As I wrote above, I found no place in his book where he straight out condemns contemplative prayer. Again, he writes against thoughtless, wordless, Scripture-less meditation and prayer; but there are other practices that could still be harmful.
Listening for God’s voice and enjoying His presence are themes that appear in Mr. Keller’s book. They are also common practices for mystics and contemplatives. Mr. Keller does present them from a more biblical point of view. For instance, he speaks of hearing God’s voice in conjunction with the Bible. However, if one did not read carefully, they could possible misconstrue the meaning. Here are a few places that might be taken too contemplatively.
“The goal is not just the sharing of ideas but also of ourselves. Communication can lead to two-way personal revelation that produces what can only be called a dynamic experience.” (p. 47) (italics mine)
“As a gift of the Spirit, however, prayer becomes the continuation of a conversation God has started. If that conversation proceeds, as in the best conversations, praying becomes meeting with God—heaven in the ordinary.” (p. 50)
“Nonetheless, if prayer is to be a true conversation with God, it must be regularly preceded by listening to God’s voice through meditation on the Scripture.” (p. 145)
From the above, it might not be hard for some to move over to subjective, inner listening in their meetings with God. Contemplatives use the Bible too. Contemplative-like practices can be subtle at first and therefore very easy to slip into.
That it is true is evident by Mr. Keller’s own church. As I mentioned above, despite having Mr. Keller at their disposal, they have slipped into contemplative prayer practices and openness to mystics. If it can happen there while having Mr. Keller at their disposal, how careful must one be while using his book? Hopefully only the best parts are kept.
Troubling sources (people quoted or referenced) not properly identified
Mr. Keller has a tendency to quote troubling sources, yet does not identify them as such. These sources shape his ideas and narrative. His readers ought to know who they are.
For example, early on in his book he writes about “Flannery O’Connor, the famous Southern writer”. (p. 10) He uses her as example of someone who wanted to be better at prayer like he did. He mentions her Prayer Journal, writes about her methods and struggles, and quotes her a number of times. The overall attitude towards her is kinship and that she is a type of example. What Mr. Keller doesn’t do is mention that Ms. O’Connor is a Roman Catholic who in the same Prayer Journal prays to her Mother (also referred to as “Our Lady of Perpetual Help”) (She is referring to Mary, Jesus’ earthly mother.) and asks God to make her a mystic. (O’Connor 12, 38)
A serious omission about Flannery O’Connor
In one particular quote of interest from Ms. O’Connor ‘s Prayer Journal, Mr. Keller uses ellipses to leave out very revealing information, information that any Christian reading a book on prayer should be given. This is how Ms. O’Connor is quoted by Mr. Keller:
“Therefore, because O’Connor was a writer of extraordinary gifts who could have become haughty and self-absorbed, her only hope was in the constant soul reorientation of prayer. ‘Oh God please make my mind clear. Please make it clean. . . . Please help me to get down under things and find where You are.’11” (p. 11) (emphasis mine)
Here is the original quote from the Prayer Journal with the missing part put back in.
“Oh God please make my mind clear. Please make it clean. I ask You for a greater love for my holy Mother and I ask her for a greater love for You. Please help me to get down under things and find where You are.” (O’Connor, Flannery. A Prayer Journal (p. 4). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.) (emphasis mine)
Apparently, Ms. O’Connor’s “only hope” that was “the constant soul reorientation of prayer” included prayer to Mary. Mr. Keller left that part out. He left out the part where Ms. O’Connor prays to God that he would grant her greater love for her holy Mother and asked (prayed to) her holy Mother for a greater love for God. This appears to be deception that should give us pause, for how many Bible believing Christians (whom I’m guessing the book was written for) reading his book would recoil at the whole story? Why does Mr. Keller think it good to turn to a woman who prays unbiblically to Mary and wanted to be a mystic as a source for his book on prayer? What was his motivation and goal? We don’t know, but we can certainly approach his book with eyes wide open. In all honesty, this raised an integrity issue for me. There is another example below. If I was reading Mr. Keller’s book for my own instruction, I would definitely look up every quote or reference and read it in context be it from someone I know like Martin Luther or a new name like Ms. O’Connor. In fact, this is a good practice for all teaching books. And definitely look up the context of any Bible passages used.
Without any qualifiers, Mr. Keller also mentions Emerging Christianity proponent/leader Phyllis Tickle and points his readers to her work The Divine Hours. (pp. 244, 247, 319) Before she died in 2015, Mrs. Tickle held troubling views including affirming homosexuality and the inevitability of the passing away of Sola Scriptura, a belief she held without concern. (source) In her material, The Divine Hours, there is content not fitting for Bible believing Christians. Additionally, he does not mention that Thelma Hall is a Roman Catholic nun when he recommends her work. When he recommends her and two other authors (an Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic), he refers to them as part of the “Christian” mystical/contemplative tradition. (p. 272)
The term “Christian” used broadly
This is probably the results of Mr. Keller viewing the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Church as branches of Christianity. (p. 297) He uses the term Christian for Catholics in several places (some examples: pp. 240, 284, and 292-293) as well as when referring to Bible Christians of the past and present. While I understand that as a world religion they are not Muslim or Hindu and in that case could be classified “Christian”, the Catholic Church has “another Jesus” and a “different gospel” that is decidedly not the same as biblical Christianity. (2 Corinthians 11:4) I would not use the term as loosely without a clear distinction or qualification, since many Protestant readers would rightly take the term “Christian” to mean a Bible believing, regenerated person who has saving faith in Jesus Christ. The exclusivity of the true gospel is something to be cherished and defended.
Mr. Keller also quotes Eugene Peterson a number of times. He says this of Mr. Peterson’s book Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer: “This is the best book on how to use the Psalms in prayer. It also includes along the way a very strong theology of prayer. Peterson is a champion of connecting prayer closely to the Bible both theologically and practically.” (p. 273) It is truly disappointing to see Mr. Keller turning to Mr. Peterson. Mr. Peterson should be viewed as a questionable source, even if he did have some good things to say. Why? Mr. Peterson is a contemplative, a contributor to the spiritual formation group Renovaré’s The Life with God Bible (see this article for an overview of some of the concerns with it), and the author of the tragic version of the Bible, The Message. My heart has long hurt over what Mr. Peterson has done to the Scriptures. I’ve written about it here. It is unwise to trust him as a source to learn from.
Mr. Keller’s ideas about prayer come for very varied sources that are sometimes in conflict with God’s word. Due to their influence, to say there is a need for discernment while drawing from him is an understatement. He has some responsibility as a Christian author to let his readers know more about his sources, as his readers could get the impression that he is ok with their views. This in turn could lead to his readers embracing them. Inevitably, the responsibility is on us to be discerning.
Bible verses that don’t quite fit
There are examples of Bible verses used in a way that do not fit well with the context or meaning.
Page 96: Mr. Keller seems to be connecting Romans 5:5 to prayer. Reading in context, this verse does not appear to be a primary verse about prayer or what happens during prayer. It speaks of what Christians have received.
Page 48: Mr. Keller draws on the story of Job to teach about prayer. I am not fully persuaded by this section and the parallels Mr. Keller makes between Job’s experiences at the end of the book of Job and our prayer life.
Page 101: Mr. Keller applies Jeremiah 29:13-14 to Christians today; but in context, God is speaking to the Jewish exiles in Babylon. The promise that Mr. Keller quotes (via John Calvin) that “Those who seek him with all their heart will find him”, was for the exiles. A similar error is often made in memes with Jeremiah 29:11, which is just two verses earlier. That verse is often put forth as a promise for Christians today, yet it was given to the Jewish exiles. If one wants to share the ideas that these verses contain, it would be better to choose verses that speak more universally or specifically to the church. (I’ll ask Mr. Calvin about his use of this verse when I meet him in heaven. In the context where the verse appears in Institutes of the Christian Religion, it is not directly applied to Christians, though one might take it that way.)
Speaking of Mr. Calvin, I noticed something in this section of Mr. Keller’s book that brought up the integrity question again. The following could be the result of some kind of mistake or oversight, but something is attributed to Mr. Calvin that ought not to be. Interestingly, Mr. Keller even wrote that Mr. Calvin never wrote it.
One page 99, Mr. Keller writes, “Calvin’s second rule for prayer is ‘the sense of need that excludes all unreality.’178” This quotation includes the footnote #178. The footnote gives an explanation that says in part, “This (the sense of need that excludes all unreality) is the chapter heading for 3.20.6. It is marked with an asterisk, meaning that the editor supplied it—it was not original to Calvin.” (p. 303) (parentheses mine) Ok, the truth is there for those who might happen to read footnotes (like me). But later on page 100 Mr. Keller writes, “Until we fully acknowledge the chaos within us that the Bible calls sin, we live in what Calvin calls ‘unreality.’” (p. 100) This time, there is no footnote; so the reader could not help but think it was a direct quote from Calvin. Mr. Keller may have thought the previous mentioned footnote sufficed, but I am not sure it does. Many readers would take Mr. Keller at his word. I know. It’s a small thing, but there is some integrity issue here that troubles me both as a reader and a Christian. This, along with the omitted part of Ms. O’Connor’s quote above certainly raises concern. I cannot help but wonder what else I missed. That is not a good feeling when you are reading anyone.
Page 128 and 140: Mr. Keller connects Revelation 3:20 to our personal prayer life. He does not present this verse in the usual way. It is commonly seen as an invitation to salvation or call to repentance (in general or specifically to the church of Laodicea) along with a reference to subsequent fellowship with Christ. But, here is Mr. Keller’s view:
“The famous statement of Jesus to the church in Laodicea—’Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me’ (Rev 3:20)—is often used to call nonbelievers to have faith in Christ. However, an invitation to dining in ancient times was an offer of friendship. Jesus is calling believers to intimate communion with him—to prayer. Prayer, in this image, is a response to Jesus’ knocking.” (p. 128)
“At the end of time, history will culminate in a great banquet (Rev 19:9), but, as we have seen, we can eat with Jesus now. How? Through prayer. Commentators understand that Jesus’ invitation to ‘hear his voice’ and ‘open the door’ so he can ‘come in and eat with that person, and they with me’ (Rev 3:20) is an invitation to fellowship and communion with him through prayer.” (p. 140) (emphasis mine)
This jumped out at me. In my thirty plus years as a Christian, I had never heard Revelation 3:20 interpreted that way. Mr. Keller seems to be saying that this verse is a reference to our prayer life. The context of the chapter of his book where these quotes appear certainly give that impression. While it could be possible that the part about eating with Christ (as a reference to relationship) could include the privilege and enjoyment of being close to Christ in prayer (as well as other relationship blessings), Mr. Keller seems to be connecting and applying both parts about hearing “his voice” and dining only to prayer.
Since this was not the typical way of taking this verse as far as I knew, I thought maybe I missed something. So I set out to see who the “commentators”, that Mr. Keller mentioned, were. I checked these thirteen commentaries and others that I have at home. None gave the opinion that this verse was a reference to our prayer life. So, who are these “commentators”? I do not know who Mr. Keller had in mind. I will keep my eyes open for any well-trusted, commentaries that expound this view.
Shared view of Revelation 3:20 with contemplatives and spiritual formation proponents
Since I had begun to understand Mr. Keller’s affinity for contemplatives, I wondered if maybe he got his interpretation from them. Do contemplatives see Revelation 3:20 in the same way? It was not hard to find the answer. They do.
Revelation 3:20 is a dear verse to contemplatives and, as it turn out, spiritual formation proponents. I say dear, because they write of it with joy and warmth. It is key to their belief that they can hear God’s voice in prayer (and meditation) and that He wants intimate communion with them. They believe it is indicative that God wants to speak to them. They only need to open the door. There are plenty of examples of this in their writings and teachings. Below are just a few of the ones I have seen.
Contemplative Prayer and Openness to God by Fr. James Farfaglia
“We have also considered two methods of prayer that prepare us to receive the gift of contemplative prayer. Let us now consider the personal requirements that we need. The first thing that we need is openness to God. God respects our freedom and he will not force our door open. We need to open it and allow him to enter. Let us recall a beautiful passage from the Sacred Scriptures: ‘Look, I am standing at the door, knocking. If one of you hears me calling and opens the door, I will come in to share his meal, side by side with him’ (Revelation 3: 20).”
Praying with the Heart: Contemplative Prayer
“Contemplative prayer is opening our hearts door to Jesus who is patiently knocking (Revelation 3:20).”
One Hour With Jesus (Contemplative Prayer)
Under the title “Model of one-hour contemplative prayer”
“3rd part (approx. 3 minutes): Open your heart and receive the Lord Jesus on the foundation of God’s Word: Rev 3:20 – ‘Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him.’ Realize: You are standing, and knocking… I am opening… I have opened. You are entering, You have entered… You are in me: You are God from God… Light from Light… True God from True God… Begotten, Not Made… One in Being with the Father… I believe … I confess!”
Friar’s E-Spirations: Stepping Stones Toward Contemplative Union by Christopher Heffron
The following was presented for this purpose: “Below, I offer several passages from Scripture which I believe provide a good starting point for those longing for contemplative union with God.”
For Revelation 3:20 the author wrote: “Thus the stage is set for the above scene—the risen Jesus standing at the door, knocking. How can we best respond to Jesus knocking? We respond by opening the door of our hearts with warm hospitality—and by believing wholeheartedly that the risen Jesus truly wants to enter into our hearts and let us be consciously united with him.”
Understanding Meditation by Richard Foster
“In Revelation 3:20 we are given the wonderful words of Jesus, ‘Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.’ These words were originally penned for believers, not unbelievers. You see, Jesus is knocking at the door of your heart and my heart. He is longing to eat with us, to commune with us. He desires a perpetual eucharistic feast in the inner sanctuary of the heart. Jesus is knocking; meditative prayer opens the door.”
I think this shared view, which deviates from the typical understanding of this verse, is telling. If I have taken Mr. Keller’s meaning correctly, it sheds more light on his real ideas about prayer. (As a side note, I think the teaching to “open a door” in your prayer life, i.e. to the spirit realm, is not a good idea. Even Mr. Foster warms about this. See PRAYER: Contemplative Prayer — A Warning and a Precaution. There is so much I want to break down in this article, but now is not the time.)
Claims about what only prayer can do
Mr. Keller holds some troubling views about what only prayer can do.
Self-knowledge only through prayer Mr. Keller has some interesting views about prayer and knowing yourself. Flowing out of thoughts shared from Ms. O’Connor’s Prayer Journal mentioned above, Mr. Keller writes, “God is the only person from whom you can hide nothing. Before him you will unavoidably come to see yourself in a new, unique light. Prayer, therefore, leads to a self-knowledge that is impossible to achieve any other way.” (p. 12) (emphasis mine) Before I comment on this, let me share a few more quotes.
“Prayer is the only entryway into genuine self-knowledge. It is also the main way we experience deep change—the reordering of our loves. Prayer is how God gives us so many of the unimaginable things he has for us. Indeed, prayer makes it safe for God to give us many of the things we most desire. It is the way we know God, the way we finally treat God as God. Prayer is simply the key to everything we need to do and be in life. We must learn to pray. We have to.” (p. 18) (emphasis mine)
“Nothing but prayer will ever reveal you to yourself, because only before God can you see and become your true self. To paraphrase something is to get the gist of it and make it accessible. Prayer is learning who you are before God and giving him your essence. Prayer means knowing yourself as well as God.” (p. 30) (emphasis mine)
There are more examples like this, but I think these will suffice. There is so much in these quotes to address. I can’t do it all here. Please read them carefully and see the claims about prayer. Is prayer the only way to know yourself genuinely? Notice the lack of scriptural support for the ideas. Notice the focus on self. Notice that the Bible or good Bible preaching is not mentioned as a means to self-knowledge. Notice the work of God in the inner man is not mentioned.
At this point in his book, Mr. Keller had not yet clearly given his definition of prayer, which he defines as our response to God – a response to hearing God speak to us in the Bible. (p. 45-46) Not yet having read his definition, readers would have their own understanding of prayer in mind. I’m guessing that many would not be thinking about using the Bible as part of prayer. So how would they take Mr. Keller’s claims about what their prayer can do? And prayer does not always include the Bible, so what is happening then? Are we genuinely informing us about ourselves? And even according to Mr. Keller, prayer comes from us. It is our reply. (p. 50) Our hearts can tell us something, but I wouldn’t trust them. (Jeremiah 17:9) Our hearts are not fully trustworthy to learn from and that includes our responses to God “speaking” to us while we meditate on His word. We come to genuine self-knowledge through the lens of Scripture. It is His word, not our responding, that reveals our true self. God is true; every man is a liar.
Mr. Keller leans on the Lord’s Prayer for some of his teachings on prayer. I think it is telling that in Jesus’ great instruction to us about prayer (Matthew 6:5-13), He does not teach that the source of attaining genuine self-knowledge is prayer. Yes there are parts about us: asking for forgiveness and to be led not into temptation. And yes, we have to know ourselves in order to know what we need forgiveness for and what particular temptations we need to be led away from, but it is the Bible that tells us what we are to avoid in the first place. And it is the Holy Spirit that convicts us to ask for the forgiveness of our sins when we fail. This sole path of attaining of self-knowledge though our answers to God is not biblical as far as I understand it. And more than all this, it is not even self-knowledge Christians are to seek. It is growing in the knowledge of Jesus. (2 Peter 3:18)
Prayer as the way we know God
As quoted above, Mr. Keller writes that prayer “is the way we know God, the way we finally treat God as God.” (p. 18) (emphasis mine) Is it not through the preaching of the word, the Bible, and the work of the Holy Spirit that we know God?
Prayer as the only way we love God for Himself alone
Regarding the context of the book of Job Mr. Keller writes, “The question of the book of Job is posed in its very beginning. Is it possible that a man or woman can come to love God for himself alone so that there is a fundamental contentment in life regardless of circumstances (Job 1:9)?97 By the end of the book we see the answer. Yes, this is possible, but only through prayer.” (p. 48) (emphasis mine)
Does the book of Job teach us this? That prayer is the only way to come to love God as Mr. Keller describes? Does any part of the Bible teach us that prayer is the only way? And there is a different lesson that I see at the end of the book of Job. The end shows that God’s dealing with us is entirely up to Him and not based on our behavior. Job sees that God is God and He will do as He pleases. (Job 42:1-6) Shortly before, Job was so humbled that he wisely covered his mouth. (Job 40:4) I don’t see how prayer is the focus here.
Implied results of not experiencing God in prayer
One of Mr. Keller’s thrusts in his book is getting his readers comfortable with the idea of experiencing God in prayer. He makes the need to experience God in prayer quite serious when he strongly connects experiencing God with prayer and what can happen if we don’t have that experience.
“If doctrinal soundness is not accompanied by heart experience, it will lead eventually to nominal Christianity—that is, in name only—and eventually to nonbelief. The irony is that many conservative Christians, most concerned about conserving true and sound doctrine, neglect the importance of prayer and make no effort to experience God, and this can lead to the eventual loss of sound doctrine.” (p. 180) (emphasis mine)
I would not say that knowing sound doctrine without heart experience eventually leads to non-belief. I would guess there was no saving faith originally. Otherwise, has salvation been lost? Someone could intellectually have a grasp of sound doctrine and yet not even be regenerated. Knowing right doctrine doesn’t make you a Christian. Regeneration does. Also, I am not convinced that an experience of God in prayer, something that Mr. Keller says Christians need to make an effort for, is the lifeline he seems to be making it.
Also, a few words about making “an effort” to experience God. Experiencing God can be connected to prayer of course, but it can also be connected to sound doctrine in a way that requires no effort (purposefully seeking an experience) or even prayer. The doctrines of God’s word reveal God powerfully. At the beginning of my article The Sovereignty of God that I wrote years ago, these words appear: The study of the sovereignty of God not only illuminates the mind, it also inflames the heart. I am no poet, but this was my attempt to express the very real experience of God that comes with seeing Him in the Scriptures as He is: sovereign over all. This is true of the doctrine of God’s sovereignty and others. The experiences that have been connected with the study of and contending for sound doctrine, with no effort in prayer, have included a sense of His surrounding, protective presence, great power, and merciful love as well as peace and joy overflowing. Sometimes it has brought tears of gratitude in concert with smiles. And then inevitably the doxologies, spontaneous prayers of praise, pour fourth with prayers of thanksgiving. I don’t have to make an effort to experience God, it just happens. He is known in sound doctrine, and He is glorious. Regenerated Christians experience God in many ways. There is a fullness in being sealed with the Holy Spirit and knowing Christ that permeates all of life.
More for another time
Since this article is already long, and much time has already been given to this project, I am going to recommend careful reading of the topic of the presence of God through and in prayer in Mr. Keller’s book, but not look at it more now. Please consider his handling of it carefully as there are some aspects that seem questionable. Study the presence of God in the Bible and compare. Also, there were some quotes and ideas brought in from other sources that didn’t seem to fit the context well. Please look up any that are weighty to the conversation.
Mr. Keller presents an approach to prayer that has similarities to contemplative practices, like meditation and contemplation. (p. 248 – 255). While his explanation of what he means by them can be seen as different from contemplative practice, discernment is needed. Depending on what is gleaned from his book, some readers could miss the distinction. They may also lose the distinction in further study of the topic or in actual practice of meditation and contemplation. When all he has written is taken into consideration, his work leaves wiggle room that unfortunately even his own church found.
The following information is about Mr. Keller’s church and its offerings in contemplative prayer and mysticism. I think it serves as a warning. When it comes to Mr. Keller and his teachings on prayer, something gets lost in the translation; therefore, his book should be used carefully. Any teaching on meditation and contemplation also has to be done carefully. The risk of slipping into unbiblical practices is real. His church is proof of that.
Mr. Keller is no longer senior pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, though he is still connected to the church. He stepped down in 2017. Redeemer also separated into four distinct churches; however, they do still share a common portal on the web. That is where the following material can be found. On the main Redeemer site (www.redeemer.com), you can find the following three resource articles under the category “Learn/Prayer and Fasting”.
Redeemer web article 1 First, You Listen: Discover the key to seeking what’s on God’s heart
This article directs readers to “listen” for God’s voice in a contemplative way apart from the Bible. The author recommends sitting in silence and stillness and waiting for guidance from God about prayer. He writes, “If you have already decided what you think God wants to say, you will close your heart to any other thoughts from him, so give him the opportunity to say anything he wants to you.” This listening is apart from the Bible and comes with an openness to accept “anything” that is heard.
Redeemer web article 2 “Lectio Divina: “Divine Reading”
This article on the churches website has instructions for practicing Lectio Divina. Lectio Divina is a contemplative prayer practice of the Catholic Church that originated with monks centuries ago. This practice ought to be discouraged not encouraged. (See What is Lectio Divina? on GotQuestions.org for more information.) It is troubling to see this on the website. The instructions encourage participants “to set aside analysis, and what they “know” already about the passage, seeking instead to open themselves to God’s word, listen with their hearts, and receive it expectantly and passively. They then attend to what they receive from God. God’s word is received personally, as an individualized gift to each person.” (italics mine) There is a lot of wiggle room here for a subjective, apart-from-the-meaning-of-the-text, kind of listening. There is some guidance on page 149 of Mr. Keller’s book that may have kept his church from this, but somehow it didn’t. That’s how easy it is to start listening incorrectly.
Contemplative practices have gotten a foothold in many evangelical circles, which is part of why I was motivated to write this article. Thankfully, some have been diligent. The ministry, Desiring God, made a correction along these lines back in 2012. Back then there was a bit of an uproar over an article that appeared on desiringgod.org. It was about different approaches to prayer. At first, the article included Lectio Divina as a suggestion. After objections were raised, a correction was made. The part about Lectio Divina was rightly taken down and an apology was given. Part of it follows:
“Update: Formerly I listed Lectio Divina as a third system for prayer. I’ve since removed it for the confusion it has caused. We do not endorse contemplative spirituality. … I’m sorry for introducing the category.” A System for Praying in 2012 by Jonathan Parnell
Thankfully, Desiring God had the discernment to remove it. But it was there. This type of thing can be easily stepped into and deserves much effort to be guarded against.
Unfortunately, Mr. Keller’s church is still promoting Lectio Divina. The particular model they use was adapted from David Benner’s book Sacred Companions. David Benner is a contemplative who is “drawn to the mystics”. In an explanation about why he is drawn to them, his reasons involved his desire to “know the mystery of union with the Divine.” He also wrote, “They (the mystics) tell us that God cannot be grasped by the mind but can be known by the heart. And they tell us that the route to heart knowing is contemplation. Contemplation, or meditation, holds unique potential to help us to transcend our minds without abandoning them. It helps us know and see by means of our hearts. It helps us find our center in our Source.” (see Mystical Vision) (parentheses mine) Mr. Benner is an interesting source from which to draw from for Mr. Keller’s church’s instructions on Lectio Divina. It makes one wonder how this relationship was forged.
Redeemer web article 3 Meditation: Not So Mysterious
This article is on the same resource page for prayer as the other two links above. This article is written by another contemplative. Her name is Jan Johnson. In her article Jan promotes two methods of meditation. The first is based on the methods of Catholic mystic Ignatius Loyola. This is one of the people that Mr. Keller mentioned back in 1998 as having “great stuff”. Ignatius Loyola was the founder of the Jesuits. What I know of his experiences and beliefs would lead me away from him not to him for instruction. The second method is Lectio Divina. Clearly, there is a serious issue with discernment at Mr. Keller’s church.
Offerings at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in the past
Based on information I have seen online, Redeemer Presbyterian Church has been offering material like this for a while. This is not something that started after Mr. Keller stepped down as senior pastor. Past offerings included the following:
2009 An article from Lighthouse Trails Publishing, Another Popular Christian Leader , Tim Keller, Takes Church into Contemplative, reveals that contemplative resources were being offered at Redeemer in 2009. The article mentions resources that appeared on the church’s website. Two articles are mentioned that sound like Redeemer’s articles 2 and 3 above. The links to them have expired, but the descriptions match. The Lighthouse Trails Publishing article from 2009 also mentions a day long workshop that was held in the spring of that year at Redeemer. It was called “The Way of the Monk”. The classes on the schedule included a class on the contemplative practice centering prayer. Two other classes offered were “Prayer Rope” and “The Divine Office/ Liturgy of the Hours”. To see information that was posted by Redeemer about the classes, please visit Learn to Embrace Your “Inner Monk” at Pastor Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church?. In the description for the class “Prayer Rope”, you can see that it was to give information about the “Chaplet of The Divine Mercy”, a type of praying using rosary beads. This prayer method was received from “Jesus” by Saint M. Faustina Kowalska in a vision. Practice time with the rope was also scheduled. Truly a remarkable class for a Christian church to have offered!
2010 An article by Do Not Be Surprised, Redeemer Presbyterian Teaching Mysticism, speaks about a class that was being taught at Redeemer Presbyterian Church. The book that was being used was by contemplative Jan Johnson, though the book is not named. Jan is the woman who wrote Article 3 above. She has had a connection with Mr. Keller’s church for a while.
2013 Lighthouse Trails Publishing’s article, Redeemer Presbyterian Church (Pastor Tim Keller) Added to “Lectio Divina” List, again makes note of Redeemer’s articles 2 and 3 above being on the church’s website.
The history of supporting and encouraging contemplative prayer practices is clear and continues today. Clearly something is amiss with Mr. Keller’s teachings or influence. I don’t think there is much to gain for speculation, but it does make one wonder. Are the teachings too vague, the end results actually desired, or is it that people will simply pursue what they want regardless? Moral of the story? It is truly wise to be careful when using Mr. Keller as a reference for learning about prayer, meditation, and contemplation. I pray that all who avail themselves to Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God keep their discernment high and diligence to be biblical strong. Again, there is more in the book that could be commented on. Please stay alert.
Some extra links
A Word of Caution about Tim Keller This short article is from John Hendryx of Monergism Books on Monergism.com. Amongst other things it warns against Mr. Keller’s “ecumenism” and his church’s practices of “contemplative prayer/Catholic mysticism”.
Keller and His Critics This is a much longer article and is from The Bible League Trust. It reviews a number of problematic areas in Mr. Keller’s theology through a look at the book Engaging with Keller – Thinking through the Theology of an influential Evangelical.
*All page references to Mr. Keller’s book are from the Kindle Edition.
September 10, 2018
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