The Integrity of Prayer
by Timothy Keller
If we give priority to the outer life, our inner life will be a dark, scary room. We will not know what to do with solitude. We will be deeply uncomfortable with self-examination, and we will have an increasingly short attention span for any kind of reflection. Even more seriously, our lives will lack integrity. Outwardly, we will need to project confidence, spiritual and emotional health and wholeness, while inwardly we may be filled with self-doubts, anxieties, self-pity, and old grudges. Yet we won’t know how to go into the inner rooms of the heart, see clearly what is there, and deal with it. In short, without putting a priority on the inner life, we turn ourselves into hypocrites. The 17th century English theologian John Owen wrote a warning to popular and successful ministers.
A minister may fill his pews, his communion roll, the mouths of the public, but what that minister is on his knees in secret before God Almighty, that he is and no more.1
Please take seriously the challenge that, without a rich prayer life, you will live as a hypocrite. To discover the real you, look at what you spend time thinking about and doing especially when no one is looking, when nothing is forcing you to think about anything in particular. When you have that freedom, do your thoughts go toward God? You may want to be seen as a humble, unassuming person, but do you take the initiative to confess sins before God? You wish to be perceived as a positive, cheerful person, but do you habitually thank God for everything you have and praise him for who he is? You may speak a great deal about what a “blessing” your faith is and how you “just really love the Lord”, but if you are prayerless—is that really true? If you aren’t joyful, humble, and faithful in private before God, then what you appear to be on the outside won’t match what you truly are.
Just prior to giving his disciples his famous model, the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus offered some preliminary ideas on prayer, including this one. “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. . . .But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father who is unseen . . . in secret.” (Matt 6:5-6) The acid test of spiritual integrity, Jesus says, is your private prayer life. Many people will pray when they have to because of cultural or social expectations, or perhaps because of troubling circumstances. The person with a genuine lived relationship with God as Father, however, will want to pray and therefore will pray even though nothing is pressing them to do so. For such a person prayer is not putting a message in a bottle—it is the way to know the One who is life itself. It is their passion, which they pursue even during times of spiritual dryness where there is no social or experiential pay off.
Giving priority to the inner life doesn’t mean an individualistic life, of course. Knowing the God of the Bible better can’t be achieved all alone. It entails the community of the church, participating in corporate worship as well as private devotion, and instruction in the Bible as well as silent meditation. At the heart of all the various ways of knowing God—is public and private prayer.
A late pastor and friend of mine, Jack Miller, once said he could tell a great deal about a person’s relationship with God by listening to him or her pray. “You can tell if a man or woman is really on speaking terms with God,” he said. My first response was to make a mental note to never pray aloud near Jack again. I’ve had years to test out Jack’s thesis. It is quite possible to become florid, theologically sound, and earnest in your public prayers without cultivating a rich, private prayer life. Nevertheless, you can’t manufacture the unmistakable note of reality that only comes from speaking not toward God but with him.
1 John Owen, cited in I.D.E. Thomas, A Puritan Golden Treasury, Banner of Truth, 1977, p.
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