Praying: Finding our Way through Duty to Delight

Article by   September 2006

Another, much anticipated book by J. I. Packer (and a second co-authored by Carolyn Nystrom). This one, as the title makes abundantly clear, on prayer - or, as the action-word suggests, praying. A century and a half ago the Scottish professor "Rabbi" Duncan sent his students off to read John Owen, the Puritan, on indwelling sin with the admonition, "But gentlemen, prepare for the knife." The same could be said of this book.

It was another Scottish preacher, Robert Murray McCheyne, who once said that if you want to humble a Christian, ask about their prayer-lives. It remains painfully true. Many of us play at prayer without engaging God in any meaningful way. More promises are made to reform our practice and discipline our prayer-lives than any other aspect of Christian behavior. Nor will readers find this book a quick-fix for undisciplined habits or skewed ambitions. Indeed, the scalpel comes in the prefatory remarks: "And if you get joyfully musty in a library researching prayer, yet end up with no time, or energy or motivation to do more than mumble a few goodnight words to God at the end of the day before sleep sets in, you are not a praying person" (p. 9). Ouch!

Packer is a theologian, all too conscious that prayer, like any other aspect of Christian living, is to be done with theological precision and insight. Thus, the opening chapter explores eight truths "that the church's teachers have recognized over a period of nearly two thousand years that the Bible presents to us regarding the nature and action of God" (p. 20-21). Debunking all ideas prefaced by "I like to think of God in such-and-such a way..." as symptomatic of "the anti-God syndrome on our mental and spiritual system," Packer insists we turn from fantasy and dreams to what the Bible teaches. Thus begins "Packerian" rhapsodic prose, by turns deep and surprisingly candid. No sooner have we settled down for the journey than we encounter typical precision ("Packer" by name and by style): a seven-point, alliterative analysis of God's character worthy of a dictionary entry. The author of Knowing God still insists we must know what God is like if we are to make any progress in growing in fellowship and communion with him. Typical is the following: "God behaves toward those who are his in a fatherly way that, as such, is flawless. The biblical ideal of fatherhood blends authority, fidelity, affection, care, discipline, long-suffering and protection in a course of sustained love that aims always at the children's advance into strength, wisdom and maturity. God in his triunity relates to all his people according to this fatherly ideal, and more specifically, within that triunity, the first person of the holy Three does so. He, the eternal Father of Jesus the eternal Son, in whom we have been brought into our new life, adopts us sinners to be his sons and heirs with Jesus, who thus becomes our elder brother. Now by means of this ministry to us the Son and the Spirit, our heavenly Father is leading us home to full Christlikeness and eternal glory." (p.30). Those familiar with Packer's style could pick that paragraph out in a heartbeat as typical of the theologian we have grown to admire. His catechetical touch, viewed as austere and pedantic in others by doctrine-wary, post-conservatives, is lauded in "J.I." as he is frequently identified in this book (to distinguish his contributions from his co-author, Carolyn Nystrom).

Issues of immense significance, as the adequacy of human language in divine communication, is dealt with in a simplicity that is at once profound and comprehensive: "Since God is personal, it should come as no surprise to find that his relationship to humans involves two-way speech. God addresses Bible characters (and thereby us) using language. There is no linguistic relationship between the biologist and his tadpole, but there is a linguistic relationship between you and me, and between us and God. Today, if we may put it so, God communicates with humankind in writing, by letter (the written word of God), and humans in response communicate with God in direct speech, as by phone (prayer). But none of this would be possible if God were not personal." (p. 22).

Several chapters show the skeletal shadow of Packer's "mentors" and the rich treasury of literature on prayer that has shaped his understanding and practice: thus, John Bunyan in chapter 2, John Owen in chapter 3, and C. S. Lewis in chapter 4 and elsewhere. This way, answers to age-old problems about prayer are dealt with in both theological and historical ways, showing the wisdom of the ages on questions we think we have discovered all by ourselves. Rich (especially in chapters 4 and 5) are the plundering made into the psalms. Particularly helpful is the chapter on complaining (Chapter 7) in which the book addresses the phenomenon that when bad things happen to good people in the Bible, they complain with great freedom and at considerable length, unlike the "stiff-upper-lip" that has characterized the Northern European-influenced culture that has shaped so many of us. Thus Job and Jeremiah come under the microscope. Commenting on the Book of Lamentations, which mourns the fall of Jerusalem, Packer comments: "The complainers in each situation are regenerate children of God (regeneration was an Old Testament fact, though the theology of it was not made known until Christ came) and their complaints are fundamentally prayers for deliverance from evil and for the fulfillment of promises of protection, provision and relational enrichment that God himself gave. The plea embedded in their complaints is that joyful fellowship with God may be restored and present pain become a thing of the past. Feeling with their minds and thinking with their feelings, their emotions of distress are as vivid and intense as are their perceptions of current disaster due to God's noninterventions. In terms of direction and intention, their lament and complaints to God are acts of petition and promise-claiming, in a very strong form." (p.193).

There is an equally important and helpful section on the corporate dimension of prayer and the necessity of praying in communion with the body of Christ (chapter 8). That we need each other here is something the North American church in particular seems almost at the point of losing: ask how many churches have a corporate Prayer Meeting (as the early church so evidently did), or how many attend it if it does and you will get his point. Guilt here is certain; but forgiveness, too. For Praying is a book that urging and enticing rather than beating and bruising. The final two chapters finds us where many of us are: wanting to do better but finding the "struggle of prayer" all too real.

Praying, then, is a major Christian classic destined to become one of the all time great books on prayer. One could quibble here and there (a few will find the occasional allusions to Catholic mystics puzzling), but what emerges is a candor and freshness which the joint-authorship actually encourages. The closing section deals expansively with the heart, surprisingly so given the depth of theological precision in the opening chapters. But this, as the book explains using the, by now, familiar but still quaint "J. I. says" (is this Packer telling Carolyn what he thinks?), and suggesting that he (Packer) has had a longstanding failure to appreciate the whole-heart praying of the psalmists "because, as he now sees, his personal piety, such as it was and marked as it was by a good deal of the surface-level passion, was too cerebral, and his heart, deep down, was still too much in a "frozen-chosen" mold, needing to be loosened up and indeed warmed up." He is not, as the book itself suggest, the only one who has had a problem here.

By J.I. Packer and Carolyn Nystrom - Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006
Review by Derek Thomas 


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