The Heart of Prayer

Brad Irick Articles
The Heart of Prayer: What Jesus Teaches Us
By Jerram Barrs
256 p.
P&R Publishing (February 2008)
Reviewed by Brad Irick

Recently, reformation21's own Derek Thomas preached the Sunday evening service at FPC Jackson from Nehemiah 1:11b-2:8. While commenting on Nehemiah's instinctual prayer in 2:4, Derek proclaimed, "My friends, we need to understand that the only reason Nehemiah has an instinct of prayer in a critical moment is because he had a life of prayer. It is because he was always praying." Then in applying Nehemiah's example to our lives, he stated, "You see, if you're not always praying, if you do not have the pattern of disciplined prayer, you cannot guarantee that in a moment of crisis, your instinct is going to be one of prayer."

Now, all who trust in and love their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ desire a disciplined prayer life. However, desire and practice do not always match-up. Some believers (myself included!) often see days pass by without a regular time of private communion with God much to their shame. If this describes you, as much as it does me, then the providence of God has smiled upon us in this new book by Jerram Barrs, The Heart of Prayer: What Jesus Teaches Us 
Jerram Barrs, professor of Christianity and contemporary culture and resident scholar of the Francis Schaeffer Institute at Covenant Theological Seminary, is a pastor, author, and teacher. But in this book, Barrs is more like a friend and mentor who longs to impart a spiritual gift of comfort and encouragement to those who struggle to pray or who find their prayer life woefully lacking. This book is a welcome addition to the discussion on prayer and Barrs accomplishes his goal of bringing comfort and encouragement in the following ways.

First, he makes the subject material of his book Jesus' verbal and non-verbal teaching on prayer. Barrs writes, "What is remarkable about this to me is that the Lord knows full well how inadequate and weak my prayer life is, and he sees my cold heart and lack of zeal; yet I find that his words on prayer are a solace and support to me, rather than a condemnation and rebuke" (12). Barrs interprets and applies the following passages dealing with Jesus' teaching by word and deed: Luke 11:1-13; Matthew 6:1-18; Luke 18:1-8; Luke 5:12-16; Luke 6:12-16; Matthew 3:13-4:11; and John 17:1-26. Since Scripture is the only infallible rule for our practice, and since the truth sets a person free, returning to the words and actions of Jesus brings life, strength and hope to the dead, weak, and hopeless.

Second, Barrs approaches the subject with humility and grace. He is honest about his own struggles (11-12) and peppers the book with stories from his own experience (see 66-67, 146-7; and 172-3 for examples). The reader feels as if a conversation is taking place between a mentor and his disciple, or even better, between a father and his children. Barrs follows in the footsteps of his Master by not snuffing-out a smoldering wick or breaking a bruised-reed. He is pastoral through and through.

Third, the author applies the truth he has gleaned from Scripture to the readers. The Heart of Prayer is chocked full of application. In a particularly encouraging example, while dealing with Jesus' teaching in Matthew 6, Barrs writes:
We are always to remember that the Lord will not hear us better because we have observed our disciplines. This is a truth that we need to have engraved on our hearts and minds. Nor will the Lord hear us less well because we have not kept to the letter of our disciplines for prayer. He is our completely loving Father who does not condemn us and who will not turn us away because of our lack of spiritual discipline. It is just because he loves us [in Christ] that he desires that we set time aside for prayer, and that we fast from time to time (108-9).

In addition, each chapter ends with a series of searching questions which invite the reader to meditate upon and apply the truths of Scripture. Providentially, the application questions combined with the style of writing make this book ideal for a small group setting.

Fourth and most encouraging, this book is infused with gospel truth and principles. In the first chapter, Barrs reminds us that God the Father does not hear, accept, or answer our prayers because of their length, passion, fervency, or complexity. We cannot merit a hearing with or an answer from God. God the Father hears, accepts, and answers our prayers because of the person and work of Jesus Christ. It is through union and communion with Christ and upon the foundation of his merits that we come before the Father.

In chapters seven and eight, while meditating upon the temptation of Jesus, Barrs brings us to the feet of our Lord and Savior who is "the second Adam, the Lawgiver greater than Moses, the foremost of the prophets (even greater than Elijah), the Priest of his people, the true Son of David, the representative of Gods holy nation" (129) and we glory in the fact that, "Because we are in Jesus, [the Father] forgives us. Because we are in Jesus, he lifts us up when we fall. Because we are in Jesus, he strengthens us for each day's struggles. Because we are in Jesus, the day is coming when he will give us complete victory over our enemy, and then we will never fail or fall gain" (139).

Finally, in chapters nine through twelve, Barrs takes us to our Great high priest who makes continual intercession for us. Jesus, in John 17, prays on our behalf for the following: protection for us from the evil one; we would experience the full measure of his joy; our growth in grace; the privilege to be with Jesus and see his glory; an for our unity as the body of Christ. Since we have such a High Priest praying for us we can approach the throne of God's grace with confidence and boldness in order to receive mercy, grace, comfort, and encouragement in our time of need.

Before I conclude this review, I have two gentle criticisms. First, a conversational style like Barrs tends to imprecision. I found myself in various places being confused and wanting addition clarity. For example, Barrs writes on page 69, "He [the Father] wants to know that we recognize our need for his mercy and his love to enable us to be kind and generous." After reading statements like this I asked myself, "I thought the Father knows everything?" (Similar statements like this are found on pages 69-70 and 100.) In addition, Barrs states on page 186, "Of course, nothing is wrong with any of these goals [good college, well-paying job, etc.]. But if they are our priorities for our children, then they have become our idols. Such idols are, in themselves, good, for they are good gifts of creation." In context, the reader is able to understand this statement, but I found myself asking, "How can any idol be good"?

Second, the book lacks a conclusion. Barrs does include three appendices on the following: a biblical critique of mysticism, a discussion of the longer ending to the Lord's Prayer, and an essay on the place of physicality and posture in prayer and worship. However, a conclusion which summarized and unified all the lines of thought from the various passages would be invaluable.

To end on a high note, The Heart of Prayer brings comfort and encouragement to all those of us who struggle with developing a "pattern of disciplined prayer," because we are reminded that the heart of prayer is a child-like dependence upon the Father because of the person and work of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ powerfully applied to us by the Spirit. In our praying, we ask God to be glorified as we delight and depend on Him. For apart from Jesus Christ we can do nothing.  
Brad Irick is an MDiv Student at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS and the Pastoral Care intern at FPC Jackson.