In A Praying Life Paul Miller uses two images to talk about prayer: holding hands and scrubbing floors. The first highlights the relational aspect of prayer, what it means to come to God like a little child. The second asks how we pray when it doesn’t feel easy. However, the first time he mentions the latter, or its complementarity to the former, is over 3/4 of the way through.
A Praying Life is not a difficult read: the language is simple and it’s full of stories and anecdotes. However, the way it’s structured means it feels pretty unbalanced. The paradigm for prayer that Miller begins with is that of a father-child dynamic. This is applied a little haphazardly. For example, he argues that:
- children are self-absorbed, so we ought to bring our selfish prayers to God.
- children jump from one play activity to the next so we ought not worry if we can’t focus on one idea in prayer.
- children don’t have proper speech, so we ought not be worried if our prayers are not articulate.
- children are unself-conscious, so we ought to feel free to ‘come messy’ to God.
There’s little rationale for why these particular aspects of childhood are relevant but this image is what brings the book its heartwarming tone. Miller describes prayer as simply conversation around the dinner table with family: it’s fun and flows naturally.
I can see how this is really helpful for those who have felt weighed down by legalism or like they and their prayers are not good enough for God. Miller’s take-home point is, ‘There’s grace, so feel like you can come to God.’ He’s working against the idea of prayer as ‘going through the motions’ – he cuts against that by putting prayer in relational terms. However, the language of ‘conversation’ seemed artificial to me: conversation is inherently 2-way, yet it takes Miller until over half way through his book (p.145) to admit that our experience of prayer may not involve God’s audible voice and his important discussion of how word and Spirit work together is left until even later (p.240ff). Additionally, he says things like “You don’t need self-discipline to pray. You just need to be poor in spirit.” I found myself asking, ‘Is my prayer life inadequate because I don’t feel excited about it all the time?‘
Miller does turn to these questions eventually. He takes into account the impact of the Fall on prayer, arguing against the idea that ‘spiritual things – if done right – should just flow’. He likens the Fall to us having a disability, where ‘nothing flows, especially at the beginning.’ However, by this point, you’re over 220 pages into a 270 page book! The last few chapters are practical suggestions about how to pray but Miller argues that technique is a red herring from our real problem: our unbelief in a God who is ready to get into the dirt of our lives.
It was not Miller’s explanation or theology of prayer that I found most helpful but rather his poignant reflections on his own prayer and life. Miller and his wife have a severely autistic, now grown, daughter, Kim. As a family and individuals, they have struggled deeply with unanswered prayer and they have learnt a great deal about God and themselves from their interactions with Kim. They have wrestled with what it means to pray against harm or to say ‘your will be done’ and the chapters on the Lord’s Prayer burst with pastoral wisdom. This is where the real wealth of this book is. The picture his experiences paint is of prayer as part of a ‘gospel story of unseen connections’, a part of a ‘richly textured view of the world where all of life … [is lived] in our Father’s world.’
The most challenging exhortation was about choosing to trust God in the face of unanswered prayer. In the section called ‘Living in your Father’s story’, Miller says: “Stay in the story. Don’t shut down when it goes the wrong way… Be on the lookout for strange gifts. God loves to surprise us with babies in swaddling clothes lying in mangers… Sometimes we say ‘God is silent’ but what’s really going on is that he hasn’t told the story the way we wanted it.”
What motivates you in prayer? What de-motivates you?
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, blogging at meetjesusatuni.com.