Clearnote Campus Fellowship just finished up a semester-long Bible study on prayer. In preparing to teach that series, several people I respect recommended that I read A Praying Life by Paul Miller (NavPress, 2009; 279 pages), so I was excited to get to it.
A Praying Life is Miller’s call to Christians to begin the work of praying. His goal is to get his readers to view God as a good and loving Father, and to boost their confidence in coming to God with their spiritual and physical needs. It’s a very easy read with short chapters and an accessible style. It’s not exactly “devotional” literature, but it is geared towards drawing its readers into prayer, and Miller predominantly communicates through anecdote and personal experience (which seems to be the thang to do these days if you’re hoping any Evangelical will read your book).
Here’s the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of A Praying Life.
Don’t Hunt for a Feeling
Miller repeatedly warns against hunting for a feeling in prayer. Here’s my favorite quote in the book:
Learning to pray is almost identical to maturing over a lifetime. What does it feel like to grow up? It is a thousand feelings on a thousand different days. That is what learning to pray feels like.
So don’t hunt for a feeling in prayer. Deep in our psyches we want an experience with God or an experience in prayer. Once we make that our quest, we lose God. You don’t experience God; you get to know Him. You submit to Him. You enjoy Him. (21)
This explains the title of the book. Life as a Christian is a life of prayer. Prayer’s not about getting this or that thing; it’s about knowing our heavenly Father. The goal of prayer is to have God Himself. If you are not devoted to prayer, to communing with God, you should ask yourself, “Is God really my Father?”
Miller practically applies this truth by encouraging Christians not to place their faith in life’s circumstances or in a superficial sense of peace, but in fellowship with God which brings contentment in the midst of suffering: “Instead of hunting for the perfect spiritual state to lift you above the chaos [of life], pray in the chaos” (72).
The Christian, Suffering, and Prayer
A huge proportion of the book is Miller anecdotally processing his personal growth in prayer through his and his wife’s struggles raising their autistic daughter, Kim. Though I think the book is a bit heavy on the personal stories, you do get the sense that Miller is a man who’s truly suffered and understands the centrality of pain in the Christian life. The more we suffer, the more we’re forced to despair of ourselves and cry out to God. Miller does a good job here.
He goes beyond that, too, in order to point out that prayer itself is difficult work. He does so in harmony with faithful men of the past. I’ve been struck recently by the unified testimony of past writers on the difficulty of prayer. Check out E. M. Bounds:
Prayer is spiritual work; and human nature does not like taxing, spiritual work. Human nature wants to sail to heaven under a favoring breeze, a full, smooth sea. (“Prayer, the Great Essential,” The Power of Prayer)
Or John Bunyan:
As for my heart, when I go to pray, I find it so loth to go to God, and when it is with him, so loth to stay with him, that many times I am forced in my prayers, first to beg of God that he would take mine heart, and set it on himself in Christ, and when it is there, that he would keep it there. Nay, many times I know not what to pray for, I am so blind, nor how to pray, I am so ignorant. (Praying in the Spirit)
Charles Spurgeon said, “I usually feel more dissatisfied with my prayers than with anything else I do” (“The Throne of Grace,” Spurgeon’s Sermons on Prayer [Hendrickson, 2007], 69).
Miller acknowledges that our sinful pride keeps us from coming to God. He encourages his readers to come to God like children, meaning we ought to come to God honestly and without pretense.
The difficulty of coming just as we are is that we are messy. And prayer makes it worse. When we slow down to pray, we are immediately confronted with how unspiritual we are, with how difficult it is to concentrate on God. We don’t know how bad we are until we try to be good. Nothing exposes our selfishness and spiritual powerlessness like prayer. (31)
Prayer is hard and not natural to us. Sadly, it’s at this very point that Miller gets wobbly.
Despite acknowledging that prayer is in fact difficult, he does a lot of work (mostly inadvertent, I think) to undermine this acknowledgment. Throughout the first half of the book especially, he gives the overwhelming impression that prayer is something that should just naturally flow out of us. He tells the reader, “I didn’t learn continuous prayer; I discovered I was already doing it” (64). He relates the story of a young child who, “because [he] was created for communion with God,…naturally drifted into prayer” (109). Here’s how I suspect my old favorite, J. C. Ryle, might respond to Miller’s sentiments:
Have you forgotten that it is not natural to any one to pray? “The carnal mind is enmity against God.” The desire of man’s heart is to get far away from God, and have nothing to do with him. His feeling towards him is not love, but fear. Why then should a man pray when he has no real sense of sin, no real feeling of spiritual wants, no thorough belief in unseen things, no desire after holiness and heaven? (A Call to Prayer)
For those who know their hearts, and know that prayer is foreign to their sinful nature, I think Miller’s book is discouraging and presents a false hope that prayer ought to be easy. When I look back in the aggregate at A Praying Life, I don’t think Miller cultivates a “real sense of sin” in the reader, but has a small view of the power of indwelling sin.
In various places Miller stumbles into creating systemic false dichotomies between fighting sin and learning to pray, or between discipline and true prayer. Read this:
A praying life isn’t simply a morning prayer time; it is about slipping into prayer at odd hours of the day, not because we are disciplined but because we are in touch with our own poverty of spirit, realizing that we can’t even walk through a mall or our neighborhood without the help of the Spirit of Jesus. (68)
You see what happened there? Grammatically, Miller pits discipline directly against being in touch with our poverty of spirit. A “praying life” is about slipping into prayer “not because we are disciplined.” He says it even more explicitly on page 65: “You don’t need self-discipline to pray continuously; you just need to be poor in spirit.” I much more agree with E. M. Bounds here:
It is true that Bible prayers in word and print are short, but the praying men of the Bible were with God through many a sweet and holy wrestling hour. They won by few words but long waiting. The prayers Moses records may be short, but Moses prayed to God with fastings and mighty cryings forty days and nights. (“Deliberation Necessary to Largest Results from Prayer,” Power through Prayer)
In other words, the short daily spontaneous prayers of God’s men always sprang out of a disciplined life of devoted prayer. Discipline and vital relationship with God go hand in hand; they are not at odds.
After reading the book, I’m convinced Miller unwittingly makes these false dichotomies. I rejoiced when, later in the book, he provides some redeeming self-contradiction. Despite having set true praying over and against discipline throughout, he ends up coming around at the bitter end to giving very practical disciplinary helps for managing and being faithful in prayer. In chapter 27 he lays out a system using praying cards (which a godly older woman in our church uses), and he somewhat reluctantly acknowledges that faithful praying does indeed require some degree of discipline, even if only because of our fallen sinful nature:
We are not normal children learning how to pray.…We are disabled by the Fall. We have a disorder that mars our ability to talk with God.…
…We will need to persist when prayer doesn’t feel natural, especially during the learning phase. (222–23)
This seems to me to directly conflict with the tone of the book’s first half, that we will find ourselves “slipping into continuous prayer,” but I’m glad for the inconsistency. Miller just seems to view discipline as an inconvenient part of life. But remember that God has given us a spirit of “power and love and discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7).
Miller encourages praying like a child, but he strays into the territory of elevating immature prayer as the ideal. He says, “God looks at the adequacy of his Son and delights in our sloppy, meandering prayers” (55). Praise God for this truth, but Miller emphasizes this to the point of making it sound like we should make a principle of sloppy, meandering prayers. But is this what Jesus means when He says we are to be like little children? Certainly we are to be childlike in unwavering faith, but Scripture also condemns Christians who remain like little children in their understanding and lack of discipline:
Though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil. (Hebrews 5:12–14)
WARNING: This book is not a theology of prayer! It’s just some helpful tips from a guy who’s done a lot of praying and learned experientially about what it means to walk with God. Unfortunately, he’s not a very reliable theologian. As an example, one of Miller’s refrains throughout the book is the statement “God is a person.” Now, I’m sure all he intends to say is that God is personal (an indispensable truth), and I’m sure he’s not intending to promote anti-Trinitarian heresy, but the lack of precision, and the fact that he riffs on this over and over again throughout is a bit unsettling. God is One, and yet He eternally exists in three Persons.
This book carries the flavor of what I call the theology of Automatic Sanctification. That is, a view of sanctification which says if you’re trying to be righteous, you need to stop it, because you’re being a legalist. If you’re putting effort into obeying, then you must be doing it by your own strength; you just need to focus on the Gospel more, and then sanctification and holy living will just sort of flow out of you. Men like Tullian Tchividjian specialize in this teaching. I think it shows up in Miller:
When you stop trying to control your life and instead allow your anxieties and problems to bring you to God in prayer, you shift from worry to watching.
Isn’t self-control a fruit of the Spirit? I’m supposed to “allow” my anxieties and problems to bring me to God? Do you know what happens when I passively allow my anxieties and problems to do anything? Trust me, they don’t bring me to God. Watch out for teaching that contradicts Scripture’s teaching on sanctification: “It is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God” (1 Timothy 4:10).
Whenever Miller goes into illustrating with anecdotes about his relationships with his wife or children, he ends up pushing an effeminate passivity in our relationships with others, particularly in dealing with conflict. The overall message seems to be not to engage in conflict with others, but rather to just pray about it and then avoid conflict. This may be okay in some instances, but there’s one painful account in chapter 18 of an interaction with his son. He tells what he said to his son and acknowledges how he sinned in anger against his son, which is to be commended. He then proceeds to describe what his interaction with his son should have looked like. Indeed, the hypothetical godly interaction adds prayer and removes sinful anger, but it is also erases authority, discipline, and firm fatherliness. He had been a selfish monster; instead, he should have been a soft and “undemanding” father.
This emphasis on being “undemanding” gets subtly projected onto God. As a result, the overall impression of Jesus that Miller ends up presenting fits this image of passivity and weakness. The most important things for the reader to understand are that Jesus is “simple,” “subtle,” “poetic,” and “authentic.” God “longs to be a part of your life” (51). He’s not demanding.
Miller ends up presenting a Jesus whom it’s hard to imagine being “revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thessalonians 1:7–8). He leaves you with a soft and palatable Jesus who strikes very little fear in your heart. A Jesus without authority.
Authenticity the Highest Virtue?
Today, “authenticity” has become the highest virtue. Miller impresses upon you that the crowning achievement of godliness in your life is to be “authentic.” After all, isn’t that what children are?
When we remove our false selves, repentance creates integrity. We return to the real source of love—our heavenly Father. We become authentic. (215)
He ascribes this super-virtue to Jesus:
The presence of Jesus, the only truly authentic person who ever lived, would reveal itself in the restoration of authenticity in people. (97)
This all sounds really nice, and certainly there’s some truth there, but I find myself wondering where the Bible ever talks about the fruit of repentance being “authenticity.” Why is Jesus the “only truly authentic person who ever lived”? And what does that even mean anyways? Whatever happened to holiness? Godliness? Purity? Obedience? Power? Love?
Miller’s writing suffers from quite a number of bad practices which collectively make a portion of nearly every page cringeworthy.
On page 47 Miller writes, “You don’t create intimacy; you make room for it.” I found myself underlining this quote because it just seemed so pithy! But halfway through underlining, I asked myself, Wait, why am I underlining this? What does that sentence even mean? It might be true, but I think I’m underlining it just ‘cuz is sounds kinda cool and I could put it on Twitter. Sure enough, my friend who’d been reading the book on Kindle discovered that half the world had underlined this quote. I’m convinced they did so not because it’s actually profound, but because it has all the appearance of profundity. The book is rife with these sorts of trite tweetables.
It’s a bad sign when an author tries to engage you through what I call Silly Superlatives. Here’s one painful example:
Augustine’s Confessions…describes the interior journey of the soul. It was the first true journal. Augustine was the first person to recognize the inner workings of his heart and write about the meaning he saw laced through his life. (249)
Really? Augustine wrote the first true journal? He was the first person to recognize the inner workings of his heart and write about it? Step aside, Solomon, with your Ecclesiastes, and David, with your Psalms. Make way for Augustine, who’s turning in his grave as I write.
Here’s another, on page 215:
Few have grappled more with suffering than…
Any guesses? Job? King David? Hellen Keller? Jesus?
Nope. “Few have grappled more with suffering than Abraham Lincoln.” Well, that was…unexpected…
The truth is, I don’t think Miller probably believes what he writes in these places; it’s just shallow thinking and bad writing, and it doesn’t make me trust him as an author.
In case you’re considering writing a book for Evangelicals, don’t forget your obligatory C. S. Lewis quotes. Quoting Augustine is good, too. I read a book by a famous Christian pastor recently who quoted C. S. Lewis quoting Augustine! Hard to beat. In A Praying Life, though, Paul Miller somehow manages to quote C. S. Lewis while not really even quoting him. He does so by quoting “Charles Malik, the Greek Orthodox ‘C. S. Lewis'” (110).
I’m being silly, because I do usually like C. S. Lewis quotes, and Miller’s got his handful, but he also chooses some more questionable sources to cite, using quotes which are unhelpful, leaving me thinking those quotes are more about sounding hip and erudite, rather than about teaching something important. For instance, in chapter 2, while making an otherwise strong point, Miller mysteriously feels the need to do this:
My prayer was inseparable from repentance, from encountering God. As Anthony Bloom, a Greek Orthodox writer said, “Abandon all, you will receive heaven.” When you give God your life, he gives you the gift of himself. (25)
My handwritten note in the margin next to this quote reads: “Weird…Why not just quote Jesus?…” I mean, really, what’s the point in quoting some Greek Orthodox guy when you’ve got Matthew 16:25?: “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.”
Miller throws in a mystical-sounding quote from Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk (55). He quotes N. T. Wright—making sure to inform the reader that he’s a “respected scholar”—saying something utterly mundane (104).
Seriously, watch out for this stuff. It’s never good when an author’s trying to impress you with his connections and sources. Don’t be flattered.
Would I Recommend This Book?
In the end, the overall impression the book leaves on me is a bad one, and I would be very reluctant to recommend it. I do appreciate the practical help near the end, and it’s got wise nuggets throughout, but I don’t think they redeem the whole book, and there are enough pitfalls to say, No, I think you should spend your time on something more edifying. I am open to the accusation that I’m just being scathing and uncharitable in this review, but I think there are real dangers to stay away from.
Read the book of Psalms, or A Call to Prayer by J. C. Ryle, or Prayer by John Bunyan, or The Lord’s Prayer by Thomas Watson, Spurgeon’s Sermons on Prayer and Spurgeon’s Treasury of David, or even A Call to Spiritual Reformation by D. A. Carson. All good alternatives.