Book Review: A Praying Life

A Praying Life by Paul E. Miller

NavPress, 2009
I was gifted with a copy of this book by the woman responsible for prayer ministry at our congregation, Lois.  She is an active advocate for the power of prayer and an appreciated and valuable contributor to the ministry not just of our church but Christians everywhere.  
I’ll repeat my usual spiel about how reviewing a book that someone else tells you was hugely impactful for them is fraught with peril and yahda yahda yahda.  But at the end of the day, if we don’t talk about things together, then there’s not much point in sharing things in the first place.  The sharing begins a process, and what ultimately matters is the process and where it leads us in our lives and not the specific items being shared.  For the most part.
I’m not familiar with this author, and only passingly familiar with NavPress.  Their emphasis as a publisher is on discipleship-oriented materials, so not surprisingly, this book is not so much an auto-biography (though there is a fair amount of that present) as a primer on prayer and how to do it.  Prayer is a difficult thing to write on because for all the focus that is placed on it in Christian life & discipleship, the Bible is very, very sparse on actual information about it.  While it is clearly something we are to be doing, there is very little time spent telling us how to do it or when to do it or why to do it or what to actual do or say.  Which means that anyone else who purports to answer these questions is doing so not based wholly on the inspired Word of God, but with a healthy dose of their own ideas thrown into the mix.  Sometimes those ideas can be very helpful, as with any good theology.  Sometimes, not so much.
I like the early emphasis Miller places on the humanity of God.  I wish Miller was more specific in a Trinitarian sense – God the Son is a person, yes.  I don’t think it’s a descriptor that adequately or correctly fits either God the Father or God the Holy Spirit.   
However my biggest beef with the book is that Miller omits a rather powerful aspect of our lives and world – the presence of evil.  He critiques cynicism, and rightly so.  He exhorts people to a richer understanding of what it means to be part of the vine and praying as such, and rightly so.  But I don’t remember seeing any significant passage devoted to the fact that Christians have an active enemy.  A defeated enemy, to be sure.  But an enemy that is still very real and very dangerous to the people of God.  
What results is a book that focuses on us doing what we need to, the way we ought to do it, so that our prayers are better informed and crafted and God does what we want.  Without the real treatment and recognition of evil – evil inside of us, evil around us, evil as part of the brokenness of the Fall that pervades everything (even things that have been redeemed), Miller misses a critical element of Biblical Christianity, and therefore a critical element in discussing prayer.
This is best illustrated in Chapter 23.  Here, Miller recounts the story of a woman originally related in a Philip Yancey book.  It is a painful story to read, full of suffering and sorrow and despair.  At the end of her story, she asks a spiritual mentor for a response, an answer to why God has seemingly not answered her prayers.  The mentor is unable to give one.  Miller quotes Psalm 22 as echoing the woman’s situation – the feeling that God has abandoned her.
Then Miller begins dissecting.  He’s convinced there is a reason this woman’s prayers haven’t been answered, and the reason is likely within the woman herself.  He’s convinced that there are reasons for her suffering that are the blame of others, and he wants to highlight that.  Ultimately, he reasons that the woman suffers and her prayer life and relationship with God has suffered because she does not see her life as a story that God is working out in his timing, not hers.  Miller seems intent on justifying God, of providing an excuse for God so that He is not somehow implicated in the suffering of this woman.  
However suffering is front and center in Scripture.  The idea that the people of God are going to suffer and experience pain and sorrow in their lives – in large part because of their identity as people of God – pervades all of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation.  Suffering is real because sin and evil are real – both within us and around us.  Creation is broken and while that brokenness is being fixed, it hasn’t been fixed yet, and in the meantime people are constantly shredded and torn by the jagged edges. Even Christians.  
I believe that Miller intends a distinction between suffering and our response to it.  But particularly in this chapter, it felt as though that distinction was lost.  He came off far more judgmental than empathic.  This woman suffered for reasons, and Miller seems to think that once those reasons are ascertained, the suffering can be mitigated or even eliminated.  He cites Job as an example of a ‘purer’ faith, but Miller’s approach sounds a lot more like Job’s friends, insisting that there was a reason that Job was suffering and that he should seek that out to eliminate the suffering.  Likewise, I suspect Jesus would disagree with Miller’s technique at least in part, acknowledging that suffering is part of this life and is not always directly related to our actions and choices (Luke 13).
We could get into a discussion on whether or not it’s appropriate to pray for a parking space, but that seems unnecessary.  What we pray for may differ markedly from one person or another, just as how we pray will differ markedly.  Which is where Scripture leaves us.  It leaves us with the revelation that there is a God who loves us deeply enough to suffer and die on our behalf.  It leaves us with a model prayer that the Incarnate Son of God taught his followers.  It leaves us with exhortations to prayer and relationship with God,  but it avoids defining the how.  And while we can learn much from others, we have to be careful when the experience of one leads to judgment against a brother or sister in the faith.  We are poor judges of faith, and Scripture makes it clear this isn’t our job.  Sometimes, like Job’s friends at the end of Job 2, we’re called to sit down in the dust with one another in the face of suffering.   It isn’t until we start trying to fix things that we can get off track.
Evil is real within us and around us.  God allows that evil to play out oftentimes, even as He has assured us that evil has been defeated in the death and resurrection of the Son of God.  We will suffer in this life and our prayer life will reflect that suffering if it is honest.  Yes, we can strive for perspective, but sometimes the best we can do is to grip tightly to the base of the cross and trust that what is broken and twisted in our lives is only going to be fixed when God’s kingdom comes in fullness and power, and not before.
As such, how and what we pray will in large part be a matter of individuals working out what seems to be best between they and their Creator.  I don’t believe that an effective prayer life necessarily means a long laundry list of answered prayers, as that reduces prayer to a wish list.  But prayer should lead the prayer into a deeper relationship with her Creator as guided and informed by Scripture.  Period.  That’s not really enough to write a book on, and it means a lifetime of
learning.  But maybe that’s OK.  Maybe that’s part of what keeps the relationship alive, and keeps us alive in the process.  
* * * * * 
As a final, totally inappropriate note that ties in vaguely with this topic, The Onion was kind enough to publish this very cynical but humorous spin on death and the ways our culture attempts to take away the sting of death even without the empty tomb.  I know, I’m bad.  Very bad.

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