One of the themes Tim Keller presses us to see in his new book on prayer (Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God) is that prayer is a conversation with God on the basis of the Bible’s words. We listen to God through reading and pondering and meditating over Scripture and then we pray to God. But Keller’s title focuses on the experience of prayer and intimacy with God, so I have been waiting for these themes to appear more directly: they do, in chapter 11.
Tim Keller is not one bit shy of speaking about the experience of God in prayer. Here is a classic set of lines, shaped in a section about the Puritan John Owen, for you to read (p. 182):
If we are going to be imbalanced, better that we be doctrinally weak and have a vital prayer life and a real sense of God on the heart than that we get all our doctrine straight and be cold and spiritually hard.
His opening definition for the chapter says much: “Prayer is a conversation [with God] that leads to encounter with God” (165). He adds, “We must not settle for an informed mind without an engaged heart.” And this leads him to the question about experience that many have about prayer: “What kind of experience should be expected and how should it be sought?” (165).
[Source for image by Elizabeth Wang.]
His perception seems to be what can be called internalization or intensification:
At one level, Christians have these things [the blessings of grace and love in Christ from Ephesians 3:14, 16-19]. At another level, they haven’t experienced them. It is one thing to know of the love of Christ and to say, “I know he did all that.” It is another thing to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ. What Paul is talking about is the difference between having something be true of you in principle and fully appropriating it, using it, and living in it—in your “inner being” (Eph 3:16) or “in your heart” (v. 17) (166-167).
He mentions Pascal’s famous “FIRE” experience and Moody’s experience that was so intense he asked God to back off. “But don’t write them off,” Keller warns, “too quickly as exceptional” (168). As Keller describes such experiences of encountering God, “When your feelings and behaviors are affected, you have, to a degree, grasped a particular truth about God. The light comes in and makes permanent impressions” (170).
In Paul’s prayer this encounter is seen in the “inner being” and in “knowing the Father.” Genuine encounter with God is to know and commune with God as our Father. Keller’s words are worthy of much repetition (172):
When the Holy Spirit comes down on you in fullness, you can sense your Father’s arms beneath you. It is an assurance of who you are. The Spirit enables you to say to yourself: “If someone as all-powerful as that loves me like this, delights in me, has gone to infinite lengths to save me, says he will never let me go, and is going to glorify me and make me perfect and take everything bad out of my life—if all of that is true—why am I worried about anything?” At a minimum this means joy, and a lack of fear and self-consciousness.
This prayer of Paul’s in Ephesians 3 also speaks of “grasping the love” and Paul speaks of grasping “how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.” How wide? as wide our sins. How long? from now through all eternity. How deep? From equal with with God to death on the cross. How high? Glorious perfection and transformation.
And he sees all of this summed up in seeking and seeing the face of Christ, and one obvious source for this is 2 Corinthians 3:18 and 4:6. The beatific vision. Keller (177, my emphasis):
To behold the glory of Jesus means that we begin to find Christ beautiful for who he is in himself. It means a kind of prayer in which we are not simply coming to him to get his forgiveness, his help for our needs, his favor and blessing. Rather, the consideration of his character, words, and work on our behalf becomes inherently satisfying, enjoyable, comforting, and strengthening .