Praying with Paul: A Call to Spiritual Reformation
Book Review (D.A. Carson)
I think most Christians have had the experience of reading one of St. Paul's long prayers and thinking, "yes, I really must take the time to study Paul's prayers..." and then never getting around to it. Well, good news for you, Don Carson wrote a book quite some time ago that does exactly that. First published in 1992, I read the second edition from 2014.
Prayer and Paul
While the Psalms are the other great school of prayer in the Scriptures, learning to pray from Paul is a tremendously healthy thing. What Carson does so well in this book is, apart from interweaving material that is more general, and practical (e.g. ch 1 is just important prayer lessons he's learnt from other believers, ch 7 is him demolishing excuses for not praying), is a structured breakdown of points from the Pauline prayers.
Example 1: In chapter 2 he reads 2 Thess 1:3-12, and talks about the framework or basis of Paul's prayer. He bifurcates this into thankfulness for signs of grace among the believers, and confidence in future vindication. Then in chapter 3 he goes on to look at what Paul prays for the Thessalonians, and the goal of that prayer, and then the grounds for that prayer (psss, it's grace all the way down).
Chapters 4 and 5 are a consideration of prayer for others. Carson literally prints every New Testament passage in which Paul prays for others, or talks about praying for others, and suggests you just read them all in sequence to get the big picture. I think this was really constructive, in that it highlighted exactly that Paul's concern is for people, not programs or ministries or buildings or achievements, but people. And his prayers are always directed towards what is good for them. And isn't that love? Desiring the genuine good of others? Prayer is love in action, directed towards God.
That means that if we are to improve our praying, we must strengthen our loving. As we grow in disciplined, self-sacrificing love, so we will grow in intercessory prayer. Superficially fervent prayers devoid of such love are finally phony, hollow, shallow. [ch 5]
It's certainly true that I'm hyper-sensitive these days when I come across a passage in a book that touches on the theme of forgiveness. I notice them more, they stand out more, and they pull at my heart. Anyway, twice in this book I felt like Carson sneak-attacked me. Firstly, reading happily along in his chapter on the importance of prayer for other people, when Carson turns to face bitterness head-on, discussing "sins that cut us off from praying effectively":
But notoriously, what so often cuts us off from effective intercession is sheer bitterness, nurtured resentment, nicely preserved grudges, a desperate want of forgiveness. This is pitifully common among us
If we harbor bitterness and resentment, praying is little more than wasted time and effort.
He doesn't pull any punches, does he? I took this as a reminder to keep guarding my heart against bitterness, against resentment; to look for those weeds growing up and be diligent to uproot them and actively practice forgiveness from the heart. What I have found most helpful in recent times is to revisit the REACH model and re-work through specific exercises to practice empathy, and dissipate resentment and anger.
Not in order to have effective prayer, as if somehow you can instrumentalise it, but because it seems antithetical to seek grace from God and withhold it from others. In fact, I think this is the how of unforgiveness rendering prayer worthless: if we have received such great mercy from our gracious King, and then refuse to extend such mercy to others, we may find the King judges us by our own standard.
Aligning life and prayer
One of the themes that I think this book elegantly holds is the way that Paul's prayers are an extension of his life & ministry, and vice versa. So, for instance, in chapter 8 Carson explores Phil 1:9-11, including "that you may be able to discern what is best". This immediately opens up the question for us, what is best? What are these excellent things? To do so, the Philippians (and we) will need to abound in both love and knowledge. If we are lacking in love or knowledge, we will in fact struggle to discern what is best. And then in light of the whole letter, what is best is nothing less than maturing in Christian discipleship unto perfection. The kinds of issues that Carson thinks Paul has in view are not clear cut moral-choices, but the intricacies of nuanced choices in life. And so Carson goes on to give a host of questions about areas of life where there are choices to be made, and how being profoundly transformed in love and knowledge will shape our responses to those choices. This is not a matter of Law, but of a God-directed life.
And then Carson cuts to the quick:
Now I would like to address rather directly the clergy who read these pages. Do you desire, with all your heart, what is best for the congregation you serve? Then you must ask yourself how much time you devote to praying this sort of prayer.
A little bit later:
The Western church needs nothing more urgently than groups of believers, unknown, unsought, privately, faithfully, without promotion or fanfare, covenanting together to seek God’s face, praying urgently for what is best as we contemplate the day of Jesus Christ— praying, in short, for revival. What would the end of these things be? God is sovereign and full of compassion: who knows what he might do?
Sovereignty, power, ministry
These are the themes of the last three chapters. I think the sovereignty material is invaluable. However, I found the chapter on 'power' more pertinent. Here Carson takes us through Eph 3:14-21, and the keynote is probably this: it's a prayer for power, which power is mediated through the Spirit, and has a specific end : the transformation of the believer as God dwells in them and so transforms them. This happens, in part, due to a growing experiential knowledge of the limitless measure of Christ's love. Paul considers this something of exceeding value, to be prayer for, to be desired, to be sought.
This is a book that deserves re-reading every now and again, I suspect. The one thing I took away from it most of all is simply to lift my eyes to the much bigger things, the eternal things. These are the things I ought to be praying more often, and seeking more fervently, for myself and for others, and shaping my life around them as well.