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Bestselling author Tim Keller’s practical prayer advice

The New York Times bestselling author and influential pastor gets practical on prayer. He calls it "the key to everything we need to do and be in life." - Image courtesy of Tim Keller
The New York Times bestselling author and influential pastor gets practical on prayer. He calls it "the key to everything we need to do and be in life." - Image courtesy of Tim Keller

The New York Times bestselling author and influential pastor gets practical on prayer. He calls it “the key to everything we need to do and be in life.” – Image courtesy of Tim Keller

Thirty years ago, most of America’s influential evangelicals resided below the Mason-Dixon line. In recent years, however, the power balance has shifted.

Purpose-driven pastor Rick Warren is situated in sunny Southern California, mega-church minister Bill Hybels has built a Chicagoland empire, and Tim Keller has helped make New York City a growing haven for the faithful. Keller is the New York Times bestselling author of numerous books, including “The Reason for God,” and was named one of the most influential religious figures by New York Magazine. He’s become successful by being smart, a phenomenon that makes the oft-dismissed faithful giddy.

But the revered minister has now shifted his focus to a more personal topic: prayer. Tomorrow, he releases a new book, “Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God,” which is already pre-selling well on Amazon. Here, Keller offers practical advice on the topic and defends his claim that prayer is “the key to everything we need to do and be in life.”

RNS: People in nearly every civilization throughout history have had an instinct for prayer. A recent Pew study found that 17% of non-believers even say they pray regularly. What do you make of this?

TK: Prayer is a response to the knowledge you have of God, and everyone has at least some knowledge of deity, according to Romans 1. Reformer John Calvin taught that, because we are made in the image of God, we all have a divinitatis sensum or some sense of God’s reality. And Puritan theologian John Owen said that the natural impulse to pray is present in all people.

Cover image courtesy of Dutton

Cover image courtesy of Dutton

RNS: Does God hear the prayers of a non-believer, in your opinion? Does God respond to a non-believer’s prayer?

TK: Jonathan Edwards wrote that God is sometimes pleased to answer the prayers of unbelievers, and he gives the example of the Ninevites in Jonah 3 among others. Edwards rightly adds that this doesn’t mean that God must hear their prayers, only that out of God’s mercy and wisdom, He sometimes does.

RNS: You address the question of frequency in your book. The Bible says to “pray without ceasing.” Since praying all the time is not really an option for most, how often should a person pray?

TK: While literally “praying without ceasing” is not an option, [tweetable]there is no reason why a Christian cannot learn to pray and meditate on God constantly, episodically, all day.[/tweetable] Martin Luther proposed that you pray twice a day—before going to work and in the evening, either after work or before bedtime. I suggest reading John Owen’s “On the Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually Minded.”

RNS: Why do some prayers go unanswered or seem to?

TK: J.I. Packer says that ultimately “there is no such thing as unanswered prayer.” I believe that is true, though from another perspective God obviously does deny specific requests. John Calvin puts it well: “God grants our prayer, [even if] he does not always respond to the exact form of our request”. Later he says: “even when he does not comply with our wishes, [he] is still attentive and kindly to our prayers, so that hope relying upon his word will never disappoint us.”

In other words, [tweetable]God will either give us what we ask or will give us what we would have asked for if we knew everything he does.[/tweetable] This means there is a “safety catch” on prayer. [tweetable]God won’t give us things we may ask for in our limited knowledge that wouldn’t be the best.[/tweetable] Without this safety catch, thoughtful people would never pray again. We need to know that God will answer the basic desire but find a form and mode that isn’t harmful.

RNS: Many people don’t know what to say when they pray? Any advice here?

TK: First, just pray what’s on your heart and don’t worry. God is wise and will hear your desire and answer the request in the best way. Second, use the Lord’s Prayer as a model. Last, remember that if you are a believer, the Holy Spirit will help you as you pray. So go ahead.

RNS: Romans 8 says that when we don’t know how to pray the Holy Spirit “intercedes through us with wordless groans.” What does this mean and what difference does this make?

TK: There’s not complete consensus among bible scholars, but most would agree with what Augustine says about this text. He said this is a promise that if we are Christians, the indwelling Spirit supports our hearts and guides our prayers when we are groaning and confused, and that God will hear our petitions even in their imperfect state.

RNS: You call prayer “the key to everything we need to do and be in life.” Everything? Really?

RNS: I think that is fair to say. [tweetable]Prayer is the main path to true self-knowledge.[/tweetable] You can’t really know yourself without getting the perspective that comes from being in the presence of a holy God. And if Augustine is right that what determines who we are is what we love, then the only way to fundamentally change ourselves is by changing what captures our hearts. That only occurs through worship and prayer. Also, the only way to truly know God–not just know about God–is through prayer. Finally, John Calvin says that it is through prayer that God gives us everything God wants to give us. So, is that everything? Well, it’s everything that’s good.

RELATED: God in Gotham: 16 Christians making a difference in New York City

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.


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  • Tim Keller needs to pray that the whole Truth is preached/all sin is confronted
    not just gay marriage and abortion which so many people want to focus on so
    they don’t have to face their own sin. 1 Corinthians 6:9-12 lists all drunkards,
    swindlers,thieves,adulterers,the sexually immoral,idolaters,greedy coveters,
    all slanderers/gossips/liars right along with all of the practicing homosexuals
    as who will not inherit the kingdom of heaven unless they choose to Repent!
    Being mean/sharp tongues,jealousy,gambling,pride.taking the Lords name
    in vain are all also wrong/all really need to be talked about/confronted too.
    Bible says Repent and believe the Gospel to be saved. We must Repent!

  • where does it say God heard unbelieving Nineveh’s prayers ?
    JONAHA 1:1
    never says .that God heard unbelieving Nineveh’s prayers .. SO WHERE DID HE COME UP WITH THAT ?
    their are to many other bible passages that more than suggest God does not hear unbelievers prayers.
    john 9:31 James 4:3 Hebrews 11:6
    MATHEW 6:7

  • unless their is a clear chapter and verse in the bible that says God hears unbelievers prayer.. we should let scripture interpret scripture..

  • I also have even a more serious complaint about what Tim Keller wrote ..

    since when is what we say to God in prayer more important than what he says to us in our bible’s..
    especially since God already know what were going to say

    but we don’t know what God says if he don’t read our bibles..
    at the very best all we would be doing is taking some one else’s word on what God may have or may not have said.. Unless we read our bibles our selves..

  • 17% of “non-believers” pray? That is ridiculous.

    The very nature of praying means you think that you’re communicating (fruitlessly by the way) with something that can hear your prayers, whether they be spoken out loud, or in your thoughts.
    In other words, you have to be a believer to actually be praying.

  • Tim Keller says:

    “everyone has at least some knowledge of deity…”
    What a claim! Which one am I supposed to know about?

    “‘there is no such thing as unanswered prayer.’ I believe that is true, though from another perspective God obviously does deny specific requests”

    Shame on you!
    Jesus is much clearer than you are admitting! HE SAYS HE WILL GUARANTEE SPECIFIC REQUESTS:

    “And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.” (Matthew 21:22)

    “Whatever you desire in my name: ask, and YE SHALL RECEIVE, that your joy may be full.” (John 16:24)

    “…I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning ANYTHING THAT THEY DESIRE, it will be done for them.” (Matthew 18:19)

    God has never healed an amputee. It has never once happened in all of human history.

    Yet Salamanders are allowed to grow back limbs as often as they need to.

    Why does God love Salamanders
    more than he loves people?

    Tim Keller, SHAME ON YOU!

    For Peace, Love & the Separation of Church and State

  • Jonathan Merritt,

    Thanks for the work you do. But if a person makes a wildly ridiculous claim, shouldn’t you ask what evidence supports it?
    Why is a religious claim not fair game?

    “God is wise and will hear your desire and answer the request in the best way”

    It is simply unfair to let this claim go unanswered.
    Are you not aware of the Brittany Maynard girl who died of brain cancer?

    We must have enough respect for ourselves to confront a ridiculous claim such as Tim Keller’s.

    Why not ask him?
    “Tim – Can you really say ‘prayer works’ when it is irrefutable that God’s answer is exactly the same as if he didn’t hear it?”

    Tim Keller is a baffoon.

    For Honesty, Peace & The Separation of Church and State

  • Tim Keller is a leading light of American evangelicalism? What a small god evangelicals must have.

  • Joshua ..
    no where does it say in Jonah
    chapter 3 that God hears unbelievers prayer’s.
    in fact in the very first you used as a example verse 5
    it says —- they believed God..

    God does not hear unbelievers prayers That does not mean he does not love them .. he sent Jonah IN VERSE 3:1 TO TELL THEM ABOUT Gods promise. God already knew they needed to believe his promise to one day send a savior from their sins to.. God wants all people to believe and reap the benefits of what Jesus now has come and done.

  • @ A Max if you really knew the bible.. instaed of repeating Atheists ——BLA BLA BLA you would have read where JESUS has healed amputees AND the blind AND RAISED DEAD PEOPLE AFTER THEIR BODY’S WERE DECAYING..
    I am saying this for other’s benefits since you obviously have prepared your self for destruction and want it no other way..
    Now for others benefit when we pray in Jesus name its a a known Givin by mature Christians who study God’s word were praying Jesus will be done not our will be done .. ITS ALSO KNOWN the reason for those miraculous healings during Jesus day was for one purpose ONLY .. to show us who THIS Jesus OF THE BIBLE really was.. NOW THE BIBLE IS COMPLETE
    IN WHAT GOD WANTS US TO KNOW .. we must remember the bible makes it clear
    God did not heal st paul of what ailed him ..
    FROM historical writings we learn all but one of the apostles was martyred.. PETER WAS CRUCIFIED UPSIDE DOWN ..
    Joni Erickson Tadi .. is Able to witness Christ so well because she knows the struggles and all the hurts some people go through.. because she has also gone through it..

  • that’s right Prayer’s is a special gift given only to Christian believer’s . others are just saying or thinking words
    Muslims and Jews AND ATHEIST’S OR ANY OTHERS who don’t believe in Jesus AS THEIR ONLY SAVIOR FROM THEIR SINS MIGHT AS WELL BE SAYING BLA BLA BLA BLA .. BECAUSE God not listening to them .. only to his Christians whom God asks to pray for unbelievers..
    even Christian’s know it was not until Christ died for all that God would hear us,, GOD before only CHOSE TO hear his priests praying for us..


  • A Max is skating on really thin ice.

    He is like Mosse’s pharaoh who hardened his heart against God so so many times Finally
    God said ———have it your own way pharaoh and God hardened Pharaoh HEART AGAINST God to Pharaoh’s own destruction…

  • @rob.

    None of your claims are supportable by any evidence of any kind.
    You might as well be making it all up.

    Those of us who care about what is true have no choice but to dismiss everything you are saying.

  • @Rob,

    Claims are being made here. I have no right to tell you that a magic leprechaun is secretly running your life. Why do you think you have the right to pretend a magic god is running mine?

    Claims are being thrown around by Tim Keller – the claims disgust me.
    I am insisting on the right to question these claims.

  • Prayer takes people away from working on real solutions to their problems.
    Prayer prevents you from getting badly needed exercise. Prayer makes you fat.
    Prayer wears out your clothes prematurely.
    Prayer contributes to global warming through excess CO2 emissions.
    Prayer messes up your knees and your neck and your back.
    Prayer reveals how stupid you are to the world.
    Prayer makes you think doilies are exciting.
    Prayer makes you secretively flatulent and embarrassed about it.
    Prayer makes your kids avoid spending time with you.
    Prayer makes you frothy like Rick Santorum. Just google him to find out.
    Prayer makes you hoard cats.
    Prayer dulls your senses.
    Prayer makes you post really stupid stuff.
    Prayer has been shown to have no discernible effect towards what was prayed for.
    Prayer wastes time.

  • I wonder whether any of these people whining about God not hearing unbelievers’ prayers are even saved? Plus, there are examples of God answering non-believers’ prayers in the Bible. Will look it up and come back.

  • @PIU,

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who is bothered by the lack of challenges to these claims by Tim Keller.

    If prayer worked, ambulances would pull up to churches instead of hospitals.

    Atheists sometimes do sound angry – but how does one help people realize the consequences of their beliefs without pointing out the harm and nonsense of religion?

  • Great reply, Atheist Max.

    rob, either present your testable evidence or retract your hitherto baseless claims. And note that presenting your bible doctrine as “proof” of your bible doctrine is not valid proof at all; it’s actually a common fallacy known as circular reasoning!

  • rob, either present your testable evidence or retract your hitherto baseless claims. And note that presenting your bible doctrine as “proof” of your bible doctrine is not valid proof at all; it’s actually a common fallacy known as circular reasoning!

  • Whenever I’m in New York, I try to make it to Redeemer Presbyterian. Tim Keller is a superb Bible expositor, one of the best in the country. I would recommend his book, “The Reason for God,” to anyone who is a searching skeptic….

  • John LeMond, you probably haven’t heard Tim Keller’s sermons or read his books, especially “The Reason for God.”

  • Max, you’re drooling all over yourself and you’re saying that Tim Keller’s claims “disgust” you?

    That’s like an ISIS member saying he’s sickened by the violence in the world.

  • Not necessarily, Robert. As Keller said, God can extend grace to anyone He pleases. The difference between a believer praying vs. an unbeliever praying is that God guarantees He will answer a believer. But that certainly doesn’t stop him from answering an unbeliever.

  • God regularly performs the greatest miracle of all: He transforms hearts, minds, and lives. Nothing is more valuable than that. If Atheist Max had a dollar for every life that Jesus demonstrably changed, he would be set for life financially.

  • Atheist Max, you couldn’t be more wrong about that. It is an accepted historical fact that almost all of the earliest followers of Jesus paid with their lives for their faith in Him.

    The reason you can’t accept that is that you are ignorant of the rules of historical evidence. You believe the absence of corroboration of a text, rather than the presence of contradiction, is all that’s needed to call a text into question. That is not the way historians work.

    And similarly, you are ignorant of the rules of legal evidence — and for the same reason. You don’t realize that witnesses are presumed to be telling the truth until proven otherwise — until their testimony is impeached through cross-examination or other witnesses giving contrary testimony.

  • @Jack,

    ISIS is a Faith-Based organization. I reject all faith-based organizations. Remember? I’m an Atheist if you didn’t get that info.

    You defend faith. I don’t.

    You defend faith so you must defend all the nonsense done at the direction of ‘faith’. Your ‘Faith’ in Jesus is no different than the Muslim’s Faith in Allah!

    “Slay them all” – Surah (Q’uran)
    “Execute them in front of me” – JESUS (Luke 19:27)

    Remember the Humanist is against all this nonsense.
    I am a humanist.

    I put your god in the trash can because humanity can’t survive with this primitive faith-based nonsense.

    for Peace, Humanity, Love and The Separation of Church and State

  • @Jack,

    “Atheist is an accepted historical fact that almost all of the earliest followers of Jesus paid with their lives for their faith in Him.”
    No it isn’t.
    If dying for a belief validates the belief, you better sign up with Al Queda because they are ‘proving the truth of Allah’ every day. While you are at it, sign up to be a follower of Hirohito the Sun God. The Kamikazes couldn’t be wrong… because they died for a cause!

    “… not the way historians work.”
    Historians require evidence – and the evidence that Jesus existed is flimsy. The evidence that he did miracles is non existent. The evidence that Jesus was right about anything is also non-existent.

    “…witnesses are presumed to be telling the truth until proven otherwise”
    Nonsense – there is no evidence about Jesus yet.

    You are just making it all up.

  • All true, Jack, but you’re wasting your time on Max. Evidentiary principles are difficult even for intelligent people, let alone a basement dweller who spends all day cutting and pasting from junk sites. I doubt that he even knows what “evidence” technically is.

    It’s funny hearing him talk about what evidence “historians require” when actually you’d be very hard-pressed to find any historians who doubt the existence of Jesus.

  • Well, Shawnie, I have a growing caseload here of seemingly hopeless patients, from Bob the Isaiah-basher to Max the Bibliophobe, but even if my words sail straight over Max’s head, they’re worth posting. As you said, even most educated people are often surprised to learn how the rules of historical and legal evidence work.

    As for you, Max, I didn’t say that dying for a belief validates the belief. What it does validate is the notion that, in the case of Jesus’ followers, they did not concoct the story. Put another way, concerning the message of the followers of Jesus about His resurrection, either the message was (1) false and they knew it, (2) false and they didn’t know it, or (3) true. The fact that they died for it knocks out the first possibility for all intents and purposes. Their willingness to die for it makes it very unlikely that they made it all up. That leaves us with possibilities (2) and (3). And the problem with #2 is that it requires us to believe that lots of people were hallucinating when they all claimed to see Jesus alive. Mass hallucinations are exceedingly rare, so that explanation remains a big problem.

    That’s the problem with trying to refute eyewitness testimony. There aren’t a heck of a lot of ways to do it… comes down to two — intentionally lying or being deluded or deceived. The first of these is far more common than the second, so once you eliminate it, it’s a significant step forward.

    Now Max, Shawnie is saying in a nice way that you’re a simpleton, so let’s see if you can prove her wrong by answering intelligently.

  • Max the humanist doesn’t realize that once you take God out of the picture, you knock the legs out from under the humanist claim of unique human dignity. That’s because if there is no God, then there is no ultimate moral distinction between human life and other forms….and that means you can kiss goodbye the intellectual basis for human rights.

  • Max, Rob said it is “an accepted historical fact that almost all of the earliest followers of Jesus paid with their lives for their faith in Him.”

    You denied this.

    But it is indeed an accepted historical fact. Nearly all of them did die that way.

    You deny it because you realize that knocks out one of two alternatives to the Gospel being true: the messengers intentionally lied about it. And it leaves you with only one other alternative — mass delusion or deception, explained by wildly improbable things like mass hallucinations or lurid conspiracy theories on the level of 9/11 truther nonsense or Holocaust denial.

  • I don’t see you respecting ISIS.
    I don’t see you respecting Al Queda.
    I don’t see you respecting Hindu Caste Systems.
    I don’t see you respecting tribes who throw children into volcanoes.

    Why should I respect any of that?
    You don’t.
    What makes your Suicide of Yahweh superior to the other nonsense?

    Why should God hate female doctors
    knowing more than their male patients?
    Is it the lack of a penis? Tell me what it is.

    “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” (1 Timothy 2:12)

  • Jack,

    Why not just answer the questions?

    God hates women Doctors and Lawyers who KNOW more than their male patients and clients.

    I have an awesome doctor. She is amazing. She protected me from many problems because she knows my MALE BODY better than I do!

    Why do you object to women knowing so much? How is that a bad thing.

    I love my doctor and I object to your insulting disregard of her!

    “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” (1 Timothy 2:12)

    Shame on you!

  • @Jack,

    (1) false and they knew it,
    (2) false and they didn’t know it, or
    (3) true.”

    You poor thing.

    4. LEGEND.
    5 Not a single apostle was killed.
    6. the whole thing is made up.

    Even if Jesus rose from the dead it wouldn’t prove that he was a god!
    “and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep WERE RAISED; and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many.” (Matthew 27:51-53)

    Were all of these people supposed to be gods too?