Book Review: A Praying Life by Paul E. Miller

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A Praying Life

               Paul E. Miller’s book “A Praying Life” does a masterful job of walking us through what God has taught the author through his personal prayer life and a deep study of the God’s teachings about prayer. The book has been very edifying to my walk with the Lord to learn from his mentoring, and begin steps to implement useful ways to organize and align my prayers with the character of God, as well as how I can listen with a childlike sense of wonder how God is answering my prayers through His work around, through and beyond anything I could understand or imagine. Here are my notes from the book that have and will continue to have the biggest impact on my prayer life moving forward:

Come Messy  | Cynicism Roots

Asking and Surrendering | Praying for Others

Hebrew Laments | Hope, Reality, Wonder

Word and Spirit  | His Story

Come Messy

               Paul E. Miller reminds us to be like children and come as we are in prayer to the Lord. When we start our prayers with thoughts on how nonspiritual we are or how the modern church teaches us the “right” way to pray we miss the opportunity to walk in authentic fellowship with God through the gift of prayer He has given each of us. Miller reminds us “In order to pray like a child, you might need to unlearn the non personal, non real praying you’ve been taught.”[1], and if you don’t come to God just as you are, “then you are artificial and unreal, like the Pharisees.” Miller points back to the teaching of Jesus on this topic to help us remember to come messy:

Jesus opens his arms to his needy children and says, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28, NASB). The criteria for coming to Jesus is weariness. Come overwhelmed with life. Come with your wandering mind. Come messy.[2]

Cynicism Roots

Cynicism is the narcotic of choice of our present American culture. We are all aware of its use in the American pop-culture (if you are not, just read your local news, movie reviews, sports page, or listen for it in the realm of American gossip or in your local gossip circles (I pray you do not have any). Miller reminds us that even though it may seem like a new concept it all started long ago with Satan’s first words:

“For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God” (Genesis 3:5). Satan is suggesting that God’s motives are cynical.[3]

The lines from Genesis remind us of how “The cynic is always observing, critiquing, but never engaged, loving, and hoping.”[4] I am thankful for Miller pointing us back to how a praying life is just the opposite:

A praying life is just the opposite. It engages evil. It doesn’t take no for an answer. The psalmist was in God’s face, hoping, dreaming, asking. Prayer is feisty. Cynicism, on the other hand, merely critiques.

Miller goes into depths to unpack cynicism in our culture today including calling our country’s movement from optimism to cynicism the “new American journey,” how “cynicism leaves us doubting, unable to dream,” and the pursuit of perfectionism (believing we have to have the perfect relationship, the perfect children, or a perfect body) has led to the “breeding ground for cynicism” in our culture. Miller pulls this point together by reminding us to follow Jesus as our only hope to move us out of cynicism.[5] I love this Psalm 23 illustration the author makes about the child’s view vs. the cynics:

Both the child and the cynic walk through the valley of the shadow of death. The cynic focuses on the darkness; the child focuses on the Shepherd.[6]

Asking and Surrendering

Six different times in God’s Word, Jesus tells us to “Ask and I will give it to you.” James reminds us of two aspects of prayer to help us remember Jesus’s example of not only asking but abiding or surrendering to God’s will in prayers that reflect his character so the “real” us will encounter the “real” God. The two aspects that James reminds us about are “Not Asking” and “Asking Selfishly.” The diagram below describes the two parts well:

AskingandSurrendering.jpg

Praying for Others

Miller calls this section in his book “Watching a Story Unfold”. I appreciate this approach to viewing prayers for others in our lives be it a child, parent, friend or spouse. He reminds us to pray for others because we cannot get inside of their hearts, but we can allow our prayer for others to shape us.

‘‘Jill and my love for Emily (one of the writers’ daughters) was informing our prayers, and our prayers were in turn shaping how we loved Emily. Our prayers didn’t sit in isolation from the larger story God was weaving in her life and ours. The act of praying was alerting us and shaping our decisions.’’[7]

Miller provides the following wonderful diagram as a resource for how to shape our attitudes to keep us from entering the story God is weaving in others:

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Hebrew Laments

               Miller describes Hebrew Laments as a long forgotten but deeply biblical way of praying. When reading his first illustration in this section of the book I also bit nicely on my initial reaction as he describes below:

Their (Millers congregation used in his illustration) initial negative reaction makes sense: Laments do feel disrespectful. We feel uncomfortable praying this way to God. We read these prayers in Psalms, but we don’t pray them.[8]

Miller reminds us that while laments might seem disrespectful, they are filled with faith--a raw, pure form of faith that simply takes God at his word.[9] The following illustration sums up this idea well for me:

Every child is a professional lamenter, as in, “Mom, you said you’d take me to the pool this week! Why haven’t you? I want to go today.” The child is bringing together promise and hope (“Mom, you said…”) with reality (“Why haven’t you?”).[10]

His story of his wife Jill’s lament for him in their first year of marriage is a great example of what makes laments so messy. “They bring together two things (reality and promise) that recoil from one another. A lament connects two “hot” wires—God’s promise and the problem,” and how “A lament doesn’t flee the desert; it fights the desert.” Miller previously covered in the book that gap between home and reality is a desert.

Miller challenges our praying life by stating:

There is no such thing as a lament-free life. In fact, if your life is lament-free, you aren’t loving well. To love is to lament, to let your heart be broken by something.[11]

If you don’t lament over the broken things in your world, then your heart shuts down. Your living, vital relationship with God dies a slow death because you open the door to unseen doubt and become quietly cynical. Cynicism moves you away from God; laments push you into his presence. So, oddly enough, not lamenting leads to unbelief.[12]

He pulls this idea together with the example of God’s rebuke of the nation of Israel’s wondering hearts as written in Jeremiah 2:5-8.

The author touches on the fact that many view laments as the literal idea “to grieve.” While this is true for a small subcategory of Hebrew lamenting, Miller points us back to the view of “by far most laments are not prayers of surrender, grieving what cannot be changed, but a call to arms. They are the spiritual warfare equivalent of “going nuclear”: You have no other option, so you reach for your most powerful weapon—your ability to cry out to the living God for help.”[13]

Hope, Reality, Wonder

The author touches on a very important topic to me. The sense of wonder God intends for us to have while we wait, pray, and learn to watch for the story he is weaving to unfold. Wonder is the place in the desert where reality and hope converge. The point where we are to be fixing our eyes on in the desert. All while being reminded of how much God wants to dazzle us with the wonder of His love.[14]

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Word and Spirit

Here Miller helps unpack for us a subject that has led to much division in His Church when it comes to “hearing God’s voice.” He rightly so covers this topic because much discernment is needed if we are to listen and hear God’s voice and workings in our lives. He points to the following two common ways Christians go wrong here:

1.      “Word Only”–Going Wrong by Not Listening [15]

a.      If we focus exclusively on God’s written Word when looking for God’s activity in our lives but don’t watch and pray, we will miss the unfolding story of his work.

b.      “Watch and pray” is Jesus’ repeated refrain to his disciples in Gethsemane (Mark 14:38). Don’t pray in a fog, Pray with your eyes open. Look for the patterns God is weaving in your life.

2.      “Spirit Only”—Going Wrong by Elevating Human Intuition [16]

a.      When people call their own thoughts or feelings “God’s voice,” it puts them in control of God and ultimately undermines God’s Word by elevating human intuition to the status of divine revelation.

b.      Unless Scripture guards and directs our intuitions, we can easily run amok and baptize our selfish desires with religious language (“God told me to marry her…”).

These are only my brief takeaways that have spoken to me through the authors writings. There are many more thoughts on this subject in his book. The following diagram provided me with a good overview of his mentoring on the subject:

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His Story

There are times when will wonder what is the substance or finale of God’s story lines in our lives. We watch and wait with wonder in our prayer lives asking if our prayers will remain unfinished (either in our own lives or others). We can expect to die with unfinished stories. Miller points us back to the reality that the stories we have been given, by God, are ultimately His story, not ours.[17] We are not to move into a godlike stance about our view of someone else’s story God is weaving, we must be reminded of Jesus’ answer to Peter’s question about John in John 21:22. When it is not our story and we are far from the story line of someone else’s, we can be assured the less we will understand about what God is doing in their lives. There are times when we may be able to see what God is doing in another person’s life but telling that person would crush his or her spirit. The author suspects “God is at times silent about stories because we just can’t handle it.”[18]

Miller points us back to where our hope should lie while living in unfinished stories:

Living in unfinished stories draws us into God’s final act, the return of Jesus.[19]

Conclusion

Thank you, Paul E. Miller, for listening to God’s voice and writing this beautiful book about A Praying Life. You are undoubtedly an authority on the subject but also someone who practices what he preaches as experienced through all the wonderful stories you have shared with me about your prayer work in the life of you and your family. I am grateful for the opportunity God has given me to read your book and create my own takeaways to share. I hope anyone who reads my review from the book is inspired read it in its entirety as it covers many more topics than I have been able to touch on in this brief net-out.


[1] p. 20 – A Praying Life – Paul E. Miller

[2] p. 20 – A Praying Life – Paul E. Miller

[3] p. 64 – A Praying Life – Paul E. Miller

[4] p. 65 – A Praying Life – Paul E. Miller

[5] p. 68 – A Praying Life – Paul E. Miller

[6] p. 73 – A Praying Life – Paul E. Miller

[7] p. 149 – A Praying Life – Paul E. Miller

[8] p. 172 – A Praying Life – Paul E. Miller

[9] p. 173 – A Praying Life – Paul E. Miller

[10] p. 172 – A Praying Life – Paul E. Miller

[11] p. 174 – A Praying Life – Paul E. Miller

[12] p. 174 – A Praying Life – Paul E. Miller

[13] p. 175 – A Praying Life – Paul E. Miller

[14] p. 211-212 – A Praying Life – Paul E. Miller

[15] p. 248-249 – A Praying Life – Paul E. Miller

[16] p. 249-250 – A Praying Life – Paul E. Miller

[17] p. 269 – A Praying Life – Paul E. Miller

[18] p. 272 – A Praying Life – Paul E. Miller

[19] p. 274 – A Praying Life – Paul E. Miller