In Ancient Greece, “Know thyself” was famously inscribed on the forecourt at the temple of Apollo in Delphi. The importance of self-knowledge continues to be an enduring and popular idea in the current era. Few people would argue with how important genuine self-knowledge is to lead a mature and happy life. And yet, one need only read Oliver Burkeman’s psychology articles (published each week in The Guardian Weekly) to be reminded how little we really know about ourselves or what’s best for us.
So where can we go for genuine ‘self-knowledge’? The ancient Greeks created an oracle. In our time professional experts and counsellors certainly have their place. As do family relationships, friends and making time for personal reflection. But what if there were something more as well? What if the Maker of the universe knew us better than we knew ourselves and what if we had the opportunity to reveal ourselves to them? To learn to depend on them and be taught by them? To grow in relationship with them, in community with others, all the days of our lives, and on into eternity? Well, that’s what’s called, ‘being a Christian’.
Being fully known
One of the great and truly satisfying aspects of having a prayer-filled life, Keller writes, is the deepening experience of being fully known by God. The Bible tells us God already knows us even in our inward being, (Psalm 139) that he made us (Genesis 1) but that we reject him (Romans 3:12). Despite this God still loves us more than we can imagine (John 3:16) and has made a path through the mess we’ve made: By Christ’s death for us on the cross (1 Peter 3:18) God has made it possible for us to have a relationship with him again. A really real relationship. The kind of life sustaining, intimate, dependable, honest, significant, emotional relationship we all of us, psychologically, long for. Many of us have a deep desire to have that kind of relationship with Him. Prayer is how we have this relationship.
Showing our True Selves
Prayer is our chance to share our true intimate selves with God. To illustrate the point Keller in his book gives a beautiful unpacking of the famous 17th Century poem, Prayer (I) by George Herbert, which he regards as “one of the greatest descriptions of prayer outside of the Bible.” (p.28.) One of the lines in the poem that stayed with me is, “The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage”.
The Heart in Pilgrimage
Prayer is a journey. We are on our way to a place that we have not yet come to. There is a longing in prayer that will not be satisfied until we go to be with Christ. Keller uses the helpful analogy of manna and likens prayer to it. It sustained the Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness and moved slowly toward the hope of the promised land. However, he points out, it was by no means a banquet. It was nourishing, and it kept them going. But it was no feast! Prayer can be like that. It sustains our relationship with God, there are times when we catch a glimpse of how extraordinarily loving and good and kind our heavenly Father is and it keeps us going through the hard times and the slog. It is a kind of manna and it helps us to endure.
The Soul in Paraphrase
Prayer is also knowing who you are before God and giving God your essence. The soul in paraphrase is the real you! Keller writes:
[T]rue prayer is “the soul in paraphrase.” God does not merely require our petitions but our selves, and noone who begins the hard, lifelong trek of prayer knows yet who they are. Nothing but prayer will ever reveal you to yourself, because only before God can you see and become your true self. To paraphrase something is to get the gist of it and make it accessible...Prayer means knowing yourself as well as God.” (p.30)
Keller ends his analysis of Herbert’s poem by concluding, “Prayer is awe, intimacy, struggle - yet the way to reality. There is nothing more important, or harder, or richer, or more life-altering.” (p.32)
Freedom and Honesty in Prayer
If what Keller says is true, that we can only know ourselves by knowing Christ, that should free us up to be more honest before God, to stress less about the perfect way to pray and to pray more! I think we often think of ‘the perfect way of doing prayer’, and because we can’t do that, our prayers become stilted, muffled or non-existent. Rather Keller looks at prayer doing us, that in doing prayer, methodically and daily as Keller advocates, we come to understand who we are before God. By reading his word and being reminded, and pondering that deeply, through meditation until it moves us in our inner being. Then we can cry out in praise and thanksgiving with deep heartfelt gratitude for all God has done for us in Christ. Then we can be truly mortified by our sins, confess and ask forgiveness and His help to change. We can ask that He pour out his mercy and grace upon us and that we would know and feel its life giving benefit. And we can ask Him to grant our personal needs and the needs of others. If this kind of daily honesty before God were a habit we truly took on - without giving up - the transformation would surely be astounding!
Books often make you think of other books. That’s the richness of the reading life. Making those connections, savouring them. Keller’s description of not just doing prayer, but (by the power of the Holy Spirit) of prayer ‘doing us’ couldn’t help but make me think of Marilynne Robinson’s portrait of the fictional character, Robert Boughton, in her astoundingly perfect book, Home. The Reverend Boughton, ailing and nearing the end of his life, is a man who has been friends with God a long, long time.
I love what Robinson has him say about prayer, that it is a chance to get your thoughts out and have a good look at them. She records his rambling and heartfelt grace at the dinner table on the first evening of his wayward son, Jack’s return, after 20 years away. Here is a portion of Boughton’s prayer:
Holy Father…I have rehearsed this prayer in my mind a thousand times, this prayer of gratitude and rejoicing, as I waited for an evening like this one. Because I always knew the time would come. And now I find that words fail me. They do. Because while I was waiting I got old. I don’t remember those prayers now, but I remember the joy they gave me at the time, which was the confidence that someday I would say one or another of them here at this table. If I lived. I thought my good wife might be here, too. We do miss her. Well, I thank you for that joy, which helped through the hard times. It helped very much. (p.42)
When I read this prayer I think how honest and true it is. Here is a man who has spent a lifetime - by God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit - aligning his heart to God’s. So that even in extreme old age, overcome with weariness and emotion that his son has finally returned home after a twenty year absence and all the murky reasons surrounding that, he can still talk to God like this, like a friend. Like his true Father, who knows him better than anyone, he always did, but who Boughton knows so very well too. That he had a prayer all saved up, rehearsed even, but because he is so old he can’t quite remember it and he has to rely on the joy it gave him at the time. He has the memory of all those rehearsed prayers, prayers he longed to be able to pray. Just now the words and the order he had carefully put them in over the years has escaped him, but the essence of them will carry him through. Why? Because prayer is not a magic spell. Nor is it merely a ritual. It’s a relationship! And the prayers Boughton has prayed all the days of his long life have become the rich fabric of his relationship with God. A more flowing stream of words can’t be found just now, you can imagine the lump in the back of his throat, he says what’s on his heart. This is his soul in paraphrase. And it is beautiful.
What strikes me even more though is Boughton’s great desire to include God in on this precious moment. At this longed for time of reconciliation with his son the great joy that Boughton has looked forward to over the years is being able to share it with his God and to give him the praise for bringing his son home. (As King David says to God, “Whom have I in heaven but you?” Psalm 73:25) And this is the big point that Keller is getting at in his book on Prayer. At the end of the day nothing matters more than a personal relationship with God. In encouraging his readers to search for a deeper prayer life he is encouraging them to cling to a saving knowledge of Christ with all their might.
God wants all of us. Our whole selves. Which we can only share if we truly know who we are before Him. The only way to get this clear picture of ourselves is in the light of Christ. I need to work harder at knowing God and being known by him. This is life’s treasure. That I can talk to the Creator of the universe. That he is my father and he made me. That because of my sin he sent his son to die for me so that I can have a relationship with him. Oh what a fool that I could ever forget! Forgive me and change me. That I might live for you, now and forever. Amen.