Book Review: “A Praying Life” by Paul E. Miller


_A Praying Life_ by Paul E. MillerOne nonfiction Christian book I’ve consistently encountered on “Top 10” lists is Paul E. Miller’s A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World. Given the paucity of great books on prayer, I kept the book in mind and finally ordered it through my library.

I’ll jump right to the point: This is good, contemporary book on prayer that you should read.

Given the number of reviews I’ve read elsewhere that credited the book with transforming readers’ entire outlook on prayer, that expectation of greatness seemed assured. Yet as I delved into A Praying Life, my hope for a personally transforming read got mired in the book’s many frustrating inconsistencies and Miller’s ultimate concessions to the good when the best was in reach.

But let’s start with the pros of the book first.

Miller hits the mark immediately by using his own prayer life and family situation as a framing mechanism that runs throughout the book. That personal vulnerability mirrors Miller’s primary statement about how we should approach prayer: We must come to God transparently, just as little children do.

I’ve long thought that pretense destroys the prayer lives of more people than nearly anything else. We formalize our prayers and put on airs, yet the most primal prayer in the Bible is simply “Abba, Father.” (Any of us who have been around in the Faith long enough have heard that abba is the equivalent of daddy.) Miller rightly saves us from grandiosity in prayer by relentlessly going back to this truth that we are the children of God and that coming to Him as children with a childlike faith is what frees us to truly pray.

And just like children who are so powerless to control their own lives because they are dependents, we are to understand that we cannot control our adult lives, either. God is ultimately in charge, so our dependence on Him to meet our needs is natural and must be embraced.

Yet how we fight against surrendering our mistaken notions of control! Praying “give us this day our daily bread” goes unheard throughout much of American Christianity, given that our ideology is based more on bootstrapping and being self-made rather than dependent and God-made. We may say it, but we don’t actually live as if “give us this day our daily bread” is a prayer necessity. We instead rely on our own smarts, abilities, and money, and we turn God into some second-rate grandfather who we come to only when we need more than what we can already provide for ourselves. (On the other hand, Miller also warns against overspiritualizing our practice of the faith, which tends to defeat childlikeness.) Miller insists self-centeredness keeps us from enjoying the life we could truly live in faith, a better life than we can make on our own and the only life worth living.

Inevitably, this self-reliance results in cynicism when the wheels fall off. Life eventually shatters our can-do optimism. We begin to question God’s love for us, and our intimacy with Him crumbles. Our lives start overflowing with snarky responses and wry smiles at those who truly try to live by faith.

(In my own life, I’ve seen this response constantly in other men. By nature, we men are rational fixers. Why default to prayer when a methodology or practical “duct tape” response can fix the problem? Nearly every time I get together with men to pray over issues, the result is 55 minutes of advice on how to fix the issue and 5 minutes of praying. Inside this thinking, cynicism reigns: Practical, man-made answers mean more than pie-in-the-sky prayers.)

Miller blames our culture for promoting cynicism. He portrays cynicism as a perpetual critique of the world, one that is detached and distant (and therefore powerless) in dealing with the larger problems that face us. It leads to paralysis, darkness, and hopelessness, which often manifests as depression and other psychiatric disorders.

In contrast, the praying life actively fights evil and won’t take no for an answer. This response, again, is found in childlikeness. Children continue to believe even when faced with the “facts.” Creating time for thankfulness and repentance also works to break cynicism’s hold on us.

Up to this point, Miller has hit all the right notes. But even this early in the book, cracks begin to show. The chapters afterward reveal an increasing tendency to undermine what was written previously.

Miller continues by assaulting rationalism and its effects on believing for great things in prayer. He covers our bifurcated view of the realms of the “real” world and the spiritual world and how we’ve suffered for that split. He tosses the Enlightenment into the mix and blames it for the overly scientific way we view our lives and the world around us.

In the midst of this failure, Miller returns to the faith of a child, telling the story of the son of two rational New York Times journalists who chronicle, to their own amazement, the faith of their 4-year-old son. When the boy’s father ends up embedded with troops in Iraq, the boy prays. His mother questions this, yet the child cannot reject his belief that God is there for his dad. (The child as father to the woman would be the natural subtitle to this story.) Again, Miller reinforces that asking for big things falls into the realm of the childlike.

Miller then takes issue with scientific studies that attempt to show that prayer doesn’t work. He deflects these attempts by invoking prayer as a mystery, equating its otherwordly nature to quantum physics and Schrödinger’s cat. Putting prayer under a microscope obfuscates rather than clarifies. Miller later notes that attempts to systematize prayer also lead us away from genuine meaning.

At the conclusion of this section, the train of Miller’s thoughts starts to go off the rails. He writes about motives in prayer, how asking for the wrong things will inevitably lead to disappointment, and how we sometimes forget to pray for the little things (even those that seem highly materialistic or self-serving, such as a vacation home or parking space). Also, he notes that we don’t pray for the Kingdom to come or for God to change us because doing so threatens our little kingdoms and our self-righteousness.

The concluding chapters of the book discuss the practical ways in which Miller prays. He keeps prayers on note cards, tracks answers to prayer, and maintains a prayer journal. He also advises that we refrain from making any statements that “God told me to do such and such.” Rather, we should sit back and see how God weaves the story of our lives around our prayers.

As I noted, A Praying Life is a good book that fulfills its mission to provide practical advice on prayer.

That said, I had many problems with the book that I feel ultimately diminish its usefulness.

I mentioned internal inconsistencies. Sadly, they are many. In addition, Miller omits what I believe to be essential aspects of understanding prayer. He also sets up a gotcha that makes the book impervious to review. To me, these problems make it much more difficult to apply the good parts of the book to one’s prayer life.

Let’s start with the gotcha.

Critiquing A Praying Life runs the risk of violating Miller’s definitions of cynicism. In essence, his definition takes on the Evangelical equivalent of the charismatic’s “Touch Not the Lord’s Anointed.” But honestly, I think the book has problems. If that makes me a cynic, I’m sorry. I guess that label has to stick, even if I don’t believe it’s true.

The omissions also bother me.

Miller had almost nothing to say about the role of the demonic in actively opposing prayers. He mentions Satan a few times, but little is said about the invisible war that goes on in the heavenlies when we pray. (Daniel 10 immediately comes to mind.) How can we understand prayer, especially negative replies or long-running prayers apparently stuck in limbo, without some understanding of the opposition to our prayers?

The Holy Spirit’s role in our prayers is also underdeveloped. In what ways does the Spirit guide us in prayer? How should we understand that the Spirit prays in groans deep for words (Rom. 8:26)? And what does Miller understand 1 Cor. 14:15 to mean? As redeemed saints who now have the infinite God dwelling within us, these questions matter. Failing to address them in depth, especially in a book on prayer, seems like a huge oversight.

I was also bothered by those omissions that failed to delve into the harder questions behind the author’s premises. The major one for me concerned cynicism.

Miller places the blame for cynicism on a number of secular sources but never asks the killer question, especially in light of his premise about childlikeness: Aren’t repeated disappointments in prayer outcomes as a child the genesis for adult cynicism?

I know that when I was a young, baby Christian I prayed relentlessly and with full, childlike faith that one of my favorite relatives, a young woman with a hearty laugh and a zest for life, would beat her leukemia. She didn’t. That was a crushing blow.

While I have moved on from that episode and many other disappointments in those early days of my young faith, resisting cynicism was almost impossible. I think that is the case for many Christians.

And yet Miller didn’t truly visit this as a reason for cynicism, nor did he show how to combat it. We can blame any number of sources for cynicism in our society but we simply can’t ignore that one. The 4-year-old mentioned above may one day see his dad come home from the Middle East in a body bag. It happens. What then? What happens to that youngster and his prayer life?

A final underdevelopment is the reality that prayer is meant to help us possess God Himself. Miller does an exemplary job discussing presenting our needs before God but not nearly enough on prayer as a means of dwelling in God’s presence and abiding in Him. Yet this is the one aspect of prayer I believe most people struggle with more than any other. God alone as our sufficiency is a foreign concept to too many of us, but this book doesn’t fully address that most vital aspect of prayer.

The inconsistencies in the book also left me puzzled.

If we’re analyzing our motives in prayer, in what way is that childlike? Does a child ever question his own motives or whether he’s being greedy? I would contend that some of the most sensitive Christians among us perpetually worry about their motives, which would seem to utterly defeat childlike prayer.

In fact, the further one reads in A Praying Life, the more it seems Miller takes his original assertion about childlikeness and tacks on so many qualifiers that the entire idea of coming to God as a child gets swamped by all the “adult” things one must take into account when praying to our Heavenly Father. Where does this leave the reader? Perhaps Miller should have stopped writing past the end of Part 2 of the book.

Another problem arises when Miller says that we should not attempt to put prayer under a microscope, yet he keeps track of his prayers and their outcomes. So we can’t allow scientists to test prayer, yet we can do it ourselves? Hmm. And how childlike is a prayer journal? Isn’t that a bit systematic, too? Weren’t we warned earlier against such things? (Likewise, Miller omits the downside of prayer journals:  spending all of one’s time journaling and almost none actually praying. Been there, done that, and I’m not the only one, I’m sure.)

Critiques of those who overspiritualize the practice of the faith abound in the book, yet Miller falls prey to this problem repeatedly. First, he attempts to find meaning in everything that happens, yet the Bible tells us in the Book of Ecclesiastes that some parts of life are meaningless. Sometimes the race is not to the swiftest runner. The strongest don’t win the battle. Sometimes, stuff just happens. My spilling my cup of coffee in the morning may NOT be God’s way of telling me I ‘m too harried and need to slow down. It may just mean I’m clumsy because I’m still groggy because I haven’t had my coffee yet.

In that same way, trying to ascribe meaning to unanswered prayers or prayers that seem to go in ways we did not predict doesn’t always mean that God is trying to teach us something. Or He may be. Wisdom is in seeing this for what it is. That’s another avenue for the Holy Spirit’s inner revelation.

I was also mystified by Miller’s story about his daughter having a fondness for certain cars the family once owned or were thinking of buying, and he and his wife’s purposefully trying to weed that out of her lest she become materialistic. If that’s not overspiritualization, I don’t know what is. I mean, I have fond memories of my mom’s old station wagon and my dad’s Datsun 200SX, but neither turned me into a slave of the material. Worse, this story undermines Miller’s point about it being okay for him to pray for a vacation home. I realize that illustrations may not always correlate, but this was still strange.

Miller’s contention that we should avoid saying that “God told us _____”  is also problematic, as Miller repeatedly tells readers how God gave him insights into various aspects of his prayers, especially when the result didn’t come out exactly as hoped. This is the classic dilemma of those who don’t want to appear to be a charismaniacs yet who still need to find a way to explain life. Nonetheless, God either tells us things or He doesn’t.

But the 800-pound inconsistency in the book comes from the many life illustrations of Miller’s interactions with his autistic daughter.

I must be careful here. I don’t want to write anything that becomes unkind, as I mean no ill toward Miller or his family.

I will also add that I have a situation of my own life that is similar to Miller’s great struggle. I understand the pain. I know how hard it can be.

Miller writes a section dealing with Jesus’ bold assertions about prayer: Ask and you shall receive. He writes throughout the book of the little things he and his wife have prayed regarding their daughter and how they received positive responses.

But the question I have, and this impinges on all prayer requests all Christians everywhere make, is why not ask for the big one? Ask God for complete healing this side of heaven for the daughter and trust Him for it.

That’s a tough one. And it’s a tough one because no matter how much we  may beat on rationalism, the Enlightenment, and the concession of the West to science, we American Christians are scared to death of being a little child that asks God for the big thing only to have it not come about. Miller notes that when people ask him why an ill Christian who had thousands praying for him dies anyway, he sidesteps the question by stating that it’s not his life story so he can’t comment. Would the Apostle Paul not comment? I don’t think so. I believe he would have an answer, so we must—or else we are forced to question everything.

We have not because we ask not. Jesus says, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you (John 15:7). There are no qualifiers beyond the first two. That statement by Jesus is how Peter was able to say to the beggar outside the Beautiful Gate, “…rise up and walk!” We either take the words of Jesus at face value or we construct all manner of theological treatises to make them so conditional that we never have to worry ourselves about big prayers in the face of enormous problems. We simply find an end run around the big problem instead.

We are still enslaved by the rational, so we fear the big prayer. Because the big prayer, if it doesn’t come about, exposes something in us that we don’t want to face.

But folks, we have to face it.

The default position is to ascribe failure to suffering, which is what many of us (including Miller) do. But suffering is an aberration. The mark of the Kingdom of God is not suffering but wholeness. This is not to say that we will never suffer this side of eternity, but the New Testament repeatedly shows Jesus and the Church manifesting the Kingdom of God in the here and now by alleviating suffering.

Instead, some of us have embraced suffering. We make easy peace with it. But this confuses the Scriptural view and endorses a new asceticism.

When we embrace suffering, we read portions of the Bible in ways that were never intended. The narrative of blind Bartimaeus takes on a reversed moral. It’s as if we see this man’s blindness as the glory of God working in his life. But that’s not what the Scriptures say. God’s glory was made manifest in Bartimaeus’ healing, not in his suffering. The distinction is key, yet we miss it.

The Bible says this:

And [Jesus] could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. And he marveled because of their unbelief.
—Mark 6:5-6a

Again, we can overspiritualize. We can settle for a little and claim it is a lot. Then we are proud of how we’ve taken something less than ideal and transformed it into something wonderful. But in the end, that’s not faith.

We should always pray the big prayer. And we shouldn’t settle for anything less than a big, positive answer. That is faith. That we see so little of that kind of boldness in our modern American churches says more about us than it does about God.