My friend and Talbot colleague Kyle Strobel has a practical and insightful new book releasing this Wednesday: Where Prayer Becomes Real. Since he has a background in apologetics, and focuses his research on spiritual formation, I asked him a few questions about the intersection of prayer and apologetics. I hope you will check out this interview and think about getting a copy of his excellent book.
SEAN MCDOWELL: In Where Prayer Becomes Real, you focus really hard on honesty in prayer. Why do you think that matters so much, and why do you think folks struggle with honesty in prayer?
DR. KYLE STROBEL: Sean, one of the things I have found is that when people begin to pray, they intuitively begin to pray for what they think God wants them to pray for. They focus on saying the right thing, affirming truth, and enacting the right sort of zeal and passion. In other words, they begin to perform in prayer, rather than offering themselves to God in truth. Honesty is important because God meets us in the reality of our lives. He died for us, not in our goodness, but in our sin. So when we pray, we need to learn how to dismantle the false assumptions about God found in the flesh (see Col. 2 for some of these, what Paul calls “self-made religion”), and we need to follow God where he gone in our hearts – all the way down to the truth. This changes, for instance, how we think about our mind wandering in prayer, to be something other than a failure to pray well, but to be the Lord calling us to see and pray the treasures of our hearts.
MCDOWELL: Your dad tells a story in The Case for Grace about a particularly difficult time in his life and how you led him in the prayer of recollection. I noticed that you include a chapter on this prayer in your book. Can you tell us more about that and what makes this prayer important?
STROBEL: Yes, this was one of those moments as a son where you see your father as fragile in a way you never had expected. I wasn’t sure what was going on, and we wouldn’t find out the medical issues until later, but I knew he was struggling. So, I led him in the prayer of recollection, which is one of the modes of prayer we talk about in the book. The prayer of recollection is a prayer that seeks to take Paul’s commands to put off the old and to put on the new, by focusing on what Paul puts off in Philippians 3 in his own life – his identity, background, credentials, etc. The goal is to put off all that isn’t ultimately defining of you, and to put on what truly does define you – namely Christ. The purpose is to re-collect the truth, and to see how often we sell the truth for something that is still true, but not the deepest truth. It is true that I am a teacher, a husband, and a father, but those things do not reach bottom for me. At bottom I am Christ’s. At bottom I am a child of my heavenly Father. When we replace this with lesser truths, we become unmoored from our ultimate foundation that Christ has secured for us in our salvation.
MCDOWELL: You talk about “watchfulness” in prayer, and I think that this concept is helpful for apologetics as well. Can you walk us through how you use that in the book and how it might benefit us as we think about apologetics and evangelism?
STROBEL: Paul tells us to be “watchful” in prayer in Col. 4:2. Watchfulness was a really important term concerning the Christian life for early evangelicals, because it highlighted the truth that we have to see what is really going on in our hearts and minds. I think this is profoundly important in apologetics and evangelism, because it can be so easy in those sorts of conversations to lose our way and forget our focus. We can quickly begin to focus on winning arguments and being right instead of being with a lost and broken person who needs the truth. In evangelism more broadly and apologetics specifically, we need to cultivate a watchfulness of heart so that we can remain focused on the real task before us. Doing so helps to be present to the person, and not get lost in our arguments.
MCDOWELL: Throughout the book you name a lot of our temptations when we pray. For those of us who are involved with apologetics, I imagine you have some specific temptations in mind. Can you walk us through some of those?
STROBEL: One of the things that can happen when our minds are so captivated by the apologetic task, is that we can easily begin focusing on God solely from the perspective of proving his existence, explaining evil, or about his necessity in light of what creation proclaims. These are not bad to focus on of course, but when we do, we can be tempted to lose focus on things like prayer because they do not obviously connect to that focus. So, we just study more. But prayer is fundamental, because in prayer we bring ourselves before the God we believe in. In prayer we are reminded that we are those who are called to “draw near” to the living God – the consuming fire – and that our calling to proclaim his name stems from finding ourselves in his presence.
MCDOWELL: We live in increasingly anxious times. People are anxious about health, politics, and so much more. What biblical encouragement or practices can you offer that are especially timely for today?
STROBEL: Let me quickly name three things I think we can easily miss. First, we have to remember that there is “now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). So, we need to pray as those who really know that we are not under condemnation. But secondly, we are those who might experience condemnation in the presence of God, as John assumes we will in 1 John 3:19-20. But notice that when John describes a Christian who is in God’s presence (he is “before” him) and his heart condemns him, that his command is to know that God is greater than your heart and reminds us that God knows everything. That there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus is an objective truth, but, subjectively, we may experience our “heart’s condemning us,” and we need to ground ourselves in the truth of God’s greatness and his knowledge. Finally, as we struggle in prayer, we need to remember that God tells us that he knows that we don’t know how to pray, and that the Son and the Spirit intercede for us. We have a God whose redemption goes so far as to include praying in our place. Our God prays for us because we struggle to. So in our anxiety, we need to come to a God who knows our struggles and who has met us in our brokenness, pain, and rebellion. We need to know the God who meets us even in our inability to pray.
For more about Where Prayer Becomes Real, including a video from Kyle on the topic of prayer, see https://www.WherePrayerBecomesReal.com.