Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Book Review: "Prayer" (James Houston)

TITLE: THE PRAYER - Deepening your friendship with God
AUTHOR: James M. Houston
PUBLISHER: David C. Cook, 2007, (320 pages).

The Prayer: Deepening Your Friendship with God (Volume 3, Soul's Longing Series)This classic by the much respected co-founder of Regent-College has gone through many revisions, especially the title. It was first published under the title "Prayer: The Transforming Friendship" by Navpress in 1996. Subsequent editions come under the title: "The Transforming Power of Prayer" also by Navpress in 1999. The edition here is part 3 of a soul longing series of books by Cook Communications.

Prayer is Dr Houston's best subject on spirituality. In line with the soul longing theme, Houston argues that the core of every human soul is an intimacy with God, and this is wrought through an earnestness in developing a deep friendship with God in prayer.

Key Themes
  • Prayer is 'keeping company with God.'  (Clement of Alexandria)
  • Prayer is more of a relationship rather than a performance
  • Prayer is 'profoundly guided by what we believe and by how we behave'
  • Prayer is both right living and right thinking;
  • It is because we have been born again, we need to learn to live again;
  • Our whole lives are shaped by the 'life and spirit of prayer'

What the Book is About
The key theme of the book is prayer is about building intimacy with God through friendship.

"Christian prayer is prayer to the Father, through the Son, by the Holy Spirit.. . . Our prayers are a response to the friendship and love of God. That is why in this book, I have drawn a strong parallel between friendship and prayer." (10)

In Part One, Houston highlights some of the reasons why people are not praying. One such reason is loneliness. He writes:

"Our generation has grown up on the idea that 'self-fulfillment' is the panacea for all our problems. Such a faith drives us all to become Robinson Crusoes, each in our own personal desert-island paradise, living according to our own fantasies. When the family dissolves in a divorcing culture and the Me-generation takes over, then the collapse of community values is not too far behind. Prayerlessness is simply part of a larger picture of modern life, of being alone in a crowd."
He makes several poignant observations about the erroneous ways people think of prayer. Like:

  • Seeing prayer as another thing to do;
  • Seeing prayer as an irrelevant custom;
  • Seeing prayer as a 'magical formula' to do life;
  • Seeking prayer for prayer itself instead of God;

Houston then provides a guide on prayer. Prayer is one that we should see as integral to life. Prayer and life affects each other deeply.

"Prayer is the means that God has given us to survive. Through prayer we can sustain our human dignity and the freedom of our uniqueness but still love other people as well. Through prayer we can be freed from the suffocating influences of bad relationships, past and present. The rich communication between us and God in prayer enables us to relate to other people as he relates to us. Prayer makes it possible to contribute positively to our relationships, making the world less of a jungle teeming with wild animals, more of a realm of friendships." (69)
In other words, we understand our truest selves in prayer, for we become totally open and vulnerable to God.

In Part Two, the author goes into the biblical basis for his thesis, that prayer is intimacy via friendship with God. Going through the psalms, the prophets, the Torah, Houston points out the expressions of the biblical characters' deepest needs of the heart to God. People live transparent lives.

"Simone Weil, the French writer, once remarked that friendship consists of meeting to identify with each other, and then learning to say goodbye to trust each other. This is a wise insight." (109)
He also points out the moods of transforming prayer. We can come to get in all moods. Firstly, there is the mood of praise and worship that aids assurance of God's goodness and focusing on God. Secondly, there is the opposite mood, that is the one on 'psalms of disorientation.'  Through 'confession, lament, petition, and supplication,' one goes through physical, mental and emotional disorientation, asking God to understand, and to help. Thirdly, there is a 'reorientation of life in thanksgiving, intercession and contemplation.'

Houston provides a very helpful look at the psychological makeup of man, and the way to pray.

"A sanguine person becomes restless if he or she spends more than ten minutes alone in prayer. This is because sanguine persons are very active. They generate enthusiasm, act spontaneously, and find discipline very trying. They therefore find prayer in the company of other people much more easy than long hours spent on their own. Phlegmatic people, by contrast, are much more dependable, stable, and conservative. They find security in routine, and so find it easy to develop a daily discipline of prayer. Phlegmatics are faithful, but they are not usually creative or spontaneous in their worship.

The choleric person tends to be logical and rational, lacking in feelings and in the quality of relating well to others. One choleric who struggled with prayer said, 'My prayer life is all exegesis, like preparing a series of sermons!' Cholerics need plenty of space for their times with God, but they do not experience the ecstasy of others who pray.

The melancholic are creative, persuasive, and imaginative people who think reflectively and deeply. But they can also be touchy, or set themselves impossible standards. Their prayers are often creative and spontaneous, but they happen more intermittently." (138-9)
If the first step is recognizing one's temperament, the second is to maximize our natural temperament. The third is to anticipate changes in our temperament as we allow God to work in us. Change for the better. Several biblical changes are:

  • Intuition - fear of the Lord
  • Sensing - Waiting upon the Lord
  • Feeling - lifting up our hearts to the Lord
  • Thinking - Walking before the Lord
In Part Three, the author leads us toward a deepening friendship with the Triune God. Part Four deals with a deepening friendship within the community we are called to be part of.  The author ends with this summary that prayer and relationship is togetherness with God and with one another.

"Prayer and personal isolation, we have been finding out, are incompatible. Yes, we must learn to be alone with God if we are ever to know true community with others. But prayer in isolation from all other Christians can never be a proper expression of fellowship with the three-in-one God who makes community possible." (314)

Ratings: 4.5 stars of 5.

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