Donald S. Whitney. Praying the Bible, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015), pp. 112. $12.48 (Amazon)
What is it about prayer that leaves more Christians scratching than bowing their heads? If you polled your family or church family about the spiritual discipline they struggle with most, more than likely prayer would be at the top of the list. With this reality in mind, professor and author Don Whitney writes a transformative book for the prayer lives of countless Christians.
When Don Whitney speaks or writes, I tend to listen very closely, especially on matters related to spirituality and the spiritual disciplines. His widely popular book Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life has been a highly formative book in my life. So, when my pastor handed me Whitney’s newest book on prayer, I had to dive in quickly.
Why do Christians struggle to possess a thriving prayer life? According to Whitney, it relates primarily to the affections. While noting that all truly born again believers desire to pray, many of them don’t pray because they are bored. “I don’t feel like praying” is the number one reason Christians don’t pray. This troubling reality is the basis of the entire work. Whitney outlines a common problem to offer a helpful solution.
He candidly writes, “We can be talking to the most fascinating Person in the universe about the most important things in our lives and be bored to death” (12). But Whitney observes this is not due to prayer itself or God himself being boring; nor is it due to some specific flaw in the Christian. The flaw is not in prayer, God, or the Christian, but in the method the Christian uses in praying to God.
“Prayers without variety eventually become words without meaning” (17). You know that guy in your church who seems to pray the same exact thing about the same exact thing every time he prays during the service? Are you that guy? I have known men who I could almost pray with them because there is no variety in the language of their prayers. This is the great problem in the Christian’s prayer life.
Prayer seems boring to us, because we pray in a boring way. Whitney says the most common method of most Christians in prayer is to say “the same old things about the same old things” (15). Sound familiar? When I read this, I immediately began recounting my prayers from earlier in the day and how similar they were to one another.
The problem seems to intensify and grow hopeless when we realize that the things on our heart to pray are generally the same each day. We pray about our families, churches, holiness, jobs, health, safety, finances, and futures. But according to Whitney, “the problem is not that we pray about the same old things; rather, it’s that we say the same old things about the same old things” (20).
Using this universal problem as a springboard, Whitney jumps right into the heart of Praying the Bible. The next few chapters are given to providing a solution to this problem. The solution is a particular method of prayer that Whitney has personally used for over 30 years and widely taught in seminars and seminary classes. But it is a method that finds friends in church history, as well. Whitney believes the answer to boredom in prayer is to change our language in prayer by using the language of the Bible. Whitney’s simple solution is clearly stated: “When you pray, pray through a passage of Scripture, particularly a psalm” (27). Pick a passage of Scripture, particularly a psalm, and express to God whatever comes to your mind as you read the text.
Whitney believes this method is simple enough for any and every Christian to use. He believes that by reading through the Bible, and using it’s language in prayer, there will inevitably be tremendous variety in our prayers. This method is worth practicing (or at least attempting) in large part to Whitney’s reasoning here: “So basically what you are doing is taking words that originated in the heart and mind of God and circulating them through your heart and mind back to God. By this means his words become the wings of your prayers” (32). This was enough for me to give it a shot.
One of the most helpful aspects of Praying the Bible is the overtly practical instruction found throughout. The book honestly feels as if you are sitting in a small group with Whitney at the head, as he walks you through the method step by step. Whitney doesn’t just describe and explain this prayer method; he exemplifies it throughout the book. He takes various psalms and passages and shows how to pray through them, giving sample prayers. He basically says, “Here is what to do, and here is how to do it.”
One criticism is found in an aspect of this method regarding using the language of the text in a way that doesn’t convey the meaning of the text. Praying the Bible primarily means praying for the same old things in your life in the language of the Bible. For example, if you read Psalm 23, you might pray for God to shepherd your children. If you read 1 Corinthians 13, you may pray for your children to grow in the love of God and learn his love. See the variety? In both cases you are praying with the Bible’s language in relation to the Bible’s message.
However, Whitney goes further and says we can also pray using the language of the biblical text for things that do not convey the meaning of the text. An example would be praying for God to restore your friend’s heart to God after reading “He restores my soul” in Psalm 23. This may be an innocent way of bringing variety into prayer, but I fear if Christians use the language of a text of Scripture in ways that misses the meaning of a text of Scripture, over time it could negatively affect Bible study and interpretation.
Whitney does provide numerous caveats and explains that he is not calling readers to “read something into the text,” but instead “merely use the language of the text to speak to God about what has come into your mind” (36). Again, this may be fine for Christians with either formal training in exegesis or for those Christians who sit under faithful biblical exposition. Whitney is unapologetically sound in the realm of hermeneutics: “Correctly handling the Word of God does not permit making the text say what we want” (34). But for the less mature Christian, I fear praying this way could lead to errant exegesis or biblical interpretation.
With warm conversational style, Whitney softly and soundly answers the common question, “How should we pray?” If you feel guilty over being bored with prayer, or find your prayer life growing thin, pick this book up and attempt this method. Prayer is a means of grace to fuel the affections of the heart for God. What better way to fan that flame than with the very words of God. Ultimately, Whitney’s desire is for every Christian to develop a “meaningful, satisfying prayer life” (24). Picking up this book and implementing the simple strategy of praying the Bible will be an important first step in possessing such a prayer life.
Mathew Gilbert (B.A. Boyce College) is the Children’s Pastor at First Baptist Church in East Bernstadt, KY. He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God. Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their son, Jude Adoniram.