Can prayer and theology mix? Isn’t theology for the smart people and prayer for the spiritual people? How wrong you are.
Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Today I review “Prayers for Knowing God” by Tony Evans. 190 pages, published by Harvest House, on February 2021. It’s available in Amazon Kindle for USD6.64 but it’s free from Faithlife for August, as part of their Free Book of the Month programme.
By way of introducing this book, let me describe how it’s organised. After the introduction, there are 54 chapters. Each chapter is a prayer.
At the end of the book, we have Appendix A and Appendix B. Appendix A is titled “The Urban Alternative” which describes Tony Evans list of ministry.
Appendix B is titled “The Doctrine of God”. At the top of this appendix in brackets it says, “Note: First appeared in the Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship Leadership Manual, 2001). This appendix is a study outline. The main headings are:
- The Knowledge of God
- The Revelation of God
- The Triunity of God
- The Character of God
And tucked within these headings you will read about the importance of knowing God, arguments for God’s existence, the Trinity, how they are distinct and how they are united and we have a 17 point list of the characters of God with familiar ones like omnipresence, omnipotence together with less familiar ones like self-existence and immutability.
What I am about to say next is a completely fictional story. I made it up just to explain this book we are reviewing today.
Once upon a time, the Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship men were tidying up after an invigorating Bible study. John, one of the members, says to Ps. Tony Evans, “Pastor, this is amazing stuff! I never knew all these things about God’s transcendence, his wisdom, his self-existence, man, it’s so good. I just wish there was something I could do with all this knowledge.”
Ps. Evans then says, “Well, you could pray with it.”
“You must be joking, Pastor. No, you are not joking. How do I pray with these things? I pray with the ACTS structure: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication. I don’t know how to pray with the Doctrine of God.”
“No, John, you pray with ACTS on the Doctrine of God. I adore you God for you are holy. I confess I am not holy. I give thanks that you bring me near to your holy throne. I ask that you make me holy like you.”
“Oh right, sure… you can do that for the holiness of God. But I bet you can’t pray like that for all of God’s attributes here, can you?”
And that’s how this book came to be. Tony Evans took the bet or he saw it as a heavenly mission or a publisher’s challenge and wrote an entire book where every chapter is a prayer using the ACTS formula on each attribute of God. That is the origin of the book… in my imagination.
Back in the real world, Evans wrote that many of the prayers in this were based on Appendix B, which was drafted many decades ago. But who knows, perhaps it was an encounter as a I described that somehow over time lead to this book.
Chapter 1 is titled “Knowing God Through His Holiness”, Chapter 2 is titled, “Knowing God Through His Separation From Sinfulness”, and on it goes. The last chapter, chapter 54 is “Knowing God Through His Overarching Power”.
Let me pick an attribute of God that some may have problem praying with. Chapter 32, “Knowing God Through His Immutability”.
I’ll read the entire chapter. It’s not too long. And if you listen attentively, you will know what to expect from the entire book.
The chapter begins with a quote from Malachi 3:6, “I, the Lord, do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed.”
There are four sub-headings in every chapter: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication.
Father, so much has changed and continues to change in our world. What seems like normal morphs into a new normal before our eyes. What we’re told one day is contradicted the next, or so it seems. Yet one thing remains the same: Despite all the changes we go through on earth and with one another, You remain unchanged. Your immutability means You are a God who changes not. I praise You and worship You for Your changelessness in the ever-changing continuum we call life.
Let people see Your stable ways, Lord, so we can all praise You and seek Your security in all that we do. Let us as a church body worship You more fully and frequently for the constancy that is truly who You are.
Lord, I confess that change can frighten me. Too many changes carried out too quickly can leave me feeling anxiety and dread. When I don’t know what to expect or what lurks around the next corner, my emotions sometimes get the best of me.
I confess that I haven’t come to know Your immutability as deeply and intimately as I should. Forgive me for looking at my circumstances or the circumstances of our world more than I look at You. In You I will find peace, security, strength, and assurance. Your immutability is the blessed assurance my soul seeks.
Heavenly Father, thank You for Your dependability. Thank You for always being stable. Thank You that, even though society sometimes looks as if it’s on the precipice of crumbling before our very eyes, You are calm, assured, and unchanging.
Nothing catches You off guard. I consider that pandemics can spread around the globe, but You are not taken by surprise. You know what will happen, and You are ever-present to provide guidance and wisdom as we navigate the onset of such times. Thank You for Your loving care, which is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
Holy God, I want to be more solidly like You in what I feel and in my actions. I don’t want to allow my emotions to dictate my choices. I want Your Word to take root so deeply within me that I, too, am stable and unchanging despite what life puts on my plate.
I ask for this intimacy, which will produce a greater inner peace and stability for me. I ask to know You more and to love You more completely. Help me understand the importance of understanding that my identity comes tied to You and the assuring love You give. When I do, then I can rest in Your unchanging love, peace, and provision.
In the incomparable name of Jesus Christ, I pray this prayer in honor of Your unchanging nature. Amen.
In terms of organisation, it’s a simple book that delivers what it says on the title, “Prayers for Knowing God”.
Now that you know what the book is about, here are my thoughts.
I’ll tell you two things I like and one thing I don’t like about this book.
Two Things I Like
First, I like how it bridges theology to Christian living. From the Knowledge of God to Daily Prayer.
You can pray using a structure you are already familiar with: ACTS: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication (Supplication is Petition or Asking God for things). We teach new believers this formula. It is practised by saints young and old. And while it may seem like an unlikely match: ACTS is a simple practical structure and the Doctrine of God has its complex theoretical categories, this book shows that both can come together.
And come together, nicely, without fuss. Evans shows that you can pray through God’s Grace, God’s Plurality, God’s Patience using simple everyday language. You don’t need to know the details of God’s Omniscience, to adore, confess, give thanks and petition his favour.
The Doctrine of God is not the hallowed ground of seminarians, it is an open green field, a garden of delights, beckoning everyone to come in. Even the youngest of children can pray through the Doctrine of God.
So that’s the first reason why I like this book: it’s clear on it’s purpose and it delivers on it. The second reason is on what he covers in the content.
Because he is starting from the Doctrine of God, the prayers are heavenward. It’s difficult to be me-centred with these prayers, because when your mind is purely on who God is, the things you pray for, the things you want, are going to be: “God, I want to be like you” or “God, I want to know more of you”.
Just a quick disclaimer, I’m not saying it’s wrong to pray for your own needs. It’s okay to pray for finances, for money to pay the bills and so on. We can pray, “God, I want to be happy” and also pray, “God, I want to be holy like you are.”
Also in this book is to be Trinitarian in our prayer. Chapter 38 is Knowing God Through the Holy Spirit. Chapter 43 is Knowing God Through Knowing His Son, Jesus Christ. Chapter 47, 48 and 49 is Knowing God through His Plurality, Distinctions and Oneness. These are categories of prayer normally not given much thought on. So it’s nice to see how one can pray through God’s lesser known, less appreciated attributes which are no less important.
Strangely, the attributes of God in the chapters are not complete, not complete by Evans’ own measure. In Appendix B, Section 4, he lists 17 characters of God. Some in the list don’t make the book. Transcendence is missing. Glory of God is curiously missing. I was so surprised by this that I even did a keyword search and the phrase does not appear in any of the prayers.
He lists God’s Wrath in Appendix B, but we don’t have a chapter titled, “Knowing God Through His Wrath”. Although wrath is mentioned in the chapter on Mercy, Patience and Overarching Power.
These are not serious omissions because it’s kind of covered within the chapters. I’m just surprised to see these important attributes missing and other attributes have multiple chapters. As I’ll show you next.
One Thing I Don’t Like
Let’s move on to talk about the Big Big Reason I don’t like the book.
The book is too long.
As I said, the book delivers on what it promises. The thing is what it promises can be delivered in a much shorter book. You don’t need 54 chapters to show how we can pray ACTS through the Doctrine of God. Evans has done such a great job showing how simple it is to do it, that there really isn’t any need to have so many examples.
Especially when the examples overlap. Chapter 1: Holiness. Chapter 2: Separation from Sinfulness. Chapter 7: His Desire for My Personal Holiness. You could lump those chapters together and no one would be the wiser.
Maybe he is doing that because he wants to go deep into each aspect of God? Listen to what Evans says in his introduction:
Each one [prayer] is directed toward one of 55 of His attributes. But they are also crafted to walk you through several of His characteristics simultaneously. For example, the prayer that focuses on God’s graciousness includes praise for His mercy. And the prayer directed toward God’s attribute of justice includes recognition of His great faithfulness.
The prayers don’t go deep. They don’t really connect and build up towards some pay off. They are independent broad prayers with the same four subsections. The prayer points overlap. When what you say sounds the same from one chapter to the next, it comes across as repetitive. That’s the problem I struggled with when I was reading this book.
So I decided to turn the boring read into a bit of a game. When I turn to a new chapter, I avoid reading the chapter title. Instead I would guess what is the title. I had a sneaking suspicion that I would not be able to tell one chapter from another chapter.
Well, I was wrong. His writing is direct, he tells you, this chapter is about God’s Truth or God’s Justice or God’s Ability to Become Wearied. Even though he mentions other qualities of God in that prayer, it’s still obvious which one is the anchor.
I admit my complaints about the book is because I am coming to it as a book to be read and not as a prayer-guide to pray with. Is it too much to expect to have a prayer book that reads well?
Listen to this prayer from another book:
Lord, keep me from yielding to sin, whatever I suffer. How could I do such wickedness? How could I neglect this duty and sin against you, God?
For your sake, Lord, let me not sin against you. You are good. You are kind. You are gracious. You are holy.
Will I sin or rebel? For your sake, Lord, I will not do it. I will not for my own sake. In sinning against God, I sin against my own soul. Sin and death, sin and hell are linked together.
Even if it were not so, Lord, I will not sin against you. You are good in yourself and good to me. You are my God and my Father.
There is more but I will stop here. That prayer is from “Piercing Heaven: Prayers of the Puritans” edited by Robert Elmer. It’s a “collection of carefully selected prayers from leading Puritans”.
To me, the Evans book is like a paint-by-numbers book. I don’t mean that as an insult. A paint-by-numbers book directs people through a formula to create a piece of art. And if Evans can get you to pray, he has achieved his goal. So that’s great.
The Puritan prayer book, on the other hand, this collection of carefully selected prayers, is not paint-by-numbers. It’s a gallery showcase of masterpieces. Reading it, you sense the soul in anguish, in delight, in awe, and your soul comes alongside the prayer.
I don’t like the book because it’s poor reading. Good for praying, maybe. Reading, no.
And that made me reflect.
I don’t like the Evans book and I like the Puritan one. Is it because I am a snob? But I tell people that when you pray, you should not put on an act. Pray as you speak. Don’t put on another’s voice.
Yet, at the same time, I also say that when you pray, reach deep into your heart. Go deep into your knowledge of God, go deep into the desires of your heart, and bring what you find there out into prayer. That’s the part I don’t see in the Evans book, it just reads like a template for everybody to pray with (which is it’s aim) and not like a personal prayer of someone in deep communion with God. To be fair to Evans, he did welcome you to inject your own words into your prayers.
Rather than force a person to make a choice between the two books, I suppose the solution is really simple. Your shelf is big enough for more than one book on prayer. You can learn how to pray ACTS through the Doctrine of God from Tony Evans. You can also learn how to pray deep soul-wrenching prayers from the Puritans or the like.
For myself, I think Evans could have taken that list in Appendix B, expand on each point, then give 2, 3, 5 examples of praying through ACTS. Instead of readers praying Evans’ prayers, they would reflect on each attribute and pray from there. You will get a much shorter book, maybe around 20 pages, but it would, in my mind, pack the same punch.
But others may appreciate how they can systematically pray through God’s attributes, one chapter at a time. If you are that person, then this book is for you. And along with Tony Evans, I would say, if this book gets you to pray and know God at a deeper level, that can only be a good thing.
This is a Reading and Readers review of “Prayers for Knowing God” by Tony Evans. 190 pages, published by Harvest House, on February 2021. It’s available in Amazon Kindle for USD6.64 but it’s free from Faithlife for free for August, as part of their Free Book of the Month programme.
The next book I review is a ‘handsome’ piece of work. You will get an answer to the question, “Why God?” “Man, now I know”. So subscribe to Reading and Readers. And get more book reviews and thoughtful reflections. Until next time, take care.