Sunday I preached on the church’s calling to “pray for one another” (James 5:16). Among the seven points of application—“seven ways to improve your pray life today”—one of them had to do with learning how to pray.
In truth, nothing teaches you how to pray like praying, and especially by praying with others who know how to pray. The disciples asked Jesus “to teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples” (Luke 11:1). The assumption is that both John and Jesus prayed with and before their disciples, hence prompting their question.
Theologically, it is the Spirit who directs our prayers (see Romans 8:26; Ephesians 6:18; and Jude 20). But practically, like Jesus’ twelve disciples, we too need to learn from our Lord how to pray. Certainly, the Scriptures are the place to learn what it means to “pray in the Spirit,” “by the will of God,” “for his glory,” and “for our joy.” But if you are like me, you are helped when men and women gifted to teach and gifted to pray write books that relate Scriptural truth to real life.
Therefore, if you are earnestly desirous of learning how to pray, consider these ten books on the subject. I have found them helpful and encourage you to check them out too.
(Full disclosure: two of them are on my “to read” list; some of them are in my already but not fully read pile. If you read, I’m sure you understand.)
1. A Call to Spiritual Reformation by D. A. Carson.
Now updated and titled Praying with Paul, Carson’s book is both exegetical and practical. He examines the prayers of Paul and shows the kinds of things we ought to pray. When I read this book many years ago, two things stood out. Theologically, Paul repeatedly prayed for people who knew God to know him more. This apostolic pattern ought to have a profound impact on us and what we pray for. Sure, we can and must pray for healing and temporal needs, but all the more we ought to intercede for the power of God to open hearts to the depths of his love for them in Christ (cf. Eh 3:14–21). Practically, this book taught me how to pray for people I don’t know, for members of my church whose particular needs were not known to me. If you wonder how to pray through a church directory for people you don’t (yet) know, this book is especially practical.
2. The Message of Prayer by Tim Chester
Admittedly, this is one of the books I haven’t read. But its author and its series (The Bible Speaks Today) are familiar and well-regarded. In this book, Chester gives a general theology of prayer. Part 1 (ch. 1–5) considers the “foundations of prayer,” part 2 (ch. 6–16) tackles the “practice of prayer.” Rich in Scripture, this book looks at the prayers of the Old Testament saints and New Testament believers. It comes with a Study Guide in the back and promises to be a rich study in biblical prayer.
3. Prayer and the Knowledge of God by Graeme Goldsworthy
Graeme Goldsworthy’s book is another “theology of prayer” written by a well-respected biblical theologian. Tackling a handful of topics in the first half of the book (e.g., the basis of all prayer, the source of all prayer, the pattern of all prayer, etc.), he turns to his specialty in the second half. In four parts, he unpacks the “the progress of prayer” from the Israel to the Psalms to the Prophets to the New Testament. If you are interested in seeing the continuity and escalation of prayer in the Bible, this book would be a great resource.
4. A Praying Life by Paul Miller
If you feel bad about your prayer life, this is the place to begin. Instead of giving strenuous disciplines for improving your prayer, he reminds us that prayer flows out of an intimate relationship with our Heavenly Father. Just a child begins to “talk” to their parents through means of guttural gibberish and playful (and ignorant) imitation, so we begin to speak to our heavenly father. He concludes with practical applications for prayer, but it is the beginning of the book that is most encouraging to those who have a hard time getting into their prayer closet.
5. Praying the Bible by Donald Whitney
Donald Whitney is well-known as an expert in practicing the “Spiritual Disciplines.” His book by that title (Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life) on that subject are required reading in many seminaries. Not surprisingly, his book on prayer is equally valuable. And because of its size, it is more accessible. In less than 100 pages, Whitney teaches you how to use Scripture as a means of prayer. He argues that we never grow tired of praying for the same things; we grow tired because we pray for the same things in the same way. His solution? Pray the words of the Bible. If you have ever wondered what to say in prayer, this book will be a great help. Or if you are looking for freshness in your prayer life, Praying the Bible is must-read.
6. Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God by Timothy Keller
As with everything Keller writes, Prayer is intellectually invigorating and spiritually inspiring. His book breaks down into five sections—Desiring Prayer, Understanding Prayer, Learning Prayer, Deepening Prayer, and Doing Prayer. Like Whitney, his methods are very closely aligned with the Bible, but even more illuminating in his book (in the parts I’ve read) are the theological considerations Keller gives. If you are wanting to what prayer is and how it has been approached throughout church history, this is a great resource.
To say that Arthur Bennett is the author of The Valley of Vision is a bit of misnomer. Bennett collected a wide variety of Puritan prayers and arranged their content under a variety of headings and titles. These prayers are a goldmine of biblical theology, but even more they are a shaft of light that shines on parts of our darkness we rarely uncover (or even know we have). Better than any other source I know, The Valley of Vision teaches us how to pray like David in Psalm 51. It brings us into the depths of our sin and lifts us the heights of God’s grace and mercy. If your prayer lacks gravity and importance, a daily reading from this book is what you need.
8. Everyday Prayers: 365 Days to a Gospel-Centered Faith by Scotty Smith
Though the subtitle sounds a bit contrived, Everyday Prayer is not. Collected from his TGC blog, , these daily prayers intersect daily life with gospel-saturated meditations directed heavenward. Unlike The Valley of Vision, which introduces us to a way of conversing with God that is needed but not quite how we would speak, Everyday Prayer models how 21st century Christians can articulate prayers to God with theological rigor, gospel comfort, and spiritual yearning. If you journal or write out your prayers—or think that might be a good step in your prayer life—this book would be an excellent model. Each prayer begins with a Scripture verse and interweaves that passage with the needs of the day.
9. Operation World by Jason Mandryk
Q. What do you get when you mashup a prayer book with exhaustive data about world mission? A. Operation World.
Operation World, now in its seventh edition, the essential resource for praying for God’s kingdom to come. Mandrake, following in the footsteps of Patrick Johnstone, provides national, political, and religious demographics for every country in the world. If your heart yearns for Christ to be made famous among the nations—or especially if it doesn’t!—pick up a copy of this book or use its online website to pray for the nations to come to Christ. (There is also a shorter, more readable version, Pray for the World: A New Prayer Resource from Operation World).
10. ______________________ by you
A quick search of “prayer” at Westminster Bookstore online will introduce you to dozens of quality books on prayer—some current, many from the past.
I have only listed ones that I have read or are on my “to read” list. I haven’t come close to exhausting the list. So I turn to you: What books on prayer would you recommend? And why? Let me know if the comments. Maybe I’ll add another post before long.
Post Script on Prayer
The worst thing you could do with this list is race off to Amazon and buy them all. The second worse thing to do is to ignore them all.
To repeat what I said at the beginning, we learn to pray by praying—not by reading books about praying. However, since we are to pray according to the will of God (i.e., the Word of God), prayer is also something we must study.
You can do that by pulling out a concordance and finding every place the Bible talks about prayer. But far better than going into your study carrel to come up with your own ideas about prayer, learn from the teachers God has given the church—or at least in conversation with them.
Right after Paul prayed for the Ephesians to “have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth . . . the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (3:18–19), he reminded the church that God had given them pastors and teachers to equip them for every good work (Eph 4:11–12).
Wherever you find yourself today, learn to learn from the teachers of the church. As it concerns prayer, pray with one another and learn from those who know how to pray. As it concerns a biblical understanding of prayer, avail yourself of these helpful resources. These teachers are not infallible, but as they hold fast to the Bible in their instruction, they will equip you for every good work, for all kinds of prayer.
As Paul noted in his prayer, we comprehend God’s love “with all the saints.” This is true when we gather together with our local church. But it is also an admonition to gain wisdom from those in different era and areas of the church. To that point, I finish with this request: If there are other books on prayer (especially from other regions or periods of church history) that stand firmly on the Word of God, please include those in the comments. I’d be curious to know what books have helped you?
Soli Deo Gloria, ds