The Folly of Prayer
Practicing the Presence and Absence of God

Book Details

Discerning Reader Editorial Review

Reviewed 12/14/2009 by Mark Tubbs.

Recommended. Not just another book on prayer.

Books on prayer are peculiar beasts. They often fall to one of two extremes: either they recount personal experience at the expense of biblical teaching, or they expound at length on biblical teaching without practical application on what an actual Christian’s prayer habits should look like. Then there is the mistake of super-categorization, which is when an author erects unsound and unhelpful dividing walls between the diverse modes of prayer, as if one ought never to mix, for example, the guttural groaning of Romans 8:26 with the arguments and pleas exemplified by Habakkuk, or whatever.

In his fine book The Folly of Prayer, author and pastor Matt Woodley avoids the above follies. It is evenly balanced, although it does taper off near the end, and is well-saturated with biblical teaching. Woodley’s concern is that we delve deeper into biblical paradigms for prayer as “an encounter between the real God and the real us.”

Woodley first establishes the validity of “guttural groaning” as a prayer form, noting the earliest biblical mention of groaning prayer – the Israelites in Exodus 2 – and tracing it throughout the remainder of the Old Testament. Woodley traces the continuity of groaning prayer into the New Testament, even after the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ (see Romans 8:26), then turns to draw out some experiential implications of the Bible’s teaching on groaning prayer:

In the biblical story, prayer doesn’t resolve the tension of living in a fallen world; it intensifies the ache. Prayer makes us groan louder, not softer…Groaning is a sure sign that we’re facing reality, with all its beautiful-ragged edges…Christians should be the best and loudest groaners in the world. We are the leaders of the great cosmic groan chorus.

Next Woodley takes a “sacramental” approach to prayer, in that prayer should properly be a physical experience as well as a spiritual one. He goes so far as to say that a purely spiritual approach to prayer is a holdover from Gnostic teaching. Modes of “sacramental” prayer that Woodley identifies include prayer centered on the atonement (with the Lord’s Supper as the jumping-off point of this type of prayer), prayer with other Christians, prayer in the midst of the majesty of creation, and prayer in which the movement of our bodies echoes the verbal flow of our prayer.

The next three chapters address related themes: prayer as desperation, prayer as mystery, and prayer as absence. In the first of the three, Woodley addresses society’s obsessions with what it calls “insecurity,” as well as our tendency to imagine ourselves as self-sufficient. Through it all, Woodley is careful to anchor everything around the gospel, which

should stun us with its beauty: Jesus has reconciled us to God the Father, so in Christ, through Christ, with Christ, on behalf of Christ, who died for our sins, who rose again and who intercedes for us, we can bury our pride and insecurity forever.

In the second of the three, Woodley explores prayer as a means of interacting with our holy and mysterious Triune God. Using Psalm 88 and the prayers of Jonah, Woodley differentiates between honest wrestling with the mystery and a “dysfunctional, self-centered approach to God and prayer.” The former mode, accompanied by humility and honesty, leads to

one of God’s objectives in my prayers: God wants to change me, not just my circumstances…Jonah wanted God to change his circumstances, to annihilate the Ninevites, to give him a nice shade tree. But God wanted to change Jonah, to excavate his heart by removing his self-pity, his lack of love and his pettiness.

In the third chapter, Woodley tackles the age-old question of the Christian in the wilderness, when God feels far away. I was pleasantly surprised that Woodley did not succumb to vague mystical banalities about stereotypical “journeys in the wilderness,” but instead boils down the teaching of St. John of the Cross on this topic, commonly known as “the dark night of the soul.” God is a vibrant flame of love, St. John contends, even when we don’t sense his presence. Therefore, in times of God’s felt absence, he may be closer than we imagine. These are the times in which God is refining us most intensely. And how is he refining us? Primarily by calling in what Woodley calls “the garbage man.” Using this occupational metaphor, he explains that refining does not happen apart from purifying sanctification, burning off the dross of our sin. As Woodley says in an earlier chapter,

Prayer implies freedom: not the freedom to sin, of course, but the freedom to live as children of God; the freedom to stand in Christ’s righteousness; the freedom that comes from the Holy Spirit, who urges us to cry out, “Abba, Father.”

If it isn’t yet obvious, I’m a big fan of this book, and I haven’t even described the contents of chapters 6 through 9, which happen to be the strongest chapters of all, in my opinion. The pages of my review copy are rife with bracketed sections marking brilliant chains of thought, frequent exclamations (“Wow!”), and memorable quotations underlined for future reference.

Near the beginning of this review I mentioned a certain tapering that occurs in this book, in which the last two chapters – one entitled “Prayer as Hearing God’s Heartbeat” and the other called “Prayer as Love” – seem to me as though an editor insisted that a couple of “contemplative” chapters be tacked onto the end. Despite some excellent (albeit brief) discussion about the implications of the doctrines of union with Christ and the Trinity for our prayer lives, these two chapters err on the experiential side of things. However, the tapering of the final two chapters should not be cause for writing off this book in its entirety. It remains the best book on prayer I have ever read.

Woodley writes intuitively, and often as sublimely as a Mark Buchanan, a Max Lucado, or a Phillip Yancey. I find him far more theologically informed than the latter two, if I’m being completely honest. This despite Woodley’s one-sided bibliography, stacked as it is with mystics and contemplatives. I wonder how Woodley’s thinking and writing would evolve if more enhanced by both bygone and modern-day Puritans and Reformers?

Woodley’s prayer quest evokes Flannery O’Connor’s quest for joy: “Picture me with my ground teeth stalking joy – fully armed too as it’s a highly dangerous quest.” You couldn’t find a much better companion than Matt Woodley on the hunt for joy in prayer, fully armed with love for God and a mature knowledge of Scripture.