This is a book review on John Starke’s The Possibility of Prayer
As a pastor in the heart of New York City, John Starke is well acquainted with the busyness of pastoral ministry in an achievement-driven culture. Rather than providing keen insight on how to increase efficiency, Starke takes a less beaten path by discussing prayer. He begins by laying a foundation for the difficulty, yet simplicity of the practice of prayer. After the groundwork has been established, he provides seven practices that believers should cultivate in the normal rhythms of their life.
Since I often struggle to practice rhythms of rest and prayer in my own life, I found this book extremely helpful and enjoyable. Therefore, the majority of what I have to say is a positive discussion of a meaningful and well-written book. Regardless of the personal application, I do not know any Christian who would not leave this book refreshed, challenged, and encouraged. My aim in this review is not to tell you the advantages and the disadvantages of the book, but rather to beg you to read this book by presenting the basic premise and the highlights of it.
In order to establish and cultivate patterns of prayer in our lives, we must first correct our often limited and incorrect view of these habits. Starke skillfully guides the reader to a right understanding of the three most fundamental disciplines: prayer, scripture reading, and confession.
Far too often, Christians naively view prayer too narrowly. Sometimes even to the extent that we essentially see prayer as an act of making requests to a genie who can make our wishes come true.
Starke defines prayer as “the business of conquering territory within us: territory that we think is ours but which God claims for himself.” I absolutely love this. With this understanding, prayer becomes an act of God getting more of us, rather than merely us getting more from God.
In the same way, many find themselves viewing scripture reading simply as an act of collecting information. In an extreme sense, Christians may avoid reading God’s Word because they do not want to engage with the text intellectually.
Contrarily, Starke corrects our incomplete view of the Bible by saying,
“If you read the Bible, you will see that God’s Word is often compared to a sword, and His presence, fire. These images teach us that the Word of God and His presence are not always comfortable. Swords pierce deep and cut away; fire burns and purifies.” – John Starke
The author’s point here is to say the Bible can and should deeply change and challenge us. When we read God’s Word, we do not only engage the text with our minds, but with our hearts. The Scriptures impact not only the thoughts of our mind but the desires of our heart.
Similarly, Starke exposes the “laissez-faire spirituality that boasts of weakness but is safe from criticism and reproof.” The point of confession is not merely to receive acceptance, but to be rescued. Unfortunately, many of us view confession only as a time to acknowledge our shortcomings and forget that this is about experiencing transformation. An element of confession is clearly missing if we do not see the depth of our sin and begin to turn away from it.
Cultivating Rhythms of Prayer
As the book takes a turn towards more specific practices, there are a few that I would like to highlight.
As Starke discusses Scripture meditation, he writes,
“We’re not just reading the text to find examples to follow but mercies to receive.” – John Starke
Far too often, I find myself inclined towards viewing the biblical text as a self-help book that exists to make me a better version of myself. While there is merit in seeking to apply the Scriptures, Starke reminds the reader that this isn’t the only purpose. He goes on to write,
“Meditation is the discipline that lights the fuse between the understanding of the mind and the tasting of the heart — the knowledge of God and the joy of his presence.” – John Starke
This is huge. In my own personal life, I have found meditating on the Scriptures to be the bridge we all need between our time in prayer and our time in studying God’s Word.
Fasting and Feasting
In my article, “How Fasting Forms the People of God,” I argued that fasting was one of the least practiced spiritual disciplines in Evangelical Christianity, yet we should still teach ourselves how to fast. After building an exegetical foundation for the practice of fasting, Starke writes,
“So, yes, we ought to practice the regular rhythm of fasting but stabilize our souls with feasts, too.” – John Starke
Growing up in Texas, we certainly had our fair share of “feasts.” Yet Starke uses the word a bit differently than I initially would have thought. When I think of feasts, I do think of lots of food, but Stark paints a much more vivid picture by writing,
Gather friends for a meal everyone is involved in making. Come prepared. Take a nap or sleep longer the night before — no one goes home early from a good feast… Set phones at the door.
For Starke, a feast is less about the abundance of food on your plate, but more about the enjoyment of relationships that God has provided.
All of the practices mentioned in this book – communion, meditation, fasting, feasting, solitude, and sabbath – culminate in corporate worship. As I am writing this, my county has been under a stay-at-home order for over a month.
We are unable to practice the discipline of corporate worship in the way we previously have and therefore expectantly long for the day when we can gather in-person with our brothers and sisters to worship together. Yet, Starke defines corporate worship in a way we can participate in, even during the unexpected times we are currently living in. Starke writes,
“Corporate worship uses deeper mechanisms of change because it is not a habit that aims directly at self-improvement but at enjoyment. Worship is a command to enjoy an object.” – John Starke
Though we are unable to meet together in the way that we have before, worship is about enjoying God. We can worship God in our living rooms with our family. We can worship God through our zoom calls with our community groups. Just because have to take a break from the way we traditionally view corporate worship does not mean we have to take a break from worshipping and enjoying God.
Read This Book
I do not know how to make it any clearer: you want to read this book. The way Starke pastorally corrects the misunderstandings and misconceptions surrounding spiritual practices is challenging yet encouraging. If the point of this book was to make you love Jesus more, Starke has surely accomplished his goal.