As Greear rightly points out in opening his new book on prayer, very few (if any) of us would be able to stand up and say we’re happy with our prayer lives. Prayer is the immense privilege of the believer, the incredible gift of personal and persistent communication with our Heavenly Father, yet so often we struggle with it. Greear’s book – Just Ask – seeks to encourage the readers with the wonder, simplicity and value of prayer. It seeks to equip readers with how to pray, and it exhorts them to do just that.
At times Greear is confronting, challenging our weary hearts and encouraging us with the beauty, mercy and kindness of our God. But I have to admit that I struggled with this book a little at times. The heart behind the book was genuine, and Just Ask offers many nuggets of wisdom and helpful comment, but there were moments where I had questions, and some comments/sections felt unnecessary and misleading.
Why don’t we pray, and how can we?
Greear is right to challenge his readers to evaluate their prayer life, and as a church historian, one line from his Introduction jumped out to me: “here is my concern… what was fundamental for the early church has become supplemental in the 21st-century church.” (17.) Greear is right. There are many things about modern Christianity that would rightly (and wrongly) shock some of the very first believers, but the state of our prayer lives may well be one of them.
With just seven very readable chapters, the book is split into two halves. After exploring reasons why we don’t pray, and addressing some big questions around that (Does Prayer really Do Any Good, Why Isn’t God Answering Me?) the book turns to explore how to pray. This latter half leans largely on the Lord’s Prayer, and walks the reader through that, encouraging them to probe Jesus’ example as a pattern for their own prayer lives.
Throughout, Greear is honest with his own failings, and practical with his personal advice. The Conclusion itself offers further practical tips, some of which this reviewer found to be really helpful suggestions. Prayer is so important, such a blessing, and so often such a struggle. Just Ask seeks to encourage the reader to embrace a life of wholehearted prayerful dependence on our wonderful God.
Hit and Miss
Nonetheless, I struggled at times reading this book. The end product felt a little ‘hit and miss.’ Some of my problems were more matters of personal taste, some raised bigger question marks.
Greear writes in a very relaxed, colloquial style. The Acknowledgements at the end of the book tell us that “every book I have written has been written first and foremost for members of The Summit Church… whom I have been privileged to pastor now for 20 years.” (151) It is wonderful that Greear rightly looks first to the needs of his own local church family, and that may well explain the relaxed style with which he writes. As the book is more widely read, however, the style grates somewhat. It simply felt a little too gimmicky, and proved a source of frustration for this reviewer. This was only heightened by the clear American context of much of the book. Throwaway comments on personality types and Enneagrams (65) were just one example of cultural markers that are simply not as widespread or accessible this side of the Atlantic.
Three bigger question marks stood out for this reviewer, one specific comment and two pervasive themes.
In the chapter on why God doesn’t answer my prayers, Greear discusses “the greatest “unanswered” prayer in history” (57). This is, says Greear, Luke 22:42, where Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me.”
Greear quotes the verse and comments: “All three times Jesus was met with complete and utter silence. An angel came to strengthen him (v43), but the agony was not removed and the plan was not changed (v44, 47-48)… the Father turned his face away.” (57) Greear labels this prayer an ‘unanswered’ one, dismisses the attendance of the angel, and seems to suggest the point of God’s turning away from His Son was not the cross but the refusal to answer this prayer. At best this is sloppy writing, and Greear is simply unclear in suggesting that this is often labelled an unanswered prayer in error. But that would feel an overly generous reading. It is unclear what Greear means with this, other than to suggest that God the Father truly had abandoned Jesus in the Garden.
Not only does this overlook the attendance of the angel as an answer (yes – MY will will be done and I will fortify you for it) but there is also a deeper problem here. If you suggest that Jesus’ prayer to the Father went unanswered, then you are questioning whether Jesus can truly perform as both our perfect mediator and our true High Priest. The picture of Jesus we are so wonderfully shown in Hebrews becomes a fractured image if we see Jesus’ prayers to His Father unanswered anywhere but the Cross itself. For me this section was deeply unclear, and potentially dangerous if dwelt on and developed.
Two bigger issues frame the work. The first is that Greear at times equates his own tastes with the truth. So often in this book he helpfully and rightly submits to Scripture, but at times he seems to wrongly elevate his own thoughts to the level of black and white dos and don’ts. One such example is found in a list of what he labels “dirty laundry… don’t do’s” for Christian prayer in chapter four (87). He urges Christians ban the word “just” from their prayer. I get the irritation but such a complaint reads as a little condescending. He also lays into the phrase ‘travelling mercies’, calling it a “meaningless phrase” and sarcastically dismantling its use (“What are those? Do they activate the moment I walk out the door, or only when I start my car? If I need, and can have, some special mercy while I’m travelling, shouldn’t I have some “staying mercies,” too?” 88.) It may be that Greear doesn’t like this phrase, but such denigration of it seems unnecessary and rude. I was at a church meeting recently where a missionary couple to a very troubled African nation were describing an imminent trip out there. They asked for prayer for travelling mercies; the situation with both Covid and the trouble in that nation meant this was an earnest request, which faithful brothers and sisters then prayed diligently for. I understand the need to push gently back against using stock phrases when we pray – we are, as Greear rightly points out, speaking to our Heavenly Father! But this needless attack on particular phrases that Greear dislikes was uncomfortable to read, and in many cases, unkind to a number of faithful saints who earnestly pray along these lines in matters they know and understand.
The second issue is that little in this work feels fresh. The points Greear makes are largely made elsewhere, and even the anecdotes and illustrations are ones that repeatedly feature in sermons and other books. I want to be clear – I am NOT accusing Greear of plagiarism, he does not (as far as I know) copy any other author or speaker, it is simply that what he says is not new. New is not always good, faithful is best, and it is certainly a faithful book. But the main points of the book feel like restated truth, rather than contributions to a wider understanding of the joy of prayer.
Despite these comments, it is the final point that actually gives the book its greatest value for commendation. Little about the book is new or fresh, but Greear says things in a different way. His colloquial style didn’t appeal to this reviewer, but I can recognise that many readers are not like me! Each reader is different, and where some may find the style of Paul Miller (who supplies the foreword for Greear) on prayer to be somewhat heavier, Greear is more informal and accessible. As such, I would suggest this book to those who want an easy read on the subject of prayer, but one that will not dumb down the subject matter. Greear is simply more conversational in how things are presented.
Nonetheless, I struggled with some of the broader (and finer) questions mentioned above, and so would like to offer a few other suggestions of excellent books on prayer I have read in recent years, as well as a link to Just Ask.
Just Ask is available from The Good Book Company.
Prayer by John Onwuchekwa is a great book for thinking about our prayer lives and their relationship with our local church. My review is here.
Paul Miller’s A Praying Life is a great book, and recommended repeatedly by Greear. It’s available from many sellers (this link takes you to Eden bookshop.)
A thorough review Ed! One thing I’ve observed is the use of the word dangerous- it appears to be used a lot… is this a stock phrase (even though only a word) meaning simply stay away from or do you mean, avoid at all costs? If so why? Where’s the harm in ruminating on what he suggests about Gethsemane? Perhaps I should know, but I don’t! Rich
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Hey Rich, nice to hear from you! You make a valid point, and ‘dangerous’ can come to be a bit of an all-encompassing phrase. I suppose my concern here would be the theological implications of a Christ whose prayers go unanswered beyond the cross. the danger I’m referring too is sowing doubt over the effectiveness of Christ as an intercessor or mediator. I’m sure that is not what Greear means at all, but it’s not hard to read that section and head down that rabbit hole. Hope that sort of makes sense!