The Way of the Heart

Reviews of Answering God by Eugene H. Peterson and The Transforming Friendship by James Houston Dallas Willard

Originally published in Christianity Today

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Table of contents

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James Houston. The Transforming Friendship (Oxford: Lion, 1989), 304 pp. $14.95
Eugene H. Peterson. Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1989), 151 pp. $13.95

There are never enough good books on prayer. It is a subject we need help with. We are drawn to it, baffled by it, feel incompetent before it, and excluded from it; we try it (usually “fail”), avoid it, feel guilty about it. But we cannot give it up.

Now two teachers, both widely appreciated for their personal walk in the Spirit and their ability to guide others, explore major themes and approaches to this discipline. Their books will be helpful to those who are committed to incorporating prayer into the substance of their lives.

Heavenly conversations

Eugene Peterson sees prayer as answering the God who has spoken. He would have us learn to answer by taking the Psalms as exemplar of what “answering God” is like. As many Christians throughout the ages have found, “praying the psalms,” speaking them out as our prayers, involves us in a spiritual and personal interchange between God and his people, and bends out whole being to the currents moving there. Though it has a long history, this use of the Psalms has been virtually lost to the Western church for a century or more, along with many other time-tested practices that can be counted on to produce growth in the spirit.

Not only does Peterson teach us about prayer, but he also explains the nature and content of the Books of Psalms. He locates the Psalms and prayer squarely in the midst of unvarnished human existence. What a relief it is when he tells us that “prayer is not particularly ‘nice,’” and goes on to make clear how the genius of “psalm language . . . is its complete disclosure of the human spirit as it makes response to the revealing God.” Narrative, rhythm, metaphor, and liturgy are given separate chapters. They prove to be what we live by, and, hence, to be the substance of the Psalms and of prayer, not mere decorations or subjects of scholarly research.

Perhaps the most helpful chapter is the one on “Enemies.” “The psalmists are angry people” – and so are most of us! But the psalmists help one “to entrust one’s most precious hatreds to God, knowing that they will be taken seriously.” Chapters on the vital functions of remembrance and praise bring the book to a close.

Our heavenly friend

James Houston, who teaches spirituality at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, chooses friendship as the central feature of trinitarian reality, human nature, and salvation, and he argues that Christian prayer must therefore be viewed and practiced in this light. This “apostle of friendship” begins with a section on the desolate condition of “a world in fragments,” and moves in part two to the biblical world of prayer and the role of the Holy Spirit as Transforming Friend.

Part three is the heart of the book, explaining how friendship and prayer characterize our relationship to Jesus Christ and provide insight into the joyous community of the Trinity. (Anyone interested in the nature of the Trinity should study this section.) Finally, in the last section, friendship and prayer are studies in the life of Paul and the history of the church.

The author convincingly shows that “prayer is at the heart of what it means to be human,” that “we need prayer simply to be a person.” At the same time, the friendship-prayer draws us “into the life of the three-in-one God, loving each person individually, and yet knowing their inseparable power.” Trinitarian faith and experience thus is the condition of human fulfillment.

Of all those now writing in English, James Houston surely is the one most knowledgeable of the devotional literature of the church. From this rich heritage, as well as from the Bible and his own deep experience, he inspires and guides us to walk, by prayer, in the love of God, under the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and with the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

Dallas Willard. “The Way of the Heart”: Reviews of Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer by Eugene Peterson and of The Transforming Friendship by James M. Houston. Christianity Today 34, no. 8 (May 14 1990): 60.