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Book Review: “Praying the Bible” by Donald S. Whitney

I'm reading Donald Whitney's book Praying the Bible for the second time. My current church in Winchester, Kentucky, is going through one chapter of the book weekly as part of our Wednesday night prayer meeting service. It seems a good time to update and post the review I originally wrote for my previous website.

First, some background…

There are several spiritual disciplines that Christians encourage. Dr. Whitney has a book on that subject as well. Prayer and Bible study are among the most practiced and encouraged. While no day goes by without me engaging in some degree of prayer and Bible study, I sensed in 2015 that of all the spiritual disciplines, prayer was where I was most lacking. I prayed daily but knew I needed more, both in quality and quantity.

At the time, I lived in Louisville, Kentucky, and my church there announced that Dr. Whitney would lead a weekend conference on praying the Bible at our church in January 2016. I was immediately interested. It was also good timing because I had recently finished my latest reading of the Bible and was interested in choosing a different method for my next reading. So, I purchased Dr. Whitney’s book, read it over a couple of evenings, and immediately put its teachings into practice. Two weeks later was the conference led by Dr. Whitney, which greatly reinforced the learning and provided a shared experience with others on the practice.

Dr. Don Whitney is a Professor of Biblical Spirituality at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the founder and president of The Center for Biblical Spirituality. He travels nearly every weekend speaking and holding conferences on praying the bible, scripture meditation, and biblical spirituality. He is a godly man, a great communicator, and a person who longs for the people of God to experience God more closely in their daily lives. His writing and teaching demonstrate that passion.

Praying the Bible is a small, 106-page book easily digested in a few hours. The concept is simple, but the impact of practicing what it teaches can be profound.

Dr. Whitney begins the book by stating the problem many Christians have with prayer: they don’t enjoy prayer as much as they wish they did, leading to not praying as much as they think they should or want. Numerous times in the book and during the conference, he reiterated that we tend to pray the same old things about the same old things, so we get bored and don’t spend much time doing what bores us. Assuming that the person has the Holy Spirit living inside, Dr. Whitney proposes that the problem may not be the person but the unsatisfying method of prayer. Therefore, a different approach – praying the Bible – can solve the problem.

Any solution to this problem must be simple because it must work for all Christians of all cultures and backgrounds worldwide. What is the answer? “When you pray, pray through a passage of Scripture, particularly a psalm” (p. 27). How do you do that? Go through a Scripture passage line by line and stop whenever a word or phrase stands out or a thought comes to mind that you can turn into a prayer to God. Take God’s word and turn it back to him as a prayer. When you’ve prayed all that comes to mind about a line, verse, or passage, read some more and then stop to pray whenever a thought comes to mind that can be expressed to God as a prayer. Keep doing that until you run out of Biblical text or out of time.

The purpose of praying the Bible is not to study the Bible and intellectually understand its meaning. The goal is not biblical interpretation. This practice focuses on prayer but uses God’s Word as the starting point to focus on what God has already said. It helps us avoid distractions most of us have experienced many times praying. It provides a biblical vocabulary and basis for what God’s Spirit will then bring to mind for us to pray back to him. How many verses or passages you get through in a session doesn't matter. You keep going until you run out of passage, or you run out of time. Then you stop.

The process is straightforward and profound.

Dr. Whitney encourages praying through one psalm daily and provides a simple method of determining which psalms to consider. The technique exposes you monthly to all 150 psalms. Psalms are especially suited for prayer, but all Scripture can be used this way since it is all God’s Word and can be turned Godward in prayer anytime.

Praying the Bible contains plenty of samples of what one might pray while reading various Bible passages from Psalms and other genres. The chapter “The Most Important Part of This Book” encourages the reader to stop and do it rather than keep reading. This was the practice during the conference when Dr. Whitney asked us to be present for the first 10 minutes after a break because it would be the most important part of the conference. We paused to choose a psalm and privately prayed through it during this time. Our shared experience mimicked the testimonies discussed in the book. Dr. Whitney could have told us what our many reactions would be before we practiced it at the conference because he hears the same reactions everywhere he teaches the method. He shares these common reactions in the book.

One of the key takeaways from the book, conference, and my experience of praying the Bible is stated briefly in the book: “if you have the Bible and the Holy Spirit, you have all the equipment necessary to profit satisfyingly from the Word of God and to experience a meaningful prayer life” (pp. 72-73). The book contains other informative teachings about people who have prayed the Bible with tremendous spiritual results and even explains how Jesus must have prayed the Bible. It gives suggestions for praying the Bible with a group and alone.

To apply the lessons from the book and conference, I spent two years (2016-2017) praying through the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. My desire was for the experience and not to force a condensed time frame on reading the Bible as I have in previous readings over much shorter timeframes. It was a remarkable two-year, prayerful journey through all of God's Word. Through this experience and method, I learned several things:

  • I prayed about many more topics, situations, and concerns than ever would have come to mind or made it to a prayer list without using this method.

  • Some passages require a lot of time in prayer, meaning I may only pray through a partial chapter in a full hour. Other times, passages may not provoke many prayers, and I’ll keep reading and praying, perhaps through multiple chapters in an hour.

  • The void I felt in 2015 regarding my prayer life vanished. This was a wonderfully satisfying time of communion and conversation with God daily.

  • I still want to pray about the same old things, and it’s OK to do so because they are the concerns of my heart, and my loving God cares about them.

Remembering my usual prayer concerns through a method that is never the same from one day to the next is exciting and different and satisfies me far more than my previous prayer habits. I’ve read the Bible 30+ times, but I’d never prayed through it until this experience. This may be the most meaningful journey through God’s Word in my life to date. He speaks to me through his Word; I can turn those words back to him in my heart's prayers. What could be more meaningful?

If you've never read Whitney’s short book, Praying the Bible, I encourage you to do so. You can finish it in one or two evenings. Then practice what it says. You may discover that your prayer life elevates to a deeper, more meaningful level than before. You may also wonder, “How is it that I’ve been a Christian for so long, and this is the first time I’m hearing of this?”

While you’re at it, check out Whitney’s website and follow him on Facebook and Twitter. If you can, attend one of his conferences or take his seminary class on the subject.

May God bless you in your path of following and communicating daily with God in prayer.

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