One of the Christian world's most thoughtful writers offers a fresh take on an ancient spiritual practice.
Many of your books have been about how Christians feel the burden of spiritual practice. Is that what many people feel about prayer?
I've written quite openly about what I call the toxic church I grew up in. I developed a very strong scent for propaganda. I tend to start a topic like this with a bit of a cynical edge. What if God doesn't answer our prayers? I wanted to take the time to truly pose the hard questions. I think people who go into Christian stores see a lot of books that promise answers, but they haven't experienced those answers. In my books, maybe they find someone who honors the problem.
Which writers most influenced your thinking about prayer?
No Protestants come to mind, to be honest. So much I've learned about prayer, I've learned from the Catholics. One book I discovered was by Mark Thibodeaux, called Armchair Mystic. Of course, if you want to go deeper, there's Thomas Merton.
One unusual feature of this book is that you include sidebars from many people from all walks of life about their experiences with prayer. Why?
I started listening to the prayers in my own church, and they seemed very transactional. One method was to inform God of something he didn't already know, or else to talk God into doing something that God was probably reluctant to do. Both of those ideas start with a pretty small idea of God. But a lot of evangelical Protestantism is that "help me fix up my life" mentality, and our prayers reflect that. My own perception has changed to "What has God already done in the world? What does God want done in the world? And how can I be part of that?"
As the Christian book market grows, it's increasingly rare for authors to stay put, but you've done most of your books with Zondervan over the past 30 years.
Most of the books where there have been bids—and I've only used an agent for four books out of 20—I haven't gone with the highest bidder. The strengths of staying with one publisher are many. With this book coming out, Zondervan is also re-covering four other of my books, and they'll do four more next year. They have the incentive to keep the accumulated backlist going. Where Is God When It Hurts? is selling almost as many copies this year as 10 or 20 years ago.
What's your next project?
For the first time in my life, I have no clue. There's a tour for this book in the U.K. in September, and then a 10-city tour in the U.S. Then we'll see.