Timothy Keller (and a lot of Eugene Peterson), in his book ‘Prayer’:
Eugene Peterson reminds us that ‘language is spoken into us; we learn language only as we are spoken to. We are plunged at birth into a sea of language… Then slowly syllable by syllable we acquire the capacity to answer: mama, papa, bottle, blanket, yes, no. Not one of these words was a first word… All speech is answering speech. We were all spoken to before we spoke.’
It is therefore essential to the practice of prayer to recognise what Peterson calls the ‘overwhelming previousness of God’s speech to our prayers’. This theological principle has practical consequences. It means that our prayers should arise out of immersion in the Scripture. We should ‘plunge ourselves into the sea’ of God’s language, the Bible. We should listen, study, think, reflect, and ponder the Scriptures until there is an answering response in our hearts and minds. It may be one of shame or of joy or of confusion or of appeal — but that response to God’s speech is then truly prayer and should be given to God.
(…) Without immersion in God’s words, our prayers may not be merely limited and shallow but also untethered from reality. We may be responding not to the real God but to what we wish God and life to be like… Without prayer that answers the God of the Bible, we will only be talking to ourselves. Peterson has put this very bluntly,
‘Left to ourselves, we will pray to some god who speaks what we like hearing, or to the part of God we manage to understand. But what is critical is that we speak to the God who speaks to us, and to everything that He speaks to us… There is a difference between praying to an unknown God whom we hope to discover in our praying, and praying to a known God, revealed through Israel and Jesus Christ, who speaks our language. In the first, we indulge our appetite for religious fulfilment; in the second we practice obedient faith. The first is a lot more fun, the second is a lot more important. What is essential in prayer is not that we learn to express ourselves, but that we learn to answer God.’
Learning the vocabulary and grammar of faith and God. Love that.