Book Review: Before God, by Mike Sarkissian
It struck me, this week, that if you really want a litmus test of true saintliness, it won't do to look for sacrificial acts of charity, passion-filled preaching or writing, frenetic occupation with ministry-related works and endeavors, success in filling churches, sending out missionaries, becoming a â€œpop starâ€ in the world of Evangelicalism. If you want a litmus test of true saintliness, all you really have to know about is a person's prayer life. There is no truer sign of a genuine, humbled, God-loving follower of Christ than one who, whether in public or private, cannot refrain from pouring out his soul to God continually, because he knows his sinfulness and inability for anything good, yes â€“ but he also knows God as a Father and Jesus Christ as a faithful and sympathetic High Priest. That was one of many things that struck me while I was reading Mike Sarkissian's book, Before God: The Biblical Doctrine of Prayer; and I would strongly encourage anyone else to give it a careful reading.
The subject matter of the book makes it thoroughly practical, from cover-to-cover; and the way in which the subject matter is approached is commensurate with its importance. Prayer is coming to God on his own terms, at his invitation, in accordance with who he is, what he has done for us, and what he invites and commands us to do. From page one, Sarkissian's work is suffused with that perspective. Before he says a word about prayer, he spends some vital time discussing authority â€“ and comes to the conclusion that it is only God's Word to us that provides any basis for what we believe or how we approach him. If we really want to pray, we must ask with the disciples, â€œLord, teach us to prayâ€. This is such a foundational point to make, for if we approach God in any other way, then it won't matter what or how we pray after that. God cannot be approached on our terms; and that is the first and non-negotiable lesson of prayer.
It is upon this firm foundation that Sarkissian builds his book; and fittingly, he undertakes to do nothing but explain what God himself, through his infallible word, has taught us about prayer. In this, he has done a tremendous job of giving a comprehensive overview of the complex treatment the scriptures give of prayer. A significant portion of the book is spent in a helpful and practical exposition of the Lord's Prayer, which is good; but he does not just account for Jesus' teaching on the nature of prayer, he also gives some time explaining his own example of a prayerful life, from his wilderness devotions to Gethsemane, as well as the foundational necessity of his intercessory and mediatory prayer for all the saints. Finally, he brings together the biblical witness to a whole plexus of related questions, touching on everything from posture in prayer to the questions of fasting and laying on hands, with many other such questions in between. Through it all, his writing remains characterized by three things: commitment to the scriptures alone as the ultimate authority to answer any of our questions; emphasis on simple explanation and practical application; and warm devotion.
I don't think Mike Sarkissian would take offense (or even contradict me) if I say that this book is not primarily valuable because he is a great scholar or expert in his field; he has been humble enough to recognize the valuable works of many saints and scholars before him, and has been more than ready to stand on their shoulders. The book is filled with quotes and information gleaned from dozens of well-selected sources, including Reformation greats such as John Calvin, many of the Puritans, and modern conservative scholars. This serves to make the book a treasure house of helpful information, from trusted sources, on a vital topic.
And really, Sarkissian just seems a down-to-earth guy with a pastoral heart and a love for Christ. Which is so much the better if you also happen to be a down-to-earth Christian who loves the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and desires to grow into a more intimate fellowship with him. If you're of that sort (as I am), then I'm confident this book will help you.