Let’s start with the positive in The PAPA Prayer—there is so little to commend it won’t take long. The PAPA Prayer is defined through the acrostic PAPA:
P: Present yourself to God without pretense. Be a real person in the relationship. Tell Him whatever is going on inside you that you can identify.
A: Attend to how you’re thinking of God. Again, no pretending. Ask yourself, “How am I experiencing God right now?” Is He a vending machine, a frowning father, a distant, cold force? Or is He your gloriously strong but intimate Papa?
P: Purge yourself of anything blocking your relationship with God. Put into words whatever makes you uncomfortable or embarrassed when you’re real in your relationship with Him. How are you thinking more about yourself and your satisfaction than about anyone else, including God and His pleasure?
A: Approach God as the “first thing” in your life, as your most valuable treasure, the Person you most want to know. Admit that other people and things really do matter more to you right now, but you long to want God so much that every other good thing in your life becomes a “second-thing” desire.
There is nothing particularly alarming in this definition. In its simplest form The PAPA Prayer is “relational prayer” (p. 10). Prayer should not just be a time of the gimmes; it should be a time of relating to God. While Crabb is correct in this concept, he never develops (barely even mentions) other aspects of prayer such as worship, thanksgiving and confession. His emphasis is that we should first relate to God before we petition God.
With these few relatively bright moments aside, the rest of the book is a mess. Stylistically, it is extremely redundant; the book could have been cut in half and said as much. Most importantly the ideas presented are not in any way drawn from Scripture. Crabb’s experience and imagination is the seed-bed of The PAPA Prayer. What little Scripture Crabb uses is taken out of context or distorted (e.g. pp. 29, 45-51, 111, 116, 119). Probably the most “creative” use of Scripture was tagging on a command by Jesus given to John based on Revelation 1:16-17, “Then the risen Christ placed His right hand on John and spoke. ‘Don’t be afraid. I’m alive and because I’m alive, you’re alive. Advance My kingdom until I return with great power to finish the job’” (p. 118). This last statement is simply not there (maybe Crabb should review Revelation 22:18-19).
Crabb returns to his old psychology stomping grounds (remember, he is a psychologist by training) on a number of occasions, always with disastrous effects (pp. 72, 93, 103, 144-5, and all of chapter 16).
The author also introduces his newer devotion to mysticism a number of times (pp. 123, 146, 149). As a matter of fact, in disguised form he promotes all three stages of classic mysticism: purgation, illumination and union (pp. 146-149). Centering and contemplative prayer is also recommended (pp. 9, 22). Even a little visualization in the form of dancing with God (pp. 19, 107, 163) is evident.
But the heart of the book, and its chief error, is the goal behind the PAPA prayer. The PAPA prayer is a means by which we hear the voice of God—not necessarily audibly, but at least inwardly, “Prayer is more about us hearing God than about His hearing us. We’re the audience” (p. 71). Crabb promises, “PAPA will speak to you [if you follow Crabb’s formula]. He loves a good conversation with His children” (pp. 143-144). This is the carrot that will draw people to the PAPA prayer and is the reoccurring theme throughout (pp. XIV-XVI; 8, 9, 12. 13, 19, 71, 80, 85, 124, 143, 165). But where in Scripture are we taught any such thing? Yes, there were rare occasions in the Word when God spoke to someone while he was praying, but nowhere are we told that this is either the norm or the purpose of prayer. Prayer in the Bible is us speaking to God; it is the Scriptures that speak to us.
The most bizarre example Crabb gives is of God waking him up early in the morning through means of a clanging noise. “The Holy Spirit was telling me to get my tired body out of bed and write this chapter” (pp. 165-186).
Crabb does not find his PAPA prayer in the Bible. It is drawn from experience, mysticism and faulty theology. I would recommend avoiding the book and reading something like D.A. Carson’s A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers.
NOTE: The copy used in this review was an advance reader’s copy and the page numbers may not correspond to the final published book.