In one sense, prayer is the simplest thing in the world. People have been talking to God from the beginning, without instruction and without method. We have praised Him, cursed Him, begged Him, and bargained with Him. We tell Him to send the rains, heal the sick, give us jobs, prove He exists, and explain Himself. We do this naturally, artlessly, because we feel like it. There is nothing complicated about such prayer.
The Bible, however, speaks of prayer in ways that are far from simple. The Lord’s Prayer, that model of brevity, has generated enough commentaries to fill libraries, and for good reason. Jesus and the other biblical authors saw prayer as more than just talking to God; prayer is an expression, a reflection, of our hearts. In the Bible, admonitions to pray are really admonitions to embrace the truth: about God, our neighbor, our world, ourselves. Do we know our real problem? Do we know who can fix it? Do we know what is truly valuable and worth having? If we do, then our prayers will reflect this.
The prayers of the apostle Paul are a wonderful example of Christian maturity expressed through prayer. In most of the letters he wrote, Paul included a prayer for his readers. Paul’s prayers are touching, profound, eloquent, and loving; in addition, however, they are a guide to us in our own journey of faith. Paul’s heart was fixed on the essential things, things which are true and important and indispensable. Paul’s prayers, then, become a mirror in which we can examine ourselves, asking whether our concerns are anywhere close to Paul’s.
In what follows I haven’t the space or inclination to make interpretive arguments concerning these passages. I want to paint with a broad brush, reminding us of the great truths contained in the prayers of Paul.
THE EYES OF YOUR HEART
We who follow Jesus call ourselves “believers”; one of the striking things about Paul’s prayers is his fervent desire that believers would believe, deeply and truly.
Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus; that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ… Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:5-6, 13)
Paul asks the God who gives perseverance, encouragement, and hope to impart these great gifts to His people. Several important ideas emerge from Paul’s prayer:
1) There is joy to be found as a Christian, but it is joy “in believing.” We rejoice because we believe God’s promises, in spite of the difficulties we may experience today. Ours is not the joy that arises from easy circumstances; ours is the joy that arises from an unshakable hope. It is the opposite of despair.
2) Paul’s basic concern in Romans 14 and 15 is that Christians accept each other, in spite of their differences. His teaching is not merely ethical, however; he is not just saying, “Be nice to each other.” As Paul sees it, Christian unity arises out of a deep and profound belief planted in each individual heart. For us to be of one mind, each of us must first have our minds turned in the same way, the right way. As each of us comes to embrace the gospel, putting the full weight of our hopes on the promises of God, we will come to see each other differently. You and I are on the same journey, with the same glorious destination. Whatever may divide us, if we have truly invested our lives in the gospel, then we are in this together. As we come to know the truth, we come to know each other as comrades in belief.
3) Therefore Paul prays that God would deepen our faith so that we might rejoice in the truth together. Clearly and unambiguously, Paul lays the responsibility for producing such joy at the feet of God Himself. He prays “that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” God Himself clears our minds to believe in His coming kingdom of righteousness: He strengthens us to persevere in our belief; He comforts and encourages through our belief. Belief, encouragement, perseverance, hope; these represent our great need in this life, and Paul knows that only God can give them.
I cannot tell you how encouraging this is to me. Despair is an enemy I have battled many times, and I have absolutely no confidence in my ability to win that war. Paul’s prayer tells me that the battle is not mine to win. In the midst of my struggles, it is God who will strengthen and encourage me. That joyful hope then becomes the bond which joins me to others with that same hope. Many Christians today are obsessed with miraculous healings, miraculous wealth, miraculous laughter, miraculous fainting spells. Well, here is a true miracle: blind, self-centered people like us coming to believe the truth and loving each other because of it.
One of the greatest of all Paul’s prayers is found in Ephesians:
…making mention of you in my prayers; that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe… (Ephesians 1:16-19)
Of all the phrases Paul ever wrote, this one phrase resonates with me like almost nothing else: “that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened.” That is exactly what I want: the eyes of my heart to be enlightened. It is not enough to hear the gospel and say, “OK, I’ll buy that.” I want to see it for the hope that it is. I want to understand that my inheritance is rich beyond measure. I want to know in my heart how great is the powerful hand reaching down to save me. I want to see past the difficulties of today to the joy of an eternal life of righteousness. This is what I want; this is what I sometimes fear I cannot do; this is what God can and will do for me. Paul knows God will do this for a believer; that is why he prays for it.
Later in Ephesians is another equally compelling prayer:
…that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man; so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:16-19)
Life in this age can be tough, painful, and tiring. It is easy for us to lose sight of the central fact of our existence: that God in Christ is saving us with a love so deep that we cannot find its limits. At times we may feel parched and dry for lack of the knowledge of God’s love; Paul is praying that we would be dragged into its depths and drenched in it. Not just that we would “feel” loved; such feelings come and go. Paul wants us to know how deeply God loves us so that we can stand firm in the face of today’s discouragement.
In the gospel we have the story of a profound hope and a profound love. Believing that story ought to capture our imaginations and thrill our hearts. But the gospel is fighting a battle for our minds against the distractions of this world and the dullness of our hearing. Paul is praying that the power of God would break past all barriers, bringing light into our darkness and hope into our hopelessness.
WORTHY OF YOUR CALLING
A deep and true belief in the gospel builds perseverance and joy into our lives, but it does more. Embracing the gospel leads to wisdom. Granted, all of us, including believers, are sinners, and we demonstrate this fact with depressing regularity. True Christian belief, however, imparts a wisdom which has a profound effect on the moral direction of our lives. The gospel, after all, is all about sin and righteousness: my sin; God’s righteousness; God’s promise to forgive my sin and make me righteous. Believing the gospel helps us to get our heads screwed on straight, so that we can tell the good from the bad, the morally beautiful from the morally ugly. Paul often prays that his readers would grow into such wisdom.
And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ; having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. (Philippians 1:9-11)
…we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience; joyously giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints of light. (Colossians 1:9-12)
To this end also we pray for you always that our God may count you worthy of your calling and fulfill every desire for goodness and the work of faith with power; in order that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in Him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ. (II Thessalonians 1:11-12)
Paul has no illusions that any of us will live morally perfect lives. He does, however, believe that God can and will give His people wisdom; we can come to understand the value of mercy and goodness; we can come to be patient with each other in our failures; we can come to long for righteousness and to pursue it as a great good; we can learn gratitude for the promise that one day God will completely erase all sin from our lives. God is in the business of imparting such wisdom to His people; that is why Paul asks Him so often to do it.
Although there is some question whether Paul wrote the book of Hebrews, its concluding prayer could easily have been written by Paul:
Now the God of peace, who brought up from the dead the great Shepherd of the sheep through the blood of the eternal covenant, Jesus our Lord, equip you in every good thing to do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. (Hebrews 13:20-21)
God has a way which He wants us to go, a way which pleases Him. Unfortunately for us, it is a way we could never find on our own. God’s grace is so big that it reaches out and weaves into our lives all the good things God wants to find there. Wisdom, maturity, a love of goodness; we desperately need these things. We can join Paul in calling out confidently for them, because God can and will provide them.
I have been a Christian for a lot of years, and I have heard a lot of prayers: in churches and in Bible studies; on television and radio; everywhere. Praying is one of those non-negotiable parts of modern Christian culture. And yet I have heard very few prayers that sound much like Paul’s. I don’t mean I expect anyone to match his eloquence and understanding; I just mean a prayer that is concerned with the same issues that concern Paul. Too often we seem to have our hearts fixed on almost anything else. We want health and wealth and success and miracles and church growth and prayer in schools and a conservative president and a job and a good life for our children and…and…
There is nothing wrong with any of these things, but they can be incredibly distracting from the main issue. You and I are on a life-and- death journey to the kingdom of God. We must grow in faith, be strengthened to persevere, find hope and joy in believing, hunger and thirst after righteousness, live as if the gospel were really true. If we do not, then we will languish and droop; we will fall by the wayside. Belief, encouragement, perseverance, hope, wisdom; these are not optional side-benefits for a certain class of Christian; they are the very stuff of Christianity itself. If we do not find that strength and encouragement which is from God, then we have found nothing at all; we are lost.
God is the source of all strength, all encouragement, all joy. In the middle of a life filled with assaults from all sides, what more important thing can we do than cry out to God for the strength to believe? What more loving thing can we do for each other than to ask God to open all our eyes, strengthen all our hearts? Paul got it right; he knew very well what the churches truly needed. May God have mercy on us and let us see; may our prayers show that we know our true need and know the only One who can meet it.