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If you were to ask me, of course I would say that it matters that we pray for one another. The Scriptures are filled with examples where we see prayer as one means of God bringing blessing and grace into the lives of others. I don’t deny that. It’s just that when it comes right down to it my praying is often pretty anemic.

It’s easy to slip into just praying generically for others. A “please be with him” or “please watch over her” kind of prayer that, although no doubt sincere, is hardly circumspect. I neither think much about what the real needs are nor about what, specifically, God could or might do that would have real impact in the life of that loved one. But I tend to feel better that I pray . . . sadly living as if that was the primary purpose of praying on behalf of others.

And then I bump up against Paul’s short reminisce about his prayer for his friend, Philemon.

I pray that the fellowship of your faith may become effective through the knowledge of every good thing which is in you for Christ’s sake. (Philemon 6)

I think I probably just skipped over this sentence when I first read it. Yes, Paul prayed for his friend. I pray for my friends. Good idea. Got it. But then I paused long enough to notice what Paul prayed.

He is talking about Philemon’s “fellowship of faith.” The word “fellowship” refers to “having in common” or “sharing with.” This phrase possibly could be understood in two ways: 1) the participation that Philemon has in the truths of the Gospel, seeing “faith” as referring to the common doctrine that undergirds the Christian’s life; or 2)  the sharing in common life with those who also share in the faith Philemon has in Jesus. Although these two aren’t necessarily contrary to one another, the nuance is a bit different. With the mention in verse 5 and in verse 7 of Philemon’s love for the saints, I think Paul probably has in mind the latter–Philemon’s “fellowship of faith” refers to his ongoing shared life of love for those who have embraced the same Savior as he has.

And Paul prays that this fellowship “may become effective.” That’s a fascinating request. This word is found only here in the New Testament, although the root concept is found elsewhere. “Effective” is the word that would have been used to describe a field that had been properly plowed and sown and was producing crop or of a mill that was properly functioning in the grinding of grain. So Paul’s prayer is not just that Philemon would be “in fellowship” with others, but that this fellowship would be helpful, effective, “working well.”

There is one more fascinating dimension to Paul’s prayer. He has asked, on behalf of Philemon, that the Lord make Philemon’s shared life of faith fruitful and functional “through the knowledge of every good thing which is in you for Christ’s sake.” Apparently, Paul believes that for Philemon to life well in fellowship with other believers he will need to be grounded in understanding what Jesus has done and is doing in his own life–and Paul prays that Philemon would understand that. The language Paul uses reflects a request for Philemon to genuinely and experientially grasp all the good now in him through faith. And Paul wants Philemon to grasp that all that good in him is “for Christ’s sake”–that is to put on display the glory of Jesus Christ, to make Jesus Christ look good, for the spread of Christ’s fame.

Taken as a whole, this simple sentence reflecting on Paul’s prayer puts my praying to shame. My many words on behalf of others don’t often enough enter into this kind of thoughtful and strategic intercession.

I wonder how God might move in the lives of those I love if I began to pray things like:

I ask, Lord, that you would work in my friend’s life so that the life she shares with others because of their common faith in Jesus would become more and more vibrant and sustaining and encouraging. And that you would bring this about through awakening in the heart of my friend a deep understanding of the radical change you have wrought in her to produce real good, something  substantially G0d-reflecting in her. All of this–what she comes to more fully know and the life that she increasingly effectively lives into with other–so that Jesus Christ’s fame might spread and that His reputation might increase. Amen.

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Paul’s short letter to Philemon is hardly the most theologically challenging or practically provocative of all of his letters. Yet it is part of the inspired New Testament canon–and that means there is something for us in this personal note penned by the apostle to a friend.

Having greeted his friend in a warm and humble way, Paul does what is common in letter of the day–he offers a prayer. Although this is typical of letters of the day, we still gain a glimpse into the soul of the writer through what he writes.

I thank my God always, making mention of you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints; and I pray that the fellowship of your faith may become effective through the knowledge of every good thing which is in you for Christ’s sake. (Philemon 4-6)

Reading this, I got caught up short. I was thinking about what I am thankful for–the things for which I give God thanks. It’s pretty obvious. I thank God for the blessings he bestows directly and specifically on me. I thank Him for the tangible graces that have come into my life . . . when I do thank Him.

In these few verses Paul reiterates his thankfulness. And, apparently, he isn’t thanking the Lord for some personal benefit or blessing. He thanks the Lord for what he hears about what God is doing in Philemon. He is attentive to what God is doing and the benefit that accrues to Philemon. And he is thankful for that.

He follows this up with a prayer. And again I come up a bit short. All too often my praying has my own life and my needs and my potential benefits in store. But Paul affirms that what he is praying is for Philemon’s good and growth. And Paul’s prayer is not a superficial “Lord, please be with Philemon” generic kind of prayer. He prays a thoughtful, strategic kind of prayer. (Take a look at the things Paul prays for others he writes to in the opening of his other epistles to get a feel for this “thoughtful, strategic” praying.)

So much in so few words! Although Paul is not teaching about prayer in these few verses, just reading his words provoke me to think about how I pray for others. And I want to start . . .

Being thankful what God is doing in and through the lives of others whether it has any direct impact on me.

Asking God to do strategic and spiritually significant things in the lives of others rather than simply offer perfunctory, shallow prayers.

 

Last night, in exchanges with a friend, we touched on some life issues he was having to face. Like all of us, there are family and relationship and work and church issues. We shared in broad terms about the concerns and his feelings. And I affirmed I would be praying.

And then it came home to me. When I thought about “praying for him” I really was only thinking in broad terms. And that is often how I pray. Someone shares a concern, shares some need, and I pray generic kinds of prayer: “Lord, please be with my friend. Please, help my friend.”

I wouldn’t suggest that such prayers are without some value. Anytime we talk with the Lord about another, I think it matters. But when I stop and think about prayer, I wonder if the reason I see so little significant answers to prayer is because I so often pray such generic, shallow kinds of prayers.

When Simon Peter was going to be facing trouble at the time of Jesus’ arrest and betrayal, Jesus told Peter that he had prayed for him.

“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:31-32)

Jesus had thought well about what Peter would be facing. He asked something more specific than “Father, please be with Peter” (something that would already have been true and certain). He had a particular outcome in mind. Jesus didn’t pray a generic kind of prayer for his friend in need.

When the community of believers in Jerusalem was confronted with their first real trouble with the religious authorities, they gathered for prayer. They prayed:

“And now, Lord, take note of their threats, and grant that your bond-servants may speak your word with all confidence, while you extend your hand to heal, and signs and wonders take place through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” (Acts 4:29-30)

The church mentioned the threats they had heard. They asked for something more specific than, “Lord, please be with us in this hard time.” They had particular things in mind that they longed to see happen in response to their prayers. They didn’t pray a generic, casual kind of prayer.

So all this nudges me to ask my friend for more details–not because I am nosy but because I want to pray particular petitions. I want to pray specific, not generic. I want to ask Jesus to do some strategic kinds of things . . . and then watch to see what he does.

I was reminded again this past week how easy it is to “remember” a passage of Scripture out of context. That is, to recall a few verses and use them in a way that is not entirely consistent with the context in which they are found. The result is that I can hijack the meaning of that “remembered” passage for my own purpose.

Here’s the text:

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and he who seeks, finds; and to him who knocks, it will be opened.” (Luke 11:9-10)

Jesus is speaking. He is talking about prayer. And I readily “remember” that he is explaining how I can come to the Father in prayer to have my needs met. I just need to ask, seek, and knock and the Father will come through and meet my needs.

Now there is a sense in which that idea–the way I have applied Jesus’ words–may be true. But when I back up and take a look at the context, I am reminded that I may have just hijacked Jesus’ meaning.

Here’s the larger context for these words.

Then [Jesus] said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and goes to him at midnight and says to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine has come to me from a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and from inside he answers and says, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been shut and my children and I are in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will get up and give him as much as he needs. So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and he who seeks, finds; and to him who knocks, it will be opened.” (Luke 11:6-10)

Jesus is talking about prayer–in fact the next larger context includes what we refer to as the Lord’s Prayer. But did you notice how the “ask, seek, and knock” idea is introduced? “So I say to you  . . .” This means that those words are intended to be understood in connection to with what preceded. And what preceded? Making a request on behalf of the needs of someone else.

Here’s where I may have perhaps “mis-remembered” Jesus’ words.

In this context, Jesus’ invitation to “ask, seek, and knock” follows on the heels of his picture of someone beseeching a neighbor with abundant resources (a picture of God) on behalf of a friend who has needs. Prayer pictured in this little parable is about making requests to the one who has resources for someone else, not for oneself.

So, as intent as I am to “ask, seek, and knock” in order to have my prayers answered, I have to wonder if I have grasped Jesus’ intent. Am I asking and seeking and knocking because I am aware of the needs that others have and conscious of God’s intention to supply resources to meet those needs in their lives? Have I hijacked Jesus’ words to turn to prayer selfishly or have I seen prayer as God’s intended means to involve me in the meeting of needs of others?

It’s hard not to approach prayer that way. As if the substance of prayer is my getting my words out, telling the Lord what is on my heart, spiritually “venting” what’s in me to God. I’m not suggesting that there is not a place for that in my praying. Any reading through the Psalms will give substantial support for thinking of prayer as a God-directed cathartic experience. We pour out our hearts to God. So, I’m not suggesting that we stop doing that.

I’m just thinking about what else could or should or might be part of my experience of prayer. I keep thinking how wonderful it is to have moments of prayer that are not just monologue–that prayer might actually be more two-way communication between two individuals. A real dialogue between me and God.

In his short epistle, James calls attention to Elijah who, as a “man with a nature like ours,” prayed and the sky withheld its rain for three-and-a-half years, and then he prayed and the sky poured rain (James 5:17). (That’s how we pray, huh? Ha! I don’t see such answers to my prayers!) So what are we to make of this pray-er? How are we to follow his example?

If you go back to 1 Kings 18, you get in on the story of Elijah’s well-known prayer. When it comes down to praying for rain, Elijah’s on a mountain and sends his servant to see if there is any evidence of rain on the way on the horizon. There is none. And Elijah sends his servant seven times to check. (Personally, I might have hung in there for a round or two of praying and looking, but seven times? Really?) Finally, the rain does come (18:42-45).

What are we to make of this? Did Elijah just wear God down? Did he prevail over the Almighty? Did Elijah’s monologue finally exasperate God so much that the Lord just had to give in? I doubt it.

What leads me to think differently is what we find in 1 Kings 18:1. There God tells Elijah that he is going to send rain. This means that Elijah’s praying on the mountain was part of an ongoing dialogue. Elijah was not trying to get God to listen to him through a prolonged monologue, but Elijah was participating with God through an extended dialogue.

Elijah’s praying was Elijah’s way of joining God in what God wanted to do in light of what the Lord had already communicated to him. Elijah’s effective praying was woven into and flowed out of a dialogue.

I just wonder what kinds of things might happen in the world around us if we approached prayer not so much as a monologue directed at God but a dialogue with God.

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