Prayer With A Purpose.

But we pray to God that you may not do wrong—not that we may appear to have met the test, but that you may do what is right, though we may seem to have failed. For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth. For we are glad when we are weak and you are strong. Your restoration is what we pray for. – 2 Corinthians 13:7-9 ESV

The apostle Paul was always having to defend his apostleship. There was no shortage of individuals who would question his authority and criticize his claim to be speaking on behalf of Christ. But while Paul was not shy in defending himself, his greater concern was for the spiritual well-being of those who had come to faith in Christ through his preaching and teaching. Since his own salvation experience on the road to Damascus, Paul had dedicated his life to spreading the good news about Jesus Christ to both Jews and Gentiles. He traveled near and far to make known the gospel message and to see lives transformed by the saving power of Jesus Christ. And if he had to suffer in the meantime, he was more than ready. But he was not willing for anyone to question his authority or discount his message, because he had received his commission from Jesus Christ Himself.

In this, his second letter to the church in Corinth, Paul finds himself defending his apostleship once again. He writes, “you seek proof that Christ is speaking in me” (2 Corinthians 13:3 ESV). But the greatest proof of Paul’s claim to being a spokesman for Jesus Christ was the very power evident in their midst that had made possible their transformation. “He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful among you” (2 Corinthians 13:3 ESV). Lives were being changed. Hearts had been transformed. The message of new life in Christ had taken root and born fruit. But while Paul was away and absent from their midst, he prayed. He prayed with a purpose. He was asking God to produce fruit in the lives of the believers in Corinth. In other words, he was asking to see the byproduct of practical sanctification in their lives – as a form of proof of their salvation. Their faith in Christ should have been producing fruit. And it was for this that he prayed. “But we pray to God that you may not do wrong…” The presence and power of Christ within them, in the form of the Holy Spirit, should have been producing in them a growing desire to do what was right and to turn away from doing what was wrong. Living in the power of the Holy Spirit should have been producing holiness, obedience, and acts of righteousness. Paul told them that “your restoration is what we pray for.” The Greek word Paul used was katartisis and it means “a strengthening, perfecting of the soul.” It comes from root word that has to do with restoration or repair. It means to “make one what he ought to be.” Paul was praying that the believers in Corinth would be experiencing the transforming, restorative power of Jesus Christ in their lives. That power would be ample proof of Paul’s status as a messenger of Jesus.

Paul wanted to see lives changed. He wanted to see the power of God released in the lives of those who had come to faith in Jesus Christ, His Son. He desired to see those who had accepted Jesus as their Savior radically restored to a right relationship with God with lives that reflected their newly restored natures. Salvation is a wonderful thing, but it is just the beginning. Sanctification is an essential byproduct of a new relationship with Christ. Growth in Christ-likeness should accompany the presence of His Spirit within us. Paul prayed for proof of that presence. He wanted to see lives transformed. He wanted to see evidence of the saving power of Jesus Christ. Jesus had died, not just to make it possible for us to one day spend eternity with Him in heaven, but to radically reform our lives here on earth. And it was to that end that Paul prayed.

But do we pray for transformed lives? Do we long to see believers living radically different lives right here, right now? Or do we pray more for physical healing than holiness? Do we pray for freedom from trials more than we pray for a display of Christ’s righteousness in the midst of them? Are we so busy asking God to make our lives easier that we fail to recognize that Christ died to make our lives more righteous? Paul prayed for life change, not circumstantial change. He prayed for holiness and righteousness. He wanted to see the power of the presence of God lived out in the everyday lives of the people of God. In his first letter to the believers in Corinth, he had reminded them of just how far they had come since accepting Christ. “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11 ESV). God had  transformed them from what they once were to something new and radically different. But His work was not done yet. He was still in the process of changing them from the inside out. And it was to that end that Paul prayed. So should we.

God Has A Purpose.

I cry out to God Most High, to God who fulfills his purpose for me. – Psalm 57:2 ESV

David is hiding in a cave. He is running from a madman who also happens to be the king of Israel. Saul has an unhealthy dislike for David, fueled by jealousy and fear. As a result, he has placed a bounty on David’s head, sending 3,000 mercenaries to hunt him down and bring him back dead or alive.

That’s the scenario in which we find David as he writes this Psalm and expresses his desire for God to show him mercy. This had to have been a confusing time for David. He had been anointed by the prophet Nathan and told he would be the next king of Israel. But instead of sitting on a throne in Jerusalem, he was hiding in a cave in the wilderness of Judea, running for his life from the very man he was supposed to be replacing. Yet David knew that God had a plan for his life and while his circumstances were less than ideal and didn’t exactly make sense, he was going to trust God. So he cried out, “Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, till the storms of destruction pass by. I cry out to God Most High…” (1 Samuel 57:1-2 ESV). And why did he cry out to God? Because he knew that, ultimately, God would fulfill His purpose for him. He would be king one day – according to God’s plan and in keeping with God’s divine schedule. In the meantime, he was going to have to trust God to keep him alive. If God had promised to make him king, then he was going to take God at His word and wait for Him to fulfill His promise according to His schedule.

David was confident in God, which is why he could say, “He will send from heaven and save me; he will put to shame him who tramples on me. God will send out his steadfast love and his faithfulness!” (1 Samuel 57:3 ESV). While waiting on God’s fulfillment of His promise, David was content to enjoy God’s love and faithfulness. Becoming king was the ultimate outcome of God’s word to David, but any delay in that happening was NOT to be viewed as an indication of a lack of love on God’s part. The fact that David was having to run for his life, suffer the anxiety of knowing he was a wanted man, and never knowing when God would fulfill His promise, was NOT to be seen as a lack of God’s faithfulness. But isn’t that where we go when things don’t go our way? Don’t we naturally assume God has fallen out of love with us when times get tough? Aren’t we prone to doubt God’s faithfulness when our circumstances take a turn for the worse? Yet David was willing to wait and trust. He was content to rest in the love and faithfulness of God and see any delays as just a part of God’s divine plan for fulfilling the purpose for his life.

Twice in this psalm David praises God by saying, “Be exalted, O God, above the heavens! Let your glory be over all the earth!” (Psalm 57:5 ESV). While his situation was anything but ideal, he knew that God was still in control. He was in heaven. He was in charge. He knew what He was doing. And God could be trusted no matter what David might see going around him. Which is why he could say, “My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast!” (Psalm 57:7 ESV). It was the exalted nature of God that gave David confidence and steadfastness in the midst of difficulty. His God was bigger than his problems. His God was more powerful than his enemies. His God was able to fulfill His promise regardless of the dire nature of David’s circumstances.

God has a purpose for my life. He has a purpose for your life. We can’t judge what God is doing based on what we see happening around us. Difficulty in our lives is not necessarily an indication of God’s disfavor or it should never be viewed as a sign of God’s unfaithfulness. He knows how the story ends. We don’t. He has a purpose that He is fulfilling according to His will and perfect keeping with His agenda. We can trust Him. Our greatest desire should be that He be exalted in and through our lives. We should want to see Him lifted up as He reaches down and fulfills His purpose for us right on schedule and according to plan. And in the meantime, we should put our trust in Him. We can look up, cry out to and wait on Him, because He will fulfill His purpose for us.

Seek and Find.

Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the Lord… – Jeremiah 29:12-14 ESV

These verses contain a promise of God made to the people of Judah who were living as exiles in the land of Babylon. It was part of a message sent by God in the form of a letter written by Jeremiah the prophet. God had given the nation of Judah into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, just as He had said He would. Now He was giving them instructions on how to conduct their lives while there. God told them, “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease” (Jeremiah 29:5-6 ESV). In other words, they were to prepare for a lengthy stay and make the most of it by living their lives as normally as possible. He also instructed them to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7 ESV). Rather than pouting and moaning, whining or complaining, they were to build, plant, marry, multiply, and pray for the welfare of their new community. This was going to be their new home for the next 70 years. And they needed to see their circumstances as divinely ordained by God. He had put them there and He wanted them to accept their situation as having come from His hand. They weren’t to listen to anyone who might show up claiming to be speaking for God and giving them false hope or alternative instructions. Their stay was going to last 70 years because that is exactly what God had said. “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place” (Jeremiah 29:10 ESV).

So often, we let our circumstances determine our view of God. We look around us and decide that whatever it is we are going through could not be God’s will for our lives, so we begin to doubt and despair. We start to look for alternative solutions to our situation and novel ways to escape whatever predicament in which we find ourselves. We stop looking for God in the midst of the problem, and start seeking Him outside of it – on the other side of it. We fail to realize that He is there. We lose sight of the fact that He has us right where He wants us. God told the people of Judah living in exile, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11 ESV). God always has a plan. Our problem, in our limitations as human beings, is that we can’t see God’s plans for our lives. We don’t always know what He is doing or why. So we panic. We despair. We get antsy and start trying to figure out a escape plan, never realizing that the problem we are trying to get away from is actually part of His plan.

It is interesting to note that our verses for today follow God’s promise of restoration at the end of 70 years of captivity. It says, “Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me…” After seven decades of living as exiles in Babylon; building homes, having babies, raising their families, planting crops, settling down and wondering if God was ever going to hear their prayers, suddenly He would answer. All throughout their time in captivity, the people of Judah would have been praying for restoration. They would have been asking God to forgive them, to hear their cries for help and to restore them to the land. But for 70 years, it wold appear that God was not listening. It would seem as if God had abandoned them. But He tells them then – at just the right time – He will do what He has promised to do. Not sooner or later, but then. God’s timing is perfect. He plan is perfect. He knows what He is doing whether we understand it or even like it. We can trust Him. We are to seek Him continually and consistently. And He promises that we will find Him. God told the people of Judah that when the 70 years was up, “I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile” (Jeremiah 29:14 ESV).

A big part of seeking God is not just to get what we think we need, but to discover His will regarding our life. It is to see His plan even in the midst of our problems. It is to learn to trust Him even when our problems appear greater than His presence. God is there. He has a plan. And if we persist in praying, seeking, waiting, and trusting, the day will come when He reveals Himself, His plan, His power, and His divine solution to our problem – at just the right time. Keep seeking and you will find.

Non-Prejudiced Praying.

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. – 1 Timothy 2:1-4 ESV

Who do you pray for? Better yet, who do you NOT pray for? The answer to that second question will reveal a lot about our prayer life, but also about our faith in God. We know that Jesus told us to pray for our enemies. Most of us have a hard enough time with that one. Then Paul comes along and tells us that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people. Then, just so we don’t misunderstand him, he gives us a few examples: kings and all who are in high places. When Paul says “all people” he is not saying every single individual. But he is referring to all types of people – saved and unsaved, good and bad, rich and poor, undeserving and deserving, even politicians. Why did Paul bring up kings and those who are in places of authority over us? He provides the answer. “That we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” There is a direct benefit to praying for those who rule and reign over us. God has placed them there. Paul had a unique, but very godly, perspective about governmental authorities. “The authorities are God’s servants, sent for your good. But if you are doing wrong, of course you should be afraid, for they have the power to punish you. They are God’s servants, sent for the very purpose of punishing those who do what is wrong” (Romans 13:4 NLT). Peter shared his views. “For the Lord’s sake, respect all human authority—whether the king as head of state, or the officials he has appointed. For the king has sent them to punish those who do wrong and to honor those who do right” (1 Peter 2:13-14 NLT). Our prayers for those in authority over us should be based on an understanding that God has instituted civil government. They are there to help maintain order and punish wrong-doers. But that does not mean that all governments are good and that all politicians do what is right. We know there are corrupt administrations all over the world. But that is why we should pray. They ultimately answer to God, so we should appeal to him that they would rule rightly and justly. So that we can live godly lives in peace and tranquility. For those of us living in the United States, we do enjoy a remarkable degree of civic peace and the ability to practice our faith without censor or persecution. That is not the case in many places around the world. So we should pray that God will keep our government and its leaders morally right and ethically pure. We should pray for their salvation, not just their replacement. We should ask God to use them to accomplish His will. 

But their is an interesting aspect to Paul’s admonition that we might easily miss. We are to pray so that we might live peaceful and quiet lives, godly and dignified in every way. In other words, our prayers for all men are not so that we can enjoy the kind of lives we want to live, but the kind of lives God has called us to live. The goal of our prayers is that we might have an atmosphere in which we can practice godliness in peace and tranquility, free from persecution and the danger of physical harm as a result of our faith. We all know that there are plenty of places around the world where Christians are being forced to live out their faith in the midst of great danger and the potential for severe persecution at the hands of the civil authorities. They do not enjoy peace and tranquility. For them, living godly and dignified lives can lead to physical harm, financial loss and even death.

So we are to pray. We are to pray for all men. That includes prayer for our neighbors, coworkers, bosses, governmental leaders, school board, police force, firemen, teachers – the list is endless. But we tend to be highly selective in our prayer lives. We pray for those we know best and like the most. We neglect the unlovely, undeserving, and unfamiliar. We practice a form of prayer prejudice, conveniently reserving our petitions for those whom we deem worthy of our time and attention. But Paul would have us realize that to pray for all men is something that is pleasing to God. Why? Because God desires that all men come to a saving knowledge of His Son. This would seem to indicate that our prayers for all men should include a desire that they come to faith in Christ. Which is only logical when you consider that the answer to every problem facing mankind is a right relationship with God made possible only through acceptance of Jesus Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross. If we want righteous and just leadership in this country, we need to pray that those in authority come to faith in Christ. If we want to see our nation morally revived, it will only happen if men and women come to know Jesus Christ as their Savior and experience the life-transforming power made possible through His indwelling Holy Spirit. The answer to the world’s problems is not better government, but godly government, and that will only take place when we have godly people serving in places of authority.

So we need to pray. For all men. Not just some. We need to pray for their salvation. We need to ask God to sovereignly move in the lives of those who rule over us. So that we might enjoy an atmosphere of civic peace and tranquility, and so that we might be able to live godly lives without fear of persecution. Our goal is not to be our own personal ease and comfort, but the spread of the gospel. We should pray for an atmosphere in which the gospel can be preached unapologetically and unhindered. At this point, we still enjoy a certain amount of freedom here in the United States. But that could change in a heartbeat. We are already seeing increased animosity toward Christianity at the highest levels. And it could get worse. So we must pray. For all men. All the time. Without prejudice.

Prayer Pauses.

But despite Jesus’ instructions, the report of his power spread even faster, and vast crowds came to hear him preach and to be healed of their diseases. But Jesus often withdrew to the wilderness for prayer. – Luke 5:15-16 ESV

We live busy, non-stop, distraction-filled lives. We fill every second of every day with activity, much of it good, necessary and, to a certain degree, unavoidable. But the problem is that we tend to crowd out prayer. We leave little time for one of the greatest necessities of life – communication with God. Because of our busy schedules and crowded agendas, we end up giving God the dregs of our day. We attempt to pray as we fall asleep at night, exhausted and brain weary. Or we lift up a quick prayer in the morning between our third cup of coffee and checking our email. Busyness can end up being one of the greatest detriments to a healthy prayer life. So what are we to do? We can’t just eliminate all our commitments. We can’t quit our jobs, abandon our children, renege on our responsibilities or love to a monastery.

But we could follow Jesus’ example. He was busy. He knew what it was like to have a full agenda and the pull of a busy schedule. Yet He always found time to get alone with His Father. Luke says he “often withdrew to the wilderness to pray.” The Greek word Luke used means “to retire quietly, to go back.” Jesus would get away from the pressure, the noise, and the demands on his life. He would “go back” or return to what He needed: time alone with His heavenly Father. I like to think of it as Jesus stopping His activity in order to recharge His battery. He went back to the source of power and energy for His life. He stopped giving long enough to get what He so desperately needed: the comfort, guidance, love and soul-satisfying presence of God. Jesus spent virtually every waking moment of every day giving Himself away to people. He taught, healed, discipled, debated, and ministered to countless people. He walked great distances. He answered countless questions from His disciples. He fended off accusations from the Pharisees. He felt stress. He grew tired. He knew what it was like to reach the end of the day and to feel like He had nothing left to give. So He got away. He returned to the one place where He could what He so desperately needed. He went to His Father’s side in prayer.

Prayer for Jesus was not a ritual to be performed or a spiritual discipline to be mastered. It was a non-negotiable necessity for living life as a human being on this planet. It was a joy and a welcome respite from the pressures of everyday life. He longed to get away in prayer. He looked forward to it. It was not something He squeezed into His crowded schedule reluctantly or begrudgingly. Prayer wasn’t a hassle to Jesus. It was the highlight of His day. Which is why He often spent all night in prayer. Like a visit with a long-lost friend, Jesus lost track of time when He talked with His Father. Their conversations would go well into the night and when the sun came up, it would find them still going strong. In his gospel account, John gives us a glimpse into what those conversations were like. In chapter 17 he records the prayer Jesus prayed just hours before His betrayal, arrest and trials. It reveals the intimacy and intensity that characterized Jesus’ prayer life. His prayers were passionate and personal. They were anything but ritualistic, repetitive, and rote. His prayers came from His heart and illustrate His deep love for and dependence upon His Father. Jesus got alone to pray because He knew that what He needed was unavailable anywhere else. He needed His Father to hear Him, guide Him, encourage Him, strengthen Him, love Him, and reassure Him of the unshakable nature of His divine plan. Prayer for Jesus was like the calm before the storm. He knew what was coming. He also knew He needed time alone with His Father if He was going to accomplish what was required of Him in the hours ahead. For Jesus, prayer was the pause that refreshes. It recharged, renewed, and reinvigorated His commitment to His Father’s will for His life. Prayer was a way of returning to the reality of who He was and the purpose for His presence on earth.

Sometimes we can lose sight of why we’re on this planet. We can begin to believe our busyness defines who we are and dictates our very purpose for living. But time alone with God will refocus our attention on the eternal instead of the temporal. It is in prayer that we are reminded that there is more to this life than meetings, car pools, appointments, accomplishments and energy-draining activities. We are eternal creatures created to have a relationship with God. We have souls that require sustenance that can’t be found anywhere but in time spent with God. Sleep may restore our bodies, but our souls need the spiritual recharging available only from our heavenly Father. Like Jesus, we need to set aside time to get alone with God. We need to reconnect, recharge and reestablish our relationship with the one who made us and who alone can sustain us. So why not take time today for a prayer pause? You won’t regret it.

Praying Like Jesus.

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. – Hebrews 5:7 ESV

Sometimes I think we resent having to pray. We see it as some kind of a burden or task we have to perform in order to get God’s attention and have Him do for us the things He ought to do without us having to ask. If we were honest we would have to admit that we get a little tired of having to go to God and ask Him for things. We end up doing so begrudgingly and somewhat doubtfully. Our fervor ends up being a bit weak and our expectations are usually low.

But look at Jesus. He prayed. He prayed a lot. And His prayers were anything but resentful, reluctant or filled with doubt. The writer of Hebrews tells us the prayers of Jesus were accompanied with loud cries and tears. He was passionate and emotional when He prayed. Jesus was anything but indifferent about His prayer life. He took it seriously and practiced it regularly – with intensity, expectancy, and a reverence for the one to whom He was praying. In fact, we’re told that “God heard his prayers because of his deep reverence for God” (Hebrews 5:7 NLT). Jesus didn’t come to God with a flippant, I-have-my-rights kind of an attitude. He was reverent and respectful, refusing to let His position as the Son of God diminish His humility and dependence upon God. Paul writes concerning Jesus, that “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:7-8 ESV). Jesus wasn’t presumptuous. While He was 100 percent God, He was also 100 percent human, and in “the days of his flesh” He lived with complete dependence upon His heavenly Father. He was submissive, reliant, and always willing to accept His Father’s will for His life, because He trusted Him. The writer of Hebrews goes on to say, “Even though Jesus was God’s Son, he learned obedience from the things he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8 NLT). Even Jesus learned to be obedient, to do what His Father asked, even though His humanity desired to avoid the pain, suffering and humiliation.

“While Jesus was here on earth, he offered prayers and pleadings, with a loud cry and tears, to the one who could rescue him from death” (Hebrews 5:7 NLT). One of the things we fail to recognize when considering Jesus’ earthly ministry is His humanity. We almost view Jesus with a Greek mentality, seeing Him as some kind of a God masquerading as a man – as if He was simply wearing some kind of a man suit, like a child wearing a costume for Halloween. But Jesus became flesh. He took on humanity. He didn’t just pretend to be a man, He was one. He was born. He grew up. He ate, grew hungry, suffered pain, required sleep, had feelings, could bleed, and even die. And He prayed – regularly, passionately, expectantly, willingly, emotionally, and submissively. He didn’t take anything for granted. He didn’t act like a spoiled, privileged rich kid who demanded His own way or thought of Himself too good to pray. Prayer for Jesus was His lifeline to God. He was separated from His Father by His humanity. He had left His rightful place in heaven and taken on human flesh. He had taken on the limitations of humanity and was no longer able to sit in His Father’s presence, enjoying His fellowship. Prayer was how Jesus reconnected with His Father. It was how He communicated His feelings and received much-needed encouragement and love. Like a husband separated from his wife by thousands of miles and months, prayer for Jesus was like a much-anticipated letter, filled with expressions of love and encouragement. Jesus needed to hear from His Father. He was facing unbelievable difficulty and He knew that, ultimately, He would be required to die an excruciating death. Which is why the author of Hebrews says Jesus offered His prayers “to him who was able to save him from death.” Jesus knew that His life was in God’s hands. His future was completely dependent upon God. So when Jesus prayed, He was coming to the one who was asking Him to suffer and die, but also the one who was going to raise Him from the dead. Jesus brought His temporary needs to the one who had an eternal plan for His life.

Sometimes our expectations of God are so small. We come so reluctantly and doubtfully. We don’t expect much from God. But Jesus saw His Father as the one who was going to save Him from death. Jesus knew that His life was going to be difficult. He realized that there were going to be days filled with rejection, ridicule, pain and suffering. But He had a long-term, future-oriented perspective. He knew that His job was to die a sacrificial, substitutionary death on behalf of mankind. It was God’s job to raise Him back to life. And in the meantime, He would keep going back to His Father for strength, encouragement, love, and guidance. He would be passionate, persistent, and expectant in His prayer life. He would pray about anything and everything. He would pray for hours at a time. He would get alone with God and share His innermost thoughts. He would listen. He would hear. He would walk away encouraged. And He would trust that His life was in good hands and His future was secure because His Father loved Him.

Paul reminds us, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Romans 8:11 NLT). Our Father is going to raise us to newness of life one day as well. We can trust Him. We can rest in Him. And in the meantime, we can talk to Him. We can bring Him our troubles, trials, doubts, fears, hurts, heartaches, and need for encouragement. He is listening. And He longs to hear from us.

Struggling In Prayer.

Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God. – Colossians 4:12 ESV

We all struggle with prayer at times. It comes with the territory. Prayer can be hard. But the kind of struggle we’re going to talk about in this blog is something a bit different than finding prayer hard to do. The word Paul uses in the Greek is agōnizomai and you can see that it is where we get our English words agony and agonize. In Paul’s day it was a word typically used when referring to someone entered into gymnastic games. It had to do with competition, contending, fighting, or laboring against an opponent of difficulty. It also carried the meaning “to endeavour with strenuous zeal.” So when Paul said Epaphras was “always struggling” in his prayers on behalf of the believers in Colosse, he wasn’t inferring that Epaphras had a hard time praying. He meant that this young man’s prayer life was marked by agonizing effort and energetic zeal. Paul had evidently seen and heard him pray. He had been an eye-witness to the determination and dedication behind the prayers of Epaphras. I have a feeling his prayers were much more than just “Lord, would you bless the people in Colosse.” He didn’t just ask God to be with them and watch over them. Paul says that the overriding theme of his prayers was that they would “stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God.”

Epaphras was a Greek who had become a follower of Jesus Christ and had played a significant role in helping to establish the church in Colosse. “Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing—as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth, just as you learned it from Epaphras our beloved fellow servant” (Colossians 1:5-7 ESV). Epaphras had a vested interest in the health of the church in Colosse. He wanted it to thrive. So he prayed for “God to make you strong and perfect, fully confident that you are following the whole will of God” (NLT). His was not just a short, sweet prayer offered on a one-time basis, but an ongoing, persevering petition that was accompanied by an intense desire to see God answer. Epaphras wanted to see them mature in their faith and grow in their knowledge of God’s will for them. It is essentially the same prayer Paul prayed for them at the very beginning of his letter. “So we have not stopped praying for you since we first heard about you. We ask God to give you complete knowledge of his will and to give you spiritual wisdom and understanding” (Colossians 1:9 NLT). And Paul gave the end result that would accompany God’s answer to his prayer: “Then the way you live will always honor and please the Lord, and your lives will produce every kind of good fruit. All the while, you will grow as you learn to know God better and better” (Colossians 1:10 NLT).

Paul and Epaphras both knew what the believers in Colosse needed. They needed more of God. They needed God to mature them by revealing His will to them. They desperately needed to know what God wanted them to know and do. With that knowledge and the Holy Spirit’s help, they would have what they needed to live lives that honored and pleased God.

Do we agonize and labor prayerfully for that to happen among the believers with whom we worship and serve? Do we go to the mat with God, pleading that He will reveal His will to our loved ones and friends, asking that He make them strong and perfect? Are we concerned enough for the spiritual maturity that we pray fervently and repeatedly that they know and follow the whole will of God? For Epaphras, praying for his friends in Colosse was a labor of love. He did it gladly. He did it tirelessly. Because he was not going to be content until he saw God’s answer in the form of lives that pleased and honored Him. We could stand to struggle a bit more in our prayer lives. Not with prayer itself, but in the content and focus of our prayers. We should so desire what God desires, that we are not content until we see His will done in the lives of those we love. God’s desire for each of His children is their growth in Christ-likeness. He wants to see them mature. He wants to see them living within His will. We should want the same thing. And we should not stop praying for it until we see God’s answer appear in transformed lives that bring glory and honor to Him.

That Hardest Prayer to Pray.

But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. – Luke 6:27-28 ESV

These two verses are included in Luke’s account of the Sermon on the Mount. They are the words of Jesus Himself and with the rest of His sermon that day, contain His teachings concerning true righteousness. Jesus was presenting a higher standard of righteousness than was being practiced in His day. He was raising the bar, so to speak. He was letting the people know that the righteousness required for inclusion in God’s Kingdom was much more demanding than they had ever suspected. Luke gives a shorter version of Jesus’ sermon because he was writing primarily to a Gentile audience and so he removed much of the content having to do with the Mosaic law or legal matters. He was interested in those words of Jesus that had a universal appeal. The two verses above are preceded by four “woes” that are designed to contrast with the beatitudes or blessings given by Jesus. Jesus said, “woe to you who are rich…”, “Woe to you who are full now…”, “Woe to you who laugh now…”, and “Woe to you, when all people speak well of you…” (Luke 6:24-26 ESV). The Greek word that is translated “woe” means “alas” and carries the idea of pity or sorrow. It conveys a sense of sadness regarding those who are under God’s judgment. Those who choose riches, physical pleasure, temporary happiness, or popularity over a relationship with Christ will suffer in the long run. They will enjoy temporary pleasure, but miss out on the eternal rewards made possible through Jesus.

These woes directly precede the verses above. Jesus said, “But I say to you who hear…” He then gives a series of seemingly impossible standards to live by. Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt or abuse you. These words sounded as impossible then as they do now. But they represent the kind of righteousness that God requires. Something far more difficult than had ever been imagined. And only made possible through a relationship with Jesus Christ. In Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount, he records Jesus saying, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20 ESV). For the average Jew in the audience that day, this statement would have sounded implausible and impossible. The scribes and Pharisees were the spiritual elite. They were the religious rock stars of their day. But Jesus was looking for a different kind of righteousness. What He had in mind was not a works-based righteousness based on human effort, but a whole new kind of righteousness made possible by His sacrificial death on the cross.

What Jesus is asking us to do in these verses is impossible. Left to our own devices, we would never be able to love our enemies. We could never muster up enough inner strength to do good to those who hate us or bless those who curse us. And why in the world would we want to pray for those who hurt us? And believe me, Jesus is not suggesting we pray for their destruction. He is telling us to pray God’s blessings on them. Our prayer should be that God does them good even while they are doing us harm. Impossible? You bet. Unless it is done in the righteousness of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. Only believers have the capacity to pray that way – and mean it. But in order to pray God’s blessings on those who are in the process of hurting us, we need to be living in submission to the Spirit of God. We must be relying on His strength and not our own. We must recognize that God’s desire is that we live like Christ, Peter writes regarding Jesus’ actions during His trials and crucifixion: “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:23-24 ESV). The writer of Hebrews tells us, “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (Hebrews 12:3 ESV).

Pray for those who hurt you. That is not our natural response. We want to hurt them back. We want vengeance, retribution, payback. But Jesus came to provide us with a new kind of righteousness, a new way of living in this world. His death provided us with a new capacity to love the unlovely, pray for the undeserving, and to do good to the ungodly. To pray God’s blessings on those who hurt you is to put them in God’s hands and let Him do what He deems best. It is to put your trust in His wisdom and your life in His care, knowing that He can protect you regardless of what others may choose to do to you. Prayer isn’t about getting what you want from God. It is about doing what God wants. It is about living according to His standards and relying upon His power to accomplish His will.

Humble Dependence.

Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and needy. Preserve my life, for I am godly; save your servant, who trusts in you—you are my God. – Psalm 86:1-2 ESV

God doesn’t need me. As great as I may think I am and as many wonderful attributes I believe I may have, the reality is that God can get along quite well without me. He doesn’t need my help. He can survive without my worship. His plan for the world will still take place even if I’m not in the picture. I am a non-essential when it comes to God’s sovereign plan for the universe. Admittedly, that’s a hard concept for some of us to grasp. We want to be important. We desire greatly to be significant in some way. But King David put it succinctly. “…what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:4 ESV). Our only significance comes from the fact that we are created in the image of God. We are His workmanship. It is He who gives us value. As believers, it is our relationship with Jesus Christ that provides us with our worth. As a result of His death on the cross, His righteousness became ours. He took on our sins and condemnation, and His righteousness was imputed to us. Therefore, we have value in God’s eyes. But it is not due to anything we have done. It is “not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:9 ESV)

In his psalm, David comes before God as “poor and needy.” That’s an interesting self-description for the King of Israel to use, since he was one of the wealthiest men alive and had great wealth and power at his disposal. Yet he knew that he was a man in great need – in need of God. He needed God to hear him and answer him. He needed God’s protection and direction. His armies were nothing without God’s leadership. His wealth was insignificant if he didn’t have God’s daily provision of joy, peace, and contentment. He was the warrior-king who had experienced great victories and accomplished amazing feats of bravery. Yet he knew he needed God to prolong and protect his life. He was nothing without God.

Which is why David called out to God. “Be gracious to me, O Lord, for to you do I cry all the day. Gladden the soul of your servant, for to you, O Lord, do I lift up my soul” (Psalm 86:3-4 ESV). He needed God’s grace. He depended upon God for joy. He was totally reliant upon God for inner strength and moral fortitude. David knew his weaknesses. He knew he was sin-prone and self-centered. He knew he was fully capable of not only disobeying God, but dishonoring Him as well. David asked God to save him; not just from his enemies, but from himself. Like all of us, he could be his own worst enemy. His sin nature could wreak havoc on his relationship with God. So he humbly came to God for help, for hope, and for His mercy and favor.

David goes on to ask something from God. “Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name” (Psalm 86:11 ESV). He knew he needed God’s help in order to live his life according to God’s truth. He couldn’t do it on his own. He was incapable of learning what he needed to know, so he asked God to teach him. He even asked God to work on his heart so that he might fear Him. The NET Bible translates that verses this way: “Make me wholeheartedly committed to you!The New Living Translation gives it a slightly different twist. “Grant me purity of heart, so that I may honor you.” He needed God to literally “bind” his heart so that he would live in a way that honors God. David was familiar with the words of Jeremiah. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9 ESV). So even his heart needed God’s help in order to stay united, faithful, true and wholeheartedly committed to God’s cause.

A healthy awareness of our neediness and spiritual poverty apart from God is missing from many of our lives. We have developed an arrogance and attitude of deservedness that somehow makes us believe God is somehow obligated to love us and bless us. David knew better. He recognized the fact that he was completely dependent upon God for all that he had and needed God’s help in every area of his life. Humble dependence is a necessity for the child of God. It reveals our complete reliance upon God for everything. In the old hymn, Rock of Ages, there is a line that expresses the attitude we should hold. It says,…

Nothing in my hand I bring,
simply to the cross I cling;
naked, come to thee for dress;
helpless, look to thee for grace;
foul, I to the fountain fly;
wash me, Savior, or I die.

Humble dependence. We are needy and poor. We are naked and helpless. But when we bring our need to God, we find grace, mercy, help, hope, healing, power, forgiveness, acceptance, and the love of a holy Father who sees us as His own child.

Worthy of Praise.

Blessed be God, because he has not rejected my prayer or removed his steadfast love from me! – Psalm 66:20 ESV

Have you ever stopped to consider the unbelievable reality that God hears your prayers? Not only does He hear them, He answers them. Maybe not in the way you would like or were expecting, and perhaps not on the schedule you were hoping for, but He always answers. But the even more amazing fact is that God hears our prayers to begin with. Think about that. Why should He? What have we done to deserve the attention of the holy, righteous, sinless God who created the entire universe. He is the one who made us and yet we have returned the gift of His creation with sin, rejection of His authority, indifference to His Word, and a constant love for creation instead of the Creator. So why does He listen? Because for those of us who are in Christ, He sees us as righteous because of the sacrificial blood of His Son. God no longer sees us as rebellious sinners, but as saints, sons and daughters. We are His children and, as a good Father, He listens to our calls for help, our pleas for direction, and our cries for mercy. The psalmist praised God because his prayers had not been rejected. He praised the fact that God was still in love with him in spite of him. He was able to say, “But truly God has listened; he has attended to the voice of my prayer” (Psalm 66:19 ESV). 

The sad fact is that we take that reality for granted. God listens to our prayers and the unbelievable nature of that thought doesn’t even seem to register with us. God chooses to hear me when I call out to Him. Not because I deserve it, but because His Son has paid the price for my sins so that I can come into the very presence of God the Father with no fear of condemnation or rejection. He hears me and He listens to me as His child. He loves me and answers me like a loving Father would one of His children. And I take it for granted. So do you. We have given God plenty of good reasons to reject our prayers and ample cause for Him to fall out of love with us. But He continues to hear and listen to us. He continues to love us unconditionally and unwaveringly. So why don’t we praise Him more? David did. He got it. He appreciated God’s love and the fact that He heard his prayers. Read the following words of David and ask yourself when was the last time you felt the same way.

Let all that I am praise the Lord;
    with my whole heart, I will praise his holy name.
Let all that I am praise the Lord;
    may I never forget the good things he does for me.
He forgives all my sins
    and heals all my diseases.
He redeems me from death
    and crowns me with love and tender mercies.
He fills my life with good things. – Psalm 103:1-5 NLT

God hears you. He answers you. He loves you. So why doesn’t that amaze you? Why doesn’t that produce an attitude of gratitude and praise in you? If you’re anything like me, it is probably because we don’t pray and truly believe He hears us or answers us. Or it could be that we pray and then fail to recognize His answers when they come. David said, “He fills my life with good things.” We have lost the sense of God’s goodness in our lives. We no longer see all the good things that He is doing in our lives every day. Instead, we have boiled down the proof of His activity in our lives to the list of things we ask of Him and expect Him to deliver. We are like a child who wants a new bike, but fails to appreciate the bed in which he sleeps, the food he eats, the clothes he wears, and the room full of toys he already enjoys. We want and demand more from God, while failing to appreciate and show gratitude for all He has already done. God is worthy of our praise – all the time. The very fact that He hears us when we pray and loves us even when we sin, should amaze and astound us. It should produce in us an overwhelming sense of thankfulness. Our attitude should be that of David. “Shout for joy to God, all the earth; sing the glory of his name; give to him glorious praise! Say to God, ‘How awesome are your deeds!’” (Psalm 66:1-3 NLT). Praise Him. Not because of what you are waiting for Him to do for you, but for the very fact that He loves you enough to hear you when you call. Praise Him for all He has already done. Praise Him because He provided His own son as a sacrifice for your sins and has made it possible for you to enjoy a relationship with Him, free from fear and condemnation. He is worthy of our praise. So let us praise Him. Shout for joy to the Lord. Sing His praises. Let Him know just how grateful you are that He hears you and loves you.