Monday, March 14

Prayer: A Few Thoughts on Prayer

If you've been reading here for a long time, and you think this seems familiar to you, that's because it's a shameless reeditted reposting of something I first posted last spring. Reading the last paragraph in this piece was a bit humbling. If you must know--and I suppose it's only right that I let you in on this--right now I am probably more of a failure at doing the three things listed than I was a year ago.

Have you noticed that in the beginning of many of the epistles he writes, Paul has a little section like this one from the first chapter of Philippians?
I thank my God every time I remember you. I always pray with joy in my every prayer for you all because of your participation in the gospel from the first day until now. For I am sure of this very thing, that the one who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. For it is right for me to think this about all of you, because I have you in my heart, since both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel all of you became partners in God's grace together with me. For God is my witness that I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus. And I pray this, that your love may abound even more and more in knowledge and every kind of insight so that you can decide what is best, and thus be sincere and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God. (Philippians 1:3-11 NET)
Paul tells the Philippian believers that they are included in his prayers, but he doesn't stop there. He goes on to tell them that his prayers include both thanks for certain things about them and requests made on their behalf.

In the case of the Philippians, Paul is thankful for their participation in the gospel. He is probably refering specifically to their willingness to give sacrificially to support Paul when he was in need, both now on the occasion of Paul's imprisonment, and previously when Paul had been in need during his missionary work (See chapter 4:10-19). He is also thankful that God began His work in them, that He is continuing that work, and that He would keep on working in them.

Then Paul goes on to tell the Philippians what specific petitions he is making on their behalf. He prays that God will cause their love will grow in discernment, so that they can learn to choose the best things, and in that way be pure and without offense. Paul prays that God will fill them with the good qualities that are produced through association with Christ. As we learn later in the book, despite their faithful support of Paul in the his trailblazing work with the gospel, the Philippians seem to have had a bit of a problem maintaining the right attitude toward their fellow church members, and this may be part of what Paul is addressing in these particular requests he makes for them.

Notice that Paul does three things: he prays for the Philippians, he tells them that he prays for them, and he tells them what he is praying for them. Since I first studied this book several years ago, I've tried to follow the example of Paul in this regard, although I haven't always been as successful at this as I'd like.

We all know we ought to pray for the other believers we know and love, and that responding to our prayers on behalf of others is one of the ways God works in people's lives, but sometimes we forget to tell those for whom we are praying that they are included in our prayers. When we forget to let people know we are praying for them, they miss the joy that comes from knowing that there are other prayers, in addition to their own thanks and petitions, that are reaching God's ears on their behalf.

The part of Paul's example in these verses that we are least likely to follow, it seems, is telling those we pray for what sorts of things we are praying in regards to them. Yet telling those for whom we pray what specific thanks and requests we make can be a true help to them. Knowing what things about us others are thankful for lets us know something about the areas in which our walk with God is more successful. It also tells us something about the talents and gifts that we have been given. Knowing what petitions are made by others for us lets us know what needs they see. This gives us confidence that God will be working to meet these needs, and may also help us see the areas in our lives that we ought to concentrate on as we "work out our salvation".

As those of you who read here regularly know, my family has been through difficult times in the past few years. You don't know what it meant to hear from people we knew only slightly, or even not at all, who would say or write, "We are praying for you. So is my prayer group at my church." It meant that even when I couldn't muster a prayer, I knew God was still hearing prayers made for us. It meant that we always felt cared for, even when things were at their lowest.

This is one of the areas I'm trying to work on in my own prayer life, because I know from the example of scripture and my own experience how important these three things are: praying for others in their struggles, letting them know we are praying for them, and letting them know what things we are praying concerning them.

[Read Kim's post The Prayer of Examen. And no, that's not a typo.]

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