How do we pray?

In his book, A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers, D. A. Carson observes, “One of the foundational steps in knowing God, and one of the basic demonstrations that we do know God, is prayer—spiritual, persistent, biblically minded prayer. . . . We have learned to organize, build institutions, publish books, insert ourselves into the media, develop evangelistic strategies, and administer discipleship programs, but we have forgotten how to pray” (p.16).

Unfortunately Carson’s assessment is all too true. Christian churches, particularly in the West, are full of believers with anemic prayer lives. Part of the reason we struggle with prayer is that we don’t know what to pray for. We find that our minds wander and we stumble through the same clichéd refrains. Jesus’ own disciples perhaps struggled in similar ways, for they asked Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). Note how Jesus begins his exemplary prayer: “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. . .” (11:2). Jesus is first concerned with God’s glory, not with the temporal circumstances of this life. To see a similar lack of emphasis on temporal circumstances we can turn to one of Paul’s prayers,

“We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. 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 growing—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. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf and has made known to us your love in the Spirit. And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col 1:1-14).

1. We should pray with a thankful spirit

Paul says it rather plainly: “We always thank God . . . when we pray for you” (v. 3). Elsewhere he instructs the Philippians, “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil 4:6). Even when Paul is prepared to exhort churches and rebuke believers for sin, he begins with thanksgiving to God for them (1 Cor 1:4).

Looking at our own lives, are we more apt to criticize others or to pray for them? Is our first thought, “Why did John do that?” or “Father, thank you for the work of grace you are doing in John’s life.” Is our first word to a friend, “Susan you won’t believe what Mary said the other day . . . ,” or “Susan I’m so thankful for you friendship—would you pray with me that God would help us to love others more, particularly those who frustrate us?” In Colossians 1, it is after Paul thanks God for the Colossians’ faith and love that he moves on to supplication for them (notice the “and so” of v. 9).

2. We should pray with a broad vision

Paul tells the Colossians that he always thanks God for them ever since he heard of their faith in Christ (1:3-4). Again in 1:9 he says “from the day he heard we have not ceased to pray for you . . . .” Apparently Paul did not personally know the Colossian Christians. Rather, their faith in Christ had been reported to him. Yet despite the fact that they were not in one sense his children in the faith as other congregations were (e.g., 1 Thess 2:7), he still cared deeply for them and regularly prayed for them.

How often do you pray for those you don’t know? If you’re like me, you tend to want to pray exclusively for people in your own family and your own close friends. But such a narrow vision doesn’t square up to what we find in Scripture. Life is about God; it’s not primarily about our own individual lives and petty concerns. God is doing a mighty work of redemption in the world, and our prayers should reflect that fact.

Begin with your own church. Do you pray regularly for those in your own church that you might not know particularly well, if at all? One helpful way to correct such short-sightedness is to pray through a page of your church’s membership directory every day (if such a directory is available). Now consider other churches in your city—do you pray that God would bless them and cause the face of Christ to shine on them, and that they too would experience fruitfulness? Publications like Operation World and Voice of the Martyrs are very helpful in informing believers about what is going on all over the world, particularly frontier missions. If we aren’t careful, “our prayers may be an index of how small and self-centered our world is” (Carson, Spiritual Reformation, 98).

3. We should pray with redemptive concerns on our hearts

Paul thanks God for the Colossians, not that their physical health is okay but that they have faith in Christ and love for all the saints. In other words, they have embraced the gospel of Jesus Christ and that gospel is bearing spiritual fruit in their lives. They are redeemed children of God whose lives bear the marks of redemption. In case there was any doubt of this emphasis Paul goes on to say explicitly that the gospel has come and is bearing fruit (v. 6). This gospel entrance leads Paul to his supplications for the Colossians.

Paul prays that the Colossians would be filled with a knowledge of God’s will (v. 9). Often when Christians today here the phrase “God’s will,” their minds immediately jump to circumstantial questions—who should I marry, where should I work, or where should I live? But to be quite honest, these types of concerns don’t appear to be at the center of Paul’s heart for the Colossians. Normally in Scripture the concept of the “will of God” refers either to God’s sovereign control over all things (Eph 1:11; Col 1:1) or his moral desires for our lives, his commands (1 Thess 4:3; 5:18). In v. 9 the latter emphasis is perhaps more in view since Paul goes on to pray that the Colossians would bear spiritual fruit and increase in good works (vv. 10-11). However, it is important to remember that without God’s sovereign grace at work in our lives we would never obey him. God has ordained that we should walk in good works (Eph 2:10).

We should pray for the lost that they would be converted to Christ, but we should also pray for the redeemed, that their lives would bear more and more the true marks of redemption. And notice that in this prayer Paul does not mention any special concerns he has about the Colossians. He doesn’t enumerate a list of heinous sins. The Colossians appear to be doing rather well spiritually, and yet Paul prays that they would continue to grow. We are prone to praying for the desperate cases, trying to use the garden hose of our prayers to run from one fire to the next. But Paul reminds us that blooming flowers continue to need water—even spiritually vibrant believers need prayer.

Paul concludes his prayer by reminding the Colossians that they have redemption in Christ (v. 14). Ultimately we pray with a view to God’s glory. God is the one who receives thanks, not the Colossians. He redeems us; we don’t redeem ourselves. Believers are strengthened with God’s power—he is the one who breaks the reign of sin and enables people to bear fruit for him. Since God’s glorious gospel is bearing fruit (v. 6), the believer in the gospel will (super)naturally be bearing fruit (v. 10).

If we are truly people of the Word, we must continue to let the Word shape our prayers.

Micah McCormick is assistant pastor at New Hyde Park Baptist Church in New York.