Prayer: How to Do the Humanly Impossible

European Leadership Forum | Wisla, Poland


I wonder if your life and your family and your ministry are visibly sustained by prayer. Or to put it another way, I wonder if prayer is the visible engine that constantly calls down the power of God in your life and your family and your ministry. Is prayer manifestly central, or is it peripheral?

The reason prayer is essential to your Christian life and family and ministry is that you exist and your family exists and your ministry exists to do the humanly impossible: magnifying Christ, being supremely satisfied in Christ in life and death, experiencing the unity of love in the cause of the gospel, being fearless before your adversaries, being humble and counting others more significant than yourselves — all of this is humanly impossible.

God has established prayer as the means by which we receive supernatural help. And without supernatural help, we cannot live a life worthy of the gospel. Everything that distinguishes Christians from the world in a Christ-exalting way is a work of God’s supernatural grace. And God has ordained that this grace flows to us through prayer. That’s why prayer must be central, not peripheral to your life and family and ministry.

Visible Prayer Displays Dependence on God

The reason I say it should be the visible engine, not just a private act that nobody in the family or the ministry knows is happening is, first, because the New Testament makes prayer a public act as well as a private one, and second, because visible prayer is a statement of our helplessness and our utter dependence on God for the outcomes of life and family and ministry that we long for. God is glorified when it is plain to people that we consider him a trustworthy Father who is eager to hear our prayers. And he is glorified when Christians humble themselves openly as people who are not ashamed to beg for help.

We have the treasure of the glory of the gospel in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. (2 Corinthians 4:7)

If prayer is not the visible engine of our ministry, we are communicating to our people and to the world that what we do — not what God does — is decisive. We may not believe that, but we are communicating exactly that where prayer is not visibly woven into the fabric of the ministry and the family.

Horizontal Blessing, Vertical Dependence

Consider the visibility of prayer in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. He cannot complete his greeting before he is praying — actually praying.

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. (Philippians 1:1–5)

Before he is finished with his first sentence, he is publicly — not privately — praying a blessing of grace and peace down on them. Think about the words in verse 2: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” What kind of speech is that? On the one hand, he is clearly speaking to them. “Grace to you.” Second person plural. Not grace to me. Not grace to them. But grace to you.

What verb would you supply? Grace and peace be to you? Grace and peace come to you? Grace and peace fill you? Grace and peace bless you, guide you, comfort you, protect you? Would we exclude any of these? No. The intention is: May grace and peace do for you and be for you all that grace and peace can do and be for you — all of it.

But whatever verb we supply, we understand that Paul intends for them to experience this grace and peace in some way because he is speaking these words. These are not throw away words. These are words that are meant to mediate grace and peace to the Philippians.

Mediate from whom? “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul’s mind as he speaks these words is not moving in a singular direction. He is not thinking merely horizontally here between himself and the Philippians. And the reason is because he knows he is not the ultimate source of grace and peace — God is. So as Paul speaks these words, his mind is toward God, not just toward man. And he is aware that if his words are to awaken the experience of grace and peace, it will be because God has heard Paul’s words and made them the channel of his grace and peace.

In other words, these words are both a horizontal blessing and a vertical prayer of dependence, and they are public and visible. They show Paul’s dependence on God and on prayer to mediate grace and peace.

Pray for Help, Not for Praise

And then, in verse 3–4, he publicly — visibly we might say — tells the whole church that he prays for them. He does not keep this private or secret. “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy.” He implies that he prays for them regularly or often — “in every prayer of mine for you all.” How does this public display of prayer fit with what Jesus said?

And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:5–6)

This was a warning: Don’t deceive yourselves by using prayer publicly to impress others with your spirituality. If you do that, it will be plain that you are not praying to get God’s help, you are praying to get man’s praise. You will get it. And that’s all you will get.

But Jesus was not saying that the only place you can pray is in your closet where nobody knows you are praying. The issue was not whether prayer was made in public, but whether prayer was motivated by vanity — the love of man’s praise.

Paul was not disobeying Jesus in Philippians 1:3–4 by making his prayer public. He was sharing the joy he had in calling down God’s greatest blessings on the Philippians, and he was overflowing with thankfulness for the truth of Philippians 4:19 — “My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” The visibility of prayer is intended to make public Paul’s love for the Philippians and God’s glorious readiness to do for them what no man can do.

Pray to Glorify God’s Overflowing Grace

Then in Philippians 1:9–11, Paul goes public and visible again, not just with the fact that he prays for them with joy, but now also with the content of what he prays.

And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure 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.

Paul weaves prayer publicly into the ministry of this letter. He wants everyone to know that he prays for the Philippians, and what he prays. He prays for abounding love. He prays for discernment in the tough choices that love must make. He prays that they will arrive blameless at the day of Christ. He prays that they will be overflowing with righteous deeds.

And he makes plain that the reason he prays for this — the reason he asks God to do it — is because these things can only come “through Jesus Christ” (verse 11). They are supernatural. If they don’t come through Jesus, they don’t come at all. That is why he prays. And the upshot of such total dependence on Christ through prayer is that God is shown to be a glorious, prayer-hearing God (end of verse 11) — “to the glory and praise of God.” God gets glory for their love, their blamelessness, their discernment, their righteous deeds because they all came “through Jesus Christ” in answer to prayer to God.

Making prayer a visible part of his ministry is Paul’s way of calling attention to the glorious bounty of God’s overflowing grace. Visible prayer is at the heart of how God gets glory in your ministry.

Pray to Sustain Ministry

Then, in Philippians 1:19, Paul makes prayer visible from the other side —in their prayers for him. He says, “I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance.” It always amazes me that in letter after letter, Paul makes the prayers of ordinary, relatively new believers the means by which he expects his apostolic ministry to succeed. That’s amazing!

But just as amazing is that he tells them this. He makes it visible and public: “I am depending on your prayers for the outcome of my imprisonment.” So, whether it is his prayers for them, or theirs for him, Paul is visibly weaving a manifest dependence on God through prayer into the ministry of this letter.

Pray to Kill Anxiety and Cultivate Peace

Finally, we come to Philippians 4:6–7, where Paul exhorts them to pray, and relates it to one of the key teachings of the letter.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

In one sense, this command to pray is all-encompassing. And in another sense, it is very focused. It’s all-encompassing because of the words in everything. “Do not be anxious about anything but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” In everything is all-encompassing; Pray about everything.

But in another sense, this command is very narrow and focused. He doesn’t refer to one hundred things you may get in answer to prayer; he refers to freedom from anxiety and the presence of peace. That’s the upshot of this all-encompassing prayer.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

So negatively, the aim of all these prayers — praying about everything — is to get rid of all anxiety, and then positively replace it with the peace of God. This is really remarkable. Paul’s concern here is focused primarily on a state of mind and heart that is free from anxiety or fear and filled with peace or contentment. Why is this Paul’s focus?

Supernatural Fearlessness Exalts Christ

When you step back and think about Paul’s main burden in this letter, the reason for his focus becomes clear. Paul’s great burden in this letter is that Jesus Christ would be magnified and that the worth of the gospel would be publicly vindicated by the way the Christians live worthy of the gospel. Recall Philippians 1:20 where Paul’s supreme expectation and hope is that Christ would be magnified in his body whether by life or by death.

And the way Christ would be magnified in life was that the Philippians would walk worthy of the gospel. “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1:27) — live to show the supreme worth of the gospel and of Jesus Christ. How does that happen? We saw the answer in our second message. It happens through lives of fearlessness and unity in love for the sake of the gospel. Verses 27–28:

You are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel [there’s the unity in love for the sake of the gospel], and not frightened in anything by your opponents [there’s the fearlessness].

And the result of this fearless unity in love is a decisive evidence to the world that Christ is real and the gospel is true: “This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God.” Now, just before the passage on prayer in Philippians 4:6–7, Paul has just said again in Philippians 4:1, “Stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved.” Don’t be shaken. Don’t be frightened. Hold fast to the word of truth in this crooked and perverse generation (Philippians 2:15–16). And now he tells them how to pursue this freedom from fear in 4:6–7:

Do not be anxious about anything [do not be afraid of your adversaries], but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6–7)

Supernatural, Christ-exalting fearlessness is the key to glorifying Christ in this world.

Christ-exalting fearlessness in the face of danger is not natural; it is supernatural. And it is the key to glorifying Christ in this world. Therefore, we must pray. If we can do this on our own, Christ will not be magnified in our fearlessness. But if we need Christ in order to be fearless, and if we pray in every circumstance for his help, then Christ will be glorified when we are fearless.

So the great burden of the entire epistle hangs on the supernatural intervention of God in answer to prayer. If we are not free from anxiety, then we will not be fearless in striving for the gospel, and we will not give a sign to the world of our salvation and their destruction, and Christ will not be magnified in our fearlessness.

The All-Sufficient Protector and Provider

We’re going to see the same thing now if we focus on the word peace in verse 7 and connect it with Paul’s burden in the rest of chapter 4.

The reason that fearlessness — or freedom from anxiety — glorifies Christ is that it points to him as an all-sufficient protector. When we are fearless, we are saying that Christ will take care of me. Christ is enough for me. Christ will either keep you from hurting me, or he will turn the hurt for my everlasting good. So I will not fear you. Christ is enough.

“Christ is most glorified in us when we are so satisfied in him that fear and greed are gone.”

Paul says in Philippians 4:7 that when we pray about everything, the peace of God guards our minds. Well, let’s watch where Paul goes with this. In verse 10, Paul expresses his joy that the church has now revived their financial participation in his ministry. He tells them how glad he is. But then he immediately checks himself, lest he give the impression that he is greedy for their money. Look at verses 11–13:

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content [peaceful]. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

He does the same thing three verses later. In verse 15–16, he congratulates them that they are a great financial partner in his ministry. Then, in verse 17, he checks himself again, lest he appear to be greedy and motivated by money: “Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit.”

Verse 11: “Not that I speak of being in need.” Verse 17: “Not that I seek the gift.” You see the issue. Greed destroys Christian witness. Money-driven ministries ruin Christian reputations. “But godliness with contentment is great gain. . . . But those who make godliness a means of gain plunge people into ruin and destruction” (1 Timothy 6:6, 9).

Paul’s passion is to glorify Christ. Therefore, he flees from even the hint of the love of money. And in the place of money, he puts the peace of God — contentment in Christ. “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (Philippians 4:11). That is, I have learned to have the peace of God that passes all understanding (Philippians 4:7).

Three Steps to Christ-Exalting Contentment

How did he learn this? What is the secret? How is Christ glorified in this contentment?

  1. Paul prays. “In everything [in every financial consideration, and all others!] by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6–7). He prayed in everything.

  2. He trusted a promise that corresponds to in everything. “My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19). You pray in everything because you have a promise for everything. God will give you everything you need. Ask him, and roll all your anxieties onto him. You will have what you need to do his will and glorify his name.

  3. Under and in and over all our answers to prayer, Jesus gives us what we need most — himself. This is the ultimate secret of contentment in every situation — the all-surpassing treasure of Christ. Yes, we will have what we need. But what we need may be less than we wanted. So how will we be content? The answer was given in Philippians 3:8: “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”

We pray. We trust the promise. And we have the all-satisfying Christ. This is the peace — the supernatural answer to prayer — of God that surpasses all the powers of human reason to create. This is the antidote to ministry-destroying greed. And this is the antidote to ministry-destroying fear. And this is the path to magnifying Christ for who he really is. Christ is most glorified in us when we are so satisfied in him that fear and greed are gone.

May the Lord do that in your life and your family and your ministry. This is a supernatural way of life. It will not come without prayer. So make prayer the visible engine of your ministry. Christ aims to be glorified in meeting your needs in answer to prayer.