Heart-Deep Prayers

Why We Prioritize Spiritual Needs

Imagine that the angel Gabriel has been recording your prayers for the last year. Every request for yourself or others has found its way into his heavenly ledger. What might such a record reveal?

How many petitions would fall under the heading of physical health? How long would be the column tracking requests about your relationships? How many tallies would you find next to “Work” or “School” or “Church”? How many vague prayers for “blessing” might you find?

I’ve been asking myself such questions lately, in part because of a striking observation from Tim Keller’s book Prayer. If you study the prayers of the apostle Paul recorded throughout his letters, Keller says, you may notice something striking: among the many requests Paul makes on behalf of the churches, he never once asks God to heal their bodies, fill their wombs, prosper their vocations, or lift their persecutions. In fact, Keller writes, “Paul’s prayers for his friends contain no appeals for changes in their circumstances” (20).

I fear that if I set my own prayer record next to Paul’s, some of my first prayers may appear last, and my last prayers first.

Heart-Deep Prayers

Now, we should beware of stating the case too strongly. Even though Paul’s prayers for others contain no appeals for circumstantial changes, the apostle clearly had a category for such prayers.

He invites the Philippians to “let [their] requests be made known to God,” without limiting the requests to a certain kind (Philippians 4:6). He calls Timothy to pray “for kings and all who are in high positions” (1 Timothy 2:1–2). When asking for prayer himself, Paul sometimes mentions personal safety and success in travel (Romans 15:31–32; 2 Thessalonians 3:1–2). He also pleaded three times for God to take his thorn (2 Corinthians 12:8).

Yet such requests form the background, not the foreground, of Paul’s recorded prayers; they are q’s and z’s in the alphabet of his intercessions, present but not frequent. Instead, Paul displays a relentless focus on the inward life, the Christian soul, the hidden realm of the heart — or, to use a phrase from Ephesians 3:16, the “inner being.”

So, for example, Paul prays that the Romans might “abound in hope” and know the presence of “the God of peace” (Romans 15:13, 33). He wants the Ephesians to have “the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him”; he wants Christ to “dwell in [their] hearts through faith” (Ephesians 1:17; 3:17). Paul yearns for the Philippians to abound in discerning love (Philippians 1:9) and for the Colossians to give thanks like heaven-bound saints (Colossians 3:12). He asks that the Thessalonians might be holy through and through (1 Thessalonians 5:23).

Even when Paul prays for outward matters like public obedience or visible unity, these always flow from somewhere deeper, somewhere inner. Paul’s prayers cut to the heart.

Why He Prayed What He Prayed

God gave us Paul’s prayers, in part, so that by rehearsing them our own requests might grow in biblical balance and substance. Like the Psalms, Paul’s prayers train our tongues in the language of heaven. They give us words before the throne of grace.

At the same time, growing in Pauline prayer means more than simply repeating his requests. As D.A. Carson notes, Paul’s prayers spring from a robust “biblical vision,” a vision that “embraces who God is, what he has done, who we are, where we are going, what we must value and cherish” (Praying with Paul, 43). If we abstract Paul’s prayers from the biblical vision that inspired them, they may feel unnatural (like a second language we can’t quite learn). But once we catch his vision, we find ourselves slowly becoming fluent in Paul’s heart-deep prayers.

What, then, was Paul’s vision? Among the several areas we could explore, consider how Paul’s prayers were shaped by past grace and future glory.

Prayer Furthers Faith and Love

The first part of Paul’s vision comes from the past. “He remembers the grace we have received in the past, and thinks through the direction of our lives,” Carson writes (42). In other words, Paul considers the “good work” God has already begun in the lives of his people, and in prayer, he aims to partner with God in “[bringing] it to completion” (Philippians 1:6). He sees the seeds of grace, and prays them into flowers.

And what is the good work God has begun? What grace does he intend to grow? Again and again, Paul thanks God for two signs of grace among the saved: faith and love. “Because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you” (Ephesians 1:15–16). To Paul, faith in Jesus and love for God’s people were more precious than all the world’s silver and gold. Our body may be broken, our dreams undone, our relationships fraught — but if we have faith and love, God has lavished us with grace (Ephesians 1:7–8).

Paul’s prayers run like rivers from this fountain of past grace, flowing with faith and love. If God has begun the good work of faith, then Paul will pray (in a dozen creative ways) for faith to grow, for God to give “the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him” (Ephesians 1:17). And if God has begun the good work of love, then Paul will ask (again with wonderful creativity) for love to “abound more and more” (Philippians 1:9).

Paul’s prayers remind us of an easily forgotten truth: in this age, the character of our inner being is far more important than the circumstances of our outer being. As Paul writes elsewhere,

We do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. (2 Corinthians 4:16)

One day, God will raise and glorify our “outer self” and banish every bad circumstance. But in the meantime, his good work happens mostly in the “inner self.” He aims to deepen our faith, love, and every other grace until we see him face to face. So, while Paul sometimes prays for the outer self’s welfare, he fastens his attention on the inner self’s renewal.

When Earthly Requests End

If Paul’s prayers keep one eye on the past, they keep another eye on the future — and not just the future vaguely, but one future moment in particular. Repeatedly, Paul returns to one future day, when God’s good work will finally come to an end: “the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).

Five times in Paul’s recorded prayers, he explicitly mentions the day of Christ’s return (Philippians 1:10; 1 Thessalonians 3:13; 5:23; 2 Thessalonians 1:9–12; 2 Timothy 1:18). He prayed, it seems, in the shadow of the second coming, with the returning Christ standing at the door of his prayer closet. And the power of that future promise governed what he asked of God.

When Jesus appears, the mists will rise, the fog will clear, and the true priorities of this age will stand forth in startling clarity. Our circumstances in this life, which are by no means insignificant, will bow before matters far weightier still. Healthy or sick, did we glorify God with our bodies? Arms empty or full, did we abound in thanksgiving to him? At peace or in conflict, did we display the patience of Christ? In success or failure, were we “filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:11)?

What if we prayed, for ourselves and our friends, under a sky ready to split before the glory of Christ? We might ask more often, and with greater fervor, that God would establish our hearts “blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (1 Thessalonians 3:13). We might pray less for circumstances to change, and more for a heart that loves Christ in all circumstances.

Our Hearts His Home

When we kneel with Paul between past and future, grace and glory, Christ’s cross and Christ’s second coming, we find ourselves saying new words, praying fresh prayers. At the bottom of our prayers, we ask for faith and love, inward strength and heart-level holiness. Or, Paul writes in Ephesians, we plead for Christ to make our hearts his home.

According to the riches of his glory [may he] grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. (Ephesians 3:16–17)

Paul asks that Christ would take up his residence within, filling every hallway and room with his brilliance. He asks that we would have what Keller calls a “powerful sense of God’s reality” — a sense that transcends our present situation and even survives the grave.

“Without this powerful sense of God’s reality,” Keller writes, “good circumstances can lead to overconfidence and spiritual indifference. Who needs God, our hearts would conclude, when matters seem to be so in hand?” (Prayer, 21). But when Christ makes his home in our hearts, then we can make our home in every circumstance: in “plenty and hunger,” in “abundance and need” (Philippians 4:12).

So then, pray for healing, but pray also (and most) for holiness. Pray for relational peace, but pray also (and first) for relational patience. Pray for dreams still distant and hopes still deferred, but pray also (and chiefly) for Jesus to walk with you even among the ruins of the life you wish you had. Then, whether outward circumstances flourish or wither, all will be well within. For Christ will still dwell within.