Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with an attitude of thanksgiving; (3) praying at the same time for us as well, that God will open up to us a door for the word, so that we may speak forth the mystery of Christ, for which I have also been imprisoned; (4) that I may make it clear in the way I ought to speak.
One thing is crystal clear from this passage: it is God's will that we pray to him. Sometimes we struggle to know the will of God for our lives. But there are some things that you do not have to struggle to know. One of them is that God's will is that you pray to him. The text says, "Devote yourselves to prayer." God wills for you to pray to him.
Now before we think about anything else—the meaning of "devote" or the need for "alertness" or time and place and quantity and method of praying—before all that, just let it sink in that God wants us to pray to him. He commands it.
What is Prayer?
But to ponder this we do have to ask what "pray" means. Mainly it means asking God for things. By "things" I don't mean objects or stuff. I mean, generally, whatever your heart desires or needs. And, of course, what your heart needs most is God—to know him and trust him and love him and obey him. I know that we should come to God with more than asking. We should come confessing sins and giving thanks and praise. In a broad sense, prayer includes all that. But, speaking precisely, prayer is requesting, asking. That's why in Colossians 4:2 it says, "Devote yourselves to prayer . . . with (or in) thanksgiving." Thanking God should always be part of what we do in prayer. But prayer, in the strict sense, means requesting. So I define it as asking God for things.
Let's put beside this a great historic definition of prayer. There is a story about D. L. Moody making a visit to Scotland in the 1800's and opening one of his talks at a local grade school with the rhetorical question, What is prayer? To his amazement, hundreds of children's hands went up. So he decided to call on a lad near the front, who promptly stood up and said, "Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, in the name of Christ, by the help of his Spirit, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies." This is the answer to question #98 in the Westminster Catechism. To this Moody responded by saying, "Be thankful, son, that you were born in Scotland."1
Be sure to notice the main thing: "Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God." That is the main meaning of prayer. "With confession of sins" and "with . . . thankful acknowledgment of his mercies" go along with these expressed desires. But the essence of prayer is the expression of our dependence on God through requests.
God Loves to Be Asked
Now think about this for a moment. God's will is that we, his creatures, ask him for things. And it is not just his will, it is his delight. He loves to be asked for things. Proverbs 15:8 says, "The prayer of the upright is His delight." He is so eager to hear prayers and respond to them that he says in Isaiah 65:24, "It will also come to pass that before they call, I will answer; and while they are still speaking, I will hear." In fact, he takes special steps to see to it that he is constantly badgered. I say that reverently and, I think, truly on the basis of Isaiah 62:6–7, "On your walls, O Jerusalem, I have appointed watchmen; all day and all night they will never keep silent. You who remind the LORD, take no rest for yourselves; and give Him no rest until He establishes and makes Jerusalem a praise in the earth." So God loves being asked for things so much that he appoints people to "give him no rest" but to "remind the Lord" and "never [to] keep silent."
Meditating on this is very encouraging to our faith and hope. This means that God, the Creator of the Universe, who holds our life in his hands and rules the world, is the kind of God who loves to be asked for things.
I find it also tremendously strengthening to my faith to meditate further on why this is. Why does God not only will that we ask him for things, but delight in it and love it like incense (Revelation 5:8) and take steps to see that it happens? What's behind this delight in our asking him for things? You might say, "Well, it's because God is love. It's his very nature to be a Giver." That is absolutely right. As Paul said in Romans 11:35–36, "Who has given a gift to him that he should be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory for ever."
God is always the Giver (see Acts 17:25). That is what he loves to be. And the last phrase of Romans 11:36 says why, "To him be glory for ever." It is more glorious to be a Giver than a getter. Getters look needy. Givers look self-sufficient. So God ordains prayer because he wants us to see him as gloriously self-sufficient and ourselves as totally needy. So he says in Psalm 50:15, "Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I shall rescue you, and you will honor Me." God answers our call for help so that we get the rescue and he gets the honor. "I will rescue you and you will honor me." Similarly in John 14:13 Jesus says, "Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son." Ask for things in my name! Why? So that the Father may be glorified. So he may look as glorious as he really is.
Let these truths behind prayer strengthen your resolve to pray this year. God wills that you pray. He wills that you ask him for things. And not just wills it, but really delights in it and really wants it and takes steps to see that it happens, because he enjoys it so much. Why should we be confident of this? Because it comes from the very nature of who God is. He is love. He is a Giver. Why is he a Giver? Because he is utterly self-sufficient and delights to overflow and show us his glorious fullness and strength and wisdom, and that he will give us whatever we need to get us to everlasting joy in him. God loves to show the fullness of his grace in meeting the needs of humble, dependent—that is, praying—people, because it magnifies his riches and makes our joy.
This means that prayer is about as central to the meaning of the created universe as you can get. God created us, according to Isaiah 43:7, for his glory. Which we now see means that he created the universe so that persons created in his image would look to him to satisfy all their wants and needs so that they would get the joy and God would get the glory. When we express this looking to God, we call it prayer.
So prayer is not some small thing. It is not some marginal thing. It is not some incidental thing in the Christian life. Prayer is at the heart of why God created the universe. You may have the modern, secular notion that the universe is really about great galactic events and supernovas and remarkable expanses of time and space and energy. But in reality the center of the created universe is man created in the image of God. And the meaning of man in the image of God is to display God's glory. And the way God delights to display his glory in man is by being depended on through prayer.
It just doesn't get much greater than this. Meditate on this. Muse on it. It is so rich and will give you great incentives to pray in 2000. I heard one of you in prayer this week refer to inhaling the Word and exhaling prayer. That is very good. We live by the Word and prayer the same way we live by inhaling and exhaling air. This is our life.
Devote Yourselves to Prayer
Now back to Colossians 4:2, "Devote yourselves to prayer." This does not come as a surprise now, does it? If prayer is so great and central to God's purpose for the universe and for your life, it is not surprising that God would tell us, "Devote yourselves to prayer." And it is not surprising that this word "be devoted to" or "persevere in" or "continue in" occurs six times in the New Testament in relation to prayer. Acts 1:14, "These all with one mind were continually devoting themselves to prayer." Acts 2:42, "[The early church] were continually devoting themselves to . . . prayer." Acts 6:4, the apostles said they would devote themselves "to prayer and to the ministry of the word." Romans 12:12, "Rejoice in hope, persevere in tribulation, be devoted to prayer." Ephesians 6:18, "Pray at all times in the Spirit . . . with all perseverance."
What does this mean? You pray often and you pray regularly. Prayer is not infrequent and prayer is not hit and miss. Being "devoted to" prayer means that you are not haphazard and you are not forgetful. It means you take steps to see that it is part of your regular life, the same way eating and sleeping are.
I say, "You take steps," because I think that is implied in the next words in Colossians 4:2, "Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it." Keeping alert means that you work against distractions and hindrances. You do what you have to do to stay awake and to stay at the task. For example, Oswald J. Smith, the former pastor of Peoples Church in Toronto, used to get off his knees when he got sleepy and pace his room so that he would stay awake for prayer. Gordon Hamilton, a music partner with him in his travels, said that he would hear him "pacing back and forth in prayer." "He must have walked for miles."2
But if it means do what you have to do to stay awake and alert in praying, it also implies: do what you have to do to see that you pray. So let's take the rest of our time with some practical points about how to be devoted to prayer.
First let's put the same questions we did last week: When, where and how.
Taking Steps for Prayer: When and Where?
When are you going to pray? You may say, "I don't want a compartmentalized life with prayer in one devotional compartment and the rest of my life in other compartments. I want an integrated life with prayer saturating all I do." Well, amen to that. But it's a false dichotomy, and it won't work to choose between a season of prayer in solitude and prayer soaking the rest of your life, as though those were alternatives. If you want to walk in prayer all day long, you will need to linger in prayer in times of quiet communion with God.
Why? Because you can't get deep with God on the run, fitting him into the cracks of your day. But you can enjoy continual fellowship with God on the run if you have gone deep with God in the stillness of the season of prayer. So yes, by all means make it your aim to have your whole day a walking conversation with God—his memorized Word feeding you all day, and your desires being offered up to him hour by hour. Make that your aim. And the way to "be devoted" to prayer like that is to be devoted to regular daily times of solitude in prayer. You will go deep with him in the moments of quiet focus, and this depth will make God real and weighty in the rest of the day.
So decide on a place and a time for this meeting with God in prayer.
Taking Steps: How Long?
How long? If you are doing nothing, do something. Start where you are and take a step. Then ask God to grow you into a deep and wise and fruitful person. We need Christian sages. And nobody becomes a sage on the run. There must be lingering in the presence of God with focused meditation on the Word and focused prayer.
It doesn't have to be one long time. It can be several planned shorter times. For example, there is the great example of Daniel. He was a high ranking political official in Babylon. He had enemies and they passed a law that no one could pray except to the king. Daniel 6:10 says, "Now when Daniel knew that the document was signed, he entered his house (now in his roof chamber he had windows open toward Jerusalem); and he continued kneeling on his knees three times a day, praying and giving thanks before his God, as he had been doing previously."
So not only do we see the courage and utter commitment of Daniel to pray in an open window when his life was threatened for it, but we see that he was "devoted" to it three times a day. I have found it very helpful at times in my life to set aside a time in the morning, at lunch and before or after supper. You go away by yourself and you read a small portion of Scripture and you pray and ask for God's help in that next third of the day.
Or you might do it differently. For example, Psalm 119:164 says, "Seven times a day I praise You, because of Your righteous ordinances." With alarm watches, you can set yourself any kind of prayer schedule. But don't do nothing. Devote yourself to prayer. Be alert in it, and do whatever you have to do to see that you meet God in a focused way to hear from him in his Word and to offer up your desires to him in prayer.
Taking Steps: How?
How? Dozens of things could be said. I will mention three.
First, consider praying in concentric circles from your own soul outward to the whole world. This is my regular practice. I pray for my own soul first. Not because I am more deserving than others, but because if God doesn't awaken and strengthen and humble and fill my own soul, then I can't pray for anybody else's. So I plead with the Lord every morning for my own soul's perseverance and purification and power.
Then I go to the next concentric circle, my family, and I pray for each of them by name: Noel, Karsten/Shelly/Millie, Benjamin, Abraham, Barnabas, Talitha and some of my extended family.
Then I go to the next concentric circle, the staff and elders of Bethlehem. I name them all by name.
Then I pray for you, Bethlehem Baptist Church. And then I go out from there to different concerns and groups at different times: our missionaries, our denomination and its schools, the Baptist General Conference, Evangelicalism in general and the church around the world, especially the suffering church. The wider circles include the city and the state and the nation and the cultural and social issues of the world.
You can't pray for everything every time. So there need to be differences. And your heart will dictate much of your burden. Some days one family member or one staff member or one crisis in the church or the world will consume most of your time. But if you have a pattern—like the concentric circles—you won't spin your wheels wondering where to start.
That's the first thing I would say in answer to the how question.
The other is to pray Scripture. The prayer time and the Bible meditation time don't have to be separate times. It would be best if they were not separate.
If you ask, What do I pray for myself and my family and my church and the missionaries and the city and the nations, the answer is pray Scripture. God's Word reveals God and his will. What you want for yourself and those you pray for is more of God and more of his will. As you see him in his Word, pray that God would make this seen and known and loved in the lives of the people you pray for. And as you see his will, pray that God would cause it to be done in the lives of those you pray for. "Thy will be done on earth as in heaven."
Be intentional about this, but don't be too self-conscious. Contrived prayers seem inauthentic. If we are so self-conscious that we try to craft our prayers with interesting turns of phrase, we will lose the power and reality of prayer. But do try to pray specific Biblical values for people, not worn out cliches and trite generalities that have no spiritual depth.
For example, if you want to pray for somebody, pray the beatitudes: Father, grant that John would recognize his poverty of spirit. Let him mourn for his sins and not be indifferent or unconcerned for his own soul. Work a meekness into his heart. Grant him to be hungry and thirsty for righteousness. Give him the heart of a peacemaker and a reconciler. Make him pure and keep him pure, O Lord. And if you will for him to be persecuted, give him grace to count it all joy and to remember that his reward is great in heaven.
Praying like this will be mighty in the Spirit, because it is the Spirit's own Word and the Spirit's own will that you are praying.
The third thing I would say about how to pray is that praying in groups is important to build into your life. Families, pray together. Small groups, pray together. Ministry groups, pray together. And consider being a part of the seven half-hour prayer gatherings that happen here at the church each week. Monday, 7:00 AM, Tuesday, 6:30 AM, Wednesday 6:30 AM (women), 5:45 PM, Thursday, 6:30 AM (refugee ministry focus), Friday, 6:30 AM, Sunday 8:15 AM.
So practically, if you followed through last week with your plan to find a place and time and method of reading the Bible, then add this: "Be devoted to prayer, keeping alert in it," this will link you more fully with God and his purpose for the universe.