Praying Like Paul

Apr 25, 2008 |Rachel Starr Thomson

We have a lot to learn about praying for others from the man who prayed for us.

I have an incredible knack for exhausting myself in prayer.

Before you think I'm bragging, let me clarify. It's not the length or passion of my prayers that exhausts me. There are no knee-shaped dents in the floor beside my bed, nor holy tear stains upon my mattress. No, my prayers are exhausting because they're so convoluted.

One day, while I wrestled with the best way to pray for a struggling friend, the Spirit spoke to my heart and said, "Just tell me what you want."

It was revolutionary. Tell God what you want, and let Him figure out the details. Get to the heart of things.

My prayer life has undergone a few revolutions. "Tell me what you want" was a big one.

Then came the "Paul's Prayers" revolution. This one was all about praying for God's people. The church. This community I live in. This worldwide body to which many of my friends, families, and loved ones belong; whose task it is to glorify God and spread the gospel.

Jesus loved the church. They are the people for whom He died. Today, He sits at the right hand of God and intercedes for them. For us.

The apostle Paul likewise poured his life into the church. He brought truth to them, knowing they might suffer and die for believing. He crossed cultural, intellectual, and racial lines to draw God's beloved into the fold. His love for them was the conduit through which the Spirit poured most of the New Testament.

I love them, too. My love lacks Jesus' perfection and Paul's passion, but it is real. And so I come to my knees to pray and intercede, and I find myself asking the question: What do I want for this church that I love?

I can produce a laundry list, of course. Finances. Protection. Healing. Help.

But somehow, the list doesn't really express it. Ultimately, I want what a Catholic friend calls "God's Adorable Will" to be done in us. Jesus' heart for His people runs much deeper than material and emotional needs, and it's His heart that I want to touch and reflect as I pray.

What does God want for His church? To find answers, I combed the epistles of the man who did more than anything to bring the gospel to the nations. I wrote down every prayer Paul ever recorded. My discoveries have changed the way I look at God, the church and my role in life.

May You Be Strong Within

In Ephesians 3:14-16, Paul began one of his most beautiful prayers for the church.

For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, That he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man.

My prayer so often begins with externals. I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, after whom we Christians are named, and ask Him to grant a host of material and circumstantial needs. Since I live elbow-to-elbow with so many believers, I know the nitty-gritty of their lives, and that's where my focus tends to go.

But Paul didn't have this luxury. He was separated from his churches by a great distance. He didn't know their day-to-day problems, so his prayers had to reach much farther — much deeper — much higher. God, I think, arranged it this way.

Paul's prayers teach me to focus first on the heart: the soul, the "inner man." My brothers and sisters don't primarily need physical things or changes in circumstance. They need mighty hearts. When we're strong inside, we can handle great trials. When the glory of God fills us, its joy and beauty will spill over to meet the difficulties in our paths. That friend struggling with temptation; that sister who has cancer; that young man taking exams: what they need most is to be strengthened with true might, by the Spirit of God, in the deepest places of their hearts.

May Your Love Abound

Paul's prayer doesn't end with this request for inner strength. A truly mighty man, as everyone who reads the best adventures knows, pours out his strength in love for others. So it should be in the church.

Paul prayed, "That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God" (Eph. 3:17-19).

The church of God is to be rooted and grounded in love. Love is the root that feeds us. Love is the solid ground beneath our feet. Jesus' one commandment to His disciples was, "Love one another, as I have loved you" (John 15:12). As we obey, we will be overwhelmed by the love of God for us.

To the Philippians, Paul wrote, "And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment" (Phil. 1:9).

This love isn't idealistic or sappy. It is full of knowledge and discernment. Such love runs counter to our modern ideas, even to much of our experience. Knowledge and judgment tend to diminish our feelings of ardor, not cause them to abound! When I know someone well, I can see all his faults. When my judgment — call it "discernment" — is sharp, I'll recognize my brother's immaturities and even perhaps his sins.

But that's how it should be! Paul prayed that our love might be based on truth. We're not to love illusions of each other, but realities. Love based on falsehood is stunted and weak. We are to love one another in truth, to embrace one another's weaknesses and warts, because our true and holy God has loved us. Knowledge will cause infatuation to die and illusion to fade. But where there is true love, knowledge will cause it to abound.

Paul's words send me to my knees with an awareness of how poor my love has been. I'm willing to love the church until it hurts, offends, or annoys me. I'm willing to love it until I decide it's gone too far. But Paul's words send me back to the cross. They remind me that Jesus loves me despite my weaknesses, my failures, and my most disgusting sins. My entire life should be rooted and grounded in that love. Love makes us holy. God wants to see it in us, and so I will ask God for it — not for myself only, but for all the church.

The Lord Be With You

To the church of Thessalonica, Paul wrote these words: "Now the Lord of peace himself give you peace.... The Lord be with you all" (I Thess. 3:6).

At first, it struck me as strange to pray that the Lord would be with us. Isn't He always with us? Paul himself told the Athenians that we "live, and move, and have our being" in God. "He is not far from every one of us" (see Acts 17, the sermon in Athens). But Paul's prayers remind me of the vast difference between His "being there" as a sort of atmosphere and His being there as a friend who walks in company with us.

Our companions have a profound influence on who we are. My closest friends challenge my words and actions. They keep me to a certain standard by virtue of their presence. Their conversation enriches and deepens my life. They open new horizons to me. As we share our lives with one another, we are changed. True companions learn to see through each other's eyes, to hear with each other's ears. They learn the heart of the one with whom they walk.

In his Ephesian prayer, Paul prayed "that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith." Ultimately, this is my greatest prayer for the church. That we would walk with God. That by faith, we would reach out and find that Christ is truly "Emmanuel" — truly with us. That by faith, we might know Jesus Christ in an intimate, life-changing way. As Paul wrote in Ephesians 3:18, "that we might be filled with all the fullness of God."

In the end, that is what I really want.

Copyright 2008 Rachel Starr Thomson. All rights reserved.

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