Prayer, when you think about it, is an interesting and fascinating thing to say the least, isn’t it? That we commune with the Father, through the Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit in prayer should stun us almost to the point of silence…but obviously if we were silent prayer wouldn’t take place, but you get the picture right? As a ladder is able to take someone from the ground to a higher elevation, so too prayer is a great ladder connecting heaven to earth, able to raise the blood bought sinner to the heights of glory. Be sure of one thing – ‘you might pray and not be a Christian, but you cannot be a Christian and not pray.’ (R.C. Sproul) Prayer is to the Christian what oxygen is to the lungs – without it we die, and with it we thrive. Through prayer we witness God’s holiness, confess our sinfulness, and invite God to invade. Prayer is a high privilege, a wonderful blessing, and through it we converse with the greatest of company.
If we examine the great saints of generations past we find that they were always great men and women of prayer. Monica, St. Augustine’s mother faithfully prayed for her son’s conversion for 32 years. When God saved Augustine she rejoiced in her answer to prayer. Martin Luther prayed for an hour regularly everyday, and once remarked that on busier days he prayed for two hours. John Wesley once said he didn’t think much of ministers who didn’t spend at least four hours a day in prayer. Throughout his pastoral ministry Charles Spurgeon read and studied Matthew Henry’s entire Bible commentary on his knees in prayer. The Puritans used to say, ‘What a Christian is in private prayer, is all they are.’ Be a Christian and not be devoted to prayer? You might as well try riding a bike with no wheels.
When you get to Colossians 4:2 you come to the conclusion of Paul’s letter to the Colossians, where we find him giving final instructions on how the young Colossian believers are to live the Christian life. In our passage today, 4:2-4, Paul turns his attention to the discipline and practice of prayer. In these verses we find Paul assuming that prayer is already a part of their lives. Paul does not ask them to pray, nor do we find Paul simply discussing prayer in general, rather we find him calling them, and calling us to a certain kind of prayer: a continuous, steadfast, watchful, thankful, and purposed prayer.
1) Look at 4:2a “Continue steadfastly in prayer…” Here we find that the Colossians and all Christians for all time are called to a continuous and steadfast life of prayer. The three English words ‘continue steadfastly in’ is one word in the original Greek that can also be translated as ‘be devoted to.’ It is not surprising that this word ‘be devoted to’ or ‘continue steadfastly in’ occurs 10x in the New Testament, most of which relate directly to prayer. Acts 1:14, ‘All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer…’ Acts 2:42, ‘And they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.’ In Acts 6:4 the apostles said ‘…we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the Word.’ Romans 12:12, ‘Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.’ Ephesians 6:18, ‘Pray at all times in the Spirit…with perseverance…’ We learn in this that a continuous and steadfast life of prayer was the norm for the apostles, the norm they expected from their churches, and also the norm they expect from all read their writing throughout the ages. I think the reason they devoted themselves to this kind of prayer life was because they saw Jesus devote Himself to this kind of prayer. Rising early to pray, staying up late to pray, praying here, praying there – Jesus was always speaking to His Father. All of this leads to one conclusion, prayer is to be an activity that the Christian never stops. This, of course, is the call of 1 Thess. 5:17, ‘…pray without ceasing…’ and because we’re to pray without ceasing we understand prayer to be an essential part of living the Christian life. You can’t have a Christian life without it.
I think we can see our own sinfulness here (I see my sinfulness here) in that we tend to think prayer without ceasing is going to be a burden. What we miss is that God doesn’t intend prayer without ceasing to be a burden, but rather (to quote Burk Parsons) ‘God intends prayer without ceasing to be the very thing that liberates us from our burdens.’ This is why Jesus gave Himself to prayer, this is why the apostles gave themselves to prayer, and this is why we’re called to do the same thing as well. Last year I had the privilege of asking R.C. Sproul what advice he had to give me as a young pastor, and he said, ‘Get in the Word, get deep in the Word, stay in the Word, and devote yourself to prayer.’
Knowing the importance of prayer makes the neglect of prayer not just bad, it makes it treasonous. If the Puritans were right to measure godliness by our devotion to private prayer, what does that make us? I’m convinced that a lack of private prayer will eventually lead to much public failure. Sinclair Ferguson once said, ‘A Christian falls in private many times before he ever falls in public.’ The opposite is also true – a robust life of private prayer will lead to strength before man., because it is hard to indulge in private sin when you cultivate a habit of private prayer.
What does this mean for you and I? How do we become people who pray in a continuous, steadfast, and persistent manner? We’re to understand that prayer isn’t just meant for pastors but for all Christians. Christians are to be people of prayer. We’re to pray often and we’re to pray regularly. We’re to carve out planned and frequent times of prayer throughout the day, not being forgetful about prayer but being intentional about it rather than treating prayer in a trivial manner and only praying when we feel like doing it or before meals. This means we have to take steps to see that prayer is a regular part of our life. Think about it, each of us are very intentional about setting time aside to eat and to sleep. Knowing that prayer is superior in importance to food and sleep why are we not as intentional about it? Why do we not plan to meet with other believers and pray as often as we plan to meet with other believers to eat? Perhaps it reveals that we don’t want to spend time with God? Perhaps it reveals that we don’t believe in the power of prayer? Perhaps it means we need to change some things and seek to talk to God before we talk to anyone else as the day begins. Perhaps it means we need to change some things in our schedules to make prayer more of a priority in our lives and in our families. That is something we all can do.
2) Look at 4:2b, “…being watchful in it with thanksgiving.” I just said we should take steps toward a richer, deeper, and more continuous prayer life because it’s implied in the next phrase in Colossians 4:2, ‘Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.’ Being watchful in prayer fills out the meaning of what it looks like to be continuous and steadfast in prayer. It means in prayer we’re to be alert: working, laboring, sweating, and putting the effort into prayer to stay attentive and vigilant in prayer. Prayer isn’t called a discipline of Christian living for no reason. We are watchful in prayer when we fight distraction in prayer. We are watchful in prayer when we plan specific times to pray when there will be minimal interruption. We are watchful in prayer when we put forth effort to not only stay awake in prayer, but put forth effort to stay praying in prayer rather than wandering off into a kind of praying prayerlessness. We are watchful in prayer when we approach prayer with the same attitude Jacob had in Genesis 32, saying to God ‘I will not let You go until You bless me.’ We are watchful in prayer when we approach prayer in the spirit of Isaiah 62:1 giving God no rest until we He reveals His glory to us. We are watchful in prayer when, regardless of what we’re doing, we stop and pray when we feel the Holy Spirit’s leading to pray. This may happen in the middle of the night, or in the middle of writing an email, in the middle of driving somewhere, or in the middle of a conversation, but when it happens watchfulness in prayer demands that we stop what we’re doing and pray, trusting that God knows what we need to be doing more than we do.
I think watchfulness in prayer is hard for us to understand today because most (not all) of the modern books on prayer focus on prayer as a way to experience God’s love, peace, and rest. These kind of books can be good and these kind of books can be bad. These books are bad when they teach that our faith is mainly subjective and experiential, making the substance of the Christian life our experience in it. This is bad because it places our desires, our experience, and our lives at the center of our spiritual life. It is real easy to find books like, it’s harder to find a helpful book on prayer today that places God at the center of spiritual living. Those books are the good ones, reminding us that prayer isn’t about getting more stuff from God but primarily about getting more of God Himself. This places God in the center of our spiritual life, and from being united to God we’ll then experience a sweet communion with Him feeling His love, peace, and rest. You see, if our experience of God’s love, peace, and rest is what all our prayer is about we miss the full picture of what Biblical prayer is. In the Bible (particularly in the Psalms) prayer is an experience of the intimacy of God AND a bold and fierce calling on God to bring down His Kingdom and build His Church through the ministry of the Word. Putting both of those into practice is watchful prayer.
Notice also that 4:2b says we’re to be watchful in prayer ‘…with thanksgiving.’ What’s in view here is gratitude, or, a deep sense of thankfulness to God for who He is and for what He has done. Because everything we possess is a gift of God’s free grace to us, undeserved and unmerited, to pray without giving thanks is to treat God as nothing more than a butler upstairs who brings us another pillow in the den upon being called for. There are innumerable grounds for thankfulness that we cannot approach the throne of grace without expressing thankfulness to God. When I see a thankful man or a thankful woman, I usually find someone who prayerfully healthy and alive to the Bible. When I see people who aren’t thankful I usually find someone bored with life, with Church, with their family, with their work, and sadly enough bored with God.
3) Prayer is to be continuous, steadfast, watchful, thankful, and purposed 4:3-4 says, “At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the Word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison – that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak.” So often what I’ve found in my own heart is that the difference between lifeless prayer and prayer that’s alive, is my purpose in prayer. You ever noticed that? You begin to pray and all of the sudden you find yourself thinking about something else? How did that happen? This can be a vicious cycle at times, that can be quite hard to break out of. But prayer with a purpose, prayer with direction, prayer with a burden even, is usually when I find my prayer coming alive. This is why Martin Luther said, ‘Nothing makes me pray or preach better, than when I am angry.’ Purpose is exactly what Paul gives the Colossian Church. Out of all the things he could’ve asked them to pray for he told them to pray for him. That God would open doors so he could preach. Not just preach, but that he would preach, declaring and clearly presenting the mystery of Christ from the whole of Scripture. This is how Paul is to speak. This is how I am to speak. This is how you are to speak. As Paul asked the Colossians this, could I ask you the same? That you would ask God to open more doors for me to declare the mystery of Christ, the hope of glory, from Genesis to Revelation? Would you pray for that? Can I ask that you not only pray that for me, but that you would you pray that for each other? We all live in this broken and fallen world, in a city that needs the gospel – pray that doors would be opened to declare the mystery of Christ crucified for sinners.
Now, when it comes to prayer, I think the first thing most of us think or feel is guilt. Because of all the things we know we could do more of, prayer is usually at the top of the list. But when we feel this guilt and set our minds to it we easily get frustrated because so many Christians simply don’t know how to pray. To end today I want to give you the answers to 4 simple questions on the nature of prayer. They’ve been great helps to me, so perhaps you’ll be helped as well.
1) Why pray? The short answer is because God commands us to in His Word. For those of you who require a longer answer I would say this: God has ordained that prayer be a regular and continuous discipline in our lives because prayer humbles us as needy, and exalts God as sufficient for all our needs. Some of you may say ‘Okay, but why pray if God is sovereign? Will it really make a difference?’ Yes, we believe that God is sovereign, totally and absolutely. We believe God sovereignly ordains whatsoever comes to pass. But we believe God is sovereign over the end He desires and the means He uses to get there. Often the means He uses to bring about His will in this world is through the prayers of His people. He may want to save person A, but the means He is going to use to do so is by placing a desire in the heart of person B to share the gospel with them and pray for them. Is person B a puppet? By no means. Person B is being used as the means to bring about the end God sovereignly desires.
2) When do I pray? Always and often. As 1 Thess. 5:17 says, ‘…pray without ceasing…’ This means the overarching posture of the Christians heart is one of prayer. All of life is to be lived under the authority of God, to the glory of God, in the presence of God. Therefore, the answer to ‘When do I pray?’ is always and often. I do suggest that make it a habit to speak to God before you speak to anyone else, and that you hear the Word of God before you hear anyone else. Before you turn on the news, hear His Word and speak to Him. I suggest you make it habit to find 4 moments throughout the day to spend in reading/prayer. I try to put aside time in the morning, put aside time around noon, put aside time in the afternoon, and put aside time in the evening or before you sleep. Don’t be fooled though, the discipline of private prayer will not happen if you don’t work at it. You must labor at this, because everything around you, and often you yourself, will make very excuse to avoid it.
3) Where do I pray? Simple: as Sam I am tried to convince his friend to eat green eggs and ham ‘here, there, and anywhere’ I want to convince you to pray ‘here, there, and anywhere.’
4) How do I pray? In the name of Christ, offer up your desires to God, in line with and informed by His revealed will in His Word, confess your sins, and thankfully acknowledge His mercy. TWO HELPS: Valley of Vision, Tim Keller ‘Prayer’
Lastly: remember the gospel. Prayer wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for the gospel. We can’t come to the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit, if we come before Him in our own merit or in our own name. We can only come to God through Jesus Christ. Faith in His work creates and fuels a life of prayer. Bearing the wrath of God, in our place, as our substitute, rising to conquer the world, the flesh, and the devil – ascending to reign and rule forever. By believing in the gospel shame, guilt, and condemnation our removed, and what are given – full access to the throne of grace to find help in the time of need. Prayer is a gift of gospel grace. You’ll never understand it, and you’ll never enjoy it until you believe and are transformed by the gospel.