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Beyond All You Could Ask or Think
How to Pray Like the Apostle Paul
By Ray Pritchard
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2004 Ray Pritchard
All rights reserved.
Don't Settle for Second Best
How would you rate your prayer life? If you had to give yourself a grade, would it be an A, B, C, D, or F? Or would you choose the word "incomplete"? Before you decide on an answer, let's phrase the question another way. Is your prayer life A) Excellent, B) Above average, C) Average, D) Below average, or F) "I need big help!" Probably many of us would choose F simply because we feel our prayer life truly does need help.
As we think about prayer, let's begin with three simple statements:
1. Prayer is both the easiest and hardest discipline of the Christian life. It is the easiest in that the youngest child and the newest Christian can learn to pray. Even the slightest motion of the soul toward God is a form of genuine prayer. If a person says, "Lord, have mercy," he is truly praying. But prayer is also the hardest discipline. It is difficult to maintain a consistent prayer life. In a sense it is easy to enroll in the School of Prayer but hard to get a graduate degree.
2. Almost everyone prays, believers and non-believers, and almost everyone feels he can improve in this area. Even in our best moments, we still must admit that we have barely touched the hem of the Master's garment in the arena of prayer.
3. Prayer presents us with both theological and practical problems. On one level, we are faced with difficult questions regarding the sovereignty of God and human free will. While those questions are important, I am not going to address them in this chapter. I would rather tackle the challenge of prayer on a purely practical level. When we pray, what should we pray for? I am much more interested in the "what" and "how" of prayer that pertains to us every day.
"Prayer is the very sword of the saints," said Francis Thompson. If that is true, why do we often keep the sword in the scabbard? Lee Roberson called prayer "the Christian's secret weapon, forged in the realms of glory." Why, then, do we not use it more effectively? Often we simply don't know what to say when we pray. I'm thinking especially of those moments when we begin to pray for others beyond our most intimate circle. What do you do when you have a large list of people to pray for, including friends, loved ones, neighbors, coworkers, missionaries, and others whom you hardly know at all? Our usual response is to pray like this: "Lord, uh ... uh ... uh ... bless Sally." Then we go to the next name: "And ... uh ... please bless Bill." Then we go to the next name: "Uh ... Lord, I ask You to really bless our missionaries in Ghana." And on it goes. As one man remarked, if you took the word "bless" out of our prayer vocabularies, some of us would never pray again. While I believe it is perfectly appropriate to ask God to bless people, I think we can move far beyond that and, in so doing, dramatically increase the effectiveness of our prayers. We can use Paul's prayers for the Philippians as blueprints for powerful praying. Philippians 1:9–11 is a prayer that fits virtually every situation we may face. If we understand the meaning of Paul's words, we can truly pray for anyone about anything.
This is a case where we do not have to wonder about the theme of Paul's prayer. It is spelled out for us in verse 10. The heart of his prayer is his request "that you may be able to discern what is best." This is a prayer for spiritual discernment. Here's my version of Paul's prayer:
I pray that you will know:
The good from the bad,
The better from the good, and
The best from the better.
As I thought about this request, my mind drifted to the motto of the public high school in the village where I live. If you look at the school's Web site, it contains a shield with a Greek word written across it. The word is tagarista, which means "those things that are best." It's a noble goal—both for a high school and for an individual's life—to pursue tagarista. The people who proposed this motto for the high school understood that there is a moral dimension to all education. That is, the very notion that there is "the best" presupposes a better, a good, a not-so-good, and a definitely bad. You can hardly choose "those things that are best" unless you know what they are, and you cannot know what they are unless you know what is "the best." This means that education in its truest sense is more than the impartation of facts about geometry, biology, American history, or English literature. It is also an understanding of a moral framework that enables us to make proper judgments about the good, the better, and the best (not to mention the bad, the very bad, and the worst). But apart from God, how will we know the good from the bad, the better from the good, and the best from the better? The answer is, we won't. Education alone will never lead us to tagarista. Education gives us knowledge, but to choose those things that are best, we need the wisdom that comes from God, and that's why Paul prayed this prayer.
Paul's prayer begins with three requests for the Philippian believers. As we pray for others, we should feel perfectly free to include these three requests as our own.
"And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more" (Philippians 1:9a). Imagine an empty cup slowly being filled with water. When the water reaches the brim, it begins to overflow down the sides of the cup. That's the picture Paul has in mind—love filling the hearts of the Philippians until it overflows. Almost all of Paul's prayers in the New Testament begin with a petition for love. That's because love is supreme among the Christian virtues. It alone will last forever (1 Corinthians 13:8, 13). No matter how much love we have, our love can always increase. He is praying that they would love more people and would love them in a greater way. We might ask if Paul is thinking about (1) love for God, (2) love for fellow Christians, and/or (3) love for non-Christians. The answer of course is yes, all of the above. The text is not specific because our love for God is always tied to our love for other people. If a man says he loves God and hates his brother, he is a liar (1 John 4:20). Love is the supreme grace. You can never have too much of it. You can never have enough of it. Paul is saying, "I pray that God will make you an overflowing fountain of love." He is praying that they might become "Super Lovers." There is an amazing scene at the end of the movie Marvin's Room. Bessie, played by Diane Keaton, has cared for her ill father and her aunt for twenty years. After learning that she has leukemia, Bessie receives a visit from her estranged sister, Lee, played by Meryl Streep. Bessie tells Lee, "I've been lucky to have had so much love in my life." Lee agrees that their father and aunt really do love her. Bessie seems taken aback for a moment. Her sister doesn't understand. Bessie doesn't mean she's lucky to be loved; she means she is lucky to have had so much love to give to others.
Lucky to love. What an amazing perspective. If we are full of God's love, it will overflow to others. It's not enough to be kind and polite. Our love must constantly be growing. So I ask a question at this point: Why does Paul pray for overflowing love? The answer is that when hard times come, we naturally start to pull away from other people and start focusing on our own problems. Sometimes Christian love is the first casualty of hard times. It's so easy to become self-centered, demanding, and myopic. If our marriage is in trouble, that's all we talk about. If our children are not doing well, that's all we talk about. If we have health problems, that's all we talk about. If we have lost a job, that's all we talk about. It's all about us, our problems, our struggles, and our hardships. We hardly have time or energy for anything else. And sometimes our distress is so great that we become vicious, turning on those we love the most. But it doesn't have to be that way. Some people build walls through their trials that keep people an arm's length away. Others build bridges so they can connect with and serve God's people. I received a wonderful note from a friend who wrote:
"Life is so good with God in the center. Now problems turn into solutions, fear turns into hope, anger turns to love. I'm free in God, and it's the best place to be. I've learned to take risks and face challenges. I take no credit for any of this. To God be all the glory. He never let go. He took me from a bitter, unhappy, depressed alcoholic and gave me the wings of eagles, soaring to heights I never dreamed possible. He's given me his words to share with other alcoholics, restored my family, and filled me with his love each day."
That testimony is wonderful in many respects, not least because it perfectly illustrates what it means to have love overflowing in your life. Only God can do that, and He does it wherever He can find a willing heart.
It's easy to understand why Paul's prayer begins with love. Since we live in a fallen world, we often find ourselves surrounded by irritable, petulant, cranky, annoying, aggravating, frustrating, crabby, unreasonable, and cantankerous people. And that's on a good day! Sometimes people will do or say foolish things to deliberately irritate us. And let's face it—some people are just very hard to love. What do we do then? There are many answers to that question, but our text suggests one very practical answer: We should pray for our love to increase.
It's one thing to pray, "Lord, get this fool away from me before I say something I shouldn't," and it's another thing to pray, "Lord, please change this person so he won't be so obnoxious." But it's something else entirely to pray, "Lord, I really don't care for this person. I don't like this person. He gets on my nerves. He's a total jerk. He's a bossy, dominating, opinionated fool. I don't even want to love him or like him, and I prefer not to be around him at all. I now ask you to bypass my feelings and do whatever it takes to increase my love. I'm low on love, Lord, and I ask You to fill me up." That's a prayer God will be glad to answer. By the way, I'm in favor of honest prayer. Why not be straightforward with God about the way we feel? David poured out his soul to the Lord and in the process used colorful language to describe his enemies. God knows how you feel anyway. It's not as if when you say that you can't stand someone the Lord says, "I'm surprised to hear that. I thought you liked them."
On more than one occasion I have poured out my frustrations about people to the Lord and then said, "Lord, You know how I feel. I now ask You to overlook all that I've said and bless the person anyway." And then, "Lord, do a work of healing in my heart so that I can love as I ought." Love is the glue that holds the human race together. It enables us to overlook the faults of others while acknowledging that we ourselves are far from perfect.
"In knowledge and depth of insight" (Philippians 1:9b). Paul's prayer continues with a request that the Philippians might grow in their knowledge of God. This sort of knowledge goes beyond factual information. It is a kind of knowing that comes from a deep, personal, and intimate relationship with another person. In context, Paul is asking that their love express itself in an intimate knowledge of who God is. The Greek word for "insight" speaks of moral discrimination, the ability to look at various options and to say, "This one is good. That's not so good. This one is better. That one is best."
Sometimes we say, "Love is blind." On the contrary, God says, "Love needs clear vision." Our love needs the guidance of knowledge and deep insight or else we will end up loving things we ought not to love—and entering into relationships that are not good for us. While love is supreme, it is never enough.
Not every relationship is a good relationship.
Not every choice is a good choice.
Not every friendship is good for us.
Not every job is a wise career move.
Not every roommate is a healthy choice.
Not every purchase is a wise use of our money.
We make our choices, and then our choices turn around and make us. As a tiny rudder guides a massive ship, our lives often turn on small decisions and unexpected events. An unplanned phone call, a chance conversation in the hallway, a friend we "happened" to meet in a restaurant, a fragment of a remembered dream, a book we meant to return but didn't, the dry cleaning we forgot to pick up, a newspaper story that led to an idea that became a dissertation topic that earned a degree that opened a door to a job in another country. It happens all the time. Every day we make hundreds of decisions, most of them made either by habit or on the spur of the moment.
Will I get up in the morning?
Will I take a shower?
Will I eat breakfast?
Will I go to work today?
If so, will I take the car or ride the train?
If I take the car, will I listen to the radio or a CD?
If I ride the train, what will I read while I'm on the train?
Who will I greet first at work?
Who will I see before first period starts at school?
Who will I meet for lunch?
What will we talk about?
What will do I when I get home?
What e-mails will I answer?
What Internet sites will I visit?
What books will I read?
How will I respond to my spouse?
How much time will I spend with my children?
On and on the questions go. Hundreds of questions, one after another, little decisions made on the fly every day. We like to think those decisions don't matter, but they do because each decision is connected to every other decision, like so many links in the chain of life itself. In a profound sense you are the sum total of all the choices you have made stretching back to your childhood. Each little decision joins you to the past and leads inexorably into the future. Choices aren't "neutral," since each one either leads us toward the light of God or toward the darkness of despair. Some things that don't seem to matter today may be of enormous consequence tomorrow, and some things that keep us awake for hours will prove to be relatively unimportant. We need "insight" from God to make wise choices. Here's a good way to remember the concept of insight. It is "sight" on the inside, a kind of inner vision that enables us to properly evaluate all the choices we face every day. When we have it, we make good decisions. And when we don't have it, we end up making the same dumb mistakes over and over again.
Where do we find this kind of insight? First, we get insight from the Word of God with the aid of the Holy Spirit. As we study the Bible, the Holy Spirit takes the Word of God and reveals to us the things of God (1 Corinthians 2:6–16). Let a man dive into the Scriptures with an open heart, and very soon his whole life will begin to change. In essence, Paul wants the Philippians to learn to think "Christianly" in every situation. Second, we get insight from the Lord in the answers to our prayers. So if you are confused, or if you find yourself in a deep hole because of wrong choices made over and over again, humbly ask God for the insight to make the right choices in life. That leads directly to the third petition, which is the heart of the prayer.
"So that you may be able to discern what is best" (Philippians 1:10a). Eugene Peterson (THE MESSAGE) offers this colorful paraphrase, "You need to use your head and test your feelings so that your love is sincere and intelligent, not sentimental gush." KNOX translates this way: "that you may learn to prize what is of value." The NEB speaks of the "gift of true discrimination." The NLT offers this translation: "I want you to understand what really matters." The Greek word for "discern" was used to describe the process of testing metals, such as gold ore and coins, to find out what they were worth. There is gold, and then there is "fool's gold." It looks like gold to the naked eye, but it isn't, and it's not worth anything. Too many Christians settle for "fool's gold" in the choices they make.
Paul prays that the Philippians would have such love and insight that they would continually make wise choices in life. He is praying that they would not be satisfied with the status quo or with spiritual mediocrity but would push on to true spiritual excellence. In a sense he is asking God for the gift of spiritual discrimination. In our day the word "discrimination" has a mostly negative tone, but in the spiritual realm we desperately need to discriminate between good and bad, good and better, better and best. This kind of discrimination is the ability to make wise choices under pressure. God's people need to learn discernment so that they can make wise choices under pressure.
Parents with young children understand this principle. As children grow up, we will correct them by saying, "The choice that you made was not good." Last Friday night my wife and I sat in the stands watching a high school football game. At one point one of the players from our local high school committed a foul, and the referee threw his flag. Marlene turned to me and said, "He didn't make a good choice."
"No, he didn't," I replied. "He hit the ball carrier after the whistle blew."
Excerpted from Beyond All You Could Ask or Think by Ray Pritchard. Copyright © 2004 Ray Pritchard. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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