With worries about war, food shortages and the cost of living following the anxious times of the pandemic, how are people coping? A recent survey of UK adults found that more younger adults pray compared to older adults. Follow up reporting suggests that across a range of cultural and religious backgrounds, younger people are open to exploring spiritual things. Yet there may be a perception that prayer is a spiritual activity that can be whatever you make it. Prayer can sometimes be valued simply for the groundedness the ritual gives us, or the comfort that comes from voicing our fears and wishes. There is an inbuilt human longing for connection with something and someone beyond ourselves, which can really only be fulfilled by knowing the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ by His Spirit, and receiving the everlasting salvation He gives. Guidance as to what this looks like comes from what the apostle Paul shared about his prayer life, for example when he told the believers at Ephesus how he was praying for them. In the following updated extract, James Fergusson gleans some pointers about true prayer to the true God from what Paul says.
Who Paul prayed to
In Ephesians 1:17, the apostle gives a short summary of his prayer to God for the Ephesian believers.
First, Paul refers to God the Father (to whom he is praying) as “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ” and “the Father of glory”. The Father is in His own nature infinitely glorious, the fountain of the whole Godhead and all the divine attributes in the Son and the Holy Ghost. All glory is due to Him from created beings.
What Paul prayed for his friends
Paul then mentions what he sought from God for the Ephesian believers. This was “wisdom,” or a further increase of the saving knowledge of God which the Holy Spirit gives, together with a clearer insight into the Scripture where the same Spirit reveals these truths. This “wisdom” mainly consists in the saving, believing, and operative “knowledge of him,” i.e., of our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul wants the Holy Spirit to remove the natural blindness of their understandings and to bestow a clear discerning of the things of God.
We should have definite things to pray for
We should not necessarily restrict ourselves to a set form of words when we pray. Yet we should have set purposes worked out, and a definite point to aim at, when we pray, so that we would be able to give an account of what we are praying for, whether that is for ourselves or for others.
We must pray to the true God
Our prayers should be directed to God only. No one else knows us, or the secrets of our hearts. Anyone or anything else is unfit to receive our prayers.
Also when we draw near to God in prayer (whether for ourselves or others), we should do so with confidence and reverence – for these are not mutually exclusive. We should think about God, and express what we are thinking about Him, in a way that will most strengthen our faith and most strike our hearts with reverence towards Him. To strengthen his faith, Paul refers to God as “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ” and to bring his heart into deep reverence he calls him “the Father of glory,” or “glorious Father.”
We should pray out of faith in Christ
In order to have access to God with boldness through Christ, it is necessary to renew the act of faith which applies and appropriates Christ to ourselves. Then, being made one with Christ, we will be seen by the Father as clothed with Christ’s righteousness. This is the way that God will accept both our persons and our imperfect prayers – that is, through Christ. Paul here appropriates Christ to himself as his own, calling Him “our Lord Jesus Christ.”
It is necessary also that when we embrace Christ in this way, we do not divide Him into parts, but take to ourselves the fullness of all the perfections which are in Him. This is an evidence of our sincerity in embracing Him, but additionally, nothing less than the whole Christ is necessary to cover all our imperfections, bear us up under all our discouragements, and help us in all the infirmities which beleaguer us in our approaches to God. He is our “Lord,” full of power and sovereignty for our good. He is “Jesus,” a Saviour, who saves sinners. He is “Christ,” anointed by the Father to do this very work.
We should pray reverently
In Ephesians 3:14-15 Paul begins another prayer for the believers at Ephesus. Again he sends his prayer to “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” denoting both the Father’s relation to Jesus Christ and His relation to His church, His “family,” who take their name from Him.
The expression Paul uses here, “I bow my knees,” denotes the humble, reverent spirit of his heart in prayer. We are not restricted to any specific posture in prayer, yet our outward posture can both express something of our reverent inward spirit, and remind us what we are doing when we pray. We should draw near to God with deep reverence for His majesty, coupled with very low thoughts of ourselves, because of our unworthiness.
Deep reverence is entirely consistent with faith and confidence in approaching God as a reconciled Father. Both reverence and confidence ought to be joined together in prayer, and indeed, when they are sincere, they mutually reinforce each other, so that the more we put our trust in Him, the more our hearts will fear and adore Him.
We should think more about God than about ourselves
In making our approaches to God for anything, especially salvation, it is most necessary that we lift our eyes above anything that is ours (whether our good or our evil), and fasten them by faith on the inexhaustible fountain of mercy and power in God. He is not only willing (from His mercy) but also able (from His omnipotence) to give us whatever we ask that is in accordance with His will. He will grant it “according to the riches of his grace” (Ephesians 3:16).
We should have our priorities right
We must not neglect our outward and physical needs, yet the spiritual state of our immortal souls is what we must care about most. Paul prays in verse 16 for their “inner man,” for if things go well with the “inner man,” our outward concerns will trouble us the less. Ministers especially should pray mainly about the inward and spiritual state of their flock.
We should open our hearts for the best answers to prayer
Paul prays, “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” (v17-19).
The love of God in Christ to lost sinners is so large, so free, and in every way so wonderful. But our hearts are so narrow, and His ways of showing His love are so unexpected and strange to us, that even though it is revealed in the gospel, God Himself is the only one who can make us see it and grasp it. Paul prays to God for the people at Ephesus that God would let them comprehend and understand it.
The answer to Paul’s prayer will give us stability in times of trouble
As trees cannot long stand against the blasts of boisterous winds, unless their roots are deeply fastened in some good ground – and as houses cannot long remain firm and strong, unless they are built on some sure foundation – neither can we hold out for any space of time against temptations unless we are undergirded and supported by some strong foundation. That stability and constancy comes from the faith of God’s love. If we are not “rooted and grounded” in the love of Christ, we are like trees without a root and a house without a foundation. The only sure foundation for our souls is the unchangeable and free love of God in Christ revealed in the gospel and grasped by faith. No conceit of our own righteousness, or courage or resolutions will do.
The breadth of Christ’s love extends to all ages of history and all sorts of people. Its length reaches from eternity to eternity. Its depth stoops down to the lowest depths of sin and misery and pulls sinners out of there. Its height reaches up to heavenly joys and happiness, and carries sinners up to there. It is called “the love of Christ,” not to exclude the love of the Father or Holy Spirit, but because the love of the whole Trinity is conveyed to lost sinners through Christ and His merit. It passes created understanding to know it.
We must not content ourselves with a superficial view of God’s free love in Christ. Instead, take the most accurate inspection of it in all its dimensions, and endeavour at least to know it as far as you can. Our delight in it and the comfort we get from it is constrained by the narrowness of our thoughts and the shallowness of our insights about God’s love in Christ. The love of God in Christ, and the love of Christ to lost sinners, is so rich and unsearchable, so matchless and unparalleled, so vast, boundless and, well, infinite, that in the end the most we can say is that it “passeth knowledge.” How much this should stir us up to seek it!
Our prayers should take confidence from who God is
Paul towards the end of his prayer refers to God again, this time as “Him that is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we can ask or think…” (verse 20). Thinking of God in this way, Paul is so sure that God would answer that he is breaking out into thanksgiving already, as if everything he had asked for was already granted. “To him be glory!” (verse 21).
God is not only able to bestow more things and greater things than we can express, but also to bestow these greater things in a large and abundant measure. The conceptions we have of God when we pray to Him should be things that will furnish our hearts with reasons to have confidence in Him and the fact that He will hear us.
Especially we should stabilise our hearts in the faith of God’s omnipotence and power to grant what we ask. This is one of the best supports for prayer, seeing it is beyond all doubt that God will do whatever He is able to grant our petitions if we are seeking things which He has promised (1 John 5:14).
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