Help for our Prayerlessness – by Sam Storms

Part of the reason for my blog holiday has been, hopefully, to fit more time for prayer into my schedule which, even without blogging, remains tightly packed. As usual, I have not found that as easy as I would like—although I am praying more than I normally do. What is it about prayer that we find so difficult?

I thought I would interrupt this blog break to bring you the following prolonged extract from Sam Storms’ forthcoming book on Colossians. The daily devotions I am sharing here are all on the subject of prayer, and I have found them helpful to me as I look again at this vital subject. This is taken from The Hope of Glory: 100 Daily Meditations on Colossians, by Sam Storms, pp.309-324, © 2008. Used by permission of Crossway Books, a division of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, http://www.crossway.org/.

The Easiest Thing About Prayer
Colossians 4:2
Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.
The easiest thing about praying is quitting. Giving up seems so reasonable, so easy to justify. It’s always been that way, which is why Paul wrote in Colossians 4:12, “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.” Persevering in prayer when no one seems to listen strikes many people as a sign of fanaticism, if not mental instability.

Not long ago I received an e-mail from a friend who was facing the impending deaths of several people in his church. Soon after, I learned of the untimely passing of an incredibly godly Christian man who left behind a grieving wife and two young children. In any given week I hear the same stories you do: a loved one dies, a job is lost and another not found, bills go unpaid, relationships are shattered, dreams fail to materialize. Rain does not fall and crops fail. A teenager is loved and cared for, yet rebels and abandons God. What makes such incidents especially disturbing is that they all occur notwithstanding persistent and fervent prayer that they not. Why is it that a man or woman prays for relief or deliverance or some essential blessing to alleviate intense aggravation, but hears nothing? In humble faith, with sincerity of heart, not for a moment doubting that God is able both to hear and answer their prayers, they pray. But heaven is silent, or so it seems.

I recently saw the film The Island (that’s not a recommendation!) in which unsuspecting clones are nourished and sustained to serve as organ donors for their wealthy sponsors who aspire to live as long as possible. These “folk” know virtually nothing of the outside world or its ways. Two have escaped and are in conversation with a rather strange man who happens to mention “God.” “What’s ‘God’?” asks one of the clones.

“Oh, well, you know when you close your eyes and ask for something?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, God’s the one who doesn’t answer you.”

Dr. Sam StormsIt’s a bad joke, but for many people it rings all too true. People in Paul’s day faced the same temptation to quit that we do. But too much was at stake. Though defeated at the cross, Satan and his demons are still active. The weakness of the flesh abides. The threat of schism in the body of Christ is ever present. Great opportunities to share the gospel are at every turn. So, don’t quit, says Paul. Continue steadfastly in prayer. Keep watch at all times lest you despair. Be thankful for all God has done and will do in response to your petitions. Much has already been said in Colossians concerning perseverance in prayer, so I won’t repeat myself here. . . . Instead, I want to briefly address the reasons why a good God who can help often seems not to, or at least not to in accordance with our schedules. There are surely reasons other than these, but here are a few suggestions that I hope will encourage you to “continue steadfastly in prayer” (Colossians 4:2a).

First, we are a presumptuous people. We just assume that God ought always to do what we ask, when we ask, precisely in the way we ask. By delaying his response, God awakens us to the gracious character of all answered prayer. In other words, that God says or does anything at all in response to our petitions is sheer, undiluted grace. Resolute continuation in prayer, watchful perseverance, is often the best way for us to learn this invaluable lesson.

Second, steadfast endurance in coming again and again to the throne of grace is God’s way of cultivating in us a sense of absolute and utter dependence upon him. We are by nature self-reliant, self-sufficient folk. If God were instantly and at all times to answer our every prayer, we would gradually lose our sense of urgency. Truth be told, most of us would soon lose sight of the fact that it is God alone who is the source of all good. By suspending his response, God is saying to each of us: “Just how desperate are you? How conscious are you that I am your only source, your sole and all-sufficient supply?”

Third, persistent praying puts us in that frame of mind and spirit in which we may properly receive what it is that God desires to give. In other words, it isn’t so much that God is reluctant to give, but that we lack preparation to receive. Try to envision what a mess your life would have been if your parents granted you everything you asked for as a child! God often delays his answers because, quite simply, we are in no shape to receive them. Few of us are willing to admit that, but deep down we know it’s true.

Fourth, steadfast, watchful continuation in prayer helps us differentiate between impetuous, ill-conceived, selfish desires, and sincere, deep-seated, Christ-exalting ones. Persistence in prayer thus enables us to weed out improper petitions.

Fifth, endurance at the throne of grace purifies the content of our petitions. By repeating our prayers we are forced to think and rethink what we are saying. We are compelled to evaluate our motivation and aim for asking God for something in particular. It’s a bit like how I read, reread, and read yet again each of these meditations. It helps me identify mistakes, locate typographical errors, and rephrase something that otherwise might be false or misleading. I can almost envision God saying in response to my first articulation of a prayer, “Sam, are you sure you want me to answer that one? Think about it. Contemplate the long-term consequences of a yes. Then come back and ask me again in different terms, with a purified purpose.”

Sixth, perseverance cultivates patience. By withholding an immediate response, we learn how to wait on God. Waiting on the Lord is far from a passive posture. It’s an active, expectant, persistent pressing in to the heart and purposes of a loving God. How might we ever learn to do this were it not for steadfastness in prayer?

Seventh, oftentimes God wants to give, but not now. The answer will come in better circumstances, at a more opportune moment. By delaying his response, a greater and better and more God-glorifying end is secured than by an immediate answer.

Finally, even if none of the reasons given above makes sense to you, persevere anyway! God isn’t asking you to understand; he’s asking you to be faithful.

Pray Thankfully!
C
olossians 4:2
Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.
There’s always a possibility that someone reading this passage might walk away with the idea that prayer is an anxious, troublesome, fearful endeavor. Paul’s language might easily contribute to that, were it not for the final two words of the text. Let me explain.

If I were to exhort you concerning some spiritual activity and insisted, perhaps with great urgency, that you “continue steadfastly” in it and that you remain alert and watchful, you might be inclined to worry, perhaps wringing your hands, biting your nails, and pacing nervously back and forth in doubt of the ultimate outcome. Now let’s be clear about one thing: prayer is serious business. James put it pointedly: “You do not have, because you do not ask” (James 4:2). If we fail to pray, we most likely will not receive. It is utterly presumptuous to think that God will do for us apart from prayer what he has promised to do for us only through prayer.

But this reality must be held in delicate balance with the equally biblical truth that God is sovereign: nothing slips his mind or through his fingers. He will accomplish all his purposes. He “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11).

This is the point, I believe, of Paul’s insistence that when we pray, and we should pray always and alertly, we should do so “with thanksgiving” (Colossians 4:2b). Why does he insist on this? And more important still, how do we do it? How does one pray thankfully?

First, I believe Paul includes this qualifying phrase because he wants to instill confidence in us rather than fear and uncertainty as we pray. It’s his way of saying, “Yes, by all means be faithful and fervent in your prayers. But know this: God is always and ever on his throne. The battle in which you fight is ultimately his, on your behalf. Let gratitude for what God has done and will do permeate your petitions. In this way you will never lose hope or fall into despair or live in fear that he has abandoned you in your hour of need.”

But second, and most important, how do we do this? What does it mean to pray “with thanksgiving”? Here are a few thoughts.

First, pray with gratitude that God is actually there, alive and alert and never asleep. We do not speak into a vacuum or to a God who is preoccupied with other, allegedly more important matters.

Second, pray with gratitude that God not only lives and loves but also actually listens to what we say. He hears us! “Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. . . . He will surely be gracious to you at the sound of your cry. As soon as he hears it, he answers you” (Isaiah 30:18–19). As you pray, therefore, thank God that he loves to listen and to be gracious.

Third, pray with gratitude that the God who lives, loves, and listens is also more than able to do above and beyond all we ask or think (cf. Ephesians 3:20). I’m so thankful that the God to whom I pray isn’t a wimp or a weakling, but an omnipotent and infinitely wise Father who delights in giving good things to those who ask (Luke 11:13).

Fourth, pray thanking God that he has chosen to include you in the process. God could have ordained that all his will be accomplished independently of our participation. But he didn’t. He has chosen to achieve his ultimate ends through means, the latter being primarily our prayers.

Fifth, pray thanking God for all the ways he is changing you as you pray. Wholehearted and humble intercession transforms the intercessor. Our ideas of God are elevated. Our awareness of personal dependency is intensified. The magnitude of God’s power and providence is manifest in ways that we otherwise might never behold. Our dreams and hopes and desires are cleansed and purified as we humbly submit to his will and crucify our own.

Sixth, pray thanking God that what you are asking him to graciously do in the lives of others he has already done in yours. If we are not grateful for the salvation and healing and mercy granted us, how can we possibly be fervent and diligent in asking that God do the same for others?

Seventh, and finally, pray with gratitude to God not simply for what he has done but for what he will do. Thank him in advance for what he will do in response to your requests. Without being triumphalistic or sinfully presumptuous, we should pray with Thank you, Lord!

The bottom line is this: it’s hard to be fearful when you are immersed in gratitude. Thankfulness turns the human soul toward heaven and away from self. Thankfulness, by its very nature, requires that we fix our focus on the fact that God is and who God is and what God has done and will do. Thankful prayer is necessarily theocentric.

Do you recall the incident in 2 Chronicles 20 where Jehoshaphat and the kingdom of Judah came under siege by the Moabites and Ammonites? After their prayer seeking God’s assistance, the prophet Jahaziel came to them with a bizarre word of counsel. “He appointed those who were to sing to the Lord and praise him in holy attire, as they went before the army, [to] say, ‘Give thanks to the Lord, for his steadfast love endures forever’” (2 Chronicles 20:21).

He instructs them to be thankful on the front end of the battle, before the enemy is ever engaged. Let the reality of God’s steadfast love fill your heart, he told them. Praise him for who he is. Rest peacefully in what he will do. “Stand firm,” he said, “hold your position, and see the salvation of the Lord on your behalf” (2 Chronicles 20:17).

Thus, “when Paul says our praying is to be done with thanksgiving, he means that we should keep our eyes on the victory of God. We do not fight as losers or even as those who are uncertain. We know God will win. And if we have eyes to see, we will recognize the path of his power again and again.”

Just Do It!
Colossians 4:3–4
Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. 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.
Now, wait just a minute. We all agree that God loves lost souls and wants them to hear the gospel of salvation in his Son. So why does he suspend the opening of an evangelistic door on the prayers of the Colossians? I’m tempted to say, in the words of the Nike commercial: “God, ‘just do it!’” Or, perhaps more reverently, “God, why don’t you directly open these doors rather than telling Paul to tell us to ask you to do so? What’s the point of our asking you to do what you’ve already revealed is in your heart to accomplish? As I said, Lord, ‘just do it!’” I suspect God’s response to me would be: “No, Sam. That’s not how I operate. Yes, of course, I could ‘just do it’ directly and instantaneously, without your involvement or anyone else’s. But I prefer to do it when you ask me to. In fact, in most instances I won’t do it unless you ask me to.”

Dr. Sam StormsHere’s another question that comes to mind. Why does Paul encourage the Colossians to pray for him? What’s the point of his asking them to ask God to open a door for the Word? Why does he urge them to pray that God would give him clarity of speech? Isn’t it enough that he ask God himself? I’m assuming he did, but he evidently believed that it would greatly help his cause if others joined him in beseeching God for this blessing. Does this impl
y that God is more inclined to say yes to our requests if more people are united in asking him for them? That seems odd.

Or is it primarily to aid his cause that Paul enlists the prayers of others on his behalf? Could it possibly be that for the sake of God’s greater glory he makes this request of the Colossians? I’ll return to that momentarily.

Let’s be clear about one thing. I didn’t ask these questions because I intend to solve the tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. I couldn’t solve it even if I wanted to, and how prayer factors into the equation is ultimately something beyond my intellectual ken.

Rather, I’m concerned about the nature of prayer. Or, more accurately, I’m concerned about the purpose of prayer. Why has God chosen to incorporate it into the way he governs the world and accomplishes his purposes?

One thing we know: God loves to be asked, and there’s good reason for it. Consider Psalm 50:12, one of the most sarcastic verses in Scripture. God says to the Israelites: “If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are mine,” which is to say, if God were hungry (which, of course, he’s not), he wouldn’t need the Israelites to provide him with a meal. “Every beast of the forest is mine,” says the Lord, “[not to mention] the cattle on a thousand hills” (Psalm 50:10).

So, if God doesn’t need us or our prayers, why does he create us and then command us to ask him for things? That’s a pretty profound question, but it comes with a fairly simple answer.

In Psalm 50:15 God says again, “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.” When you’re in trouble, says God, when you have needs and problems and trials and obstacles to overcome, pray to me and ask that I intervene and make provision. If you do, I’ll deliver you. And in your obvious dependence upon me I will be glorified. We both win. You get delivered. I get glorified. You receive a blessing. And people and angels and demons see that I’m the all-sufficient supply, the infinitely resourceful God, the one being in the universe who exists to overflow in abundant goodness to weak and needy people like you!

It’s amazing how asking a few questions about the nature and purpose of prayer drives us directly into the reason why God created the universe. God didn’t create us because he was needy or lacking in some profound way. We don’t supply God with anything. “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:24–25).

So, that being true, why did he make it all? He made it all so that in its (our) utter and absolute dependence on him for everything, his glory as God might be seen and savored. Our need magnifies his supply. Our lack draws attention to his abundance. God honors and glorifies himself by overflowing in bountiful blessings to those who otherwise deserve only death. And how do we get these blessings? By praying for them! God suspends his work on our prayers not because he can’t do it alone but because our prayers highlight our dependence and his supply. We are humbled as dependent and he is exalted as depended upon.

Not only does he get the glory for being depended upon but we get the gladness for being dependent. Yes, please read that again. There is no greater joy than getting what God gives (and he is himself, of course, the greatest gift). And there is no greater glory than for God to be giving.

Jesus commanded his disciples to pray, and here’s why: “Whatever you ask in my name, this will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14:13). Although there are undoubtedly other reasons why God chose to incorporate our prayers in the accomplishment of his purposes, his glory is preeminent.

One more thing: earlier I asked why Paul felt it important to enlist the prayers of the Colossians on his behalf. It’s not because God is stingy and Paul thought that a multitude of intercessors might have greater success in prevailing on God’s otherwise reluctant heart than would he alone. Once again, it’s all about God’s glory. In 2 Corinthians 1:11 Paul wrote, “You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.”

Note carefully why it’s important that the Corinthians (like the Colossians) pray for him. It is so that “many will give thanks” for the “blessing” that God grants to him in response to their prayers. God’s glory is more readily seen and known and savored when many rise up in unified gratitude for what he has done than if only one or a few do. So, when we pray for one another we get gladness in receiving what God gives and God gets glory for giving what we get.

Open Doors for the Gospel
Colossians 4:3–4
Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. 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.
Political correctness notwithstanding, Christianity is an evangelistic religion. Its aim is to proclaim the good news that there is eternal life in only one: Jesus Christ. Its aim, by the grace of God, is to bring about the deliverance of men and women out of the domain of darkness into the kingdom of light. There are some things, no doubt, for which we as Christians ought to apologize, but declaring that faith in Jesus Christ alone is essential for eternal life isn’t one of them. We should never hesitate to proclaim the “mystery of Christ” or shrink back from seeking the conversion of every soul.

Here in Colossians 4:3–4 Paul solicits the prayers of these believers, not for his own health or freedom or prosperity but for the opportunity and clarity to proclaim Jesus as Lord to lost and dying people. There are two elements in Paul’s request that call for our attention.

First, he asks them to ask God to open “a door for the word” that he might proclaim “the mystery of Christ” (v. 3). This isn’t the first time he’s used this imagery for evangelistic opportunities (see also Acts 14:27; 1 Corinthians 16:8–9; 2 Corinthians 2:12).

The “door,” evidently, is closed. This may suggest political opposition; social, cultural, and educational barriers to sharing the faith; adverse weather that hinders travel; or any number of factors that make evangelism difficult from a human perspective. It may be that Paul is asking God to grant him favor with those who have the authority to give him access to certain arenas of activity or platforms from which he might declare his message. In any case, Paul believed that God is sovereign over all such circumstances and that he can remove obstacles and overcome resistance and restrain the enemies of the faith when asked to do so by his people.

That an apostle, no less, would ask ordinary Christians like these Colossians to pray for his evangelistic success is stunning. Paul refused to trust in his skill or eloquence or theological knowledge alone. He needed the intercessory support of other believers. It’s almost as if he’s saying, “I’m helpless if you don’t ask God to help me.” Amazing!

And what might Paul do should the door be opened? He has one goal, one solitary purpose: to proclaim the mystery of Christ. The word mystery doesn’t mean what it does in a P. D. James novel or in a Sudoku puzzle. Paul typically uses this word when he has in mind a truth formerly hidden but now made known in Jesus Christ.

The mystery of Christ is the revelation of what God has done in and through his Son to make possible atonement
for sin and its forgiveness. That the Word should become flesh (John 1:14) is a mystery now made known for our salvation. That God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19) is a mystery now revealed for our justification. That faith alone in a crucified Messiah is the power of God unto salvation is a mystery now made known for our eternal welfare.

Where Christ is not proclaimed, the gospel is not known. No matter how psychologically soothing a sermon may be, if the mystery of Christ is not center stage, the gospel has not been preached. The focus of our message is not self-esteem, social justice, the plight of the poor, or world peace (as important as those issues are in their own right), but Jesus Christ crucified and risen for the salvation of lost souls.

Paul’s second request is that they ask God to enable him to proclaim this mystery with clarity (v. 4). “Pray that God will work in me,” says Paul, “that I might have the words to speak in the most persuasive manner and at the most appropriate time. Ask God to operate in my heart and mind and soul so that my message will ring true and will reverberate with passion and conviction and courage.”

Stunning, isn’t it, that a man of Paul’s spiritual caliber and gifting felt so desperately dependent on the prayers of others for his effectiveness in ministry! He made a similar plea to the Roman church, appealing to them to strive together with him in their prayers to God on his behalf, that he might be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea and that his service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the
saints (Romans 15:30–31).

His request of the Colossians raises an interesting question: What precisely might serve to inhibit or hinder his clarity of speech or prevent him from proclaiming the gospel in the way he desired? It may be that he anticipated trick questions from a hostile crowd and needed the assistance of the Spirit to see through their deception and speak truth into the fog of error. It may be that he sensed the importance of using just the right illustration or parable or analogy to make a point that would penetrate a closed and calloused heart with the truth that brings light and life. Paul, no doubt, felt confused at times and needed the quickening ministry of the Spirit in his mind. “Pray that God would clear my head of intellectual cobwebs and overcome any sluggishness of speech that would be unworthy of the gospel I proclaim. Pray that the Father would fill me with the Spirit of boldness and confidence and drive from me all fear of man and concern for my own reputation or physical safety.”

If he felt this burden, how much more you and I! Have you committed to praying consistently for your pastor each time he preaches? Have you interceded for that Sunday school teacher who tells the story of Jesus to indifferent and mocking junior high students? Have you petitioned God for yourself as you prepare to share your testimony with an unsaved neighbor? We are all desperately in need of such anointing and spiritual support from on high every time we open our mouths to speak of Christ.

“O, grant us open doors, Father, that we may speak boldly and clearly and joyfully of your Son and all that you have done for sinners in and through him! Work in us by your Spirit that we might have just the right story, the most telling illustration, the most persuasive phrasing as we declare the mystery of Christ Jesus! Amen.”

About Adrian Warnock

Adrian Warnock has been a blogger since April 2003, and a member of Jubilee Church, London since 1995, where he seves as part of the leadership team alongside Tope Koleoso.

Together they have written Hope Reborn - How to Become a Christian and Live for Jesus, published by Christian Focus.

Adrian is also the author of Raised With Christ - How The Resurrection Changes Everything, published by Crossway.

Read more about Adrian Warnock or connect with him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+.

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