What to pray for one another
I want to tease out the answer to a Spice Girls song: their slightly manic ‘tell me what you want, what you really really want.’ I face that question many a time as I sit with the Sandyford prayer booklet and have to decide whether a vague unspoken ‘Lord do him good’ is enough: what do I really want for you? What we pray for for a person, is a disturbingly revealing activity. It shows whether we have anything substantial to say to God on behalf of another; it shows what we think is their most important need; it shows what we value; and (since growth as a Christian is vital) it asks the question what promotes a Christian’s spiritual development. Take the prayer that the apostle Paul prays for the Christians in the country town of Colosse after telling them how grateful he is for them (do we do that enough?), Colossians 1 verses 9–14. He prays first that they will know God’s will (v. 9); but we need to be careful how we read that. When we pray thus it can be because we want to know what God’s will is for us in respect of our next job, the possibility of marriage, the expenditure of our money. There can be a touch of the ‘guide me, poor me, sick me, help me, give me’ about it. But Paul is praying that God will fill the Colossians with a deep grasp of His desires and programme: his plan of salvation, how He wants us to behave, His intent that through the church the many-coloured wisdom of God should become evident to the beings in the spiritual world, His zeal that the nations shall live in peace through the kingship of Jesus. The focus of Paul’s prayer is on the Colossians‘ (and our) self-forgetfully knowing and choosing God’s vision. The Message paraphrases it ’and so acquire a thorough understanding of the ways in which God works.‘ How are we doing in the light of that? I’d like to illustrate that matter of focus, of whose will we are most seeking. The wife of Oswald Sanders, Director of the China Inland Mission from 1954 to 1969, had cancer. He was trying to make her comfortable a few days before her death. Now look at this. She said ’Don’t make things too easy for me, dear; I don’t want to become fussy. I must keep on growing.‘ Close to death, and in pain, a person could be excused for being self-occupied. But her focus was on God’s ambition for her: to grow in likeness to Christ. She was aligning herself with His desires and programme. I find that very challenging. Secondly, Paul’s prays that they will live a life worthy of God (v. 10). There’s the choice of someone else’s honour here. Just before the Olympic games in China, it seemed uncertain whether some of the facilities would be ready in time. How the Chinese Christians among us prayed for the honour of their motherland! ’Let not China be disgraced before the world; may she be honoured at this time!‘ It’s in that kind of spirit that Paul prays: that the way Christians live, will honour the Lord. ’Let not God be disgraced before the world!‘ ’Father, may the way I behave make people want to praise you; may the spirit in which I behave earn You respect.' How are we doing in the light of that?
A third useful prayer pointer and guide to godly ambition: Paul prays that the Colossian believers will be greatly strengthened to endure (v. 11). Time conceals a menace for Christians. It’s possible to start the Christian life glowing with self-forgetful joy and taken up utterly with the spreading of Jesus‘ name, and then for the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches to strangle the joy, or under trouble and persecution to give up altogether. Paul knew this, and prayed that they would be strengthened with all power – on the scale of God’s glorious might!! – so as to have great endurance and patience. Those two qualities endurance and patience are different inasmuch as ’endurance is what we need in response to circumstances; patience is what we need in response to people‘ (Derek Tidball). The Colossians needed it in the light of the distortions of the Gospel that were being brought to them; we need it no less in our own day as every kind of discouragement is brought upon the faith in our own land and as people are being persecuted and martyred in so many parts of the world month by month just now. A glory of the Gospel is that God strengthens us for these challenges ’on the scale of his glorious might‘ in answer to prayer. And that is good reason for the fourth part of Paul’s prayer for them: that they will stay thankful. He prays – please read this over a couple of times – that they will ’joyfully give thanks to the Father who has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of our sins‘ (v. 12-14). Just look at those words! There’s a lot to be grateful for; let’s pray for one another that Sandyford will be a joyfully grateful people. There, then, is the Christian’s answer to the Spice girls. It’s a great star to steer by and a great resource when we wonder how to pray for people. What do you ’really, really want,' for yourself and for all of us? To know and align yourself with God’s plans; to live worthy of him; to be strengthened to endure; to be joyfully thankful. May God’s obituaries about each of us tell that story.
C Peter WhiteView All Letters