Let’s begin with some fast facts about prayer. According to pollster George Barna, almost 90% of Americans say they pray. Over 60% of unchurched Americans say they pray. Of those unchurched Americans, one in three believe that prayer makes a difference in their lives. Among “born again” respondents, nearly 70% say that God personally answers their prayers.
But exactly how do Americans pray? Barna offers these insights:
95% express gratitude to God.
76% ask God to forgive particular sins.
61% make specific requests of God.
12% pray in tongues.
So how is your prayer life? I imagine that your answer would be, “It depends. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not so good.” Prayer can be easy or difficult depending on many factors. There are days when we seem to touch heaven with our prayers, and other days when our words seem to bounce off the ceiling. But regardless of how we feel, if we want to know God better, nothing matters more than our prayers. Did you know that nearly 1,400 verses in the Bible speak about prayer? If you want to grow spiritually, you must learn to pray effectively. There is no shortcut to spiritual growth. Prayer is essential.
Facts and Excuses About Prayer
Bruce Goettsche points out a few facts that we all know about prayer:
Prayer makes a difference … we don’t know how … we just know it does.
Prayer brings wisdom.
Prayer provides strength for difficult times.
Prayer convicts us of areas in our life that need changing.
Prayer brings us assurance of our position in the Father.
We know these things by heart. We know by experience that “prayer changes things.” We know that prayer changes us and it changes the world around us. We know that God gave prayer to us as a wonderful gift. If that is true (and it is), then why don’t we pray more than we do? Several years ago D. A. Carson, New Testament professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, wrote A Call to Spiritual Reformation. In one chapter he discusses six excuses we make for not praying more than we do. Do any of these sound familiar?
“I am too busy to pray.”
“I feel too spiritually dry to pray.”
“I feel no need to pray.”
“I am too bitter to pray.”
“I am too ashamed to pray.”
“I am content with mediocrity.”
I doubt that anyone actually says, “I am content with mediocrity.” If they are, they simply don’t pray at all. These excuses don’t amount to anything at all. An excuse is just “the skin of a reason stuffed with a lie.” We fail to pray because we don’t want to pray. If we wanted to pray more, we would. All the excuses in the world can’t erase that truth.
I realize that whenever someone preaches on prayer, especially if you’ve gone to church for many years, it’s tempting to say, “Hey, I already know this. Tell me something I don’t know.” I smile when I hear that because one of my jobs as a pastor is to tell you what you already know—and then to tell you over and over and over again. Some things are so important that we need to be constantly reminded of them. Nowhere is that more true than in the area of prayer. The question is not, “Do you already know this?” but rather “What are you doing about it?” Knowledge that is not put into action is worse than useless.
In this sermon series we’re looking at the various prayers of the Apostle Paul in the letters he wrote to different churches. So far we’ve looked at several prayers Paul has prayed for his readers. Today we’re looking at something different. Colossians 4:2-4
is not a prayer by Paul for others; it’s a prayer request Paul made of his readers. In verse 2, Paul answers the question, “How should we pray?” Then in verses 3-4, he answers the question, “What should we say when we pray?” So this sermon comes from a prayer request Paul made for himself, and from it we learn how to pray and what to say when we pray.
Three Ways to Pray Effectively
A. Be devoted to prayer
“Devote yourselves to prayer” (Colossians 4:2a
). The word “devote” means to grab hold of something and not let go. It’s what happens at the end of Summer Breakaway when all the teams get together for a giant Tug of War. One team grabs one end of the rope and another team grabs the other end. You put the small people up front and the beef near the end. Someone yells “Go!” and the pulling begins. People shout, “Don’t give up. Don’t let go.” You hang on for dear life, and if you lose, you end up getting dragged across the sand. To “devote” yourself to prayer means to hang on no matter what happens. You never give up on prayer even when it seems useless.
I discovered the real meaning of devotion when I moved to Chicago in 1989 and discovered the Chicago Cubs. There are no fans in the world like Cubs fans. They never give up; they never lose hope. It doesn’t matter how terrible the team is. As Harry Caray liked to say, “Any team can have a bad century.” During our first year here, our boys went to school in Chicago. When we picked them up in the afternoon, we always drove back on Addison and turned left on Narragansett. Right at the corner is a little hot dog stand. The owner must have been a Cubs fan because there was a sign with the big C that stands for the Cubs. Underneath was the phrase, “If it takes forever.” That’s true devotion. You never give up. You never even think about giving up.
Always be ready to pray. Pray when you feel like it, pray when you don’t feel like it. Pray when you believe in it, pray when you doubt it. Pray when your heart is filled with faith, pray when you do it by habit. Do you ever feel like giving up? Paul says, “Keep at it!”
“And he (that is, Jesus) told them a parable, to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1
RSV). “Pray without ceasing” (I Thessalonians 5:17 NIV
). These verses don’t mean that every word we say has to be a prayer. But they teach us that we should always be ready to pray at a moment’s notice. Keep the lines open so that you can breathe a prayer in an instant. There are times we all feel our prayers are bouncing off the ceiling and hitting us in the head. And in those times when we want to give up, we must keep on praying in spite of how we feel.
B. Be watchful in prayer
says, “Being watchful.” The word means to “stay awake.” That’s good advice for prayer and also for sermon-listening on Sunday morning! This is a call for earnest prayer. It is the opposite of sleepiness or laziness or coldness or indifference. Have you ever noticed how easy it is to be distracted when you pray? Just as you bow your head, the phone rings, or your pager beeps, or some music distracts you, or you suddenly remember that you have to check the roast in the oven. A thousand things come crowding into your mind. Sometimes it seems as if the devil’s best work comes when we decide to pray. He unloads his full armory of distractions against us. Or perhaps you decide to spend an hour in prayer. So you get on your knees and begin to pray. You pray for yourself, the members of your family, all your friends, the leaders of your church, the missionaries you know, then all the missionaries in the world, then every country in the world. Finally you pray by name for every person in every country of the world (or so it seems). Then you look up and discover you’ve only been praying for five minutes!
speaks of the “effective fervent prayers” of the righteous person. They “avail much” with God. They matter to God. He pays attention to “effective fervent prayers.” The Greek word for “fervent” means “boiling.” Boiling prayers get God’s attention. Do you know what a “boiling” prayer is? You’ll discover what that means when the doctor says, “We’re taking your child away for surgery. It will probably last two hours.” When they wheel your child away, you’ll learn what “boiling prayer” means. Nothing can distract you then. Praying like this speaks of total concentration. Better a short prayer from the heart than a long prayer that puts you to sleep.
Last Tuesday night I was invited to an “Ask Pastor Ray” night sponsored by Power Connection, our junior high ministry. The students had written out their questions in advance. I had a great time answering the questions and they had a great time seeing if they could stump me (which they managed to do a couple of times). One question caught my attention: “If God is up in heaven, why do we have to close our eyes and bow our heads when we pray?” Good question. We’ve all wondered about that from time to time. Here’s the answer: You don’t have to bow your head or close your eyes when you pray. We do that simply to keep out distractions. In the Old Testament men would often pray standing up, with outstretched arms, looking up to heaven, eyes wide open. I find that I do my best praying when I’m riding my bike—and I assure you that I keep my eyes open! Whatever helps you stay alert is the right way for you to pray.
Consider a Marine sentry guarding a base in Kuwait, not far from the Iraqi border. Now compare that soldier with a security guard at a Dominick’s grocery store in Oak Park. Who will be more alert? It better be the Marine sentry in Kuwait. The one who believes he is on the front lines is going to be more alert. Our problem with prayer is that we think we’re a security guard at Dominick’s when in reality we’re like the Marine sentry in Kuwait. He has to stay alert because his buddies are depending on him. It’s life or death to them. We mess around in prayer because we think it doesn’t matter, when in reality we are sentries standing guard at the front lines of spiritual combat.
C. Be thankful in prayer
The NIV renders it “being watchful and thankful.” Eugene Peterson (The Message) offers this paraphrase: “Stay alert, with your eyes wide open in gratitude.” Gratitude is the doorway to every spiritual blessing. Why would God give you more if you are not thankful for what has already been given? If we don’t know what else to do when we pray, we can always find reasons to be thankful. Someone has said that there are only two basic prayers, and each is only one word: “Help!” and “Thanks!” If we said “Thank you” to the Lord more often, we might get the help we need more often.
As I thought about how to improve our daily “attitude of gratitude,” four suggestions came to mind: First, when you wake up in the morning, take 30 seconds to give thanks to the Lord for the day that stretches before you. Thank him in advance for all that will happen that day. Do it before your feet hit the floor. Second, when you are tempted to lose your temper during the day, instead of counting to ten, take a few seconds to count ten blessings you have received. You may find that your anger has melted away. Third, when you are interrupted (as we all are every day), instead of being exasperated, remember that God rules over the “interruptions” of life, and what seems an “interruption” to us is really his rearrangement of our plans. So take time to thank him for the interruptions as they come to you. Fourth, when you climb into your bed at night, take 30 seconds to review the day, giving thanks for the blessings you have experienced and for God’s protection every step of the way.
So there you have it. When you pray …
Be devoted to prayer.
Be watchful in prayer.
Be thankful in prayer.
This is not just good advice. These attitudes make prayer life-changing. Having told us how to pray, Paul now tells us what to pray. In particular, he instructs us on how to pray evangelistically. Prayer is essential for spreading the gospel. As we pray, God grants us (and others for whom we pray) the boldness we normally lack. As we will see, earnest prayer is a vital link in the evangelistic chain.
Four Ways to Focus Your Prayers
In Colossians 4:3-4 we find four very practical prayer requests. Make a special note of these things because these are prayers God welcomes and desires to answer.
A. For those on the front lines of spiritual conflict
“And pray for us, too” (Colossians 4:3a
). This phrase contains a little Greek word that means “together” or “at the same time.” The implied meaning is, “O Colossians, when you come together to worship, take time to pray together for us.” United prayer honors God because the faith of one believer strengthens another and causes a great outpouring of prayer to our Heavenly Father. I can testify that my personal prayer life improves as I pray with others.
Christians have a special duty to pray for their spiritual leaders. A month ago I asked the church to pray for me this year. I know that many people have been praying for me for a long time, and I am truly grateful. But I sense the need for special prayer. Some people have wondered why I would ask for prayer now. I’m not sure I can answer that question other than to say that for all of us who labor in the Lord’s work, we soon realize that our own strength is small compared with the challenges we face. It’s easy to be discouraged and overwhelmed as you consider what is required versus what you have to offer. So prayer is always needed for those who lead God’s people.
Two weeks ago I asked the church to pray because I was traveling to upstate New York to teach for a few days at Word of Life Bible Institute. I ended up in a cabin by myself near a frozen lake. There was snow and ice everywhere. Frankly, I felt a bit disoriented being in that cabin by myself. On my first night in the cabin, I checked my e-mail and found a message from Kris Sagan. She wrote to tell me about something that her son Matt, who is six years old, said just before bedtime. Her husband Ed was putting him to bed when Matt said, “Dad, wait a minute.” “What is it, son?” “Pastor Ray asked us to pray for him. He said he was going on a trip this week. We need to pray for him.” So they stopped and Matt prayed for me. Kris wrote to tell me about it and then she added, “I just wanted you to know that if no one else heard what you said, one six-year-old boy heard it and remembered to pray for you.” When I read it, my heart was encouraged and that cabin didn’t seem so lonely to me.
On the first week of January, I asked, “Would you like a better pastor in 2003?” The answer is still the same. Yes, I would too. You can have one, and I can be one, if you will pray for me. And not just for me but for all our pastors, all our leaders. And for all our missionaries. And for pastors everywhere. And for Christian workers everywhere, especially for those you know personally.
B. For God-sent open doors of opportunity
“That God may open a door for our message” (Colossians 4:3b
). In Greek this is literally, “a door for the Word.” The concept of “open doors” in the New Testament almost always has to do with new opportunities for spreading the gospel. It might refer to someone you want to reach for Christ. It could refer to a brother or a sister, your parents or your children, or some other relative. It might be an open door to preach Christ in a new town or a new country. It could refer to an open door to reach an unreached people group. The idea is that Christ himself opens and shuts the doors of opportunity (Revelation 3:7
). Therefore, we should pray to the Lord that in his sovereign grace, he will open wide the doors of opportunity so that we can make Christ known to others.
This is a powerful and arresting thought. We all have the opportunity to open doors for others through our prayers. You can open doors for me and I can open doors for you as we pray for each other. You may be thousands of miles from where I am, but your prayers can change my ministry in Oak Park, and my prayers can change your ministry wherever you happen to be. Geography is no barrier when the Lord is involved. By prayer we can change the world without ever leaving our living room.
I have been struck lately with the thought of how many open doors there are at Calvary. We see God’s hand of blessing and so many responsive hearts in every area of our ministry. Right now I’m thinking about our International Students Ministry. This is one of our “hidden” ministries that reaches out to college and graduate school students who have come to Chicago from all over the globe. A few months ago we hosted an informal get-together, and out of 90 people who showed up, 85 were from China. And most of those were not from a Christian background. Best of all, they were glad to come and thankful for the invitation. Through this ministry we have met students from distant lands who are willing and often eager to learn about the Christian faith.
Sometimes you find open doors in very unlikely places. Last Sunday after the third worship service, I met the parents of someone who attends our church. The parents were visiting from another state. When I met the mother, she showed me the cell phone in her hand and told me that just before the service started, she called a friend from home to say hello. It turned out that her friend was going through a very hard time and was struggling with discouragement. But just then the service was starting. What should she do? She left the cell phone on, kept the call going, and held the phone facing the pulpit so her friend could hear the whole service—music, prayers and my sermon. After the service her friend said, “That’s just what I needed to hear.” When the woman told me, she added one detail. “I had just changed the battery a few days ago. Now I know why I did it.”
There are doors waiting to be opened everywhere. Some are in Chicago neighborhoods, offices, and schools. Some are found in apartment buildings or on college campuses. Others are located in Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu countries. Some doors are marked “CLOSED,” but they wait to be opened by the power of God. Would you join me in praying for God to open doors for the Word to go forth in conquering power? Let this be our prayer: “O God, blow the door off the hinges in Albania, Syria, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Guinea, Japan, China. And while you’re at it, Lord, blow open the doors in Oak Park!”
C. For boldness despite difficult circumstances
“So that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains” (Colossians 4:3c
). When Paul wrote these words, he was in prison in Rome, chained to guards 24 hours a day. He does not ask his readers to pray that he might be set free. Instead, he asks for boldness in his current unpleasant circumstances. He knows he is in prison for the gospel. He got there by obeying the Lord. Therefore, God must want him there. God can use him there. He will not ask to be set free. “Let me use this moment for the sake of that which got me here in the first place.” Clearly, he is not ashamed of his present situation and he makes no attempt to hide it. He simply asks prayer for boldness to preach even while he is in chains. And his message is all about Christ—the “mystery” that the Gentiles do not understand. The story is not about Paul—it’s about Jesus! That’s the focus of his whole life.
D. For clarity in presenting the gospel
“That I may proclaim it clearly, as I should” (Colossians 4:4
). The final request is for clarity in his gospel presentation. He wants to make sure that what he says is easily understood by others. Anyone can make the simple complicated; it takes great wisdom to make the complicated simple. There is a moral imperative to be clear in our gospel presentation. I find this request noteworthy because Paul knew better than anyone how to speak for Christ. He certainly knew the gospel better than these young Colossian believers. Yet he asks them to pray that he would do what he already knew how to do. The greatest Christians, the best speakers, the most powerful evangelists, the most knowledgeable teachers all need the prayers of others that they might do effectively what they are called by God to do. We must labor and pray so that our speech is clear and plain, with no ambiguous phrases, nothing left unclear, nothing hidden from our hearers. The Good News is not good news if those who hear us don’t understand what we are saying.
John Piper summarizes these four requests this way: “What good is an open door if no one has the courage or the clarity to go through it and speak? And what good is courage and clarity if all the doors are slammed shut on the people who need the word? Therefore pray, pray, pray.”
Changing the World Through Prayer
Would you please pray for me? I know that I will not have open doors and I will not be able to communicate clearly unless you are praying for me. If you don’t pray for me and I preach a confusing sermon, it’s really your fault! I can’t take all the blame for a sermon that makes no sense! As a pastor, I can’t think of anything more encouraging than knowing that you are praying for me and for all the pastors of this church.
§ By prayer we may change the world.
§ From our knees we can impact distant lands.
§ We may never preach but our prayers may make the preaching of others successful.
§ We may never be foreign missionaries but our prayers may open doors for missionaries around the world.
§ By prayer we partner with God’s people everywhere. And we do that even though we never leave our home.
§ By prayer I can minister in Bangladesh even though I have never set foot there.
§ By prayer I can become a world traveler even though I may be homebound.
§ By prayer I can traverse the oceans, enter closed nations, visit the courts of distant monarchs, and travel the dusty trails of far-off lands.
§ By prayer I can visit Singapore, Seoul, Beijing, Tokyo, Manila, Johannesburg, Nairobi, Kiev, Sucre, Buenos Aires, Lagos, Bangalore, Madrid, Berlin, Caracas, Moscow, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Sao Paulo, Mexico City, Accra, Ankara, Baghdad, Tel Aviv, Paris, Helsinki, and a thousand other cities in countries I may never personally visit.
By prayer I can become a world traveler. And no terrorist threat can ground my plane, no color-coded terror alert can change my plans, no fears of war can stop me, no visa problems can keep me from my appointed visits. By prayer I can go anytime, anywhere to support the work of God.
So how are things at Calvary Memorial Church in these early weeks of 2003? As I thought about that question, the words of I Corinthians 16:9
from the New Living Translation came to mind: “There is a wide-open door for a great work here, and many people are responding. But there are many who oppose me.” These are great days, amazing days, days when doors are opening on every hand. Yet the challenges are real and must be faced. After 88 years in Oak Park, I believe our best days are yet in front of us. God has so much more to do through us if only we will unite together to seek his face. O Lord, make us a praying people. O Lord, make us a praying church. O Lord, do whatever it takes to see your power unleashed in our midst. O Lord, teach us to pray. Amen.