Why We Should Pray like Paul
Blessed in the Presence of Paul
I titled this morning’s message, “Learning to Pray like Paul.” I wanted to preach a message like this not only because the text for our Philippians series today concerns one of Paul’s prayers, but because in general, throughout the New Testament, there’s a quality to the prayers of Paul which exudes maturity, authenticity, profound love, depth, and great power.
Of course, Paul is not the only prayerful man in Scripture—not by a long shot. But in the New Testament, among the writings available for our study, there is no one whose prayers are detailed so exactly as those of Paul. What this means is, we have a front row seat to the deepest and most personal thoughts of the greatest servant of Jesus Christ to ever live. This is an amazing blessing and responsibility.
As incentive for praying more like Paul, listen to this incredible testimony of his life and character: In he second letter to Corinth, he wrote, “24 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches (11:24-28).
Imagine what Paul’s back looked like. What chronic pains persisted in his body, keeping him from sleep at night? Paul spoke often in his letters of a constant pain in his body, a thorn in his flesh. And in spite of the immeasurable physical suffering he personally experienced, he said, “And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.” What in this world brings a man in such physical distress to look beyond the mountain of his own problems to a place where his concern is other people? This wasn’t a false concern meant for persuasion, either.
Luke records a time, after Paul was stoned and presumed dead, when he got up and went on the next day to preach the gospel elsewhere (Acts 14). Further, in this very letter, Philippians, Paul is writing from a prison cell, showing his concern beyond self. This man’s life and testimony for Christ stands uniquely on its own. And I believe he lived such a life because he was deeply connected to God in prayer. He himself said, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). So, don’t think it a small thing to learn how a man like this prayed. My thinking is, if we can learn to pray like him, maybe we can live more like him.
Inspired Prayers for Our Learning
I mentioned earlier that Paul’s prayers are not only a blessing, they are a responsibility. I say that for two reasons: (1) Knowing how to pray isn’t intuitive—at least not entirely—and therefore Christians must learn from others, like Paul.
In Luke 11, “Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’” Why would anyone ask if the answer was obvious? Why did John teach his disciples to pray, if it was intuitive? It’s an honest inquiry. How do you talk to the One who made everything in existence? What do you say to an eternal being you cannot visibly see? The answers to these questions aren’t intuitive, and therefore it is our responsibility to learn from those before us, like Paul, who left an example.
And (2) I say the prayers of Paul create a responsibility on our part because God saw fit to record them in Scripture. Here’s a very simple argument: (1) All Scripture is breathed out by God and is profitable for our spiritual development (2 Timothy 3:16-17); (2) Paul’s prayers are a part of Scripture. Therefore, we are meant to be taught by Paul’s prayers.
If God made sure to record them, doesn’t he expect for us to emulate them? It’s only natural to conclude, yes. So, having prefaced with those things, I want to spend the remainder of our time today looking at one highly apparent element of Paul’s prayer in Philippians, which is also true, I think, of his other prayers. Next week, we will look at more of the particulars of this prayer. Open your Bibles to Philippians 1:9-11.
Praying for Eternal Things
“And I am praying that your love may abound more and more, in knowledge and all discernment, for you to confirm the things which matter most, so that you may be pure and blameless in the day of Christ, having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (My translation).
Now, just survey the terminology Paul uses. Love—abounding love—knowledge—discernment—the things which matter most—purity—blamelessness—the day of Christ—fruit of righteousness—Jesus Christ—glory—praise of God. All that stuff is packed in one sentence! One short prayer!
What’s the nature of Paul’s requests and concerns before the throne of God, primarily? Are these temporal requests or eternal matters? Paul is concerned deeply with the spiritual state of all Christians everywhere, and therefore his message before the throne of God concerns eternal matters—like, “Help them love one another more and more. Help them be blameless and pure before you, O God. Let them be filled with your righteousness, so they may be ready for the day of Christ. Praise you for doing so!”
Were you to lay out every prayer of Paul recorded in the New Testament, the vast majority of his conversations with God concern eternal things. He’s doesn’t do much praying for physical circumstances; he’s not mostly concerned with temporal situations of the flesh. You’d actually be hard pressed to find a prayer like that. In fact, later in Philippians, he’ll say he’s learned to be content no matter the physical situation. He has as much joy in a prison cell as he does on the beach in Malta. The question is, why?
Why does Paul pray very little for physical circumstances and very much for spiritual matters? There are at least two reasons: (1) Paul’s worldview—which was a radically Biblical one—was deeply disconnected from this physical world, anticipating the next world. Jesus said of himself that he’ll come like a thief in the night (Matthew 24), and therefore he urges disciples to be awake and ready for that coming. Paul, aware of this—and strongly trusting in this reality—spoke constantly of that day. Paul longed for that day. He lived as though it may come tomorrow—every day. And therefore, his concern wasn’t primarily for Bob’s broken arm—it was for his broken spirit which may not be prepared to meet the Lord. Here’s a survey of Paul’s thinking about that coming day.
1 Corinthians 1:8—“who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
1 Corinthians 5:5—“you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that he may be saved in the day of the Lord.”
Philippians 1:6—“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”
Philippians 1:10—“For you to confirm the things which matter most, so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ” (My translation).
Philippians 2:16—“holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.”
1 Thessalonians 5:2—“For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.”
So for Paul, the only thing that really mattered was eternal salvation. Whatever happens with the physical body—whether his own or somebody else’s—was a temporary predicament, and therefore his concern for it was marginal.
And (2) I think Paul prayed primarily for spiritual wellness because he knew physical hardships, though trying, often positively affect the work of Jesus—which is the only thing that matters, anyways! Here’s why I say that:
In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul spoke about a thorn in his flesh—a physical malady—given to him from God to keep him humble when he had great reason to be arrogant. In Galatians 4, he spoke of a bodily ailment and physical condition which not only caused him grief, but was a trial to the Christians among whom he worked.
And about this physical illness, Paul pleaded with the Lord three times to take it away from him. And this was the Lord’s response to him—“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12). That statement from Jesus to Paul, concerning his physical malady, colored everything in his world. Paul’s theology is totally shot through with this idea—the power of Christ is made perfect when Christians are weak, or are in trial. If some condition, even a painful one, advanced the work of Christ and brought more salvation to more people, Paul welcomed it.
I want to close with a single challenge today. But before doing so, let me make a brief clarification. Prayers for physical situations are good and are Scriptural. Jesus told us to pray to God for food to eat. James said sick individuals should call the elders of the church to pray for them so they may be healed. If there are sick members among us, the Scriptural thing is to pray for their healing.
Having said that, I wonder, how do our prayers reflect our worldview? If we pray for sick bodies, should we not pray more so for the spiritual well-being of each other? Paul’s prayers reflect a man who cares about the things which matter most. We should learn from that.
This week, my challenge to you all is this: Memorize one of Paul’s prayers, and begin incorporating some of those elements into your prayer life. It may be this passage in Philippians 1:9-11. You may, like Paul, pray for the love of this church to abound more and more. Or you may memorize what Paul prayed in Ephesians 1, that the church in Asia have the eyes of their hearts enlightened to know the hope to which they’ve been called, to know the riches of God’s inheritance in the saints, to know the immeasurable greatness of the power of God toward those who believe.
Memorize one of these prayers, and start praying more like Paul.