A dad discovered scribbling on the seat in front of where his family sat in church. He knew his three-year-old did it, so he leaned down and whispered, "Don't do that. Jesus wouldn't want us to color on his pew." His daughter closed her eyes and bowed her head. With her hands crossed dutifully, she prayed, "Jesus, can I color on your pew?" She paused as if waiting for a reply. A second later, "Ok. Thanks, Jesus." She was back at it seconds later, leaving her father between a rock and a hard place.
There was a man who didn't like to pray before mealtimes. He thought it was a ridiculous waste of time. One day, as he exited the grocery store, he had a bright idea. When he got his groceries in the car, he bowed his head and prayed, "Lord bless all this food to the future nourishment of my body. Amen." Now with all the food blessed in advance, praying before mealtime would be an unneeded practice.
A young man invited his new girlfriend over to his parent's house for dinner. The young lady had not grown up in a home where prayer was part of mealtime. They asked her to say the prayer before supper. She bowed her head and began the prayer with these words. "I pledge allegiance to the flag…" she concluded, "with liberty and justice for all. Amen."
I had a pastor friend. During his sermons, it was common for listeners to be lulled to a drowsy state by his warm, soothing voice. One time toward the end of a sermon, apparently even he was becoming drowsy. After a perfectly normal sentence in which he was addressing the congregation, he said, "In your son's name, we pray, amen." He paused for a few seconds when he realized he had just said amen for no reason.
"I don't know why I just said that," he offered as the congregation laughed. I think I know why he said it. It's because we pray so often that it becomes routine. We say the same things so regularly that prayer can seemingly lose its meaning. So, what is the purpose of prayer?
A few years ago, I asked a minister friend, "why do we pray? He honestly answered, "I don't know." What a frightening response to come from a minister of the Gospel.
If you asked me, "why do we pray?" when I was young, I would have given you a confident answer: "To get well." Why would that have been my answer? Because in the little church where I grew up, we had an all-church prayer request time every Sunday morning. The vast majority of the prayer requests were for the same few things: physical healing, financial stability, and relief from life's various stresses.
Throughout my life, I've seen the same thing year after year. When the floor is open, the same kinds of requests tumble forward.
"Julie has the flu; pray God will bring healing."
"Jack is on a work trip; pray he will have traveling mercies."
"Julie still has the flu; pray extra hard God will bring healing."
"Jill is in an abusive relationship; pray that God would place a hedge of protection around her."
So, I'd like to ask you this question. If an outsider had to analyze a hundred of our prayers and then was asked, "Why do these Christians pray?" What would be his answer? I'm convinced that it would be this: Christians pray to get an easy escape from their troubles. That's what most of our prayer requests are about. It may sound good on the surface, but it has some damaging results.
There was a set of parents who had a baby born with a birth defect. The child grew and learned to cope with it, though it did affect the child's life in some negative ways. When others at their church learned of the congenital disability, they began to encourage the parents to pray for God to heal the child. They pressured the parents with lines like, "If you have enough faith and pray hard enough, God will heal your baby." They took this advice to heart and fought hard in prayer to get their beloved child well. No matter how hard they tried, God didn't answer that prayer. They grew disheartened and left the church altogether. The problem wasn't that they didn't have enough faith. The problem was that their church taught the primary purpose of prayer was to escape life's troubles.
There was a young man, let's call him Bret. Though he was a believer, depression, loneliness, and obsessive thoughts plagued him. A Bible teacher told him that if he prayed hard enough, God would magically fix the predicament. He fervently prayed, "Lord, take away my depression, loneliness, anxiety, and obsessions. Just do something!"After years of praying and expecting to be released from his troubles but not receiving, Bret gave up on God and became an atheist.
Do these failures to get answers from God demonstrate that God doesn't exist? NO! What they show is the danger of praying in the wrong way. Both of the stories above are about the victims of lousy teaching concerning prayer. They're victims because they heard they could use prayer to escape from any of life's troubles. When it didn't happen, they were left disillusioned, and it destroyed their faith. Believing that prayer’s primary purpose is to escape trouble is a damaging idea.
You may have troubles like physical illness, financial instability, emotional distress, or a host of other practical problems. We prove what our primary prayer purpose is by what we pray for. If your prayer time is dominated by requests to escape practical problems, then that's your priority. That priority can create a huge problem. It is so important that we get our prayer priorities right.
I'm convinced that the book of Colossians has some profound lessons for us to learn about prayer. There are three short sections that can help us with this huge problem we're in. We'll get to see what types of things spiritual heroes pray for. It might not be what you expect.
A few years ago, I was discussing spiritual things with a good friend. The concept of bearing fruit came up. It's a term that appears several times in the Bible. It is also one that has caused some measure of confusion. The man said, "Bearing fruit is not the same thing as doing good works." After letting that sink in for a moment, he added. "Does a tree work when it bears fruit?”
Something didn't feel right about that. I went away from the conversation trying to think through what was said. I had always associated the term bearing fruit with good works, but I couldn’t quite articulate it. It wasn’t long after that I came across a verse in Colossians which cleared up all the confusion. Notice what Paul says about bearing fruit:
“…bearing fruit in every good work…” (Col. 1:10)
So the case was settled. Each time a believer does good works, he or she is bearing fruit. That means that good works are associated with bearing fruit. When I shared this verse with my friend, he was happy to know that Paul had clearly defined the term. We were both enriched by the conversation.
Now that we know doing good works is associated with bearing fruit, let’s review what the fruits of the Spirit are:
“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23)
This list of beautiful qualities speaks of the kind of fruit a believer can expect when they walk with God. Each of the fruits of the Spirit has a dual nature. They are an inner disposition, but they are also associated with an external result. Love, for instance, is an internal mindset, but it is also associated with acting lovingly toward others, which is an external result. Self-control begins with a spiritual mindset, but it also has a visible result: You'll be able to stop yourself from falling into temptation. The external result is usually sometimes called good works, but I like the phrase Godly Actions. The internal disposition I like to call a Godly mindset. So if you are a believer who is bearing fruit, it means you are a person who has a Godly mindset coupled with Godly actions. Here’s what we’ve learned so far.
+ Godly Action
Bearing Fruit/Good Works
Defining our terms is going to help us not trip into a pothole as we move forward. Now we're ready to jump into our passage.
Let's take a look at the first chapter of Colossians. After giving a spirited greeting at the opening of the letter, Paul says this:
We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, (Col. 1:3)
Paul had never been to Colossae. He probably didn't know hardly any of the people there. His primary connection with the Colossian believers was through his friends Epaphras and Onesimus. None the less Paul, still prayed for them. Not only that but when he prayed for them, he thanked God for them. What types of things did Paul thank God for concerning the Colossians? We don't have to wonder because he tells us:
For we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints because of the hope reserved for you in heaven. You have already heard about this hope in the word of truth, the gospel that has come to you. It is bearing fruit and growing all over the world, just as it has among you since the day you heard it and came to truly appreciate God’s grace. You learned this from Epaphras, our dearly loved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf, and he has told us about your love in the Spirit. (Col. 1:4-7)
So, we're trying to discover what types of things Paul was thankful for and what he prayed for concerning the Colossians. To answer this, I'd like you to quickly scan the passage above and look for Spiritual fruit-like qualities. Though there might be more, here are the ones that stand out to me:
Their love (vs. 4)
Their hope (vs. 5)
Bearing fruit (vs. 6)
Gratitude (vs. 6)
Faithfulness (vs. 7)
Love in the Spirit (vs. 8)
What is Paul thankful for? He's grateful that they are demonstrating the fruits of the Spirit. What are the things he prays for concerning them? His prayers are about their Spiritual fruit. He doesn’t thank God for their physical health, but their Spiritual wellness. That’s his primary concern.
He sums it well with this line. The Gospel "is bearing fruit and growing all over the world…[and] among you…" (Col. 1:6). What Paul is most thankful for is the fruit the Gospel has produced in them. It's what he prayed about. After talking about how their fruit makes him happy, he says this:
For this reason also, since the day we heard this, we haven’t stopped praying for you. (Col. 1:9)
Why is it that Paul is praying for these strangers whom he's never met? He says, "For this reason…" They are producing spiritual fruit, so he prays for them. That's what he's interested in. He's a fruit lover. Among all the things he could pray about, he skips over every physical need they might have and goes right to the spiritual fruit. He adds a similar element in the next verses:
…We are asking [God] that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding… (Col. 1:9)
Once again, we see that Paul's primary prayer concern is not physical wellness, wealth stability, or relief from stress. His central prayer concern was for them to gain aspects that would make them better at bearing fruit. What is his desired result for praying about this? He says it in the next verse:
…so that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and growing in the knowledge of God, (Col. 1:9-10)
Paul's primary prayer pursuit is that the Colossians would bear spiritual fruit. His interest in this area lines up with God's desire. What pleases God? He says that the Colossians would be “fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work…” Bearing spiritual fruit is what makes God happy. Thus it made Paul happy. Therefore it's what Paul prayed for. When people bear fruit, God is pleased.
I think any parent can relate to this. The other day Kristah, my wife, was sitting on the back porch listening to an audio version of the Bible. She happened to be listening to the verse in chapter four, which says that kids should obey their parents because it pleases the Lord. Our five year old walked out at that second and heard those words. My wife took the opportunity.
“Eily,” she said. “Why do you think you should obey Mommy and Daddy?”
"It makes you happy," Eily said.
“It does, but that’s not the main reason you should obey Mommy and Daddy.”
“What’s the main reason?” Eily asked.
"Because it makes God happy," Kristah said. Eily was surprised. Her face lit up with a kind of; I can make God happy, look. It was a beautiful moment. It's true; nothing makes me happier than seeing my kids demonstrate love, kindness, patience, and self-control. How much more does the pure heart of God pleasure in our spiritual fruit?
God desires that Christians bear the fruits of the Spirit. Paul was an expert at praying in line with what God wants. Paul thanked God for the Colossian fruit and prayed that it would continue. Compare Paul's primary prayer concern with our modern mentality about prayer, and we begin to see a drastic difference.
As it is today, their world had disease, distress, disaster, and destruction. Despite all of the physical troubles that the Colossians faced, what does Paul pray for? He prays for their spiritual fruit and doesn't even mention their physical needs. We need to learn from Paul. That they would bear fruit is the primary prayer pursuit.
We see this same kind of laser focus on Spiritual fruit later in the letter. After Paul has said most of what he wanted to in the letter, he returns to the subject of prayer in the last chapter. There he says:
Devote yourselves to prayer… (Col. 4:2)
Are you devoted to prayer? If we're honest, we probably have a long way to go to fulfill this verse. Paul doesn't just leave it at that but says what kinds of things we should pray for. Let’s see what his instructions are:
Devote yourselves to prayer; stay alert in it with thanksgiving. At the same time, pray also for us that God may open a door to us for the word, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains, so that I may make it known as I should. (Col. 4:2-4)
At this point in his life, Paul is in chains. He was arrested in Jerusalem. He's facing a trial in a Roman court. They could execute him. Wouldn't you expect Paul to ask to escape his chains? If it were me, I'd be begging God to let me out. I'd be pressing everyone I know to beg God to let me go free. What's so astonishing is that he doesn't ask that he'd skip the pains of imprisonment. He doesn't pray for an escape route.
The hardest two days of my life was when I got a corneal abrasion. That's a scratch on the surface of the eye. It hurt so bad; there were moments I wished I was dead. It was unlike anything I'd experienced in my life. My prayer life got very real during the few days I was waiting for it to heal. I prayed often, and I prayed fervently. My prayers, though, could hardly live up to Paul's. Many of my prayers were about making the pain stop. Though, I did notice as I was getting more accustomed to the pain that my prayers started to shift toward something more spiritual.
He's in danger, and pain, and experiencing a lot of trouble. What does Paul ask them to pray for concerning him? He doesn't ask that his suffering would decrease. He doesn't ask that he would be released. He doesn't ask that his afflictions be eased. He wants them to pray that fruit would be achieved. He wants them to pray that he would be able to bring in a greater harvest. He doesn't want them to pray his chains away, but instead that his chains would lead to an opportunity to share the gospel with people in high places. It's incredible.
We see a similar mentality in Epaphras. He was the pastor of the church in Colossae. At the time of Paul's writing the letter, Epaphras is in Rome with Paul. During the time Epaphras is in Paul's rented house, Paul hears him praying for his congregation. Paul gets to listen to the kinds of things Pastor Epaphras asks God for. He reports it back to the Colossians. Let's evesdrop a little:
Epaphras… is always wrestling for you in his prayers so that you can stand mature and fully assured in everything God wills. (Col. 4:12)
Epaphras is a hometown boy. He knows the kinds of troubles that are in Colossae. He knows that the pagan craftsman guild has caused problems for the Christians in the area. He knows that Jewish unbelievers have persecuted Christians. He knows that his people have a thousand and one physical, health, occupational, and financial problems. Yet he prays they would, “…stand mature…” and be “…fully assured in everything God wills.” He doesn't pray; their pain would be relieved; he prays that maturity will be achieved.
Now I want to return to the matter of our broken prayers. How we pray is often a far cry from what we see in Paul and Epaphras. Our modern form of talking to God could use some work. I'd like to offer a simple lesson:
When you pray, focus on fruit.
Is this how you pray? Do you focus on the fruit? Or do you spend all your prayer time trying to get yourself and others out of sticky situations? Do you beg God to offer an easy escape route from pain, suffering, affliction, and trouble? Is this the primary purpose of your prayer time? If it is, then it's time for a change. It's time to begin focusing on what makes God happy, which is that his children bear fruit, especially in the midst of trouble. Stop praying for an easy escape route, and start praying for spiritual fruit. I'll repeat it. When you pray, focus on fruit.