What Paul prays (part 1)

Prayer is not just a private affair. Yes, we do and must pray in solitude, alone with God. But there is also an important place for public prayer in shared spaces. It can knit the community together, reorienting people to God and to what’s truly important in any situation. There is, of course, always the temptation to fall into a performance mindset, of trying to impress others with our spirituality or eloquence. But that doesn’t change the fact that sometimes we pray to be heard by God and others at the same time, as Jesus did at the tomb of Lazarus (John 11:41-42).

In previous posts, we’ve seen how Paul prays regularly for the Philippians. He remembers them fondly, joyful at the work he sees God doing in their lives. But God doesn’t just tell them, “I’m praying for you.” He actually tells them what he prays and does so for a pastoral reason: he has a vision for who they are becoming as a church, and he shares his prayer so they can live into that same vision.

The prayer, in other words, has a teaching function. Placed at the beginning of Paul’s letter, it anticipates what the rest of the letter will teach.

Here is his prayer:

This is my prayer: that your love might become even more and more rich with knowledge and all kinds of insight. I pray this so that you will be able to decide what really matters and so you will be sincere and blameless on the day of Christ. I pray that you will then be filled with the fruit of righteousness, which comes from Jesus Christ, in order to give glory and praise to God. (Phil 1:9-11, CEB)

We’ll take a few posts to unpack the richness of the prayer and its implications for the day-to-day life of the Philippians (and us!). But for now, notice again how Paul adopts a thoroughly eschatological (there’s that word again…) perspective: he sees the present in light of a divinely promised future. He’s already told them that he sees God working in them, and is confident that God will continue to perfect that work until Jesus returns (1:6). Here in his prayer, he again points to the “day of Christ.” What will Jesus find in them when he returns? That, suggests Paul, is what really matters.

And all of this, ultimately, is for the glory and praise of God.

. . .

What do we pray when we pray for others? I don’t have any statistics on this, but I suspect that a good portion of our prayer for others — perhaps the largest portion — is that God would alleviate some kind of suffering or take away some trouble.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with such prayers. And it makes perfect sense, given that this is what we typically ask others to pray for us. After all, when was the last time we asked someone to pray that we’d be filled with the fruit of righteousness?

But Paul prays in accordance with what would bring glory to God, what would prepare them to meet Jesus on the day of his return. His prayers in the present reflect his hopes for the future. Not the immediate future, but God’s future, when God’s work in the Philippians, in us, and in the world is complete.

It’s one thing to pray that God would take away difficult circumstances in our lives or someone else’s. Nothing wrong with that. But it’s another thing to pray instead that God’s work would be done in us even in — and perhaps especially in — the midst of our difficulties. That is how Paul prays for the Philippians. And as we’ll see in the next post, his prayer can teach us important lessons about the nitty-gritty of how we deal with conflict.