The Secret of Joyful Prayer
If you were surveyed about your prayer life, would you characterize it as:
A. Boring, mundane
B. Mechanical, draining
C. Joyful, energizing
Does A, B, or C most characterize your time with God? Now realistically everyone must work at prayer to a certain extent. There is a real enemy who does not want you talking to the Father. Nobody who truly prays doubts the existence of the devil! But what if we could understand the secret of praying joyfully?
Truth be known, so many of the activities we participate in to celebrate our faith are done mechanically, without much conscious thought or effort, and are often without much joy. Worship is sometimes automatic and perfunctory. Our spiritual reading is often haphazard.
But sadly, our prayer life is often among those activities. Jesus chastised the three men who were closest to Him in His incarnation by asking, “Could you not watch with Me one hour?”
It may well be we are just doing it wrong. The disciples asked Jesus in Luke 11, “Lord teach us to pray.” Sometimes a person will say, “I tried praying. but God didn’t give me what I asked for.” Well maybe He did not if your prayers included:
“Help me win the lottery”
“Please bring my cheating boyfriend back to me”
“Help me lose weight while I eat whatever I want and never exercise”
“Bless me now, even though I’ve been ignoring you for years”
“Make me smart enough to pass the test I didn’t study for”
Why didn’t God answer our prayer? Maybe what we wanted was not God’s will. James wrote, “You ask, and receive not because you ask amiss that you may consume it on your lust.”
And maybe it was just dumb. Now I’ve said many times in a lecture to seminary students, there are no dumb questions. But there sure are some dumb prayers! (See the list above)
Maybe if we prayed liked Jesus taught us:
That the Father’s Name would be hallowed
That His Kingdom would come…it is more important than yours
That His will would be done on earth as it is in heaven…and in me
That He would give us what we need for the day
That we would be forgivers of those who sin against us
That we/our family would be delivered from the enemy’s snare
That His kingdom would be our first priority now and forever.
If these prayers that Jesus taught us were the central content of our praying, then prayer would begin to make sense…and even be joyful! We try to turn our prayer life into a thing that enriches us…not as a means of truly hearing from God and aligning with His will.
A Model of Joyful Prayer
Paul gives us a model of praying joyfully. Now that is not to say that sometimes our prayer life isn’t marked with tears of sorrow at times or even by the pain of grief or guilt and shame over our sins. We will at times agonize in intercession. And the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus was heard through His “loud cries and tears.” (Heb 5:7)
But communion with our Heavenly Father can be marked with a sense of joy regardless of circumstances. Jesus said, “My joy I leave with you.” Let’s remind ourselves again that Paul wrote this letter from a prison cell awaiting execution!
Prayer should dry our tears, ease the heartache of grief and loss, and eliminate the shame and guilty stain of sin. When this happens, joy remains. But how do we pray with joy when it seems nothing is joyful around us?
Paul could pray with joy, first, because
He knew he was not alone (vv. 3-5)
When Paul prayed, he carried the grateful memories of the congregation that gathered in Philippi…a congregation that was marked by their love for Paul and their faithfulness to pray for him.
He offered his prayer “with thanksgiving,” which is a key to joyful praying. His joy came from their fellowship (partnership) in the Gospel with him.
It’s an incredible thing to have people praying for you. A friend shared a dream he had about me a while back. In the dream, he saw me standing in the pulpit, and then kneeling weeping under some burden. During the dream, the church came around me, laying their hands on me.
I truly believe and will continue believing that I am continuing in ministry because of the prayers of God’s people. The grace of God holds me fast…but their hands and prayers for me keep me moving forward.
Fellowship brings joy, and healing, and recovery. We are not to try do this thing alone, though some of us try really hard to do that.
The joy comes along as a contagious experience of fellowship. Paul could pray with joy, further, because he had
He had a confidence in God’s faithfulness (vv. 6-7)
Not only did Paul experience joy because he knew he was not alone, but also because he prayed with confidence knowing that, no matter what happened in his life or in theirs, God was working. We all understand that God’s working does not mean we are going to see everything go our way, or always experience sunshine and pleasant circumstances.
Remember that the greatest work of God we have seen is His work of atonement at the cross and the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. “For the joy set before Him, Jesus endured the cross, despising the shame.” (Hebrews 12:2). It was hardly a happy time for the Lord.
But it is God’s energizing at work in us that brings to completion what He began at the moment of salvation. If you can look back at a time in your life when you can say, “I know God brought that about…I know it is God Who saves me and that is not something I can do for myself…;” if you have that moment to remember then know this: God has never, is not now, nor will ever give up on you. He will never throw up his hands and say, “this one’s too tough…I’m gonna bail out.” God does not give up on what He starts. This looks forward to Phil 2:12-13 which says,
“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
Our salvation, in Christ, is secure. I hear people sometimes say, “I’d be a Christian, but I couldn’t live the life.” Or, “I’m afraid I wouldn’t hold out.” “I’d quit and then be a hypocrite.”
Well, you can’t live the life. Christ -in- you lives out the life He wants you to live through the presence of His Spirit. And you won’t hold out. Not in your own strength. You are held in His hand, and Jesus said, “No man can take them out of My hand.” You are not holding on to God. You’re not that tough. He is holding on to YOU! That is our confidence, and our security. He Who began the work will be faithful to complete it.
In Romans 8, we read of the ultimate plan that God has for our lives in Christ:
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.
God’s plan…God’s will for your life is that, through every experience and circumstance, you are being sharpened and shaped to be more, think more, and act more like Jesus.
A sculptor chips away everything that does not look like the image he or she is seeking to bring to the shapeless and formless rock. The Divine Sculptor is doing the same in us as He “chips away” everything in us that does not look like Jesus.
This is exactly what happens in the process of sanctification. The Divine “sculptor” hammers away at all those dimensions of our life that keep Jesus from shining through! In the hard and the good times, God is at work. Nothing stops His Divine progress in our lives.
He had an abiding affection (v. 8)
This affection for the Philippians, which interestingly could also mean “you have me in your hearts” can literally be translated “I have a heartache for you.” Have you ever cared so much about someone that it hurts? We hear songs that talk about that, and usually they are sung when the two lovers are apart.
The Motown hit, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” was written to describe the power of love drawing two lovers together, no matter the obstacles. When you really love someone, it can physically hurt to be away from them.
That is what Paul is talking about as he prays for them…this is a unique love that bound them together around their partnership in seeing the Gospel of Christ go forward. But his heart was aching because of his separation from them. He genuinely loved these people, and that reminder of his love brought joy in a prison cell.
He had an overflowing love (vv. 9-11)
Someone has said that love is like a river. Rivers can bring life. I grew up around the banks of the Ohio River. This river that I played in, drove over, and gazed into thousands of times in my life brought commerce, and recreation, and beauty and life. But a river that floods over its banks does not bring life. It brings chaos and death.
The same river decimated my hometown more than once. Love is like a river that “abounds” and flows. It brings life to the creatures within it and the cities that are built near it.
But Christian love, like a river, needs to stay in its banks. If there are no boundaries, and it loves everything indiscriminately …it will even love things it should not love. And clearly, there are things we should not love as Christians. “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world…” the Apostle John tells us. Christian love is discriminating…distinctive…discerning. It loves and approves “that which is best/excellent.” It does not love unwisely.
I hear a lot of people say, “being a Christian just means you’re supposed to love, right?” Yes, but love what? What are the “banks” of love? Love needs to be guided by “knowledge” and discernment and result in “the fruit of righteousness” or else it indiscriminately picks up garbage and pollution. We are to be “pure” (our inner world) …below the surface where few if any people see…and “blameless” (our outer behavior) that we might be fruitful in our faith. The same river that brought life and beauty to many people through the years, today is polluted and filled with garbage. You can still catch fish in it…but a wise person will not eat them!
The end is nearer than we think
The world is headed for the day of Christ. He is coming. Being ready does not mean simply BELIEVING that…being ready means “bearing the fruit of righteousness” that will TRULY bring joy to our lives and glory to God as we wait for His appearing.
And folks, I’m not trying to be apocalyptic here, but things are not getting better and better in the world, are they? We are seeing things that we never thought we’d see…and the world just seems like it is on the verge of exploding into chaos. Jesus predicted that His appearing would come after the birth pains of tribulation…the baby normally does not come out on the mother’s first contraction.
But we need to heed the wakeup call and hear the reminder on occasion that it won’t be long before Christ appears…and we need to be ready now.
Learning to pray with joy is one thing we can do as we anticipate Jesus’ coming back again. But let’s also remember that this prayer that Paul prayed can become a model for your prayer life as well.
What if, in all the places Paul uses the word “you” in the prayer, you insert your spouse’s name? Your children’s names? As we personalize this prayer, we begin to see another level of it’s value.
Joyful praying is a possibility for all of us. The next time you pray, pray expecting