It’s amazing how much it is possible to discern about the relationship between two people simply by listening to one side of a cell-phone conversation. Within a matter of a few sentences we can tell if the parties are friends or perhaps something more. We can tell if the relationship is strained or formal or hostile. We can tell if the parties know each other well, or if it is a conversation between people who have seldom, if ever, spoken to each other before.
The same thing is true of prayer. You can learn a lot about a person’s relationship with God by listening to him, or her, pray.
When I was pastor of a small, rural church near Buffalo, NY, just after my graduation from college, I led a Bible study on Saturday mornings which all the men of the church were invited to attend. Archie was a gruff old guy who surprised everybody by showing up at these Saturday sessions every week. He was very shy, something of a loner, but when I looked into his eyes, I sensed there was a depth of spiritual reality in him which didn’t often make it to the surface.
Several times I asked him if I could call on him to lead in prayer at the beginning of the meeting, and each time he declined. Every week, the session ended with an open, unstructured time of prayer, during which the men could (and did) pray publicly as they felt led. Archie, of course, sat quietly and never said a word.
Until about the fourth meeting. That morning, after a few men had led out in prayer, we heard a voice that was so unfamiliar in that setting that a few of us looked up to see if our ears had deceived us. They had not. Archie was praying, and as my Grandfather might have said, “that was the prayin’-est prayer you ever heard.” By the time he finished his prayer, with tears streaming down his face and ours, everybody in that room knew one thing for sure—Archie was a man who really knew the Lord. It had been a great privilege for the rest of us to be allowed to eavesdrop on Archie’s conversation with God.
The portion of New Testament scripture found in Ephesians 3:14-21 allows us to “eavesdrop” on the Apostle Paul as he prays, while under house arrest in Rome, for Christians in Asia Minor, many of whom had probably come to faith as a result of his preaching and teaching ministry.
The prayer in chapter three is actually the second prayer that Paul includes in the text of this letter to the believers in and around Ephesus. The first comes toward the end of chapter one, and there Paul prays for an increase in their knowledge. That prayer is then followed, in chapter two and the first part of three, by some of the most powerful and profound teaching in the New Testament on the nature of salvation—by grace, through faith—and the unity which is supposed to characterize those who have experienced God’s saving grace.
From the beginning of chapter four through the end of the letter, Paul will devote his attention to practical instructions about how these believers should apply this profound spiritual truth to their daily lives. Before he gets to that, however, he prays for them once again.
16 I pray that out of (the Father’s) glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge —that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
In chapter one he prayed for their knowledge to be increased. In chapter three he prays for an increase in their spiritual power and in their experience of God’s love so that they can be filled up (i.e. totally controlled) by the fullness of God.
Over the course of forty years of vocational ministry, I have been interviewed by search committees, who were considering me as a possible candidate for pastoral ministry, at least six or eight times. I have been asked a lot of questions… some pertinent, some probing, and some just plain intrusive. But there is one question I have never been asked by a search committee. “If you were called to be our pastor, how would you pray for us?”
If I ever go before another search committee, and if, perchance, they should ask me a question like that, here’s what I will say. “I will pray for you the way Paul prayed for these Christians in Ephesians, chapter three.” And what I would pray on behalf of that congregation, I pray on behalf of everybody reading this blog post. And I pray the same thing for myself as well.
First of all, I pray that God would strengthen us with power through His Spirit in our inner being. I would pray that He would strengthen our intellect, so that we can comprehend more of His truth. I would pray that He would strengthen our emotions, so that we wouldn’t be overcome by doubt and discouragement. And I would pray that He would strengthen our will, so that we could make good decisions and right choices.
Second, I pray that Christ would dwell in our hearts by faith. That is, not that we would have an initial encounter with God in saving faith. We’ve had that. This is a prayer that Jesus Christ our Lord would feel at home in our lives and would relate to us like a member of the family and not like a guest who drops by, from time to time, for a visit.
Third, I pray that we all would come to grasp (or comprehend) the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ, and to know (by actual life-changing experience) this love that surpasses mere intellectual awareness (and must be experienced in order to be understood).
The love of Christ is broad enough to encompass all of humanity; long enough to last for eternity; deep enough to reach out to the most degraded and self-loathing sinner; and high enough to lift that sinner out of the depths of despair and hopelessness and into the very presence of God.
And Paul prays that we would not only come to comprehend the truth about the immeasurable character of God’s love. He also prays that we would come to know it… and the word he uses there is a word that means to know by actual experience. It’s the difference between knowing that it is raining because we heard it on the TV weather report and knowing that it is raining because we walked outside and got wet!
That distinction is crucial for citizens of the Kingdom of God who genuinely want to be conduits of the love of God into our culture. We’ll never be able to love people with the love of God until we understand, both in our minds and in our experience, how intensely God, in the sacrifice of His Son, has loved us.
And fourth, I pray that we would all be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Actually, that’s not a separate request in Paul’s prayer. It’s the ultimate goal or purpose for which he has come into the presence of God on behalf of these believers. And it is the pinnacle of my prayer for you, as well… and for myself. This is the goal toward which all the other requests have been moving.
Every once in a while we need to ask ourselves: “How much do I require to provide fulfillment and satisfaction in my life besides God alone.”
What Paul is describing in Ephesians 3:14-19 is essential Christianity. And what drove him to pray this kind of prayer was a deep, consuming desire to see these Christians, his “spiritual children,” go to the well of God’s grace and drink, deeply and regularly, of living water. Further, he was convinced that, if they did, the benefits would be indescribable, beyond anything he, or we, could ask or even imagine. In fact, that is precisely what he said in the glorious doxology with which he closes his prayer in verses 20-21.
20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
This was Paul’s prayer for the Ephesian Christians. It is my prayer for you.