Prayer: How to Pray
There are any number of passages on prayer to which one could turn. But there is something powerfully succinct about Paul’s words in Colossians 4: “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving” (v. 2). Here we have directions concerning our attitude and response, which surely shapes our actual prayers that we offer up to God.
We are to come before God with the acknowledgment that whatever the request, the outcome will not come about because of our own wisdom or efforts. To be sure, there may be things we are called upon to do, and these actions may well be the means through which God accomplishes his sovereign will. But we always approach our heavenly Father as one who is completely dependent upon him for everything. After all, it is the “throne of grace” (Heb. 4:16) to which we come, and thus we come as sinners in need of God’s matchless favor to the utterly undeserving. There is thus the related attitude of humility, recognizing that we have no claim upon God, but receive his blessings out of his abundant goodness and mercy.
Paul tells us in our passage to “continue steadfastly in prayer.” We are not to grow weary or discouraged as we offer up those prayers that do not get answered as quickly as we would like. We are not to give up and lose heart; rather, we are to persevere in our petitions, because through times of waiting and uncertainty God is refining our character and forming us more into the image of the Lord Jesus Christ. We live in a fast-paced world that frequently looks for instant results. God does not operate by these same standards. Yes, sometimes answers to prayer come quickly. But other times God takes what we know as the “long view” because he knows it is what we need.
This leads into the other part of Paul’s exhortation, which is to be “watchful” in prayer. The Christian life is also marked by one of faith, trust, and hope. The world uses these words as well, but they cannot advance beyond the empty wish that somehow everything will work out favorably. For apart from the love of God in Christ, there is no settled confidence and assurance that all things will work together for good (Rom. 8:28), because such promises only belong to the people of God. So as we persevere in prayer we do so believing that God is going to act on our behalf, that he really does go before us, knowing what concerns us even before we ask him (Matt. 6:8). Moreover, because the Bible reveals to us the character of the one true God before whom we come, there is to be a sense of joyful expectancy even in the midst of offering prayers that remain unanswered. As Paul declares in Romans 8: “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things” (vv. 31-32)? It is not a question of whether or not God will act, but of when and how he will display his glory.
Lastly, Paul writes in Colossians 4:2 that we are to pray with thanksgiving. We see from this that thanksgiving is not only to be given once we receive the answer to our prayer, but is something that is done before we know the outcome. How is that possible? Why can Christians render such thanks in advance, when they have no idea how the situation is going to turn out? The world might respond with some vacuous nonsense about the power of positive thinking being able to affect future results. But Christians offer up prayers rich with thanksgiving because they know what their God is like because he has revealed himself to them as one who is complete and eternal in all his perfections.
Thus, our prayers are to be balanced. Prayer is not merely a listing of requests, though of course it includes this, for God wants us to bring our needs and concerns before him and the Holy Spirit helps us in our requests. Prayer is also to include the confessing of our sins. Indeed, prayer can at times be the activity where we see past decisions and reactions for what they really were, and the consequent need for repentance. Furthermore, knowing that God does forgive and restore is one reason why the rehearsal of God’s attributes is so vital. As our Creator and Redeemer he alone is worthy of our praise. The better we know Scripture, the better such rehearsal of his character will be. And the better we know God, the more our prayers will align with what pleases him.
Michael D. Roberts is the Alliance editor of ThinkandActBiblically.org. He holds a DTh in New Testament from the University of South Africa.