I’m not sure if you’ve checked the news lately, but things are getting a little crazy out there! A pandemic, a quarantine, national protests and riots, and now Kanye’s running for president. Just when you thought this year couldn’t get more nuts, you remember it is an election year. I don’t think it is going too far to say that it feels like things are spiraling out of control. Yes, you can give me all of your theological truisms to remind me that God is in control and that we have nothing to fear. I know that. As much as I tell that to my fears, my fears stick around like an unwelcome guest who won’t take a hint. Fear and uncertainty seem to be the air we breathe these days.
It is at times like these that the Christian finds herself in prayer. The Lord certainly does remind us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:16), but there are times such as these where the prayers seem more urgent. The Lord promises, “Call upon me in the day of trouble and I will deliver you” (Ps 50:15). We are certainly in that day of trouble, and we are certainly in need of that deliverance. But how are we to do it? That we should pray is obvious, but what to say in the day of trouble? This doesn’t come as easy.
That we should pray is obvious, but what to say in the day of trouble? This doesn’t come as easy.
I was struck recently by how Paul prays in his epistles and how unlike my prayers sound. When I pray, say, for my kids, I pray for their health, for their well-being, for their ability one day to get jobs and support healthy families. In times of crisis, such as the one we find ourselves in, I pray for God to ease the strife, bring about reconciliation, and speed along the process of finding a cure for COVID. These are not bad prayers. I think they are what we might call “daily-bread” prayers. I’m asking our Father, at the directing of Jesus himself, to provide all that is necessary for this God-created, God-blessed bodily life. This is good. But it is also incomplete. It is one prayer among seven total petitions Jesus has gifted to his baptized people.
Compare this with how St. Paul prays in his opening prayer for the Ephesian brothers and sisters:
I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come (Eph 1:16-21).
Paul’s prayer is much wordier than mine tend to be (The above five verses are made up of only one sentence, friends!). But more importantly, notice how Paul doesn’t just pray for the bodily needs of the saints, but for their faith. He prays that in whatever circumstances they may find themselves, God the Holy Spirit would give the saints eyes to see Jesus. He is praying that their faith and hope would be fixed on the Son whom God raised from the dead and now has authority over all things. He prays what we might want to call “hallowed-be-thy-name” prayers wherein he knows God’s name is holy in itself but asks that it would be holy in the lives of the saints also, no matter what their circumstances.
Paul doesn’t just pray for the bodily needs of the saints, but for their faith.
Paul knows that there is something more important for those he loves than their bodily well-being. It is their faith. It is their hope and confidence in Jesus Christ. It is one thing to pray against death’s slow and aggressive assault on God’s creation. It is another to trust in the one who has conquered the grave. Paul knows the promise of Jesus that in this world, you will have trouble. So he doesn’t pray that no trouble may come. Instead, he prays that no matter what may come, we do not lose heart and that we would know, “what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe,” because he knows Jesus’ promise continues. “Take heart! I have overcome the world!” (John 16:33).
So, how do we pray? Jesus answers this question very clearly for his disciples and for you in Luke 11:1-7. He delivers to you the gift of seven petitions (prayerful requests), which he promises the Father will answer. We have called these petitions the Lord’s Prayer. So we are given to pray:
- that his name would be hallowed in our lives whatever circumstances we find ourselves in, be they good or bad, evil or righteous;
- that his kingdom would continue to come to us in Word and sacrament;
- that his will would override the devil’s schemes which seem to surround us at every turn;
- that we would daily receive our bread from his gracious hand and that our work would continue to provide for others;
- that we would not allow that foothold of the devil, bitterness, to prevent us from carrying out loving actions (especially towards our enemies);
- that he would forgive us our sins and cause that forgiveness to burst forth from our mouths for others and drive our actions;
- that we who are prone to sin would be kept from following our flesh and the devil’s enticements;
- and finally, that God would deliver us now and completely from our daily experiences of Satan’s destructive work on this creation.
It is these prayers that shaped Paul’s prayers for the saints. It is these prayers that Jesus has promised that our Father will answer (Luke 11:8-13). How does he know? Because in his dying and his rising, Jesus has opened the Father’s ear to your prayers! Jesus has jumped out of the grave, grabbed the ear of your Father, and pulled it down to earth to hear your cries. It may seem like during times like these that God is not listening to your prayers (Ps 44:23). But don’t lose heart! (Luke 18:1-8). Your whispered prayers echo through the halls of heaven and fill the ears of the Father. Pray that God would keep your faith firm in Jesus Christ. He will not be long in answering.