In Scripture Union who we are, how we think, the way we live, our whole world view is shaped by our understanding of the Bible and its teaching. That is our touchstone. So when we look for help in how and what to pray we should let scripture shape and mould our praying patterns. As we read and listen to the prayers recorded for us in scripture we can learn principles and patterns to encourage us and affirm for us that we are praying in line with "the will of God" so that our praying will be effective.
It is in Paul's letters that the vast majority of the Bible's prayers are recorded for us. As we read the Epistles these prayers fall into 4 broad categories.
- There are prayers where Paul appears to be praying "on the hoof" as it were ...that is, he is praying on to the paper as he writes Romans 1:8-10. Thanksgiving, encouragement, and request are all bound up in his longing to be able to be with the folk he carries in his heart.
- Then there are prayer reports (the equivalent of staff prayer letters), for example: 2 Corinthians 12 : 7-10, where Paul lets his believing friends know honestly and openly how he is faring, how weak he feels and what he struggles with - his "thorn in the flesh".
- Prayer requests abound...Romans 15:5-6
- Finally there are the challenges and encouragements to prayer: 2 Thess 3:1-5
Whichever of these four categories we fit Paul's prayers into, there is a common thread running throughout them all. Paul's prayers are focused on believers. He is, of course, writing to new church developments, tiny groups of new believers growing their faith in the soil of a pagan, secular, multi-cultural, first century society.
He majors on praying for the lives, the holiness, the growth and maturing of budding Christians. He is the apostle to the Gentiles, and while we have recorded his mighty evangelistic sermons, such as the address on Mars Hill, his prayer life was not, as we might have assumed, centred on praying for his contacts, for unbelievers, for his pagan audiences; It is on the converts, the new Christians, the struggling believers.
If we read through all forty-four of Paul's recorded prayers, only three of them, (Romans 10:1, Romans 15:30-33 and 1 Timothy 2:1) centre on unbelievers and their need for salvation. The others concentrate on Christians and their needs and their encouragement. Did Paul pray for these baby Christians because they were the local missionaries? It would be their lives, their conversations, their witness, their love, their commitment that would influence Rome, Colossae, Thessalonica, Ephesus... not his.
What then for us?
If scripture is to shape our praying, surely there is an important lesson for us here. We are faced with the enormous challenge of reaching the 750,000 young people in Scotland with the gospel message. Where do we begin? If we follow Paul's example, we begin with praying for the 2% of Christian young people that our snapshot of statistics revealed are following Jesus.
Paul would be praying for them, for their maturity, their constancy, their faith to deepen, their dependence on Jesus to increase. Paul's method was to pray for the 2% so that they effectively impact their peers. Will we learn this from him? But to improve our praying - and how I need to do that - we need to learn the further lesson from Paul: that of having a servant heart. Isaiah 59: 1- 2 reads:
"Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save. BUT your iniquities have separated you from God and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he will not hear."
We need to start with our own hearts. Being effective in prayer means first of all being open and honest and repentant before God. Deepening our relationship with God will automatically deepen our burden of love and prayer for God's people. 1 Thessalonians 3: 12 tells us to "abound in love towards one another".
Paul agonised over these young Christians. He loved the believers so that their well-being was his agenda. His heart wanted only God's best for them. Continually, that is regularly, morning and evening they were on his prayer list. It is no problem to pray for the people we really love, is it? My prayer list has at the top the folk dearest to me and I reckon that is true of us all.
So let's seek to deepen our relationships, so that prayer will increase and flow and God WILL hear and answer. Let's concentrate on that 2%, those we know personally and those we will never know this side of heaven; that they will be recharged and renewed in faith and enthusiasm and love for Jesus so that their impact on the 98% will have great effect for the glory of God. Paul should have the last word... Phil 1:9-11:
"I pray that your love for each other will overflow more and more and that you will keep on growing in your knowledge and understanding. For I want you to understand what really matters so that you may live pure and blameless lives until Christ returns. May you always be filled with the fruit of your salvation - those good things that are produced in your life by Jesus Christ - for this will bring much praise and glory to Jesus Christ."
Ann Allen. First published in @SU, March 2006.