Q: What are the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicate[s] to us the benefits of redemption?
A: The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicate[s] to us the benefits of redemption are, his ordinances, especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation
~Westminster Shorter Catechism #88
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might… praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.
~Ephesians 6:10, 18a
How often do you feel like praying to God? Do you feel like praying only when the Lord leads you into times of trial and suffering, and you feel your need of God’s help? Or perhaps you feel like praying only at predetermined times, such as before a meal or before bed? Maybe you don’t feel like praying much at all.
Our confession speaks of prayer as one of the means of grace, and in Ephesians 6, the apostle Paul says that praying at all times in the Spirit is a part of being strong in the Lord; surely this means that you ought to pray even when you don’t feel like doing so. After all, no Christian desires to be weak in the Lord, nor does any Christian desire not to enjoy the benefits of Jesus’ saving work. And yet, I imagine few believers think “I pray as often as I should”. We pray when we feel like praying, but sometimes we don’t feel like praying very often. This typically arises because our functional approach to prayer is that we consider our present circumstances, and if we feel we really need or want something, then we pray – if we have the time, of course. And perhaps, recognizing the deficiencies in this approach, we build in a routine of prayer, such as before a meal, to make sure we’re at least praying sometimes. But the end result of this approach is very often a prayer life where we don’t feel like praying and often don’t pray as much as we believe we ought. I invite you to consider some Biblical texts in Ephesians, and think about you might grow in your prayer life; motivating your prayers not first by your circumstances, but first by seeing who God is to you in Christ, and making God’s saving work the primary content of your prayers.
God-Centered (and Gospel-Centered!) Motivation to Pray
“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father…” ~ Ephesians 3:14
Perhaps more than most areas of the Christian life, it is easy to act as if the motivation to pray depends on us. After all, on the surface it might appear that prayer is something we initiate when we have something we desire to say to the Lord. And there is a kernel of truth in this; you have to actually initiate talking to the Lord, rather verbally or silently, and you are to lay before the Lord, amongst other things, those thanksgivings, confessions, and petitions which are actually yours. However, if we look at Biblical examples, such as the apostle Paul in Ephesians, we see that the motivation for their prayers always comes from seeing God and seeing the salvation God promises and provides. Even when Biblical prayers arise as a response to some specific circumstance in life, as with many of the Psalms, the prayers are always motivated by a view of who God is, what God has done in the past, and what God might now do in the present.
Ephesians 3 is a wonderful example of this; the reason Paul prays is not something Paul feels or possesses within himself per-se, but rather it is his response to all of God’s saving work, which Paul has been writing about in Ephesians 1 and 2. On Paul’s mind are, for example, the blessings of God to his
church, the resurrection of Jesus, the heavenly inheritance of the saints, the sovereign grace of God in salvation, the unity of believers, and the “love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (3:16). These things the motivation for him to pray. This at least suggests that when we fail to pray, and do not feel like praying, our hearts and minds are not looking at Jesus or God’s saving work to us in Him. Simply put, if you would like more frequent and fervent prayer in your life, you must begin by looking to God in Christ, seeing the richness and fullness of Spiritual blessings you possess by grace through faith. From a practical standpoint, perhaps consider following Paul’s own thought, doing devotional Bible studies in Ephesians 1-3, prayerfully considering how all the gospel truths contained in these passages personally affect you and your church.
This approach is radically different from the “default” motive to prayer, which is usually some mixture of ritual duty and perceived personal need. Certainly, we ought to pray in those times where we feel a perceived need or desire to bring to the Lord, and it is also good to build in routine prayer times to our lives, but we must not let those things become the be-all and end-all motive for why we pray in the first place. The foundational motive to pray must increasingly be a gospel-oriented, Christ-centered, Scripture-driven view of God in all his saving mercies to his redeemed people. This is the fuel that keeps the fires of prayer burning in the Christian heart.
God-Centered (and Gospel-Centered!) Content in Prayer
Q: What is Prayer?
A: Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of
Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies.
~Westminster Shorter Catechism #98
“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father… [that you] may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” ~ Ephesians 3:14, 18-19
As the apostle is motivated to pray not primarily from within himself or external circumstances, but from seeing God in Christ and all his saving mercies, so also the content of Paul’s prayers is driven by that same gospel. I would suggest that Ephesians 3:14-19 is one of the most powerful corrective passages to typical weaknesses in modern American Protestant Christianity in all Scripture. For most of us, it comes easily to bring certain kinds of desires to God; it’s easy to pray that the Lord would provide for us, heal sick family members, keep our children safe, etc. However, when was the last time you prayed for the brothers and sisters in your church that they would have the strength to comprehend the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge? When was the last time you prayed where more of your prayer was spent in thanksgiving to God for his work of salvation than asking him for things?
If you would see your prayer life grow towards a Biblical ideal, then not only the motivation for your prayers, but also the content of your prayers, likely has room to grow. I say to my own shame that as a pastor, I find myself more often praying the Lord would grant the specific stated requests of members of our church, rather than praying for each of them that God would give growth in their knowledge of his love and mercy in Christ. I doubt I’m alone in this. Prayer is a markedly Spiritual act, yet very often the content of our prayers boils down to telling God a set of desires that are far from uniquely Christian. Certainly we ought to ask the Lord to provide, to heal and comfort the sick, to keep our children safe, and all such good things. However, these must go alongside confession of sin, thanksgiving for God’s saving mercies, prayers for spiritual growth in our life and the lives of others, and prayers for the salvation of the lost and the building up of the saints.
Prayer that reflects this broad gospel-centered content can only naturally flow from prayer that is motivated by God’s revelation of himself and his saving actions in the Scriptures. These go together as hand and glove in your actual prayer life. If you were to study Ephesians 1-3 and pray through the
truths contained therein, both the motive behind your prayers and their content together would be molded by the gospel of Christ. And please don’t misunderstand me: Ephesians 1-3 is not the only passage of Scripture that is helpful for motivating and saturating a gospel-oriented prayer life. But it is a helpful example among many for helping us learn to pray more frequently, fervently, and Biblically. The next time you don’t feel like praying, or don’t know what to pray about, or feel the prick of a guilty conscience for a stagnant or lackluster prayer life, crack open your copy of God’s Word, start reading Ephesians, and consider how you can pray more deeply for yourself and for your church in the way that Paul does in Ephesians 3, flowing from the God-centered and gospel-oriented content of Ephesians 1-2, that reveals not only the surpassing love of God to you, but indeed the surpassing love of God to all his church in and through the Lord, Jesus Christ.
by Rev. Josh McKamy