For the past five years or so, I have been on a quest to sleep better. I have been sleeping poorly since my thirties, and it has only gotten worse as the years have passed. My three sons all followed suit. When they got into their thirties, they also began to sleep poorly.
The internet is full of advice for us poor sleepers. Exercise, but not too late in the day. Avoid caffeine. Don’t eat within three hours of bedtime. Practice mindfulness. Use breathing techniques like “box breathing.” Increase intake of certain vitamins and minerals. Turn off the TV or computer at least an hour before bedtime. The suggestions go on and on.
I saw my doctor recently for an annual wellness checkup. I reminded him of my quest, and he raised the issue of sleep apnea. That is not what I wanted to hear. Everyone I know who has been diagnosed with sleep apnea has ended up with a CPAP machine. I can’t imagine sleeping with a mask over my face and air being forced into my lungs.
The American Sleep Apnea Association estimates that 22 million people in the U.S. suffer from some form of sleep apnea. That is not good news. Sleep apnea is a potentially serious disorder. Its long-term effects include high blood pressure, stroke, and heart attack. It is now considered a risk factor for dementia.
The most common form of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea. This occurs when the muscles in the back of the throat relax and the soft tissue they support – the tongue, soft palate, and uvula – close, momentarily sealing the airway. This can happen repeatedly during the night, waking the sleeper enough to reopen his or her airway.
The most widely used device for treating obstructive sleep apnea is a CPAP machine. It pumps a continuous stream of oxygenated air through a plastic tube and face mask into the sleeper’s nose and mouth. The increased pressure of the forced air keeps the soft tissue from closing and allows airways to remain open.
Every adult I’ve known or heard about who was diagnosed with sleep apnea has been supplied with a CPAP machine. Many have benefitted greatly, but some hated it. They experienced claustrophobia and felt as if the pressure of the forced air would suffocate them. They were told that they would get used to it in time, but they did not, and gave up. They reasoned that apnea interfered less with their sleep than that suffocating mask.
There is an interesting parallel to this in the spiritual life. The biblical words most commonly translated as “spirit” in both Hebrew and Greek are also translated, when context demands, as “air” or “breath.” Just as the long-term health of the body requires the regular reception of air, and lack of air causes long-term negative effects, so the long-term health of the soul requires the regular reception of spirit.
Writing to first century disciples in what is now Western Turkey, the Apostle Paul instructed Christians to “be filled with the Spirit.” He had in mind the Spirit that is from God and is God. The regular reception of this Spirit is required for the kind of spiritual stamina that manifests itself, as Paul goes on to say, in healthy relationships with God, each other, and with one’s family.
The unusual choice of a present passive imperative verb for “be filled” makes clear the need of Christians to be continuously filled with God’s Spirit. If this regular, normative reception of the Spirit is interrupted, spiritual disability may ensue and relationships with God and others will be negatively affected.
It is possible that some of us suffer a kind of spiritual apnea. Our reception of the life-giving Spirit is repeatedly interrupted, which impacts our lives and relationships negatively. We may benefit from a spiritual version of the CPAP machine – the daily practice of spiritual disciplines like prayer, Bible reading, meditation, and worship – through which God’s Spirit can refresh our souls.
The practice is but a means, as the CPAP machine is a means. More important is what it facilitates: a regular reception of the Spirit that, as St. Paul wrote, “gives life.”
Jesus was relaxed. He was able to speak truth in very difficult situations. He went through danger with poise and aplomb. How? He never let fear control him. Is it possible for us to be more like him in this? It is! Today’s class begins our exploration of Jesus’s way of dealing with fear and worry.
We are in Nehemiah 1 and 2 today. Almost 600 years had passed since King David led Israel in its golden age. It was after David’s death, during the reign of his son and successor, that the long decline had begun. Worship practices were abandoned. Idolatry crept in. Immorality was on the rise. There were opportunities to stem the tide, under great teachers and good kings and, for a while, things would look hopeful. But then the decline would resume, more steeply than before.
The decline ended with a plunge into exile and disaster. But God gave his people a fresh start. A small number of exiles, a few thousand, returned to their homeland to begin again, and God was with them. Under the wise leadership of Joshua and Zerubbabel, and the good teaching of Haggai and Zechariah, the temple was rebuilt.
But that was ancient history by the time Nehemiah arrived. The return from exile had been close to a hundred years earlier. Joshua, Zerubbabel, Haggai, Zechariah – they were all long gone. Discouragement had settled in, and hostility was all around. They tried to rebuild the city walls, but the government stopped them. People needed a fresh start.
The Lord is a God of fresh starts. He started fresh with Noah, and then again with Abraham, and then again with Moses. If you need a fresh start, the Lord is the one who can provide it.
In our series on prayer, we have seen that when God is about to launch something new, he taps a person who knows how to pray. When Israel needed a fresh start, God found such a person in Nehemiah. He was living almost a thousand miles away from where the action would be, but a thousand miles is like a yard to the God for whom a thousand years is like a day. God did not choose Nehemiah because of his proximity but because of his prayerfulness.
We see Nehemiah praying on twelve different occasions in the course of this short book. God was not concerned about how long it would take to get Nehemiah to Jerusalem because he knew how quickly Nehemiah would get to his knees.
Imagine that God wants to start something fresh and new in our church or community. We know who he will tap for such an assignment: a person who prays. Would you be that person?
There are things about Nehemiah that we should notice. First, he chose to live in God’s world and not in his own bubble. It was a comfortable bubble. He was one of the king’s most trusted men. He had a cushy job: spent summers in the palace at Persepolis and winters in the magnificent palace of Susa. But Nehemiah oriented himself to God’s will, not to his own comfort.
So, when his brother Hanani came to Susa, Nehemiah asked him about the situation in Jerusalem, the holy city. Asking questions is a dangerous thing, for the answers might just pop your bubble. But Nehemiah asked. His commitment to God was stronger than his commitment to comfort.
That Nehemiah asked showed that he had a heart for others. It distressed him that God’s people were, verse 3, “in great trouble and disgrace.” He felt their pain and their shame. He mourned over what was happening to them.
A second thing to notice: after Nehemiah asked, he sat down. How profound is that? But think about it. We rush around. He sat down. Many of us don’t sit down because we don’t want to face the hard stuff. Nehemiah could have kept going too. He had more than enough responsibilities and opportunities to distract himself. But he sat down and faced reality.
A few years ago, The Week published a little piece on a South Carolina funeral home that was opening what it called a “Coffee Corner,” with Starbucks coffee, WiFi, a fireplace, and a television. The funeral director said that he hoped it would help mourners “get their minds off what’s going on.” That’s what Americans do. But we’ll never become people of prayer that way.
Nehemiah asked because he cared about others. He sat because he refused to run from reality. And (third thing to notice) he wept.
When Al Hsu had laser surgery to correct his 20/400 vision, it brought it to 20/40 – much better, but not what he’d hoped. At worship one day, singing with a thousand other Christ followers, his eyes welled up with tears. He blinked a couple of times, and suddenly realized he could see the words on the screen perfectly. His tears, acting like a contact lens, sharpened his vision. Weeping, I suspect, did something similar for Nehemiah’s – and might do the same for us.
Nehemiah asked. He sat. He wept. And (fourth thing) he prayed. And what a prayer! He starts, as Jesus taught us to start, by hallowing God’s name. “O Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying…” (Nehemiah 1:5-6a).
Nehemiah didn’t start his prayer with his problems. Had he done so, his problems would have eclipsed everything else. Instead, he hallowed God’s name first, which gave him a heavenly perspective and reduced his troubles to their proper proportion. When we see God for who he is, everything else is put in its place. If your problems seem so great that you doubt that even God can handle them, it’s a pretty good sign that you are starting your prayers in the wrong place. Always mount up to heaven first. Start your prayers there. Hallow God’s name.
When Nehemiah remembered the covenant-keeping God, he confessed his and his people’s covenant-breaking sins. He didn’t try to bargain with God, and neither should we. We come to God empty handed, but we don’t come uninvited. Nehemiah stood on God’s word and was confident that God would answer him.
Look at the end of Nehemiah’s prayer, recorded in verse 11: “O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name.” At this point, his prayer takes a sudden turn, from past sins to present opportunities. “Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.”
It is as this point that Nehemiah drops a bombshell. He informs his readers: “I was cupbearer to the king.” To understand why that is important, we need to understand what it means. The cupbearer was an official and important position in the ancient world. He was one of the most trusted men in any kingdom. He had access to the king that filled governors and commanders and satraps with envy. Some cupbearers even served as king’s counselor.
Why is that important? Because the God who sees everything from heaven had placed this man’s family in the Babylonian and then Medo-Persian empires nearly 150 years earlier and had orchestrated things so that Nehemiah would be perfectly positioned to act when the right time came.
I wonder how many people God has perfectly positioned, arranging and orchestrating affairs for centuries, so that they could act when the time came. Perhaps I am among them people. Perhaps you are too. But it will be not enough if we stay in our bubble and don’t ask, stay on the move and don’t sit, keep our eyes dry and don’t see, make small talk but don’t pray. We’ll be in the right place at time right, but we we’ll be the wrong people.
Nehemiah was the right person in the right place at the right time. Let’s read the text, starting with chapter 2, verse 1: “In the month of Nisan in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was brought for him, I took the wine and gave it to the king. I had not been sad in his presence before; so the king asked me, “Why does your face look so sad when you are not ill? This can be nothing but sadness of heart.” I was very much afraid, but I said to the king, “May the king live forever! Why should my face not look sad when the city where my fathers are buried lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?” The king said to me, “What is it you want?” Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king…”
We don’t know how long Nehemiah had served the king, but it was long enough for the king to notice that something was wrong with him, and he asked him about it. Nehemiah says that the king’s question made him “very much afraid.” Why? Because Nehemiah had resolved to ask the king to send him to rebuild Jerusalem, but it was on the king’s order that the rebuilding of Jerusalem had been halted.
Nehemiah was about to ask a Persian sovereign to do an about face, a 180 degree turn. The request itself might be taken as an insult. Nehemiah could be fired—or worse. He had good reason to be “very much afraid.”
But the God who had prepared Nehemiah had also prepared the king. The proverb says, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases” (Proverbs 21:1). So, the king, because he trusted Nehemiah’s judgment, asked: “What is it you want?”
What follows is one of the most famous passages in Nehemiah, often referred to as the arrow prayer: “Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king…” This is prayer in real time, prayer in real life. What a skill to have: this ability to pray to God at the very moment that you are talking to people – to listen for God while you are listening to people. It’s a skill that takes time to develop.
I remember when I first started to play the guitar. The whole trick is in learning to do one thing with your right hand – strum the strings in rhythm – and to do something entirely different with your left hand – form chord patterns on the guitars neck. I would sometimes get frustrated because I couldn’t seem to do both at the same time. I learned the chord structures, but I still had to think about them. And while I was thinking about my left hand, my right hand would forget what to do. It took practice – lots of it – before I could do both at the same time.
And it takes practice to be able to listen to God and to people at the same time. That brings us back to what we saw a couple of weeks ago when we looked at Colossians 4. If we don’t set aside blocks of time for prayer, our spontaneous prayers will flounder. An effective prayer life requires both regular, dedicated prayer times and spontaneous prayers. They are synergetic; the one energizes the other.
There is something important here that we are liable to miss. It was during this time of the year, in the month of Kislev (our November/December), that Nehemiah first learned about the state of Jerusalem and began to pray. It was in the month of Nisan (our April) that he finally spoke to the king. That means that four months passed during which time Nehemiah prayed. The ESV bring this out in its translation of 1:5: “As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven.”
It was Nehemiah’s long private prayers that powered his 0-to-60 prayer in front of the king. We need both kinds. Prayers like the one in 2:4 flow from prayer times like the one in 1:5-11. Think of prayer like an electric vehicle. It can’t be driven until it’s charged. It is those regular, Scripture-infused prayer times that charge our faith so that our spontaneous prayers go somewhere when we need them. Otherwise, like an electric car that is out of power, we hit the accelerator and nothing happens. Our prayers don’t go anywhere.
But surely it doesn’t take four months of praying to get an answer from God – does it? That question betrays a misunderstanding of how prayer works. We are thinking of prayer as something that starts with us and our need. But effective, transforming prayer doesn’t start with us and our need; it starts with God and his plan. Prayer is not our way of enlisting God in our cause but God’s way of enlisting us in his.
The great prayers always start in heaven with the motion of God’s will, then catch us up and carry us on its tide. If we get this wrong, we’ll miss the tide and leave yet another answer to prayer stranded in heaven because we didn’t know to ask.
This way of praying is revolutionary. We talked about it in an earlier sermon, so I won’t go into detail again, only point you back to that sermon on Romans 8:26-28, which you can find on the website under “Media” and dated July 24, 2022. If we will pray in the Romans 8:26 way, we will see answers to prayer and experience God’s power in everyday life.
But what did Nehemiah pray all those months? Did he just say the same thing over and over and wait for God to finally answer? No, he engaged with God through the Scriptures – he quotes Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 30 as he prays – and God’s Spirit guided him in his requests.
Do you know what that is like? Have you had the experience? You are praying and idea comes to mind – this just happened to me on Thursday and again on Saturday. I pay attention to those ideas. I don’t assume they are from God – knowing myself, I wouldn’t dare – but I explore the possibility. I pray about it. And some of those ideas bear fruit – they ripen into something good.
That “ripening” takes time. It might take from Kislev to Nisan, or even longer. As we pray, God directs our prayers into unexplored, previously unthought, places. You can see how this happened with Nehemiah. He asked. He sat. He wept. He prayed. At first, I expect, his prayer was all lamentation. But as he prayed, an idea occurred to him: “the Lord wants me to do something about this.” And so, he redirected his prayer toward that new thought. Then came another idea (v. 5) about asking the king to send him and make it official; he prayed about that. Then came (verse 6) an idea about how long it would take. Then (verse 7) he thought of the opposition he would face from the Trans-Euphrates satraps and prayed about that. And then (verse 8) his mind went to supplies that would be needed, so he prayed about that.
The prayer Nehemiah began in 1:5 kept evolving, and changing, and coming more clearly into focus over the months. Why? Because God’s Spirit was in and with Nehemiah gradually aligning his prayer with God’s will. He was being lifted and carried on the tide.
But remember: Nehemiah was willing to be a part of the answer to his own prayer. He was willing to leave the bubble and face the uncertainty. If we are unwilling – we just want God to do the work for us, as if he were our servant – we will probably not see many answers to prayer. It’s not that God cannot or does not answer prayers apart from anything we do. It’s that he doesn’t answer prayers for people who refuse to do anything. If they are willing to obey him, God is willing to do more than they can ask or imagine.
So, how do we apply? First, set aside a regular time for Scripture-saturated praying. This is how you charge up the battery – faith – that energizes your prayers.
Second, stick with your prayers. One and done is not the way to see answers. God will guide as you keep praying.
I spent a year working at a greenhouse raising tomatoes. At the end of the growing season, we picked every tomato on the vine, even if it was egg-sized, green, and hard as a rock. Those tomatoes would be gassed with ethylene to turn them red and then sold. Instead of letting them ripen, sweeten, and become what they were meant to be, we hurried them. Don’t do that with your prayers. They need to ripen.
Finally, be ready to act. Prayer is not a substitute for, but a stimulus to, action. If you are unwilling to respond to God with obedience, don’t expect him to respond to you with answers.
 The Week, “The Week contest—Funeral home cafes,” (7-26-12)
 Derek Kidner, Tyndale Commentary on the Old Testament: Ezra and Nehemiah.
Why do some churches begin their celebration of Advent, which is Latin for “arrival” and refers to Christ’s coming, a month before Christmas? Are they taking their cue from Walmart and trying to leverage the holiday to maximize worship attendance?
The church I joined after my conversion did not celebrate Advent and was generally suspicious of any worship traditions that predated the Reformation. Having grown up in a non-religious home, I knew nothing about the Advent Season. Even after I became a pastor, I found the concept confusing.
The muddle began with the first Sunday in Advent, when the church’s historic prayers and its Scripture readings are all about Jesus’s Second Coming. For example, on the first Sunday in Advent this year, the collect – the short, themed prayer for the day’s worship – refers to “the last day, when [Christ] shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead.”
Focusing on Christ’s Second Coming seems an odd way to prepare oneself to celebrate his first. The order is backwards. Would it not make better sense to begin our Christmas preparations by concentrating on Christ’s first coming, with its humble stable and manger, its wise men and shepherds?
But there is wisdom in the liturgical calendar. For one thing, observing the Advent season for nearly a month prior to Christmas helps us become better at an essential skill of the spiritual life: the ability to wait. The reality that we must wait, and trust God as we do, is a theme throughout the Old and New Testaments. Spending a month actively waiting for Christmas is a spiritual strength-builder.
Patience, which is indispensable to the spiritual life, is impossible when a person does not know what he is waiting for. And not just impossible, but absurd – think of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” But in the first week of Advent, the church’s worship reminds her people what they are waiting for.
So, Christians begin their time of waiting with a reminder of what is coming. Hence, the Old Testament reading for the first week of Advent speaks of a time when people will “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” No more war, no need of enormous defense budgets, no threat of nuclear holocaust, but rather peace. That is worth waiting for.
During Advent, worshipers are not only reminded of what they are waiting for, but also of who they are waiting for. In the Gospel reading for the first week of Advent, Christians are reminded that it is their own Lord Jesus whose coming and reign will launch a new era of peace and joy.
When the first coming of Jesus is removed from its place in the larger biblical narrative, what is left is a melodrama about a pregnant teen, the rejection she and her young husband experienced, and the challenging circumstances that surrounded the birth of her special baby. This story has often been told in a way that is not just sweet but sappy and misses the point entirely.
Something similar happens when the story of Christ’s death is removed from its place in the larger biblical narrative. In both cases, God ceases to be the protagonist of the story, the purpose he pursues is forgotten, and the point of the story is reduced to a moral – helpful advice for readers and listeners to follow.
When we return the story of Jesus’s birth to its place in God’s plan and purpose for creation, which Advent Season can help us do, it is filled with hope. The profound importance of Jesus’s birth to God’s purpose for humanity becomes apparent. Instead of a morality tale, we have a rescue account – and a promise that creation will be set right.
Advent observance can keep us from losing the glory and promise of Christmas in the rush of the season and the banality of retail sales. It can reintroduce the wonder of the holiday and renew our hope in the God who so loved the world that he gave his only Son.
On Sunday, November 13th, our church commemorated IDOP Sunday with special guests Otoniel Martinez and our long-time friend Joe Milioni. What they have to share will excite you and encourage your faith. Remarkable advances are even now happening in the world through the gospel.
Thanksgiving is not a given. I do not mean that the national holiday is in peril. It is safe enough for now, although its rootedness in the theistic tradition could make it a strategic target in future culture wars. But as an actual occasion for giving thanks, it is already in a precarious position. The theistic worldview on which the practice of thanksgiving rests is eroding beneath it.
Of course, it is possible to express thanksgiving whether a theistic worldview is in place or not. Anyone can express gratitude to the important people in their life: a father or mother, family members, friends, and coworkers. It is possible, but it can hardly be assumed.
Gratitude, which is not an action but an attitude or a prevailing spirit, is the necessary foundation upon which the act of thanksgiving operates. Without the spiritual virtue of gratitude, thanksgiving will either be absent, manipulative, or hollow. The absence of gratitude in relationships, like the absence of some important nutrient in the body, is unhealthy.
It is not just unhealthy for the relationship, but unhealthy for the individual. Writing in Psychology Today, Amy Morin cites various studies suggesting that grateful people are physically healthier. They are happier. Their gratitude provides a bulwark against depression, restrains relation-fracturing aggression, and encourages greater sympathy. Grateful people even sleep better.
I have found gratitude to be, both in myself and in others, an accurate barometer of spiritual health. The ingrate not only knows less of life’s pleasures, but also knows less of God’s grace. Gratitude may be the single most important measure of spiritual vitality.
But just knowing that one should be grateful does not make a person so. Even a genuine desire to become grateful will not produce gratitude, any more than the desire to be thin will take away one’s appetite. If the 18th century English divine William Law was right and “the greatest saint in the world … is he who is always thankful to God,” then becoming a consistently grateful person is of enormous value. But how does that happen?
There are steps that can be taken. People can regularly recount their blessings to God and intentionally practice expressing gratitude toward others. These go together, for many of God’s blessings come through people. It is quite impossible that one should be genuinely grateful to God and unappreciative toward people at the same time.
The formation of a grateful spirit, and the habits of thanksgiving it produces, will turn out to be difficult without a foundational belief system to support it. What are some of the components of the grateful person’s belief system?
St. Paul outlines these essential beliefs in his letter to the Romans. The first is the conviction that God is at work and is bringing good to his people in everything that happens. Believing this, a person can be grateful even if she loses her job or house or is diagnosed with cancer. Without this belief, she may endure; willpower may keep her moving forward, but it will not make her a grateful person.
To be truly grateful, even in hard times, people must align themselves with God’s goal for humanity. This, according to the apostle, is nothing less than conformation “to the image of God’s Son” Jesus. For those who adopt this as their goal, everything that happens, both good and bad, can help them achieve their objective. If, however, their goal is to be wealthy, or healthy, or to avoid hassles, gratitude will always be elusive.
To become a grateful person, one must also believe in a God who loves unconditionally. Life will sometimes scream that we are unwanted, unloved, and unworthy. Our own failures will echo that scream. Gratitude can only be reclaimed in such moments if we are convinced that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Thanksgiving is the fruit that grows on the tree of gratitude, which is planted in the soil of belief in the powerful, loving God Jesus knew. It is the sweetest and most nourishing fruit we can bring to the holidays.
There are Christians who go about their lives the way they think best yet sprinkle a teaspoon of religion on top (mostly on Sundays) to add a little God-flavoring. Then there are the people who do whatever they do (3:17) in the name of Jesus. For the first type of Christian, prayer is a religious exercise, which they know they should engage in more often but never seem to find the time.
For the second kind of person, prayer is more than a religious exercise; it is a personal necessity. They cannot live without it. You cannot do whatever you do in the name of Jesus unless you pray frequently. You will pray when you are at work, at the store, in line at the coffee shop, going to sleep, and engaging in a disagreement. This is what Paul had in mind when he wrote, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
Some people, hearing this, might assume that carving out a time devoted to prayer is unnecessary, as long as they pray like this throughout the day. That is a mistake. Taking time from other things to pray is not a just a matter of preference: Jesus instructed us to go into the inner room, close the door, and pray.
But Paul is not talking about inner room prayers here. He wants Christians to take their praying on the road. As they go about their day, doing their normal things, he wants them to stay alert to God’s voice and be ready to interact with him at any moment. Prayer is not just something we do when we have something to pray about. It is something we do when God has something for us to pray about. That insight in transformative.
When God wants to get something done, he taps a person who is poised to pray. Prayer is the foundational way we work together with God.
Paul tells the Colossians, “Devote yourselves to prayer.” A literal reading might go like this: “As regards prayer, stay ready.” The Greek word is the same one Mark used when he said of Jesus, “He told his disciples to have a small boat ready for him.” Here, we are the ones to be ready for him – ready for prayer.
We find the same word in Acts 10, where the Roman centurion Cornelius kept a trusted soldier – we would call him a military attaché – at the ready in case he was needed. In Romans 13, Paul uses this same word of government officials who “give their full time to governing,” as the NIV puts it. It could be translated, “who are always on call.”
God wants his people alwayson-call for prayer, so that they can engage with him whenever and wherever they are: at work, home, restaurant, doctor’s office. God is already in those places, and he is already at work, and he wants us to join him in what he is doing. That only happens when we are on call and ready to pray.
That sounds doable, but unless we are intentional about it, things will get in the way. Our own insecurities can stop us. Distractions – and ours is the age of distraction – will keep us from praying. Our own goals, often chosen out of a need to feel good about ourselves, will thwart us. We will ignore the pager. We will not be on call for pray unless we have chosen to be and are careful, intentional, and determined to stay that way.
God offers us the opportunity to join the adventure, to live and work with him in the world—and prayer is a key component in that adventure. And so, we go through our days with our eyes open, ready to pray at the drop of a pin – or rather, at the whisper of the Spirit. Out of those prayers will come action. Prayer is not a substitute for action but a catalyst for it. People who pray like this start seeing what God has for them to do.
But it is not just action that comes out of prayer. Answers do too – sometimes remarkable answers that strengthen our trust in God and help others trust him too. People who have lived this way for many years often have astonishing testimonies of answered prayer.
Devoted to prayer … but what do we pray about? We pray about everything, as Paul told the Philippians. But there are some types of prayer in which we will be engaged again and again. For example: We pray for open doors to share Christ with others. This is verse 3: “. . . pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ.”
Here, as in many other places (Romans 15:30–32; 2 Corinthians 1:11; Ephesians 6:19; Philippians 1:19; and 1 Thessalonians. 5:25), Paul connects prayer with evangelism. If we want to talk to someone about Christ, or invite them to church, or explain the gospel to them, it’s important that we talk to God before (and even while) we talk to them. Don’t underestimate the power of prayer!
The famous missionary James Fraser went to southwest China, in the mountainous regions bordering Burma, with the gospel. One year James had seen many people come to Christ in the mountain villages, but winter came before they could be discipled, and the roads became impassible. James was worried that these new converts would revert to their old ways. He was continually frustrated by the weather, and he even found himself blaming God.
But he kept himself on call for prayer, and he sensed God challenging him to spend the three to five days it would normally take to travel to the villages, lead services, and travel home, to pray for the new Christians there.
When spring arrived and the snow melted, he could hardly wait to reach the mountain villages and check on the converts. He was afraid they had fallen back into spiritism and idolatry. They had not. Through the winter they had been reading their Bibles and praying. In fact, they had grown far more in their faith than the converts in the lowlands whom James regularly taught. Don’t underestimate the power of prayer.
We pray for open doors. We also ask God to help us make the good news about him clear when we go through those doors. Verse 4: “Pray that I may proclaim it clearly” – or make it apparent – “as I should.” When we pray like this, God answers. Ideas come to us for explaining the good news of Christ to people. Even as we converse with someone, God will give us an idea or an image that the other person can relate to – sometimes an idea or image we have never thought about before. He is answering our prayer and doing it on the spot.
A helpful skill to develop is the ability to give our attention to a person while keeping our spiritual ears open to what God might say. It’s not that we’re thinking about what we will say next. We are listening to the person before us and for the God above us, should he want to join the conversation.
We don’t just pray about what to say, but also about how to act. The actual words we use are only a part – sometimes a small part – of our interactions. And so, verse 5, we pray to “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; [to] make the most of every opportunity.” God, who gives us ideas about what to say, will also give us ideas about how to act.
A Christian went to visit a friend who had been in the hospital for many weeks. She thought God wanted her to do this, but she didn’t know what to say. They made small talk for a while and then she felt like God wanted her to place her hands on her friend and pray for her. That was way out there for her, but she asked her friend, and she said it would be alright. It was more than alright; it was just right. After she left, her friend, alone in her hospital room, prayed to receive Christ. Who knew that doing that would touch her so deeply? God did.
What we say is important, but so is what we do. Students sat in a missionary language school waiting for their very first class to begin. Their teacher entered the room and, without saying a word, walked down every row of students and then left. Moments later, she returned and asked, “Did you notice anything special about me?”
Everyone was quiet. Finally, one woman raised her hand and said: “I noticed that you had on nice perfume.” The class chuckled, but the teacher said, “That’s exactly what I wanted you to notice.” Then she said: [It] “will be a long time before any of you will be able to speak Chinese well enough to share the gospel with anyone in China. But even before you are able to do that, you can minister the sweet fragrance of Christ to these people by the quality of your lives.”
But just as words are not a substitute for action, actions are not a substitute for words. What we say is important, and not just what we say about Jesus. In verse 6, Paul writes: “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” Conversations that are “full of grace” (generous and kind), and “seasoned with salt” (interesting, not bland) make the way of Christ appealing. You may think, “But I’m not a good conversationalist.” God can make you a better one—as you pray and listen to him.
(Let me pause to clarify something: While praying Christians have power with God, they do not have power over God. It is important to understand that our prayers won’t make God act. But it’s even more important to understand that they don’t need to; he is already in action. We keep our eyes open so that we can see what he is up to and join him.
A teacher once told his disciples that experiences with God cannot be planned or manipulated. “They are spontaneous moments of grace,” he said, “almost accidental.”
One of his students asked, “If that is so, why do we work so hard doing all these spiritual exercises?”
The teacher answered, “To be as accident-prone as possible.”2That is why we dedicate blocks of time to prayer: to make us accident prone to those “spontaneous moments of grace.”
Imagine a local club has a great house band. Monday nights are Jam Nights, when the band picks people from the audience to join them on stage. So, patrons bring their instruments in the hope that they might be chosen to join the band for a set. One night, the singer points to you, sitting there with your Stratocaster, and calls you up in the middle of a set. You plug in and begin to play. But your guitar is out of tune, and it messes everything up. You’re not going to get called back on stage for a long time.
I said earlier that some people think that blocks of time dedicated to prayer are unnecessary as long as they pray throughout the day. But those spontaneous, Spirit-led, on the stage prayers require those regular times of prayer. That’s when we tune our instrument to the voice of God. It is the people who go into the inner room, close the door, and pray that are on call for prayer. The Band Leader knows their instrument will be tuned and they’ll be ready when he calls on them.)
Back to our text: Paul calls us to be watchful, but what are we watching for? The main thing for which Christians always watch is Christ’s return. We keep one eye on the sky. More than half of the 22 times that Jesus or a New Testament writer instructs us “to watch” (stay alert), we are told to watch for Christ’s return.
We are also told to watch for danger, particularly threats to our (or others’) relationship with God. Those threats come from various sources – Scripture mentions temptation, error, and hypocrisy among them. We are also awake and watching for opportunities to serve Christ among the people with whom our lives intersect. A good question as we watch might be, “What are you doing in this person’s life, Lord Jesus, and do you have a part for me to play in it?” That’s a prayer we can take on the road.
Paul wants our watchfulness in prayer to be accompanied by thanksgiving. For what are we thankful? For answers to prayer. We don’t just watch for needs about which we can pray, but for answers to prayers we have already prayed. We must be careful about “moving on” to the next thing without stopping to thank God for what he did in the last thing. Failure in this will lead to a loss of confidence in God and a weakening of our faith.
We watch for what God has done and we watch for what God is doing. Paul wants the Colossians to pray together with (and for) him and his friends, that God would open to them a door to speak about Christ.
Notice that Paul does not say, “Pray with, and for, us so that I will get out of jail soon,” or that “We will have a safe journey,” or that “Trophimus’s health might improve.” What was on Paul’s mind – and should also be on ours – was that God would open doors so that he could talk to people about Jesus and his kingdom. When God opens a door, no one can close it. We should follow Paul example and request and pray for God to open such doors. Then we must watch. That’s how we join the adventure.
Opportunities to talk about Christ or demonstrate his kind of life happen regularly – but we may not notice. God unlocks a door, and we walk right past it. Most of the door are not the automatic kind; we actually need to try the doorknob.
The pastor and writer Lee Eclov thinks that the biggest hindrance for a lot of us in sharing Christ is not that we don’t know how, but that we don’t see a way into the conversation. Because he’s “rarely had a natural chance to speak of the gospel,” he has learned to pray for open doors. Praying for open doors takes more time but is also more effective.
For example, Lee struck up a conversation with a young man at Einstein’s Bagels. He’d see the guy in there often, always wearing black pants and a white shirt and carrying a backpack full of books. One day he broke the ice: “I see you like to read,” and found that he was eager to talk. He learned his name and that he was a server at a nearby restaurant. The second time they talked, the guy asked Lee if it would be okay if he and his girlfriend visited his church. They were there the next Sunday and backpack guy has since become a Christ-follower.
Instead of trying to force things, Lee started praying and watching. Then he tried the door handle by saying: “I see you like to read.” And the door swung open. That is so different from the attitude that it’s up to me to make things happen.
How do we apply? Three things. One: Realize that God is already working in the lives of the people you meet. Your job is not to start something but to join someone – God – in what he is doing.
Two: Set a time to pray daily. Incorporate Scripture into that time so that you can listen to God, then talk to him about what you have seen. This is the primary way we learn to recognize his voice when he speaks to us during the day.
Three: Join the adventure. Say to God: What are you doing in this person’s life, and do you have a part for me to play? If you think he does, go for it, and be amazed as God works through you.
 O’Brien, P. T. (1994). Colossians. In D. A. Carson, R. T. France, J. A. Motyer, & G. J. Wenham (Eds.), New Bible commentary: 21st century edition (4th ed., p. 1275). Inter-Varsity Press.
 Michael Green, (Alice Grey, ed.) Stories for a Faithful Heart (Alice Grey, ed. Multnomah, 2004), p. 95
Rod Dreher believes that “A time of painful testing, even persecution, is coming” upon Christians living in the U.S. Dreher, who is a senior editor of The American Conservative and the author of The Benedict Option and Live Not by Lies, claims that “A progressive – and profoundly anti-Christian militancy – is steadily overtaking society.”
Dreher identifies the persecutors as the liberal elite. They are the “social justice warriors,” and the “woke” crowd. They despise traditional Christian morality as hateful and bigoted.
Some traditional Christians think that Dreher has overplayed his hand, and I agree. His comparisons between Soviet era repression and “woke” culture activism have generated fear and hostility toward the very people Christians are to win for Christ. Persecution complexes are hardly conducive to evangelism.
The absence of cultural and political power does not equal persecution. It may, however, prepare the way for it. Once people have been villainized, as traditional Christians have been over their beliefs about sexual morality, it becomes easier to treat them unjustly. Today, if someone says that gay marriage is outside God’s will – even though President Obama said something like this in 2008 – they qualify as a hatemonger.
This cultural powerlessness-demonization-injustice sequence is old and familiar. In the middle of the first century, St. Paul came to Ephesus (a thriving port city along what is now Turkey’s central coast) and had considerable success in evangelizing people and instructing them in the way of Christ. But, as anyone familiar with the New Testament Book of Acts might expect, there was a backlash.
To make sense of what happened, some background is helpful. Ephesus was a principal center of Artemis worship in the eastern Mediterranean. A magnificent temple, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, had been built for the goddess where, as legend had it, her image had fallen from the sky. The temple was one of the Mediterranean’s great tourist attractions.
It was also one of the Mediteraanean’s great money-making enterprises. The production of miniature shrines to Artemis was a booming business. People who purchased a shrine were assured that they could worship the goddess in their own country just as truly as they did in her great temple.
The local economy, and the lifestyle it made possible, depended on the tourism that Artemis worship generated. So, when Paul came on the scene, saying things like, “we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone – an image made by human design and skill,” he was viewed as a threat.
The text of Acts is instructive here. An influencer named Demetrius called a meeting of local craftsmen and “workers in related fields.” Some of these were probably competitors, but you would never know this from Demetrius’ skillful oratory. He addresses them as comrades who face a common threat. With his use of first person plurals, he sets up an us-against-them scenario.
He then deftly conveys the idea that the Christians pose a threat to their economic security. His, “You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business,” is a subtle reminder of what his hearers stand to lose.
He applies pressure by stating – perhaps, overstating – Paul’s success. He has “convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia.” He warns of the “danger that … our trade will lose its good name.”
He rounds off his argument with a religious note: “The great goddess Artemis will be discredited … robbed of her divine majesty.” With worries about economic security in place, and religious devotion as justification, Demetrius incites a riot that imperils Christians and turns Ephesus upside down.
Could something similar happen here? Possibly. The way has been paved. What ought Christians do? They ought to pull together across denominational lines, love and support each other, and bear testimony to God’s love before the people who oppose them.
But they must not adopt their opponent’s tactics. Demonizing enemies and stirring up hostility is not the way of Jesus. St. Paul taught Christians, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Evil can be overcome in no other way.