Powerful Prayers

Prayers God Loves to Answer: Colossians 1:9-12

(Note: Each week for the next five weeks or so, I will post the manuscript that goes with the audio from a sermon in the Powerful Prayers series that was previously made available. I’ve been told by numerous people that they get more out of the sermon when they read it, so we’ll give it a try. I’ve been reluctant to post written sermons for two reasons: 1) I never simply read a sermon, so what people read is not exactly what I spoke. It may be better or it may be worse but it will be different. And (2) because the sermon has not been edited for publication. With those caveats, here is Prayers God Love to Answer: Colossians 1:9-12.)

Imagine you find yourself unable to do something you want to do, should be able to do, and have done in the past – say, eat ice cream. You go to your doctor and she does all kinds of tests and discovers that you are missing an enzyme which is necessary for the digestion of ice cream. She then gives you the good news: your body can produce plenty of this enzyme just by eating mangos. But you dislike mangos; dislike them as much as you like ice cream. So what do you do? Do you learn to eat mangos (ugh!) or do you give up ice cream (aww!)?

Let’s pose the same type of question, only let’s change the issue from a physical one to a spiritual one. You find yourself unable to do something you want to do and should be able to do: recognize God’s will. You go to your pastor and he runs a variety of soul tests and comes to the conclusion that you’re missing a spiritual enzyme (of sorts) which is necessary to the recognition of God’s will. That spiritual enzyme is loving relationships with other Christ-followers.

What do you do? You are an introvert. You don’t like big groups. You just aren’t easy with people. Being in a fellowship group or a Bible study is work for you; you think of it with distaste. So do you learn to have loving relationships with other Christ-followers or do you give up on knowing God’s will?

This is a real problem in our society generally and in the church in particular and it is getting worse. We are a ferociously independent, perilously individualistic people. Ironically, the advent of personal computers and especially mobile devices – supposedly communication devices – makes meaningful relationships with others seem optional.

A survey a few years ago revealed that millions fewer people attend church services than they did two decades earlier, yet more people claim to pray daily than they did then. What that means is that people are trying to do the Christian life in isolation, which violates God’s design and cannot be successful.

But like the digestive system in the human body, the recognition system for God’s will in the Body of Christ requires an enzyme of sorts: loving relationships. Humans are interdependent by design. God made us in such a way that we cannot reach our potential without others. It is a paradox, but you cannot fully be yourself by yourself. And you cannot fully perceive and understand God’s will when your Christian relationships are unhealthy.

In Colossians 1:9-12, we have a description of the Apostle Paul’s powerful prayer for the Colossian Christian. In it, he mentions a single request, but it is an important one. He prays the Colossians might be filled with the knowledge (or recognition, as the word is sometimes translated) of God’s will. Paul understood that the recognition of God’s will is critical to the church and to our lives.

(Colossians 1:9-12) For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light.  (NIV)

Before digging into the passage, we need to set it in context. When Paul wrote, “For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying,” what reason did he have in mind? What had he heard about the Colossians that jump-started his prayers for them? He’d heard (verse 8) about their love in the Spirit. He mentions something similar in verses 3 and 4: “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints.”

Paul immediately grasped what the Colossians love for the saints meant: their church had what it needed for recognizing God’s will. They had the essential equipment for receiving messages from God.

If I’m on my way to meet you at the coffee shop but you’re trying to call me to let me know you’re running late, I will not get that message because I do not have a cell phone. I don’t have a receiver capable of picking up your message. You can try calling me a dozen times, but I won’t hear your voice. Just so, when a church does not love each other, when they ignore or, worse, show contempt for each other, they will not have a receiver capable of hearing God’s voice. They will not know his will.

When Paul heard that the Colossians had love for all the saints, he knew they could hear from God and discern his will. That’s why he began praying for them to “be filled with the knowledge of God’s will,” which he knew is enormously important to their success. He asked God to convey the knowledge of his will, verse 9, “through all spiritual wisdom and understanding.” If love is the receiver needed to capture the signal, wisdom and understanding are the router and the computer that process it. Of the two words, wisdom and understanding, wisdom is the more general. The wise person grasps God’s ways. He understands God’s values and, as such, has the framework into which God’s specific will for churches and individuals fits.

(An aside: The Bible regards God as the source of wisdom, the fear of the Lord as the beginning of wisdom, the Scriptures as a means for gaining wisdom, and humility as the condition for maintaining wisdom.)[1]

The word translated as “understanding” could be, and frequently is, translated “insight.” This is the more specific of the two words. It has to do with seeing how the big truths fit into a particular situation. Paul says the knowledge of God’s will is delivered through spiritual wisdom and insight, which is to say, through wisdom and insight that are sourced in the Holy Spirit. Without the Spirit, we will not have wisdom and insight; and, without wisdom and insight, we will not understand God’s will.

Notice the little big word “all.” The recognition of God’s will comes through all spiritual wisdom and understanding, which presents a problem. You have a little wisdom and understanding and so do I, but neither of us has all wisdom and understanding. That leaves us in need of … each other – and God designed it that way. He routinely sends the knowledge of his will to multiple people and not just one; to the Church and not just the individual. What’s more, he doesn’t usually send all of it to every person but some to one and some to another. That is why someone who is isolated from the church cannot expect to know very much of God’s will.

The way email works can serve as an illustration. Let’s say your childhood best friend is going to be in town tomorrow at noon and wants to meet you for lunch, so he sends you an email. He only has an hour, but he’d sure love to see you. When he clicks “send,” his email is broken down into packets of information, each with an IP address, which are sent separately, sometimes along different routes. When the packets arrive, they are reassembled into a meaningful message. (Well, not always, but you get the idea.)

Like email, God’s will is often broken down into packets, sent and then reassembled by a group of loving believers with Spirit-sourced wisdom and understanding. It’s not that God cannot send the knowledge of his will to one person, but frequently he does not. He intends us to relate to, and rely on, each other. If we insist on going it alone, we forfeit much of the knowledge we need to understand what God is doing in and around our lives.

A few years ago, Phil Vischer, the creator of VeggieTales was in Coldwater and he shared his story. Phil was on top of the world, wildly successful and full of big ideas for the future. In fact, he named his production company Big Ideas Productions. Because things were going so well, he concluded that God wanted to grow Big Ideas into a much larger company, so he spent millions of dollars, hired all kinds of staff, and got himself upside down financially. His cash flow couldn’t handle the skyrocketing bills, Big Ideas went bankrupt, and Phil was forced to sell all VeggieTales copyrights to another company. In a short time, his company and his life collapsed.

Phil looks back and says, “When things were doing so well, I thought that was God wanting us to expand, so we grew like crazy. Now I think it was more me having all these great ideas in my head and being so excited that I wanted to do them all at once.” He wasn’t humble, which he acknowledges. His wisdom wasn’t sourced in God and his word. And he was charting his course without counsel and flying solo. That is a recipe for misunderstanding God’s will.

How important is it for you and me and for our church to receive the knowledge of God’s will? Well, how important is it for an military unit to know whether Central Command is ordering them to attack or defend, to advance or retreat? It is critical. Look at verse 10: “And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way…” There is a reason behind Paul’s prayer: being filled with the knowledge of God’s will is not an end in itself. Such knowledge will help us (1) live a life worthy of the Lord and (2) please him in every way.

The word translated “worthy” is derived from the Greek axios, meaning “to have the weight of another thing.” The terminology developed around the use of ancient scales. Say you went to the market to buy five pounds of wheat flour. The merchant would place weighing stones on one side of the scale then fill the other side with wheat until the scale balanced or achieved “worthiness.”

Some merchants used inaccurate weighing stones or rigged the scale to their advantage, which is why Proverbs 11:1 says “The LORD abhors dishonest scales, but accurate weights are his delight.”

To live a life (literally, to walk) worthy of the Lord is to go through your day in a way that balances your lifestyle with your calling as a servant of the Lord of lords and savior of the world. Without the knowledge of God’s will, that can’t be done. And it can’t be done if we are using inaccurate weights – that is, ones that are calibrated for the non-Christian. If we try to balance our lives with the scale weights of house-size, car value, body mass index, and social media footprint, we’ll never balance out in a way that is worthy of the Lord.

Instead of using such things to measure ourselves, let’s weight the scale with: Jesus’s trust in, and obedience to, his Father; his sacrifice for his friends; his love for his enemies. Place on the scale the Lord’s patience, his care for the needy, his openness to strangers. Set our lives against those weights.

We will of course be light in such virtues, but we can at least use the right scale. God isn’t waiting for us to be just like Jesus in all these things before he’ll be pleased with us. The desire to be like Jesus already pleases him, as does every effort we make toward that end.

That brings us to the second reason behind Paul’s request for these Colossian Christians to be filled with the knowledge of God’s will: so that they can please the Lord in every way. We can please the Lord. The Lord can say of you, “Isn’t he something special!” Or, “I just love her; she’s such a delight.”

You may think it is impossible for someone like us – with all our problems and shortcomings – to please God. Only people who have it all together, famous people like Mother Theresa and Billy Graham, can please God.

It is not so. In fact, if that is what we think, our thinking is precisely backwards. It is impossible to please some people; no matter what we do, they will never be pleased. If you grew up with a mom or dad like that, you know what I mean. It is also impossible to please ourselves, at least for any length of time. We don’t stay pleased.

But it is not impossible to please God. He loves to see his children succeed. He delights in them. He sings over them. He is easy to please – but hard to satisfy. He is delighted by every honest effort his children make, but he always wants more. Not because he is a slave driver but because he knows what we can be and longs for us to experience it. He made us for glory, for perfection, for all joy, and, for our sakes, he will not be satisfied with less.

Recently my grandson Phinehas colored a picture for me and then, in his five-year-old, just-learning-to-make-letters handwriting, signed his name: PHIN. I was pleased with the picture but even more with the signature. I expect that, when he is older, his handwriting will be firmer, clearer, and flow more easily. (Then again, he could be like his dad … or grandpa.) Still, I expect his handwriting will only get better and I want that for him, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t thoroughly pleased with his accomplishment.

So with God. He isn’t hard to please. We, with all our problems and shortcomings, can be a real source of pleasure to God, a joy within the fountain of joy. He even tells us, through the apostle, what pleases him. That is what we’ll look at next week, when we continue with the four things that bring pleasure to God our Father.

In closing, I remind you that bringing pleasure to God and walking worthy of the Lord Christ happens to people and churches who are filled with the knowledge of his will. And that knowledge comes to us like email: in packets (if you will), which often follow different routes and must be put together. This means you need other people in the church, people who are loving God and each other. I repeat what was said earlier: you cannot fully be yourself by yourself. And you cannot fully perceive and understand God’s will when your relationships with others are unhealthy.

So ask God to lead you into healthy relationships with others and to heal those that are unhealthy. Don’t be a loner.

One of my favorite authors, Wendell Berry, was walking with his friend Wes Jackson past a plot of Maximilian Sunflowers, which can grow to nearly ten feet. Jackson pointed to a plant that stood alone, disconnected from the rest.

Wendell Berry saw that this loner plant was taller than most and had bigger flowers. But it wasn’t healthy. Its blossoms were so heavy that the branches were starting to break under their weight. In one sense, the plant had “succeeded”: it was unusually tall and its flowers were impressive. It stood out from the crowd. But Maximilian Sunflowers only thrive and as they grow in community, not in isolation.[2]

That’s true of people too, especially of the followers of Jesus. Enter into the life of the church. Be involved with Jesus’s people. Don’t stand alone.


[1] Prov. 9:10; Eccl. 2:26 and Daniel 2:20; 2 Tim. 3:15; James 3:13

[2] Matt Woodley, managing editor, PreachingToday.com; source: Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace (Counterpoint, 2002), pp. 139-143

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