If someone universally acknowledged as a modern-day saint prayed regularly for you, what would he or she pray? We know what we would want them to pray: that our children would fare well, that we would have enough money to live comfortably, that our health would not fail. But is that really what a saint would pray?
We have a good idea of how a saint would pray because we know how one did pray. That saint was the Apostle Paul. We know what he prayed for because, in his letters, he made a point of telling people what requests he made to God on their behalf.
He did not tell people that he was praying for their children to fare well, or for them to be financially secure, or healthy. That doesn’t mean that he never prayed for these things but, if he did, he did not feel it necessary to mention the fact. His prayers seem to be less about people’s comfort and more about their effectiveness.
For Paul, effectiveness was not merely a matter of efficiency. Effectiveness was the result of a particular kind of life and it was for this that the great saint routinely prayed. We tend to focus our prayers on what’s going on around people. Paul focused his prayers on what was going on within them. He knew a person’s wellbeing may decline even as their circumstances improve. Indeed, it may decline because their circumstances improve.
What were the great saint’s prayer requests? They vary, depending on the people for whom he prayed and on what they needed at the time. The examples we have come from letters to Paul’s friend Philemon and to the church families in Philippi, Colossae, and Ephesus. These letters provide a model for high-impact praying.
The apostle tended to make few requests, sometimes only one, based on the particular situation of the individual or church family for which he prayed. Yet his few requests, when answered, would bring enormous benefit to the people themselves and to those around them. In the case of the Colossian church (Colossians 1:9-12), he made just one request: that its people be filled with the knowledge of God’s will.
Why this request in particular? Paul knew it was a high impact request. Knowledge of God’s will is not an end in itself but a prerequisite for living – these are his words – “a life worthy of the Lord” that will “please him in every way.” Such a life brings good into the world and leads to fulfillment and joy for those who live it.
A life that pleases God is productive – “bearing fruit” is how the apostle put it – a life that does good work in the world. Since, as Paul writes elsewhere, God has prepared good works in advance for his people to do, the knowledge of his will is crucially important.
God is also pleased when his children’s understanding of him grows. When I was a teen and young adult, I didn’t get my dad at all. He was a mystery to me. After I had children, I began to better understand him and eventually came to hold him in high regard. God wants this for his children too. Their understanding of their heavenly Father grows as they begin to grasp what he is up to. That is, when they are “filled with the knowledge of his will.”
Paul also knew that God is pleased by seeing his children grow strong. God is a father – is The Father – and no father ever wanted his children to grow up to be weaklings. The strength God wants to see is demonstrated in three ways: endurance during difficult times; patience with difficult people; and joyful gratitude no matter what.
This is not how we normally measure strength. Our usual gauges measure: what we can lift, not what we can bear; how many people we exercise power over, not how many we exercise patience with; getting what we want, not being thankful for what we have. St. Paul understood what real strength is, and his prayer reflects that understanding.
Anyone who desires to offer high-impact prayers would do well to study and imitate the prayers of St. Paul.
(First published by Gannett.)