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 always on-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
2 Philip Yancy, Prayer (Zondervan, 2006)
 Lee Eclov, “Christ in a Coffee Shop,” Trinity Magazine (Spring 2006), p. 16-17