The Pursuit of God

Serious Topics for Serious Christians

Learning from the Prayers of Paul

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If you’re looking for examples of how not to pray, read your Bible. Look at the way the prophets and the general rabble pray. Study how the New Testament apostles tell other Christians to pray, and then you’ll have a really good picture of what not to do.

Now once you accept the premise that the men who wrote the Bible were all fully devoted, spiritually mature souls, then it’s downright shocking to realize that none of these people are encouraging others to ask God to have His total way in their lives. Isn’t life supposed to be about honoring God? Of course it is. So if you really care about pleasing Him, why wouldn’t you pray for what He wants instead of always praying for what you want? We don’t expect spiritual infants to grasp this concept, but shouldn’t men like Paul and John be more advanced than infants? Well, they obviously aren’t when it comes to prayer. And if we find this scandalizing, then it’s our own fault for deciding that these men were farther along than they really were. Where do we get off trying to slap these men with the “perfect” label, anyway? What human can possibly meet the expectations of “infallible and inerrant”? You won’t find these terms anywhere in Scripture, just like you won’t find the terms Trinity or unconditional love. We Christians are good at inventing new rules for the game, but then we conveniently forget that we did invent these things and we start pretending God did. “The entire Bible is inspired, inerrant and infallible,” we say today. But God Himself never said this. God never said Christians couldn’t grow closer to Him without doing daily devotions. God never said Christians would go astray if they weren’t in fellowship with other believers. When you really stop to think about it, it’s quite sobering to realize how many words we’ve put in God’s mouth that He never said. No wonder we’re in such a mess.

Now when it comes to talking about spiritual maturity, a lot of souls get uncomfortable. The Church today is trying hard to downplay the importance of growing in the faith and we’re constantly using the phrase “don’t judge” to mean “don’t try to say there is absolute truth.” Well, this is just foolish relativism. The world wants to pretend there is no absolute truth and Christians have been sucking up to the world for so long that now we’re letting this relativistic mindset creep into the way we approach spiritual growth. In every area of spiritual growth there are absolute truths. There are right and wrong ways of going about things. There are right and wrong focuses. When it comes to prayer in the Bible, we find a whole mess of wrong teaching, wrong methods, and wrong focuses. In this post, we’re going to zoom in on just one teacher in the Bible—the apostle Paul—and examine how he instructs Christians to pray. Why pick on Paul? Because he is the main writer of the New Testament, and since most Christians hide out in the New Testament, Paul ends up being one of their greatest theological influences. This isn’t good, because although Paul was a very confident individual, he rejected the Divinity of Christ, which means he wasn’t even saved (The Great Offense of Paul: Rejecting the Divinity of Christ). So, yes, in the Church today we’re all being taught to follow the advice of a non-Christian.  Horrifying, but there it is.

Now clearly if you try to imitate the prayer style of a spiritual rebel, you’re going to end up in the mess.  Look around at the Church today, and you’ll see that many Christians pray the way Paul did. We’re praying for the wrong things using the wrong methods and we’re totally irritating God in the process. To get back to where we need to be, we need to make some major changes. The purpose of prayer is to invite God to change us to be in alignment with Him, not to try and make Him change to be in alignment with us. God wants us to pray with a submissive attitude, not a directive attitude. Naturally Paul does the opposite of what God wants becuse Paul isn’t listening to God.  Let’s take a look.

ROMANS 15:30-32

It’s good to ask God to protect us in life, right? Wrong. Do you want your child to get up in the morning and say, “Mommy, please don’t do horrible things to me today”? This is what we’re saying to God when we pray, “Lord, please protect me from harm.” What is this saying about God’s Character that we should feel the need to ask Him such a thing? What do we expect Him to say to this?

“Okay fine, I’ll postpone My coffee break and turn off the television up here in Heaven and actually pay attention to you until you get home safely.”

What is it we think God is doing if He isn’t protecting us? Did we miss the part about the Holy Spirit dwelling within us? What do we think He’s doing inside of us—sleeping? Ignoring us? Do you realize how often we go around singing about God’s wonderful love for us with our lips while in our hearts we’re constantly treating Him like He doesn’t love us at all? How can you praise God for His undying love for you one minute and then ask Him to protect you the next minute? If He really loves you, then He’s already protecting you. If He cares about you enough to die for you, then obviously He isn’t going to just abandon you into the clutches of Satan. But this really isn’t obvious to us at all, is it? In our cores, we are extremely insecure about God’s love, we barely trust Him, and we think our nagging prayers are a critical part of keeping Him motivated to take care of us. Where did we get such delusional ideas? They’re coming from demons. Demons want to erode your confidence in God’s love for you, so they will bombard you with constant fears and lies about how much God pays attention to you. When you don’t know how to identify their voices in your head, you just accept what they say and then you end up with the same weak faith that Paul had. Just listen to him:

Now I appeal to you, brothers, through our Lord Jesus Christ and through the love of the Spirit, to join with me in fervent prayers to Yahweh on my behalf. Pray that I may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judea, that the gift I am bringing to Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, and that, by Yahweh’s will, I may come to you with joy and be refreshed together with you. (Rom. 15:30-32)

This request reeks of fear. First of all, Paul is not just making a polite request, he is begging the believers in Rome to pray for him. How does he want them to pray? Fervently. What’s with this request for emotionally intense prayers? Because like most humans, Paul thinks God pays more attention to us when we are extra emotional (see The Emotionality of Prayer).

Notice how Paul is asking other believers to fervently pray on his behalf. A man who is confident about his own relationship with God doesn’t go around asking other people to pray for him. He talks to God directly and has confidence in God’s deep love for him. He doesn’t fall for the ridiculous notion that God is impressed by how many friends we have on earth. The fact that Paul is falling for this “power in numbers” theory clearly demonstrates that the man is ragingly insecure about his own walk with God. Well, he ought to be since he’s in big trouble with Yahweh for refusing to submit to Christ as a second all-powerful God.  Yahweh is the only God Paul acknowledges, and he thinks that Yahweh will pay more attention to him if Paul has a bunch of his friends reminding Yahweh that Paul exists. Well, no this isn’t how it works.  God is always listening to us and paying attention to us.  God doesn’t think you’re more important just because you’re popular on earth.

So what does Paul want his friends to plead with Yahweh about on his behalf? He wants them to ask Yahweh to protect him from people who want to harm him. Now Paul has some very real enemies following him around, but does he really think human nagging is needed to make God pay more attention to what is happening to him? Well, yes. Paul figures if he gets a bunch of his friends to plead and harangue God about Paul’s physical safety, God will actually get up from His nap and apply Himself on Paul’s behalf. Are you seeing what a warped view of God this is? What happens when we try to function in life with such corrupted theology? We end up constantly tormented by fears and anxiety. We’re always pleading for other people to pray for us and our moments of peace—if we have any at all—are very brief and fleeting.

What else is Paul asking for besides physical protection? He’s asking “that the gift I am bringing to Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints.” This gift would be money that Paul has collected from other churches in order to help persecuted Christians in Jerusalem. There’s a nasty famine happening right now and the extra help is desperately needed.  But what if the Christians in Jerusalem decide Paul isn’t bring them enough help?  Paul is clearly worried about being disapproved of by these people because he’s asking his friends to pray that he’ll have their approval. What a mess.

ROMANS 1:8-12

Now Paul isn’t the kind who only takes without giving. Since he believes that we humans have to work together to remind Yahweh that we exist down here (otherwise He might forget all about us and leave the universe), Paul does his share of fervent praying on behalf of other believers. As he opens his letter to the church in Rome, he lets everyone know that he’s been constantly reminding Yahweh of their existence and putting in some good words for them in the heavenly realms.

First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you because the news of your faith is being reported in all the world. For Yahweh, whom I serve with my spirit in telling the good news about His Son, is my witness that I constantly mention you, always asking in my prayers that if it is somehow in Yahweh’s will, I may now at last succeed in coming to you. For I want very much to see you, so I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you, that is, to be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. (Rom. 1:8-12)

Notice how Paul says that Yahweh is his witness that he really does pray for the believers in Rome. This is very strong language that is akin to saying “I swear that I’m not lying to you—may God strike me down if I’m exaggerating about how often I pray to you.” Why such a defensive approach? Doesn’t Paul think these people will believe him when he says he’s always praying for them? We don’t even know the man, and we believe him just based on that last passage we studied. It’s obvious that Paul feels that his physical safety and spiritual connection with Yahweh are totally dependent on the prayers that other people are putting in on our behalf. Humans operate on a give to get basis with each other. Paul thinks he desperately needs these people to pray for him, so it’s only natural that he’ll pray for them in order to encourage reciprocation. This is the selfish way that people help each other—we give to get, and because of this, we often give what we want to receive back. Paul wants fervent prayers, so he gives fervent prayers. And he makes a point to say that he is constantly  mentioning these people to Yahweh and always asking that Yahweh will let him go to Rome to meet with these believers face to face. Hm. What does Yahweh think about these repetitive requests?

There are some things that Yahweh, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit will never tire of hearing you say. Things like:

I love You, God.
I really want You to have Your total way in my life.
I want to care about the things You care about.
I love that You are always with me.
I’m so honored just to know You.
I’m so eager to learn more about who You are.

Our Gods love compliments, praise, and gratitude. They love hearing about how much you love Them and want Them. You’re never going to tire Them out on any of these subjects. But when it comes to asking Them to conform to your human agenda—that gets old really fast. It’s obvious that Yahweh has been blocking Paul from coming to Rome for quite a while or else Paul wouldn’t feel the need to constantly pester God about this subject. Now our Gods definitely want us to share our desires and passions and preferences with Them. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “Lord, I really wish I could go hang out with the believers in Rome.” But sharing your preferences and nagging God to make them happen are two different things. If Paul had more respect for Yahweh, he might have prayed, “God, is there any way You can take me to Rome? But only if it’s Your will. If it’s not, help me to stay focused on what You want to do instead.” This is an honest request which is combined with reverent submission and a willingness to put God’s agenda first. But once we pray something like this, we need to start acting like God heard us and accept His answer. Yet this is not what Paul says he is doing. He says he is “always asking in my prayers that if it is somehow in God’s will, I may now at last succeed in coming to you.” The asking in God’s will part is good, but this always part is not. When we keep asking God for the same thing over and over again, we’re treating God like He is deaf. God does not like being treated like He is deaf. God likes being treated like the attentive listener that He is. Paul needs to stop bringing up Rome every time he prays and move on to other topics–like finally acknowledging Christ is God Almighty and not just some lucky human.

Why does Paul want to get to Rome? So he can spiritually strengthen the believers. This is not his job.  It is not your job to prop up the faith of new believers or to help struggling believers persevere in life. Your job is to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit in each moment. Maybe your friend is super bummed but God’s not giving you any words of encouragement for her. Does this mean you’re a lousy Christian? No, it means that you’re not the instrument God wants to speak through at this time. Doesn’t God get the right to choose who He wants to use to do His work on earth? Of course.

As a Pharisee, Paul knows Old Testament better than most, and that should be giving him a lot of confidence about just how devoted Yahweh is to strengthening those who sincerely seek Him. But Paul isn’t confident, nor is he sincerely seeking Yahweh because he’s blowing off the Divinity of Christ.  Paul is in a mess of stubborn rebellion.

2 CORINTHIANS 1:10-11

As Paul starts a second letter to the troublesome believers in Corinth, he makes a reference to some hellish time that he and his companions had in Asia. Whatever happened was so bad that everyone started feeling suicidal. But Yahweh squeaked them through and now it sounds like Paul is up against it again for we find him talking about praying for another round of deliverance.

He has delivered us from such a terrible death, and He will deliver us. We have put our hope in Him that He will deliver us again while you join in helping us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gift that came to us through the prayers of many.

You don’t need other believers to prop you up in life, and God isn’t going to do a slack job of protecting you just because you don’t have a lot of praying friends. When you imitate Paul, you end up in two major snares.  First, you depend on people when you should be depending on God. Second, you give people credit and glory that should be going to God alone. These are two very serious issues.  All this pompous guff we have about “prayer warriors” and “mighty intercessors” starts with the lie that human beings hold some massive sway over God. We do not control God. Nothing you say is going to make God do something He doesn’t want to do, no how much you blubber and cry.

This idolatrous exaltation of humans in the Church infuriates our jealous God. It’s really not okay that you go around thanking other Christians for praying for you as if you think their prayers made all the difference. God is the One who helps you in life, and He doesn’t help you because little humans bossed Him into it. God does not take orders from us—ever. When we start glorifying those who pray, we outrage the Holy Spirit. How dare we applaud fallen, bumbling mortals for the things that our glorious Lords have accomplished all on Their own? Did your friend’s weeping prayers make the Holy Spirit guide the surgeon’s hand more skillfully during your operation? Of course not. Your friend’s weeping prayers only insulted God by letting Him know how much she didn’t believe that He is always taking the best possible care of you.

Do you know why we are so addicted to bossing God around in our prayers? Because we want to control Him. There’s no room for downplaying the ugliness of our motivations here. You’re not praying your brains out for the suffering because you’re such a pure-hearted, compassionate individual. You’re just trying to control Him. The reason we get ticked when someone starts bashing on the way we pray is because we hate the idea of giving up the control that we never even had. God does not take orders from us. God leads, He doesn’t follow. Paul is totally out of line to tell these believers that they should all start instructing Yahweh on how He ought to take care of Paul. And of course Paul doesn’t want them to just pray once, but to constantly nag Yahweh with the same bossy orders over and over again until they get news that Yahweh did what they told Him to do. Isn’t this what we do in our churches today? Don’t we all keep hammering God with the same requests until we get word that He has finally obeyed our orders? And then we exult in the power of prayer, which is the same as celebrating our ability to control God.

Think about the way you pray. How often are you telling God to stop doing what He is doing? How often are you insulting His judgment and criticizing His choices by telling Him to “fix” what He’s done? A tornado flattens a town and Christians start praying for God to clean up the mess. Hello, it’s His mess. He made it on purpose. A drought begins and all the Christians start praying for rain. No one is bothering to ask God why He turned off the rain in the first place. We don’t ask because we don’t care. We aren’t interested in what God wants. We only care about what we want, and we want comfortable, convenient lives. Well, God wants to be honored and exalted. He’s noticed that the more He blesses us, the less we respect Him. Given this highly consistent pattern, why would God be interested in sheltering us from every problem in life? Life isn’t about what WE want, it’s about what GOD wants. If Paul would wake up to this reality, he would stop telling everyone to pray for the will of Paul to go forward in life. But instead of putting God first and teaching other souls to submit to God’s will in their prayer lives, Paul tells them to pray for what Paul wants and then he dangles the carrot of glory in front of them.

Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gift that came to us through the prayers of many.

In other words: “Pray for us and later you can take some of the credit for making it happen.” Because of course Yahweh can’t possibly do anything on His own—He’s only God Almighty. He can only work “through the prayers of many.” Good grief.

2 CORINTHIANS 9:6-14

The passage we just studied isn’t the first time Paul tries to blend the concept of prayer with human ego stroking. Later on in this same letter, he’s urging the Corinthians to open up those wallets and give to the cause. And just like our prosperity teachers today, he launches into a nauseating speech about how Yahweh rains extra blessings down on the heads of those who give monetarily. In other words, we should give to get, and we should use our offerings as a means of manipulating God into blessing us. Give a dollar, get five back.

Remember this: The person who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the person who sows generously will also reap generously. Each person should do as he has decided in his heart—not reluctantly or out of necessity, for Yahweh loves a cheerful giver. And Yahweh is able to make every grace overflow to you, so that in every way, always having everything you need, you may excel in every good work. As it is written: “He scattered; He gave to the poor; His righteousness endures forever.”

Now the One who provides seed for the sower and bread for food will provide and multiply your seed and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way for all generosity, which produces thanksgiving to Yahweh through us. For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints, but is also overflowing in many acts of thanksgiving to Yahweh. They will glorify Yahweh for your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with others through the proof provided by this service. (2 Cor. 9:6-14)

In classic prosperity style, Paul starts with the threats: if you’re a tightwad, God will punish you by withholding material blessings. But if you write those hefty checks, then you’ll be raking it in. Don’t miss the part about “always having everything you need.” This from the man who just got done telling us how he was so desperate and strung out in Asia that he wanted to kill himself. Why isn’t Paul having all of his needs met 24/7 if he’s such a spiritual hotshot? Is he not generous enough? Or perhaps is he just making up a bunch of empty promises to get the believers to loosen their purse strings? We’re under the New Covenant here and Jesus specifically threw out the concept that obedient souls should look forward to abundant lives on earth. So where does Paul get off painting these happy pictures of the abundant life on earth for those who give generously to God’s work? Oh, that’s right, Paul isn’t listening to Yahweh or Jesus, so he feels free to promote any lie that he wants.

Oh, but let’s not stop with the material goodies. Notice how Paul goes on to promise that if the believers are generous, a bunch of people will start applauding them to God in their prayers. “They will glorify Yahweh for your obedience…and for your generosity in sharing with them.” How carnal is this? Let’s give so that other people will ooze over us to God and tell Him how wonderful we are. The whole idea of wanting your name to come up in someone else’s personal conversations to God is completely off base.

EPHESIANS 6:18-20

Pray at all times in the Spirit with every prayer and request, and stay alert in this with all perseverance and intercession for all the saints. Pray also for me, that the message may be given to me when I open my mouth to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel. For this I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I might be bold enough in Him to speak as I should. (Eph. 6:18-20)

Paul wants believers to constantly intercede for each other. Even though Yahweh has thrown out the entire Levitical priesthood, torn the veil in front of the Holy of Holies, let’s bring back the concept of intercession and act like Yahweh can’t hear us unless other believers nag Him on our behalf. Wow (see Intercession: Exposing the Lies).

This passage ends with yet more prayer requests from Paul—notice how he puts these requests into letters instead of just talking to God directly. Oh, but that’s right, God doesn’t listen to us unless we get mortals to intercede for us.

PHILIPPIANS 1:19

It isn’t God who helps us in life. It’s humans who tell God what to do. Writing from jail to the church in Philippi, Paul shares how he has decided not to be bothered by the fact that people are slandering him on the outside. He’s going to keep a peppy attitude and stay confident that his deliverance is coming.

Yes, and I will rejoice because I know this will lead to my deliverance through your prayers and help from the Spirit of Jesus Christ. (Philip. 1:19)

Notice it’s the humans who get top billing. It’s “through your prayers” and some help from Jesus. Paul is all about human intercessors. Without people praying for him, where would he be? Strung out with just God? What a terrible thought.

PHILIPPIANS 1:9-11

And I pray this: that your love will keep on growing in knowledge and every kind of discernment, so that you can approve the things that are superior and can be pure and blameless in the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of Yahweh. (Philip. 1:9-11)

It sounds so right to give the God step-by-step instructions on the areas that He needs to work on someone, doesn’t it? Well, it’s not. You are not God’s supervisor. What makes you so pompous that you think you know the order in which He ought to mature someone else? When it comes to someone else’s spiritual development, the Holy Spirit is not inviting any of us to monitor His progress. We need to back off and let Him work. Is one of your Christian friends lacking in faith? Do you really think the Holy Spirit isn’t aware of the problem? God has reasons for why He grows each of us in a different order. Instead of sticking our nose in things that are not our business, we need to focus on our own walks with God and work on our own development issues. The only time you need to get involved in someone else’s growth is when God specifically instructs you to say or do something. When you get a clear order, you obey your Master. But the rest of the time, you need to stay out of His way.

COLOSSIANS 4:12

Epaphras, who is one of you, a slave of Christ Jesus, greets you. He is always contending for you in his prayers, so that you can stand mature and fully assured in everything Yahweh wills. (Col. 4:12)

And while poor Epaphras wastes a bunch of time and energy trying to fight other people’s battles for them, Paul is right there egging him on. This is why it is so problematic when you follow bad mentors in life. They encourage you to imitate their own foolishness. Don’t be like Epaphras. Don’t be like Paul. Ask the Holy Spirit to teach you how to pray in a way that will honor your Gods.

FURTHER READING:
Lifting Each Other Up in Prayer
Applying 2 Chronicles 20: Learning from Jehoshaphat
Spiritual Maturity in the Bible: Where is it?

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