It’s that time of year again. If you didn’t have a calendar, you could tell that it’s the start of January by the flyers in the mail. Lose weight, organize your space, get in shape – it’s that time where a lot of us focus on improving ourselves.
Some of us have moved beyond New Year’s resolutions, because they so seldom work. Most of us start out pretty well, but a month or two into the New Year we’ve forgotten what we resolved at the beginning of the year.
What if the answer wasn’t resolving to do better, as much as to take advantage of what you already have? What of, instead of praying for more, we shifted our focus to seeing and using what we already have?
The reason I ask this question is because of a letter that was written by a man to a small church a long time ago. The letter is the book of Colossians, found in the Bible. It was written by the apostle Paul. I’m drawn to this book because it’s so relevant to our situation today. Although we’re separated by geography and time, our world is similar in many ways to the world of the Colossians. We are asking similar questions to what they might have been asking. Paul tells them that what they really need in their lives is not anything more. What they need in their lives is to recognize what has already been given to them.
Let me tell you a bit about Colosse. I mentioned that their world was a lot like ours. The people of Colosse were people who were absorbed in everyday life, just like we are. They didn’t have a lot of time to sit around thinking deep thoughts all the time. Colosse was out of the way. It wasn’t a major town. There weren’t any important people living there. Read the letter of Colossians, and you encounter everyday people trying their best to live. There were husbands and wives and kids and employees. When they met as a church, they didn’t even get the day off – Sundays back then were working days. These were very real people with very normal problems, just like us.
They also lived in a religious climate much like ours. People back then believed in tolerance and pluralism. It was considered bad form to insist that your god was right and every other god was wrong. That was intolerant. People back then said, as they do now, that you should be able to decide for yourself what god to worship. In fact, the more the better. Christians back then were not appreciated because it was considered intolerant to worship only one God. The other gods might get ticked off and punish the entire city as a result.
The other thing about the Colossians is that, like many of us, they were committed to Jesus Christ, but they seemed to have a hard time always translating that into daily life. Sound familiar? George Barna has done some research and found that there really isn’t that great a difference in the way that Christians live their lives compared to those who don’t claim to be Christians. Barna says, “People need more help in determining how their faith speaks to life issues beyond the obvious connections.” They, like us, were committed to Christ, but this did not always make as much of a difference in their everyday lives as it should have.
Paul wrote to them from prison. A lot of what he talks about in this letter is just as relevant to us as it was to them. He wanted them to realize that although they looked outnumbered and their faith wasn’t very popular, even though their lives were full of the everyday and they didn’t always live the way they should, that they already had everything that they needed. They didn’t need anything more. They did, however, need to realize what they had been given, and to let that knowledge change them from the inside out.
It was customary in that day to begin a letter with the name of the sender, then to bring greetings, and then to offer a prayer to the gods on behalf of the recipients. Paul does this here. Instead of praying to the gods, he prays to God the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. His prayer isn’t perfunctory. As I read over the prayer this week, I was struck by its focus. It isn’t concerned with the practical, although the people he’s praying for live ordinary lives. The prayer will have practical results, but it’s set much higher than normal. I was struck with how little I pray this way and maybe that we’re missing a lot because we don’t pray this way.
Ultimately, this is a prayer for a church. It is a prayer for a group of other believers. As we begin 2005 and begin to walk through this letter, I’d like to challenge us to follow Paul’s lead as he prays in two areas.
1. Thank God for what he is doing in their lives
You’ve probably seen those pictures. Look at them one way, and they look like one thing. Somebody sees the same picture and notices something completely different. Paul looks at this group of people and sees what most of us could easily miss. He sees God at work. Most of us would see ordinary people who were living the best they could, but just ordinary people. Paul sees people who are evidence of the power of the Gospel transforming lives all over the world.
Paul prays in verses 3 to 6:
We always pray for you, and we give thanks to God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard that you trust in Christ Jesus and that you love all of God’s people. You do this because you are looking forward to the joys of heaven-as you have been ever since you first heard the truth of the Good News. This same Good News that came to you is going out all over the world. It is changing lives everywhere, just as it changed yours that very first day you heard and understood the truth about God’s great kindness to sinners.
Remember that these people were under a lot of pressure not to believe in Christ. They were seen as intolerant bigots who refused to worship other gods. It was easy to doubt the Gospel. For them, it was new and strange. They were in the same situation as we are. For us, the Gospel isn’t new and strange. It’s old and familiar. It’s easy to underestimate its power.
Look around you today. You see a lot of ordinary people. You see people with amazing abilities. You see people with mortgages, kids, work pressures. Paul looks at an ordinary group of people and sees the Gospel at work in their lives. He sees them as evidence of what God is doing around the world.
The heart of this prayer of thanks is verse 6: “This same Good News that came to you is going out all over the world. It is changing lives everywhere, just as it changed yours that very first day you heard and understood the truth about God’s great kindness to sinners.” Paul sees the Gospel as a force that is changing lives around the world. Every time you see an ordinary person who follows Jesus, you see evidence of the power of the Gospel personified. They may look like an ordinary person with ordinary issues. They are actually much more than that. They are part of what God is doing around the world. They are evidence that God is at work in the world changing lives. Every time the Gospel comes in contact with a person, it changes everything about them, even if they look the same from the outside.
This is our challenge as we pray about people: first, to see the positive. It’s so much easier to see the faults of others rather than seeing God at work in their lives. I’d like to see beyond the everyday and catch glimpses of the Spirit working in still every imperfect people.
The other challenge is to see other followers of Christ as evidence of what God is doing around the world. The Gospel is making all things new. God is in the process of repairing everything that has gone wrong with this world. He will one day create a new heaven and a new earth, one that is free of death and tsunamis. The very ordinary people that you pray for are advance evidence of what God is doing around the world. As you see them, give thanks to God for the evidence of the Gospel that you see in their lives.
2. Pray that they would understand what God has done for them in Christ
Paul shifts his prayer from thanksgiving to request. His request, though, is in line with his petition. He prays that the Colossians would see what he sees in them: the power of God at work. He prays above the practical (bless them, help them) and prays a prayer that we could learn from. He prays that they would understand what God is up to in this world, and that this knowledge would transform everything else in their lives:
Paul says, “So we have continued praying for you ever since we first heard about you. We ask God to give you a complete understanding of what he wants to do in your lives, and we ask him to make you wise with spiritual wisdom” (Colossians 1:9). At first I want to say, “What an impractical thing to pray for.” It’s much easier to focus on the jobs that we need or the money we’re going to be short this month, or for some request that we can see and feel. Praying for understanding is something that usually doesn’t make the list, unless someone feels like they could use some insight in a particular area.
Paul, though, is on to something. The type of understanding that he prays for is the type that could change everything about our lives. The NIV translates it as “the knowledge of his will.” This isn’t about knowing about God’s will in specific areas of our lives – who we should marry, where we should work. This is about knowing what God is up to in this world. It’s about understanding what God is up to in this world. The Message paraphrases it this way: that God would give the Colossians “wise minds and spirits attuned to his will, and so acquire a thorough understanding of the ways in which God works.” He’s talking about being tuned into what God is doing in this world.
Why is this so important? One of the reasons why it’s important is because God seems to work in obscurity so often. You don’t see evidence of God at work unless you go looking for it. You won’t notice God’s work in this world unless you go looking for it. It’s far easier to see other forces at work: the stock market, politics, business. It’s far easier to see these forces because they are what is reported in the newspapers. We won’t notice God at work unless we have the spiritual wisdom Paul prays for.
Another reason why it’s important to understand what God is up to is because of the difference it makes in our lives. Understanding God’s purposes and activities sounds so impractical. Actually, there’s nothing that will more radically change our lives than if we understand God’s purposes and activities. This will change everything about our worlds. Paul talks about some of the differences that will come out of understanding what God is up to:
Then the way you live will always honor and please the Lord, and you will continually do good, kind things for others. All the while, you will learn to know God better and better.
We also pray that you will be strengthened with his glorious power so that you will have all the patience and endurance you need. May you be filled with joy, always thanking the Father, who has enabled you to share the inheritance that belongs to God’s holy people, who live in the light. (Colossians 1:10-12)
According to Paul, understanding what God is up to isn’t dry theology that is irrelevant to daily life. He’s going to spend a good chunk of this letter drawing out what this means. For now, in this prayer, he lists four qualities that come out of understanding what God is up to. First, we’ll live differently. Second, we’ll get to know God even better. Third, we’ll have more patience and endurance. We won’t feel like quitting quite as often. Fourth, we’ll become more thankful people.
Understanding what God is up to, and that all of his purposes revolve around Christ, will change the way we live. It will affect our relationships, our finances, the way we see the world. It will affect how we live as employees. The best part about this is that it doesn’t involve doing something new. It involves understanding what we already have in Jesus Christ.
I had an aunt who died a few years back. She always had her heat turned down and lived like a pauper. When she died, they discovered that she had tens of thousands of dollars saved. She didn’t need more money; she needed to use the money she already had.
You don’t need anything more than you have in Jesus Christ. What you and I need isn’t more; we need understanding to see what we already have. We need to see what God is up to in this world, to understand that the Gospel that is making everything new is already at work in our hearts. We need spiritual wisdom and understanding to see what God is doing, because that will make all the difference in our lives.
A couple of notes as we close. I wonder if, when we pray for others, we need to shoot a bit higher. I wonder if we need to keep praying for the normal things – for their jobs and health and families – but also pray that these ordinary, everyday people would sense what so often goes unnoticed: that they would see what God is doing in this world, and that this knowledge would change everything about them.
This was a prayer for a church. I wonder if we could make this our prayer for Richview this year. Instead of just praying for our finances and ministries, maybe we could pray that we develop an unusually keen sense of God’s purposes and understanding. Then we would sense the power of the Gospel, and see what it is doing in transforming lives all over the world. Maybe we should pray this impractical prayer, which actually turns out to be one of the most practical prayers we could ever pray.
Let’s pray this prayer for Richview right now.