When most of us pray, we tend to pray the way that we learned from others. When I was young I learned to pray by listening to older men at the church pray. I grew up in a church that used the King James Version, which meant that I had to learn a whole other type of English when I prayed aloud. "Our Father, we thank thee that thou art a great God, who bestoweth blessings on thy people." Nobody ever taught me that you had to use King James language in order to pray, but that was the way people prayed around me.
Most of us tend to learn how to pray from others. Another example is how we offer thanks at our meals. If you say grace a certain way, you'll soon discover that your kids do the same thing.
The problem is, though, that not all of us have had mentors who have been able to teach us how to pray. If the truth were told, a lot of us have fallen into ruts in our prayer lives, or even more truthfully, we hardly pray at all. We desperately need good role models who can teach us how to pray, including what we should pray for, how to pray, and how to keep a focus on God, rather than just ourselves, in our prayers.
This is why the prayer that we have before us today is so important. We have before us a prayer that can teach us how to pray. Even better, we can actually use this prayer, because I believe that the things Paul prays for have the power to change our lives.
At the end of this message, I'm going to suggest that we commit to using this prayer in our own lives, at least in the coming week, and, I hope, beyond.
This is an unusual prayer in a lot of ways. Paul doesn't pray for anything about the circumstances of the people that he's praying about. There's nothing wrong with praying about circumstances, of course, but Paul teaches us that there's something even bigger. Most of us think that if our circumstances changed, then we would change. But Paul knows that circumstances don't make us who we are. If Paul's prayer is answered for us, then we can truly change, even if the world around us stays completely the same.
This prayer is also unusual in that it's both theological and practical. Most of us have developed a healthy fear of theologians. It's not completely our fault. We've heard enough pastors and professors talk about theology to know that theological talk can be a good cure for insomnia. We can almost feel our eyes glazing over. But Paul knows that there's nothing more practical than good theology. So we're going to pray a prayer that's steeped in theology, and yet is all about real change, change that will affect us in the deepest parts of our lives.
One last thing that's unusual about this prayer before we jump in. This is also an emotional prayer. Paul says in verse 14: "For this reason I kneel before the Father…" It's not unusual to see someone bow to pray. Some churches even have kneelers right in their pews. But when Paul wrote this, people generally didn't kneel to pray. The normal posture for prayer in that day was standing. Why did Paul kneel, then? Probably because this prayer carried some emotion. This isn't just a cold, intellectual prayer. There's some emotion behind what Paul's going to pray.
So what does Paul teach us to pray? There are essentially two requests in this prayer, and there's the first:
Pray that God will give us power so that we're changed within.
Not just power in general, but power toward a specific purpose: power that we would be changed in the depths of our beings. Read verses 16 and 17: "I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith."
What's Paul praying for? Paul's praying that something will happen in what he calls "the depths of our beings" or "your hearts." This is the inner part of you that no-one can see, the part that makes you who you are. Paul's praying for the very essence of who we are, at the very center of our personalities.
And what does Paul pray for our inner beings? He prays that we'll be strengthened with power through the Spirit. The purpose of this prayer is that "Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith." I used to have a suit that I wore. A friend of mine called it my power suit. The idea of the power suit is that when you wear it, you look good and you can create a good impression on others and win friends and influence people. But this isn't the type of power that Paul prays for. He doesn't pray that we'll have a power that will improve our standing with others or get us more of what we want. The power Paul prays for is that the inner parts of us will become places where Christ can make his home.
There are two words that Paul could have used when he said dwell in verse 17. One means to inhabit a place as a guest, kind of like you stay in a hotel room. You may not even unpack your suitcase. You certainly don't strip off the wallpaper if you don't like it and make plans to remodel the place. You're only there for a few days. But that's not the word that Paul used when he said dwell. It's a strong word that means taking up permanent residence, to really settle down. Paul's praying that our inner beings will be strengthened so that Christ may really settle down and live there. And if Christ lives at the very center of our beings, it's going to mean transformation. We'll never be the same.
We have to ask a question here. We know that Christ already dwells within believers. So why would Paul pray for something to happen that's already happened? D.A. Carson says that it's like a couple that scrimps enough money together to put a down-payment on a home. They buy the house, but they know that it needs a ton of work. The wallpaper needs to come off, the carpet is disgusting, the basement is full of junk from the previous owner, and the kitchen was designed by a man. The roof leaks and the insulation barely meets the minimum standards. The electrical service is 60 amps, the furnace is about to die, and a lot of the appliances are olive green. Other than that, it's a really nice house.
Before the couple moves in, they rip up carpet and clean up. Over the years they tackle the repairs. They remodel the kitchen, fix the leaks, and buy a new furnace and air conditioner. They redecorate and even add an extension at the back of the house. They landscape around the house.
After living there for twenty-five years, the husband turns to his wife one day and says, "You know, I really like it here. This place suits us. This house really feels like home to me."
That's exactly what Paul is talking about. When Christ takes us residence within us, he finds the equivalent of piles of junk, dated wallpaper, olive green appliances, and a leaking roof. He moves in, but it's not at all appropriate for him. But he moves in to our inner beings, and as he does he begins cleaning, repairing, and expanding. Over time, our inner being dwelling places that reflect who lives there. Our inner beings become dwelling places that reflect his character.
It's so important that we see how this happens. It's not the result of some self-improvement program. Paul prays in verse 16 that it's "out of his glorious riches" and "through his Spirit." It doesn't totally cut us out of the picture, because it also says "through faith." But make no mistake: this is something that God does. It's based on the glorious riches of Jesus Christ secured by him at Calvary. What Jesus did for us at the cross is more than enough not only to save us, but to change us in our innermost beings. The power comes not from us, but from the glorious riches of Jesus Christ that are applied to us through the Spirit.
So this is the first part of Paul's prayer. It's not just that we believe certain things. The devil himself believes. This prayer is about much more than believing certain truths about God. It's that we will be increasingly transformed in the very depths of our being by the one who's taken up residence there. If you want to learn to pray, this is a very good prayer, one that we can use in our daily lives. Pray that God will give us power so that we're changed within our inner beings, at the very core of who we are.
That's Paul's first request. There's a second request that's related and yet different. Here it is:
Pray that God will give us power to grasp the limitless love of Jesus.
Paul writes in verses 17 to 19:
And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord's people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
It's strange. Again Paul prays for something, in a sense, that's already true. He prays that we'll grasp the love of Christ. I find that most people who are Christians get this at some level. Little kids can sing, "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so."
But there's a level at which we really don't get it. A lot of us have this picture of God who's perpetually disappointed with us. We try to obey God, but for a lot of us the motivation is about duty or obligation than as a response to God's love.
I'll put it like this. In every marriage, there's a time where one spouse looks at the other and says, "Do you really love me?" At one level, I'm sure that they know their spouse loves them, but at that moment they don't want to just know it. They want to experience it at the very depths of their being. They want to grasp it.
A 10-year-old boy was in the hospital and was quite sick. One day he awoke to see his mother sitting beside his bed, quietly crying. As he saw his mother crying, it overwhelmed him and he blurted out, "Why Mum, you do love me!" Of course, that finished her off and she ran from the room. If you had asked him if he was loved by his parents the day before, he would have said yes. But at that moment he really grasped his mother's love for him. This is Paul's prayer for us: that we will not just know about Christ's love but really grasp it. You even see this in Paul's prayer: it's that we will know something that surpasses knowledge. It's that we'll really get it, and really grasp it.
The result of this is found in verse 19: "that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God." This means essentially that we will become spiritually mature, so that we will become all that God wants us to be. In other words, if we're to grow spiritually into the people we're meant to be, it begins with grasping – really getting – the limitless dimensions of God's love. It won't come from theological education or from years of attending church. It will come from really grasping Christ's love so that it becomes real to us, as real as the person next to you.
So let me ask you: have you experienced this lately? Have you really grasped the limitless dimensions of Christ's love? It's a gift from God; it's something God has to give us, but we can ask him for it. We can pray that we'll really get the breadth and length and heights and depths of the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. Pray for it. Christianity is more than a head-job. It's about really grasping the love of Christ. It will change us like nothing else will.
Let me give you a few examples as so you can see how real this is, and how it can happen with different kinds of people from different backgrounds. Five examples very quickly:
- Blaise Pascal, a French mathematician and philosopher
- Saint Teresa of Avila, a Carmelite nun from the 16h century
- George Whitefield, a British Anglican priest and evangelist
- Jonathan Edwards, one of the greatest minds America has ever produced
- Dwight Moody, an American evangelist
Teresa of Avila, who lived in the 16th century, talked about reaching a state of blissful peace, a conscious rapture in the love of God. She talked about these prayers as being a glorious foolishness. She begged God not to do this to her in public. She was overwhelmed by the loving presence of God.
When Blaise Pascal died, they found sewed into the lining of his coat a diary entry of an experience that happened for two hours in 1654 from 10:30 to 12:30 one night. He experienced the love of God as a fire, and he never forgot it. He sewed the record of that event in the lining of his coat so it would always be near his heart.
George Whitefield often found that when he prayed at night, he began to experience God's love so powerfully that he couldn't get to sleep. He had to ask God to stop because he had to get some rest.
Jonathan Edwards, a great thinker, wrote that as he meditated on a Scripture, he was overcome with "a sense of the glory of the Divine Being; a new sense, quite different from anything I ever experienced before." He was overcome with "a sweet sense of the glorious majesty and grace of God, that I know not how to express."
Dwight Moody was praying for more of God. He was walking along the streets of New York City in the late 1850s and he said, "Suddenly God came down in a way I've never forgotten, and I started to experience so much love poured out in my heart that I had to ask him to stop."
And these are just a few examples. another evangelist from the early 20th century (R.A. Torrey) became so overwhelmed by God's love for him that he began to weep and weep. He eventually asked God to show him no more because he couldn't bear it.
Paul prays that we will grasp, really grasp, the unlimited dimensions of Christ's love for us. It may not be as dramatic as the examples I've just given you, but Paul wants it to be real. And he doesn't just want it for one or two individuals within the church. He wants us to have the power "together with all the Lord's people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God."
And lest you think that this prayer is asking too much, Paul concludes:
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
So will you join me in learning to pray this prayer with Paul? Take it home. Print it out. Hang it on the mirror. Pray that God will give strengthen us in our inner beings so that Christ makes takes up residence there. And pray that we will grasp to the depths of our being the limitless dimensions of Christ's love.
Father, we pray right now that you would strengthen us in our inner beings. May Christ make his home in our hearts through faith. And as he takes up residence there, we look forward to the transformation that will take place as changes us so that we're more fit for him to dwell.
And would you reveal to us how wide and how long and how high and how deep the love of Jesus Christ is, a love that surpasses knowledge. Allow us to experience it. Fill us with the fullness of God.
And we thank you that you can do immeasurably more than all that we ask or think, according to the power that is at work within us. To you be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.