Article by Francis Foulkes
“… wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured”
I asked for strength that I might do greater things,
I was made weak that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health that I might do greater things,
I was given infirmity that I might do better things.
I asked for riches that I might be happy,
I was given poverty that I might be wise.
I asked for power that I might have the praise of men,
I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things that I might enjoy life,
I was given life that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked for – but everything I had hoped for.
Almost despite myself my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am among all men, most richly blessed.
WORDS OF AN UNKNOWN SOLDIER CAST IN BRONZE IN THE LOBBY OF THE INSTITUTE OF PHYSICAL MEDICINE AND REHABILITATION IN NEW YORK CITY.
Scripture, especially the New Testament, abounds in prayers which in effect are for the qualities of life that those who serve God are intended to display. To pray for such qualities is to move from the orbit of ‘Give me’ to that of ‘Make me’ (Fosdick). Here we can best be guided by the teaching about the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23 as the qualities named in that passage comprehend many of the most significant qualities of Christian living.
Thus the prayer for love is a truly Christian prayer, and one that we find often in the New Testament. This was in the Lord’s prayer for his disciples in John 17:26. It is Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 6:23, and in 1 Thessalonians 3:12 he prays, “May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else”. In 2 Thessalonians 3:5, Paul’s prayer is, “May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ.” So also Philippians 1:9, “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight” “Rooted and grounded in love” and the knowledge of “the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” is the expression of the prayer of Ephesians 3:17 and 19.
The prayer for the unity of Christians (as supremely in the Lord’s Prayer for his disciples in John 17) and the prayer for peace are linked closely with the thought of praying for love. Paul’s prayer in Romans 15:5-6 is in the spirit of the Lord’s prayer in John 17, “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Briefer but in the same spirit is the prayer of Colossians 2:2, “I want their hearts to be encouraged and united in love.”
We need, however, to be clear that prayer for love is not a request simply for warm feeling or emotion. Love for God “poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit whom he has given to us” (Rom.5:5) is involved, and that love must be expressed in obedience and service. Love for others similarly must find expression in sensitivity towards them, and in sacrificial helpfulness in words and actions.
Joy follows love in the list of the fruit of the Spirit, and often in the New Testament there are prayers for joy, joy whatever the circumstances, even if they involve suffering. It is the kind of joy that is what it is, because it is linked with ultimate hope. The apostle’s prayer in Romans 15:13 is, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Cf.Col.1:11 and Jude 24.) Jesus himself prayed that his disciples might have such joy, the “full measure of (his) joy” (Jn.17:13).
Peace comes next in the fruit of the Spirit, and as we have noted already, the greeting of “peace” that begins most New Testament letters can be understood as a prayer, a prayer for peace with God, for peace in the heart, for peace in relationships. So Paul expresses his confidence in the fact that when people pray rather than being anxious, they will find that “the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard (their) hearts and (their) minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil.4:7). In 2 Thessalonians 3:16 we have the prayer, “may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in every way.” (Cf. also Rom.15:33 and 1 Pet.5:14).
After peace comes patience, and the patience that Christians need is both patient endurance in dealing with difficult situations and patient forbearance in dealing with difficult people. Patience in the face of trying circumstances is made possible as it is realised that the future is in God’s hands and so the present is not just governed by random circumstances. So the Bible speaks repeatedly of waiting patiently on the Lord and for the Lord. Patience and hope thus belong together, as they do in effect in the prayer quoted above from Romans 15:13.
In the fruit of the Spirit kindness and generosity follow, qualities for which the Christian can surely pray. Then comes the word that can be translated faith or faithfulness, and for both we can pray. Like the disciples we can ask, “Lord, increase our faith” (Lk.17:5). Jesus says that he prayed for Peter that his faith might not fail (Lk.22:32). In Ephesians 6:23 Paul asks for his readers, “peace — and love with faith”. Faithfulness and patience are in effect linked together as in the prayer for power to endure, as Colossians 1:11 has it, “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience –.”. Jesus taught his disciples to pray constantly to escape the terrible temptations that must come on the world, and so in the end “to stand before the Son of Man” (Luke 21:36).
The consideration of the fruit of the Spirit is not, however, the only way to think of prayer for qualities of godly living. Prayer for correction in wrongdoing is another significant kind of prayer, and one always relevant to our human lives. An example of this is the godly and humble prayer of the prophet Jeremiah, “Correct me, O Lord, but in just measure; not in your anger, or you will bring me to nothing” (Jer.10:24). A similar prayer is involved in several petitions of Psalm 119, “Deal bountifully with your servant, so that I may live and observe your word,” “Put false ways far from me, and graciously teach me your law”, “Turn my heart to your decrees and not to selfish gain” (Ps.119:17, 29, 36). Psalm 139:23-24 expresses this as the yearning of the psalmist’s soul, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”