“At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison – that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak” (Col. 4:3-4).
Now, wait just a minute. We all agree that God loves lost souls and wants them to hear the gospel of salvation in his Son. So why does he suspend the opening of an evangelistic door to them on the prayers of the Colossians? I’m tempted to say, in the words of the Nike commercial: “God, ‘Just do it!’” Or, perhaps more reverently, “God, why don’t you directly open these doors rather than telling Paul to tell us to ask you to do so? What’s the point of our asking you to do what you’ve already revealed is in your heart to accomplish? As I said, Lord, ‘Just do it!’”
I suspect God’s response to me would be: “No, Sam. That’s not how I operate. Yes, of course, I could ‘just do it’ directly and instantaneously, without your involvement or anyone else’s. But I prefer to do it when you ask me to. In fact, in most instances I won’t do it unless you ask me to.”
Here’s another question that comes to mind. Why does Paul encourage the Colossians to pray for him? What’s the point of his asking them to ask God to open a door for the word? Why does he urge them to pray that God would give him clarity of speech? Isn’t it enough that he ask God himself? I’m assuming he did, but he evidently believed that it would greatly help his cause if others joined him in beseeching God for this blessing. Does this imply that God is more inclined to say ‘Yes’ to our requests if more people are united in asking him for them? That seems odd.
Or is it primarily to aid “his” cause that Paul enlists the prayers of others on his behalf? Could it possibly be that for the sake of God’s greater glory he makes this request of the Colossians? I’ll return to that momentarily.
Let’s be clear about one thing. I didn’t ask these questions because I intend on solving the tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. I couldn’t solve it even if I wanted to, and how prayer factors into the equation is ultimately something beyond my intellectual ken.
Rather, I’m concerned about the nature of prayer. Or, more accurately, I’m concerned about the purpose of prayer. Why has God chosen to incorporate it into the way he governs the world and accomplishes his purposes?
One thing we know: God loves to be asked, and there’s good reason for it. Consider Psalm 50:12, one of the most sarcastic verses in Scripture. God says to the Israelites: “If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are mine.” That is to say, if God were hungry (which, of course, he’s not), he doesn’t need the Israelites to provide him with a meal. “Every beast of the forest is mine,” says the Lord, “[not to mention] the cattle on a thousand hills” (Psalm 50:10).
So, if God doesn’t need us or our prayers, why does he create us and then command us to ask him for things? That’s a pretty profound question, but it comes with a fairly simple answer.
In Psalm 50:15 God says again, “call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.” When you’re in trouble, says God, when you have needs and problems and trials and obstacles to overcome, pray to me and ask that I intervene and make provision. If you do, I’ll deliver you. And in your obvious dependence upon me I will be glorified. We both win. You get delivered. I get glorified. You receive a blessing. And people and angels and demons see that I’m the all-sufficient supply, the infinitely resourceful God, the One being in the universe who exists to overflow in abundant goodness to weak and needy people like you!
It’s amazing how asking a few questions about the nature and purpose of prayer drives us directly into the reason why God created the universe! God didn’t create us because he was needy or lacking in some profound way. We don’t supply God with anything. “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:24-25).
So, that being true, why did he make it all? He made it all so that in its (our) utter and absolute dependence on him for everything his glory as God might be seen and savored. Our need magnifies his supply. Our lack draws attention to his abundance. God honors and glorifies himself by overflowing in bountiful blessings to those who otherwise deserve only death. And how do we get these blessings? By praying for them! God suspends his work on our prayers not because he can’t do it alone but because our prayers highlight our dependence and his supply. We are humbled as dependent and he is exalted as depended upon!
Not only does he get the glory for being depended upon but we get the gladness for being dependent! Yes, please read that again. There is no greater joy than getting what God gives (and he is himself, of course, the greatest gift). And there is no greater glory than for God to be giving.
Jesus commanded his disciples to pray, and here’s why: “Whatever you ask in my name, this will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14:13). Although there are undoubtedly other reasons why God chose to incorporate our prayers in the accomplishment of his purposes, his glory is preeminent.
One more thing. Earlier I asked why Paul felt it important to enlist the prayers of the Colossians on his behalf. It’s not because God is stingy and Paul thought that a multitude of intercessors might have greater success in prevailing on God’s otherwise reluctant heart than would he alone. Once again, it’s all about God’s glory. In 2 Corinthians 1:11 Paul wrote, “You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.”
Note carefully why it’s important that the Corinthians (like the Colossians) pray for him. It is so that “many will give thanks” for the “blessing” that God grants to him in response to their prayers. God’s glory is more readily seen and known and savored when “many” rise up in unified gratitude for what he has done than if only one or a few do. So, when we pray for one another we get gladness in receiving what God gives and God gets glory for giving what we get.
So, please pray for me!