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A Prayer to Pray in a Pandemic

What should I pray during this pandemic of Covid-19? What requests should I bring to the throne of grace? What do I need most at this critical time in our country? When I asked myself that question, the Spirit directed my heart to Romans 15:13

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Romans 15:13).

“But Sam. That’s someone else’s prayer. That’s the prayer of the Apostle Paul. Why would you pray a prayer uttered by someone else so many centuries ago?” Good question. So let me tell you why I love and appreciate the prayers of the apostle Paul.

(1) Prayers such as this reveal the heart of God for his people! This is what God wants for you! He passionately longs for his children to experience an abundance of joy, peace, and hope, and in essence says: “Just to come to me and ask for these gifts and I will supply them in overwhelming abundance!”

(2) It is in Paul’s prayers that I discover what was of greatest value to him and therefore what ought to be of greatest value to me. The apostolic prayers in Scripture challenge our priorities and strip away the veneer of superficial spirituality and expose our value systems. They reveal what we cherish, but shouldn’t. They uncover what we shouldn’t embrace, but do. If you want your spiritual world shaken to the core, compare what Paul prayed for with what you pray for.

(3) It is in Paul’s prayers that I discover what only God can do for me. There are undoubtedly countless blessings and virtues and goals I think are in my power to produce. By looking at the apostolic prayers of the NT I see what I am absolutely dependent on God’s grace to produce. After all, if Paul thought something was ultimately ours to create or generate, he wouldn’t bother asking God to do it! Looking at Paul’s prayers typically disabuses me of self-confidence and self-reliance and casts me on the strong arms of my heavenly Father.

A good example of this is seen in Paul’s prayer for “joy”. In the final analysis, only God can create joy in God. The psalmist prays: “Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us” (Ps. 90:15). To be satisfied with the beauty and glory of God (which is the essence of joy!) does not come naturally to sinful souls. By nature we turn to anything other than God for the joy that he alone can give.

The spiritual goals we long for are ultimately beyond our reach. The changes we desire in our hearts can happen only by a sovereign act of God’s grace. That’s why it’s important to note how Paul refers to God: he is “the God of hope”, not so much because he is the object of our hope, although he assuredly is that. Rather, he is the source of hope. If there is to be hope it must come from God.

(4) Fourth, prayer glorifies God by revealing the extent of my need and the depths of God’s resources to supply them. Prayers like this reveal just how desperately helpless we are and how infinitely rich God is. God is not glorified by my efforts to do things for him, but by my confession that he and he alone can do for me what my soul most desperately needs, and then through me what most blesses others and advances his kingdom.

So let’s now turn our attention to this prayer. There are five things I want to share with you from this single verse, this short but powerful prayer of Paul.

First, God is no miser with his mercy. Note the words “fill”, “all”, and “abound”.

Paul prays that God will “fill” us with joy and peace, not simply “give” or “impart” or “enable” us to experience these blessings, but that he might “fill” us with them! His emphasis is on the effusive, generous, expansive abundant, overflowing, and measureless way in which God answers prayers (cf. Ps. 16:11). We don’t simply “have” or “possess” these blessings: we are “filled” with them, inundated and awash and overflowing with them.

Note also that it is not “some” joy or a “fraction” of peace or “a small measure” of hope. Paul prays that we be filled with “all” joy and “all” peace. Not just a little here and there but with the totality of joy and the entirety of peace.

Furthermore, we don’t simply “hope.” Far less do we hang on by our fingernails. Rather we “abound” in hope! Again Paul points to the lavishness of God’s grace. God is no miser when it comes to his mercy. This is no tentative, anxious, uncertain, doubt-filled wish. It is a prayer for the overflowing and effusive gift of God’s grace.

Second, Paul prays for joy and peace because he knows that pleasure in God is the power for purity.

In yet another passage Paul stated clearly that his motive for ministry was the joy of God’s people (2 Cor. 1:23-24). Whatever decisions he made, whatever he wrote in his epistles, was always based on what he believed would best serve their joy! Paul had some harsh things to say to the Corinthians (deservedly so, I might add). His rebukes often stung. But his aim was always their joy! Paul didn’t discharge his apostolic calling to expand his personal power or to broaden his influence or to bolster his reputation or to increase his control but to intensify their joy in Jesus.

Paul can almost be heard to say, “Whether I’m rebuking you for sectarianism in the church (1 Cor. 3) or laxity in moral conduct (1 Cor. 5-6) or abuse of spiritual power (1 Cor. 12-14), my aim is your joy in Jesus. Whether I appeal to you to be financially generous (2 Cor. 8-9) or warn you of false apostles (2 Cor. 11), my aim is your joy in Jesus.”

If Paul had been pressed for an explanation, he would have said: “I’m always aiming for your joy because apart from your souls relishing and resting in the all-sufficiency of Jesus Christ, you don’t stand a chance against Satan.” I believe Paul would have answered like the good Christian hedonist that he was: “I aim for your joy because God is most glorified in you when you are most pleased and satisfied and at rest in the plenitude of his beauty that can be seen in the face of Jesus Christ.”

God’s commitment to our joy in Jesus is motivated, at least in part, by the fact that Satan is no less committed to our joy in the passing pleasures of sin (cf. Hebrews 11:25). The diabolical strategy of the enemy is to seduce us into believing that the world and the flesh and sinful self-indulgence could do for our weary and broken hearts what God can’t. This is the battle that we face each day. We awaken to a world at war for the allegiance of our minds and the affections of our souls. The winner will be whoever can persuade us that he will bring greatest and most soul-satisfying joy. That is why Paul labored and prayed so passionately and sacrificially for joy in Jesus in the hearts of that first-century church.

The reason Paul prays for joy in Rome and labors for joy in Corinth is because of what he wrote to the church in Ephesus! In Ephesians 4:22 he referred to “deceitful desires”. They are called this because they lie to us and deceive and mislead us about the superiority of what they can do that God supposedly can’t. “’Deceitful desires’ can trick us into feeling that sinful thoughts and acts will be more satisfying than seeing God. This illusion is so strong it creates moral confusion, so that people find ways to justify sin as good, or, if not good, at least permissible” (Piper, 102).

So, then, what precisely are “joy” and “peace”? I assure you it has nothing to do with the transient feelings of holiday euphoria experienced by those people in the shopping malls before Christmas. Joy and peace are not some superficial psychological giddiness that comes from reaping the material comforts of western society. There are countless feelings and passions and desires that arise in our hearts that are not the fruit of light in the soul. Paul wants nothing to do with them.

The joy for which he prays is a deep, durable delight in the splendor of God that utterly ruins you for anything else. It is deep, rather than the superficial so-called “joy” that only scratches the surface of your soul. It is durable in that it survives the worst of circumstances in life.

Joy is experiencing a spiritual taste for the glory of Jesus. This joy has an “expulsive” power: it drives out all competing pleasures and leads the soul to rest content with the knowledge of God and the blessings of intimacy with him and companionship with Jesus. This is the kind of joy that rather than being dependent on material and physical comfort actually frees you from bondage to physical comforts and liberates you from dependence on worldly conveniences and gadgets and gold.

There’s something a bit odd and even ironic about this joy. Although true joy is an experience, it is deep and solid and firm and substantive, not fleeting and flippant and superficial. We know this because the Bible describes joy as flourishing in the midst of suffering (see Rom. 5:3; 1 Peter 4; 1 Thess. 1:6; 2 Cor. 8:2).

My point is that there is a world of difference between joy in God and joy in the comforts God gives. We are grateful for the latter, but our joy is in the former! True spiritual, biblical joy is not the product of the human will in response to pleasant circumstances. It is the product or fruit of the Holy Spirit, and that is why Paul asks God to generate it within our hearts.

So what about “peace”? The peace for which we are to pray is not the objective peace with God that Paul describes in Romans 5:1, but an inward, subjective, experiential state of mind and spirit. Peace is confident repose in the truth that what God has promised he will fulfill; it is the restful assurance that nothing can separate us from love of Christ.

It is that glorious work of the Spirit in my heart that says:

“A sudden tornado may sweep away my house and family, but nothing can separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus!”

“A terrorist may separate my head from my body, but nothing can separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”

“An incurable disease may ravage my body, but nothing can separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”

“An unfaithful spouse may walk out on me, never to return, but God will never leave me or ever, under any circumstances, forsake me.”

This is Christian Hedonism: a joy and delight and satisfaction in God so deep and unmovable and indelible that no amount of suffering can shake it or induce me to take offence at God!

Third, pleasure in God is the fruit of faith in God.

It is from or through the Scriptures that joy and peace arise. I say this because Paul prays in Romans 15:13 that God would “fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” The phrase “in believing” could as easily be rendered, “as” you believe or “because” you believe or “in connection with” believing. In any case, the point is that God will most assuredly not fill you abundantly with these if you don’t believe. Both joy and peace are the fruit of believing, which in turn yields hope.

But believe "what"? Belief is confidence placed in the truth of what God has revealed to us in Scripture about who he is and our relationship to him through Jesus. The “believing” Paul has in mind is confidence and faith and trust in (1) the person of God revealed in Jesus, (2) the promises of God articulated in Scripture, and (3) the power of God by which he makes it all come to pass.

Belief does not plant itself in mid-air, but in the firm foundation of inspired, revelatory words inscripturated for us in the Bible.

And it’s not just joy and peace that come from believing God’s Word. The Word of God is the spring from which the waters of faith arise. Paul says in Romans 10:17 that "faith comes from hearing" and that hearing comes “through the word of Christ.” People are drowning in skepticism and suffocating from doubt. They desperately need faith, but it doesn’t just happen serendipitously. Faith doesn’t miraculously appear out of thin air; it comes only if and when we hear and treasure the word of Christ.

There’s still more. It is from or through the Scriptures that the Spirit imparts endurance and encouragement: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). These virtues don’t fall like manna from heaven!

How often have you found yourself on the verge of saying: “God, I’m about to quit! Give me strength to endure. God, I’m inconsolable. Give me encouragement.” Then we stand, waiting with open hands, looking to heaven. No! If you need encouragement and the endurance to persevere, turn to Scripture and let the Spirit of God awaken your heart and fill your soul with the revelation of God and his work for you in Christ.

The problem is that people want joy and peace without believing, or at least without the hard work that true believing requires. They expect it. They pray for it. They are angry with God when it doesn’t happen.

This is what Jonathan Edwards had in mind when he spoke of the necessity of “laying ourselves in the way of allurement,” i.e., taking steps to posture our lives in that place where the Spirit is most likely to energize faith. And that place is not only the sacraments and worship and prayer but preeminently the Scriptures.

The way the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the Devil are defeated is to hear and believe the Word of God when it says that God and his ways are more to be desired than all that sin can offer. When sin confronts you with a strong and attractive and appealing promise of satisfaction, stand firm and let the promises of God do battle on your behalf.

How, then, are we to get “joy” and “peace”? (1) Cry out to God that the Holy Spirit would stir up within our hearts and kindle afresh a flame of fascination and delight and satisfaction in God. (2) Pray that God would energize our hearts and minds to explore deeply the revelation of God and all he is for us in Jesus as set forth in Scripture.

Fourth, the purpose of pleasure in God is hope in God.

Why do we lack hope? Could it be because we’ve been “burned” by putting our confidence in something that we really didn’t need in the first place? We “hope” for a good paying job when we graduate. Some are “hoping” for a husband to wake up spiritually and get off the couch. Others “hope” for some way to cover next month’s car payment. But in the end, all we need is Christ. He is the object and focus and obsession of our hope:

Paul applauds the Thessalonians for their “steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 1:3). What is our “blessed hope”? It is the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ (Titus 2:13). We are to “hope in Christ” (Eph. 1:12). The mystery of the gospel is “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27).

John Piper put it best when he said, “Sometimes what we need from the Bible is not the fulfillment of our dream[s], but the swallowing up of our failed dream[s] in the all-satisfying glory of Christ” (101). The reason that may not resonate with our souls or sound very encouraging is because we really don’t believe Jesus Christ is all-satisfying. We don’t savor him. And we don’t savor him because we don’t see him, and we don’t see him because we fail to look upon him as he has revealed himself in holy Scripture!

Hope is ultimately beyond our ability to produce. When we do try and create it or crank it up, it either degenerates into presumption or soon gives way to despair. But in this prayer in Romans 15:13 we are protected from presumption by Paul’s emphasis on “believing”. In other words, the revelation of God which we believe and trust establishes the boundaries, parameters, and the limits of what we may justifiably hope for. Joy and peace come from trusting only in what God has promised.

Fifth, there is no hope for hope in God apart from the power of the Holy Spirit.

If you feel utterly exhausted, both spiritually and physically, and are on the verge of despair because nothing you can do will avail to awaken hope in your heart, you are in precisely the condition where God can perform his most glorious work in you. It isn’t your will power or good intentions or New Year’s resolutions that will bring hope. It is the Holy Spirit! It is the power of the third person of the Trinity!

The Spirit of God does far more than merely perform miracles and signs and wonders. His work goes beyond that of setting people free from demonic oppression. Yes, he imparts spiritual gifts and converts the lost and causes people to be born again unto faith in Christ. But never lose sight of the fact that it is the Spirit and the Spirit alone who awakens and sustains genuine hope in your heart.

Here’s the indescribably good news for those who know and follow Jesus: our God is the source of hope, and he is unstinting and lavish in his desire to fill you up with joy and peace as you trust and treasure the truth of all that is revealed in his Word, and the Holy Spirit will never disappoint you but will graciously and powerfully awaken and sustain genuine hope in your heart, that you might forever enjoy all that God is for you in Jesus.

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