“A Muslim, a Jew and an Anglican Minister walk into a classroom”. This was the advertising blurb for a local Community College seminar I participated in a few years ago. I joined a Muslim educator and a Jewish academic (who is also a friend of mine) to give a series of presentations on different aspects of our three religions to interested people from the community. When we came to the topic of ‘prayer’, I was fascinated to hear what my co-presenters had to say. Even though we were all using the same word, ‘prayer’, the word meant very different things in the different religions. It wasn’t just that there were differences in the mechanics of prayer (when, how often, what stance, etc.) More than that, there were key differences in what the presenters thought worshippers were actually doing when they prayed. For the presenter on Islam, prayer was a religious duty, reciting set words as an act of submission. For the presenter on Judaism, prayer was an act of sacrifice to God. As a believer in Jesus Christ, what did I have to say about what prayer is? What would you have said? Christians, too, can often be a bit confused or unclear about what prayer actually is:
Christians can be confused or unclear about what prayer actually is. This sign I saw in a cathedral in Northern England lists various things that prayer “is”, and has a donation box, suggesting that those who wish to pray this way should contribute financially to the church as they do so.
That’s where the Apostle Paul really helps us. In these verses in Ephesians, Paul starts telling his readers about his own prayers for them:
Because of this, I too, having heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and love for all of the holy ones, don’t quit from giving thanks for you, making mention of you in my prayers.
Just before these verses, Paul has been talking about God’s great plans for his universe through his Son Jesus Christ. He has reminded his readers about how they, too, have heard the gospel message and come to believe it. And now, in these verses and in what follows, Paul tells his readers about his own personal response to what God is doing in the world. This response is, first and foremost, a response of prayer. By looking at Paul’s prayers here, we can learn a lot about what prayer is, and what we are actually doing when we pray.
Praise (and humility)
Paul’s prayer begins with an attitude of praise towards God. His opening words “because of this” point back to the things he has just said. What has he just said? He has just spent half a chapter praising God for all of the amazing blessings God has given to those who believe in Jesus Christ! He has blessed the God who is powerful and purposeful, who is gracious and forgiving, and he has finished with the words “to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:14; see also verses 6 and 12).
We should come to God with an attitude of praise. In fact, it is a great pattern to begin all our prayers with praise, praising God for certain specific things like who he is and what he has done. This is also why it’s good to begin prayer with reading the Bible—because the Bible tells us about the specific things that we can praise God for. Why should we come to God with an attitude of praise? Firstly, because God himself is indeed wonderful and worthy of praise. Secondly, because praising God helps our own attitude in prayer. It reminds us both that God is immensely great, and also that he is approachable because of his mercy and forgiveness through Jesus.
The other side to the coin of praise is humility. The more we praise God for his greatness and his grace, the more we realise that we, in ourselves, are not great and we need his grace. That’s why it’s also a good habit to come to God admitting that we need him to forgive our sins through Jesus; often that means actually confessing those sins and asking him for forgiveness.
Paul’s prayer here in Ephesians 1:15–16 begins with thanksgiving. Because God is so great and so gracious towards us, there will always be things that we can be thankful for. Here, Paul is thankful for the reports he’s heard about God’s work in the lives of his readers. This would have been a great comfort and cause of celebration for Paul. Paul knows that God has a plan to sum up all things in Christ (verse 10), and he knows that God is working his plans out through the gospel being preached and heard and believed (verses 11–14). But right now he is in prison for preaching that gospel. It might seem that God’s plans are not working. But he’s heard reports: reports of the gospel working in people’s lives, as they believe and as their lives are transformed. The mission is going on! This is a cause of great thanks for Paul.
What exactly has Paul heard that causes him to give thanks?
Firstly, Paul has heard about their “faith in the Lord Jesus”. The word “faith” is just another form of the word “believe” (in English the two words look different, but they both come from the same Greek root). So Paul is thankful that they have heard the gospel and so come to believe in Jesus.
But that’s not all. This faith has had obvious, measurable effects. It’s resulted in their “love for all the holy ones”. We often use the word ‘love’ to talk about a strong feeling, or a desire, or an attitude of approval or acceptance. But the word ‘love’ in the Bible is much bigger than this. It often means practically helping people and caring for their physical needs. Older versions of the Bible often translated the word ‘love’ as ‘charity’. This is helpful for us to understand what Paul is talking about here. He hasn’t just heard about strong desires or attitudes on behalf of his readers. He’s heard about their “love for all the holy ones”—that is, he’s heard about how they’ve practically helped other Christians in other parts of the world, beyond their individual congregations. It’s an example of the international dimensions of God’s plans for his world. So Paul is thankful that God’s mission is having such an effect.
When we pray, it’s right to start with thanksgiving: to ponder all that God has done in our own lives and the lives of others, and then to express that in thanks to God.
Paul then tells his readers that he is “making mention of you in my prayers”. This is where we get to the essence of prayer. In fact, it’s what the word ‘prayer’ means in the Bible. Prayer is, at its heart, asking God for things.
You might think that this sound a bit selfish. Surely, prayer is a duty, an act of service to God, isn’t it? Surely it’s not about what God can do for us, it’s about what we can do for God! Your own past experience of prayer may be like this. You may have experienced prayer as a penance, for example. You may have been told to make up for your sins by repeating a set prayer multiple times. Or you may have been told to “say your prayers” because that’s the task that God wants his people to do for him, and you’d better do it!
But when we remember who God is, and when we remember who we are, it makes sense that prayer is essentially asking God for things. God is our Father, and he loves us. If that’s true, then the first, most basic way we relate to God is through faith: through believing him, trusting him, depending on him, and relying on him as Father. This is the basic attitude of children when they come to their parents. They come believing and trusting. When this attitude is expressed in words, it becomes prayer. Prayer is what God’s children do when they talk to him. It’s putting that believing and trusting attitude into words, in all areas of our life. Prayer is, in other words, asking God for things.
Of course, asking God for things can be selfish. If we don’t come with an attitude of praising God for his greatness, or if we don’t come humbly, remembering that we need forgiveness, or if we don’t come with an attitude of thankfulness for all the great things God has already done for us, or if all our prayers are only ever about ourselves and our individual lives, then that would be selfish, wouldn’t it? But if we come with an attitude of praise and humility and thanksgiving, we will realise that we need God to work in our lives. So, in faith, we will ask him for things.
What will we ask God for? There are so many things to ask him for: big and small, for ourselves and for others and for his glory. In this particular prayer, Paul concentrates on asking for some big things for others. He asks that God would help his readers to grasp God’s wonderful power and purposes through Jesus, and that they would understand how they too have been included in those purposes. This is a great thing for us to pray for ourselves and others too, isn’t it? We should be praying big prayers like this. But our prayers don’t always have to be big. Because God is our Father, he will also hear our prayers about things that seem smaller, in our lives and in the lives of others.
To help remind me what to pray for, I use an App called PrayerMate. It keeps lists of all the different people and things I want to pray for, and each day it gives me a list of some of those things so I can pray for them. It helps me to keep my prayers broad, and not be overwhelmed at the same time. You might like to check it out, or try something similar.
One final thing to notice is this: Paul says that he doesn’t quit giving thanks and praying. That’s because he sees prayer as so vital. Prayer is vital for his life as a believer, and vital for his ministry as an apostle. Prayer, along with hearing and speaking God’s word, is the key way that Paul is taking part in God’s great plans and purposes. And the same is true for us. God is our loving Father. We have access to him by Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. He is great, and he is gracious, and he is in control of all things. So we should praise him, thank him, and ask him for things—big and small, for ourselves and others. We should never think of prayer as just ‘something we have to do’. Prayer is making use of the privilege of being a dearly loved child of God!
But there is always a temptation to quit praying, isn’t there? We forget how great and how gracious God is. We forget how small we are. We think God needs us to achieve things rather than pray. And we’re so easily distracted, aren’t we? In fact, we now carry around devices that are specially and cleverly designed to distract us! The habit I’ve tried to adopt is to make sure I turn off all my notifications and don’t check anything else until I’ve prayed each day. It’s a struggle, and I don’t always succeed. You might need to develop a different kind of habit that works for you and your situation. But whatever you do, don’t quit praying. Prayer is a joy, an amazing privilege, and absolutely fundamental to what it means to be a believer in Jesus Christ.
 For more on this, you might like to check out the Phillip D. Jensen and Tony Payne, Prayer and the Voice of God: Listening to God’s Living Word will Transform the Way You Pray (Matthias Media, 2006).