Praying With Paul

“When it comes to knowing God, many of us constitute a culture of the spiritually stunted. So much of our religion is packaged to address our felt needs—and these are almost uniformly anchored in our pursuit of happiness and fulfillment, without rightly understanding where true happiness and fulfillment lie. God becomes the Great Being who, potentially at least, meets our needs and fulfills our aspirations… In the biblical view of things, a deeper knowledge of God brings with it improvement in the other areas mentioned: purity, integrity, a willingness to sacrifice, evangelistic faithfulness, better study of Scripture, improved private and corporate worship, better relationships with brothers and sisters in Christ, a heart for the lost, and much more. But if we seek these things without passionately desiring a deeper knowledge of God, we may be running after God’s blessings or pursuing God’s power without running after him. We are worse than shallow lovers who want the advantages of having a spouse without wanting soul intimacy—worse, I say, because God is more than any wife, any husband: he is perfect in his love, and he has made us for himself, and our goals and joys are rightly found in him.” – D A Carson

 We live in country where people love to pray (and people love to be heard praying). But sometimes I get the feeling that if we all had the dream house, the dream spouse, the dream job, the dream salary etc we would not spend as much time going to all-night prayer services.  This is where this book is brilliant. Dr Carson challenges our worldview on prayer by looking at what the Bible has to say about the subject through studying the prayers of Paul.  In his own words:
“My aim, then, in these chapters is to mingle a little bit of practical advice on praying with prolonged meditations on some of Paul’s prayers. Just as God’s Word must reform our theology, our ethics, and our practices, so also must it reform our praying. The chief purpose of this book, then, is to think through some of Paul’s prayers, so that we may align our prayer habits with his. We want to learn what to pray for, what arguments to use, what priorities we should adopt, what beliefs should shape our prayers, and much more.”

I will mention three things I love about this book:

  1. Practical Advice – Dr Carson shares 8 lessons he has learnt from mature Christians.  I found the lessons extremely helpful and quite practical.  Some of the lessons where: Much praying is not done because we do not plan to pray; At various periods in your life, develop, if possible, a prayer-partner relationship; Mingle praise, confession and intercession, but when you intercede, try to tie as many requests as possible to Scripture. Each point was very well expanded and gives much food for thought.
  2. Biblical Exposition – The Biblical exposition of the passages Dr Carson uses is simply brilliant.  It feels like he is trying to get the reader to try to understand what Paul sought to teach through his writings.  That is particularly lacking in a lot of Christian books in recent times.  And I think that is the strongest element of this book. Also when reading the book he keeps you in Scripture the entire time.  Most times it reads more like a Bible study guide (He has actually published the Bible study guide edition of this book http://www.amazon.com/Praying-With-Paul-Spiritual-Reformation/dp/143003212X).
  3. Challenging applications
    “I shall tease out a little more of what this means, at the practical level, in a later chapter. But judging by this example of Paul’s praying, it should already be clear that our chief concern in petition must not be that we might become successful, wealthy, popular, healthy, brilliant, triumphant, happy, or beautiful. Still less does Paul encourage us to pray that all our problems will disappear. Paul’s prayer is constrained by the framework he brings to it: he prays for more signs of the grace for which he has already thanked God, and he prays with eternity’s values in view. He knows we are going to have to give an account of what we have done. On the last day, God will ask, in effect, “What have you done with the salvation I bestowed on you? How have you responded to the way I graciously called you to myself? Have you begun to live up to that calling?”This is one of the themes to which Paul returns again and again. We are to grow up into Christian maturity. In a strange paradox, Paul is constantly telling people, in effect, to become what they are; that is, since we already are children of God because of his free grace to us in Christ, we must now become all that such children should be. God has graciously called us; now we must live up to that calling. That cannot mean less than that we should become increasingly holy, self-denying, loving, full of integrity, steeped in the knowledge of God and his Word, delighted to trust and obey our heavenly Father. We are not strong enough or disciplined enough to take these steps ourselves. That is why Paul prays as he does. If the holy God is to count us “worthy of his calling,”we must ask him for help. That is why Paul is praying: he is not simply asking the Thessalonians to try harder, but he is praying for them to the end that God will count them worthy of his calling. Such a prayer is tantamount to asking that God will so work in their lives, so make them worthy, that ultimately he will count them worthy. And so this text asks us: When was the last time you prayed this sort of prayer for your family? For your church? For your children? Do we not spend far more energy praying that our children will pass their exams, or get a good job, or be happy, or not stray too far, than we do praying that they may live lives worthy of what it means to be a Christian?” – D A Carson
    If this isn’t challenging I don’t know what is.

This book is a must read for every christian

Author’s Intent

Knowing what a person intends to say is quite important when it comes to understanding the words they say.  Let’s say for example Bob says “He killed it today!”.  Depending on what Bob intended to communicate, the sentence could mean completely different things.  It could mean Bob saw someone killing a big cockroach(or some other terrifying beast) today or it could mean Bob saw a singer deliver a jaw-dropping performance(yeah urban slang can be weird).  In everyday conversation we are always trying to find out what the other person is trying to communicate.  That is how we understand each other when we speak.  Even when we read the newspapers, magazines, blog articles etc, we try to find out what the author is trying to communicate.  No one reads a newspaper article about Ghana winning the world cup (sigh!!!… one day!!!) and concludes that the author is writing about Skynet destroying the world with rainbow unicorns!!! That cannot be the case if all the author was doing was telling you that Ghana beat Germany in the finals.

The same principle holds when we pick up the Bible to read.  The Bible is made of a collection of books; each written by an author who intended to communicate something.  We can easily come up with wonderfully creative interpretations of verses if we don’t think about what the author intended to communicate when writing that particular sentence (like wrongly accusing Bob of violence against household pests when he was really talking about his friend Kwaku’s performance).

Words have different meanings in different contexts… When we consider a verse in isolation, one meaning may occur to us. But how do we know it’s the right one?
Let’s take this popular verse:“I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” – Phillipians (4:13)
Looking at that verse alone, it could mean a whole variety of things.  One day I will be a millionaire because I can do all things through him who strengthens me.  I will pass that exam because I can do all things through him who strengthens me.  And I could keep coming up with different scenarios where I can use this verse and even feel comforted by it.

But the question we must always ask ourselves when reading a verse in the Bible is this: What was the author’s intent? What was the author trying to communicate? We can answer this question by looking at verse in the context in which it was written and see how that changes our understanding of the verse.  For example when I add the preceding verses, see how our understanding of the verse can change.

I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 
I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
– Phillipians (4:10 -13)

It now begins to sound less like a rallying call to be a millionaire.  As one writer put it: “Looking back at verse 11, we see that Paul is really talking about how he has “learned in whatever situation. . . . to be content.” He continues in verse 12, “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” In context, it seems that “all things” refers to all manner of life circumstances we encounter, not all goals that we set for ourselves. While the American dream tells us that finding happiness requires continually striving for more, not settling until we are the best and have the most, Paul tells us that satisfaction has nothing to do with our circumstances. Whether life was going really well or really poorly, with Christ’s strength, Paul learned to to be content“.

Next time you read a verse, ask yourself.  Is the meaning I have in my head actually what the author intended to communicate?