On Friday evening and again on Saturday I’m going to be in Fredericton, New Brunswick speaking on the topic of prayer. This is a topic that this blog has addressed numerous times, but regardless of how many times I write about prayer I seem to hardly scratch the surface. Prayer lies at the core of the Christian growth process and along with the study of the Bible they are two great pillars that not only draw us closer to God’s grace through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, but also sustain us in our spiritual journey.
Thinking about the three talks I will have the privilege of giving on the weekend it soon became evident that I’ll have to exclude much more than I could ever include. Prayer is a never-ending subject that is like peeling an onion because the more you discover the more layers there are to the topic.
As I was studying I was drawn back time after time to Paul’s instructions to the Colossians in the final chapter of the book. He writes, “Devote yourself to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” Colossians 4:2-6
This text of course parallels Paul’s closing thoughts in the book of Ephesians, but here he expands the reason for seeking the prayers of the Colossians. He seeks their prayers so that, “God may open a door for our message.” (v. 3) I’m always amazed by the positive outlook Paul has regarding his witnessing to the grace of God. He is in prison, probably chained between two guards and not exactly free to wander the streets and proclaim the gospel, yet he is continually asking the churches to pray for his ability to proclaim the gospel clearly, “as I should.” (v. 4)
Paul looked around the prison and saw a mission field. He saw prisoners rotting away without hope and asked his friends on the outside to pray for him that he would have the ability and the courage to speak up for God. He was always looking for a door, not to escape, but a door into the hearts of lost people. Jesus says in Revelation, “Behold I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” Revelation 3:20
For Paul being in chains wasn’t a problem. The problem was how to “be wise in the way you act towards outsiders,” and “make the most of every opportunity,” (Col. 4:5) while locked up in prison. He understood that it was the work of the Holy Spirit to bring a person to Christ, but he also understood that in order to come to Christ they needed to hear the word. (See Paul’s argument in Romans 10:9-11, 14-15) The catalyst for the Spirit to break down the hardness of hearts and Paul’s ability to present Christ is prayer.
For ministry as intercessors on behalf of people who are being drawn to God (John 6:44) we need to, “devote ourselves to prayer.” (Col. 4:2) Praying once and awhile for our children, friends and workmates is not going to do it. We need to take seriously our calling to prayer and allow it to become an important part of our life.
Paul was calling on the Colossians to pray that a) God would open a door for the message of the gospel, and b) that once the door was open he might preach the gospel with boldness. But, Paul is not finished stating the reasons that he requested prayer from the church. Once he had the opportunity to share the gospel he requested prayer that c) he might present it clearly.
Okay. If you are like me you just can’t imagine that Paul couldn’t proclaim the gospel clearly. After all, a great amount of the teachings and beliefs of the Christian world are based on Paul’s writings. Where would we be without Romans, Galatians and Ephesians just for starters? Yet, Paul was humble enough to realize that he was but the mouthpiece for the Holy Spirit and it was the Spirit’s ministry to touch the seeker with the truth of the gospel. Paul also understood, however, that if he made the gospel too complicated or convoluted the Spirit’s job would be much harder because the person he was witnessing to just couldn’t understand.
I have often wondered how much people understand regarding our witness. We often present topics to people, who are complete novices regarding the Bible, that are way over their head. Do we really expect someone with no Bible knowledge to understand the intricacies of Daniel and Revelation after a handful of meetings? I wonder how many people leave these meetings more confused than enlightened?
Paul goes on to give words of advice to the Colossians regarding their witnessing. He states, “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” (Col. 4:6) The Colossians are to pray for Paul and his ministry, but they should also apply Paul’s words to their own witness. Not only should they pray that God would open doors for Paul but also for themselves. And once the door is open that they would take advantage of the opening and present the gospel with clarity.
Paul, however, is not finished with his instructions to the Colossians regarding the reason for prayer. They are to, “be wise in the way you act toward outsiders,” and to “make the most of every opportunity.” (Col. 4:5) How may times has God opened the door and we Christians have burst in through it with both barrels firing and before we know it we have killed the very person to whom we came to minister. Paul is calling on us to make the most of the opportunities God sends our way and to be sensible and sensitive to the people we long to minister to regarding Jesus. I know as a new young Christian I did a great job of alienating and offending every friend I had in the first few months of my conversion. Paul says, “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” (Col. 4:6)
My witness to my friends was anything but filled with grace or seasoned with salt. I attacked with every doctrine I knew. I ignored every question that wasn’t part of my agenda and soon found that no one was answering anymore when I phoned.
A number of years ago Ruth and I went out to eat with a close relative of hers. The woman that accompanied him keep looking at me over dinner and finally during the dessert course said, “I know you, don’t I?” I, a bit embarrassed told her “I didn’t think so,” but when she asked me if I had owned a natural food store in New Brunswick at one time I realized I must know her. When she began to tell me her story everything came rolling back into my mind and though I had played a part in her story I never knew how it ended.
She and her husband used to come into my store and buy goods from me. One day we began talking and they showed an interest in studying the Bible. I told them I was more than glad to study with them so we set up a time and I went to their house, which was down a long lane through the forest and sat right on the beach. I studied once or twice a week with them for almost two months. Then one day they told me they were no longer interested and would like to stop studying with me. They didn’t give any reason so I stopped.
Now here she was, after all these years, sitting across from me so I asked her why she stopped the studies because I had thought we were making real progress. She looked over at me and said something like this, “My husband and I were going through real problems in our marriage and we thought if someone would come and study with us we could ask questions about some of the things that were bothering us and get some direction. We enjoyed the studies but they had nothing to do with our situation, and it seemed all you wanted to do was get your point across regarding whatever it was you were saying. Any time we brought up a question you either ignored it or said we would talk about it later. We eventually realized that the study was going nowhere and we were wasting your time and you ours.”
She was right. I wish I had covered those visits in prayer and sought the Holy Spirit’s leading. How I wish I had been wise and taken the opportunity to listen to their questions and reply with honesty. How I wish I had been familiar with Colossians 4:2-6.