A man took his small son with him to town one day to run some errands. When lunch time arrived, the two of them went to a familiar cafe for a sandwich. The father sat down on one of the stools at the counter and lifted the boy up to the seat beside him. They ordered lunch, and when the waiter brought the food, the father said, “Son, we’ll just have a silent prayer.” Dad got through praying first and waited for the boy to finish his prayer, but his son just sat with his head bowed for an unusually long time. When the son finally looked up, his father asked him, “What in the world were you praying about all that time?” With the innocence and honesty of a child, he replied, “How do I know? It was a silent prayer.” Certainly, this is a good example of how not to pray! Paul is going to tell us about how to pray. Prayer is one of the means of grace. And it is so important to us, that, in effect, Paul tells us that the entire armor of God has to go on with prayer. It is with prayer that we buckle that truth around our waists. It is with prayer that we receive that breastplate or righteousness to put on our chests. It is with prayer that we put on that readiness of the Gospel of peace. It is with prayer that we take up that shield of faith. It is with prayer that we fasten on that helmet of salvation. It is with prayer that we take up the sword of the Spirit. Prayer is not one of the pieces of the armor of God. Rather, it is the way in which we put on all the armor of God. This is really one of the most comprehensive statements about prayer in the entire Bible. It tells us how to pray, when to pray, what to pray, and for whom to pray. Let’s take these one at a time.
Firstly, we are to pray in the Spirit. This is how we are to pray. Just as the Sword is the Sword of the Spirit, so are we to pray in the Spirit. What does this mean? It means that we recognize that the Holy Spirit is the one who prays our prayers to God. The Holy Spirit intercedes for us with groaning too deep for words. When our prayers ascend to God like the incense did in the Old Testament, it is the Holy Spirit who purifies our prayers, takes out that sin from our prayers, and presents the purified result to the Father. So it means recognizing that the Holy Spirit is our Comforter.
It also means that we pray for God’s will to be done, since it is the Holy Spirit who accomplishes the will of God. So often we pray that our will be done, instead of God’s will. We pray to God with a laundry list of things that need to be done, or things that need to be ours. Instead, we should remember the helpful acronym ACTS. A stands for adoration. We adore God in our prayers. We praise Him for who He is, and for what He has done. C stands for confession. We must confess our sins to God if we expect Him to hear us. It is better to pray for the forgiveness of sins right after you praise God for who He is, since praising God for who He is reminds us of how far short we fall. And it is good to confess sins before you ask God to give you anything. I fear that we oftentimes tack on our request for the forgiveness of sins at the very end of our prayer, as if it is an afterthought. There is a reasonable order to these things. That is not to say that you have to pray this way every time. However, we need to think about how we pray, and not rush into things. Well, after we have confessed our sins, then we thank God for His blessings. That is what the T in ACTS means. Thanksgiving is so important. We must be grateful to God for all He has done, and for all He has given us. Again, we usually give a long list of things we want from God without giving God thanks for what He has given us. Our prayers often sound a lot like Anne’s prayer in Anne of Green Gables: “Gracious Heavenly Father, I thank Thee for the White Way of Delight and the Lake of Shining Waters and Bonny and the Snow Queen. I’m really extremely grateful for them. And that’s all the blessings I can think of just now to thank Thee for. As for the things I want, they’re so numerous that it would take a great deal of time to name them all, so I will only mention the two most important. Please let me stay at Green Gables; and please let me be good-looking when I grow up. I remain, Yours respectfully, Anne Shirley.” Another great example of how not to pray! And so, rather than pray selfishly, we should pray as God has taught us to pray. We should pray in the Spirit.
We should also pray with great vigilance. Paul tells us to be alert when we pray. Oftentimes, we think of prayer as a thing to do when we’re tired. And, since we usually close our eyes to pray, that’s the next thing to a nice long nap! We should rather be awake and give all due diligence to our prayers. When Martin Luther’s puppy happened to be at the table, he looked for a morsel from his master, and watched with open mouth and motionless eyes; he (Martin Luther) said, ‘Oh, if I could only pray the way this dog watches the meat! All his thoughts are concentrated on the piece of meat. Otherwise he has no thought, wish or hope.” I have said this before, but it bears repeating. You can pray with your eyes open. This means that you can pray when you are driving your car or tractor. What a great way to use all of that time! Yes, you do need to pay attention to what you are doing. However, most people can have a radio going on while they drive. If you can have a radio going on, then you can also pray. So, the “how” of praying has to do with praying in the Spirit, and praying with great vigilance.
The second thing we need to know is when to pray. Paul says to pray on all occasions. Then a little later he says that we are always to keep on praying. Everyone knows how to pray when they are in danger, or when the stress level is as high as it seems possible to have. Anyone can pray in that kind of situation. However, are we so quick to pray when something good happens? Are we quick to pray when things are peaceful and quiet? Are we quick to pray when small irritations come our way? The fact is that we need to be in a praying frame of mind all the time. One author put it this way: we should lift up our hearts to heaven, and keep them there so that we can always run to our Heavenly Father and pray to Him. Certainly, as John Newton said, “He who runs from God in the morning will scarcely find Him the rest of the day.” Stay close to God all the day. You will find that temptation has much less hold over you. And you will find it easier and more fulfilling to pray to God in this way. So, we are to pray in the Spirit, and we are to pray all the time. Of course, we don’t have to be in actual prayer every minute. However, we are to have that praying frame of mind.
Thirdly, we are to pray all kinds of prayers. As we have seen, we should pray praise to God, confession to God, thanks to God, and supplication to God. It is not wrong to pray for the things you want, though it is far better to pray for the things you really need. Our wants and our needs are not the same things. We want what we need, but we certainly don’t need all the things we want! What do we really need? Physically, we need food, clothing, shelter, and transportation. Spiritually, we need Jesus. Those are our needs. Everything else, and I mean everything else, is something that we want rather than need. We need to be content when God gives us everything we need, even if that doesn’t mean we have everything we want. Still, we are to pray all kinds of prayers. No kind of prayer is to be ignored.
Fourthly, we are to pray for all the saints. This is as broad as the church itself in all parts of the world. Pray for those saints you know by name. (And, by the way, the word “saints” here means Christians, not first-class citizens of the kingdom of God, as opposed to second-class citizens). Anyway, pray for those saints you know by name. Then pray for all those saints you do not know by name. Pray for saints in other countries. Pray for the persecuted church. Pray for new believers. Pray for missionaries and pastors. Notice here that Paul even requests the Ephesians to pray for him! It is most instructive to see what Paul asks the Ephesians to pray for. He doesn’t ask them to pray for an easy life, free of pain. He asks them to pray for boldness so that the Gospel will go forth. He wants the Ephesians to pray that evangelism will happen! Paul wants the Ephesians to pray that he will not fear man, but only God. Notice something very striking here. Paul calls himself an ambassador in chains. That is almost a contradiction in terms. In normal societies, ambassadors have diplomatic immunity. Countries need to be able to talk to each other, so most countries grant diplomatic immunity to ambassadors from other countries. This is very important to the right relationship of countries. However, Paul does not have diplomatic immunity! And he is an ambassador for the greatest kingdom that has ever been or ever will be! He is ambassador for the King of kings and Lord of lords. And yet, he is in chains! So also we cannot expect such diplomatic immunity. There is a price to pay for sharing the Gospel. And we are to be willing to pay that price. So, we are to pray in the Spirit and with great vigilance. We are to pray all the time. We are to pray all kinds of prayers. And we are to pray for all the saints.
I will close with this illustration of the power of prayer. Dr. Helen Roseveare, missionary to Zaire, told the following story. “A mother at our mission station died after giving birth to a premature baby. We tried to improvise an incubator to keep the infant alive, but the only hot water bottle we had was beyond repair. So we asked the children to pray for the baby and for her sister. One of the girls responded. ‘Dear God, please send a hot water bottle today. Tomorrow will be too late because by then the baby will be dead. And dear Lord, send a doll for the sister so she won’t feel so lonely.’ That afternoon a large package arrived from England. The children watched eagerly as we opened it. Much to their surprise, under some clothing was a hot water bottle! Immediately the girl who had prayed so earnestly started to dig deeper, exclaiming, ‘If God sent that, I’m sure He also sent a doll!’ And she was right! The heavenly Father knew in advance of that child’s sincere requests, and 5 months earlier He had led a ladies’ group to include both of those specific articles.” So pray, dear brothers and sisters!