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And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. John 8:32

Paul As A Great Example
Of Prayer And Trust

By H. A. (Buster) Dobbs

References to prayer in the letters of Paul give us a measure of his trust in God. There are at least 22 references to prayer in the epistles of Paul. He rarely records the words of his prayers. He tells us to pray and says that he prayed. He sometimes mentions what he prayed for, but specific prayers are not often found in the letters of Paul. He tells others what to pray for and what he prayed for, but he does not give us the details of his prayers.

We will look at some of the Pauline comments on prayer. A pivotal passage in the teaching of the apostle concerning prayer is: "Rejoice in the Lord always: again I will say, Rejoice. Let your forbearance be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand. In nothing be anxious; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall guard your hearts and your thoughts in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 4:4-6).

The progression is: First: Rejoice in the Lord. The happiness commanded is not the world's silly amusements, nor the meaningless giggling of the immature, nor the vulgar boisterousness of the godless and hedonistic. Solomon says the laughter of the fool is like crackling thorns under a pot. It makes a noise and sounds like fun, but generates no heat and cooks no food. The indescribable and boundless joy of knowing you are right with God and that your eternal prize is secure is what Paul requires of us. It is a rejoicing "in the Lord." We emphasize the word "in." We get into Christ through faith and baptism (Gal. 3:26-27). All spiritual blessings in heavenly places are in Christ (Eph. 1:3). To be in Christ is to know that your inward man is robust, sleek, fat and assured. Physical health may be good or bad, earthly treasures may be many or few or none, fleeting fame may not come, but if the heart is right with God, we have euphoria. This great pleasure is rooted in the knowledge that we have obeyed the Lord and are heirs of God. It is not feeling good because we feel good, but rejoicing because of our relationship to Jesus. Regardless of physical condition, if we are in him, all is right with our life.

Second: Let your forbearance be flaunted. This is one characteristic of right doing that should be waved grandly -- pennants flying in the wind. Forbearance is mildness, gentleness and fairness. It includes enduring wordlessly whatever unpleasantness may come our way. It involves gritting your teeth and doing what ought to be done, however difficult the task may be. Paul once declared, "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me" (Phil. 4:13). Paul, obviously, does not mean that he could do inconsistent, contradictory and impossible things. The "all things" must be limited. Sinful things would not be included, for instance. Paul is not saying that he could jump over tall buildings in a single bound, or outrun a speeding bullet. He is saying: I can do what must be done and endure what must be endured. He says, "I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need" (Phil. 4:12), and then he says, "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me." His point is that he could graciously accept whipping, stoning, shipwreck, starving, peril and isolation as long as he remained "in" Christ. If one is in the body of Jesus (the church) and heaven is his home, then disaster, earthquakes, tornadoes and hurricanes are trivial and insignificant. Jesus, through his word, gives us the power to endure what we must endure, to face what we must face, and to suffer what we must suffer, because the bright prospect of heaven unfolds before us. Yes, I can -- I can do all -- underscore "all" -- things through Jesus. The world can heap its fierce force against me, but if Jesus is by my side, it cannot dismay nor discourage me. That is what "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me" means -- that, and nothing else. Let your forbearance be known to all -- show it off. Are you sick? Let your forbearance be known to all. Are you depressed? Let the world see your mildness. Are you persecuted? Show the unbeliever your gentleness.

Third: The Lord is at hand. It seems strange that in the midst of a discussion on prayer and trust Paul should mention the coming appearance of Jesus. The second coming of the Son of God will mean flames of fire, dissolving earth, loud noise, sounding trumpets, blood splattered garments, and screams for the rocks and the mountains to fall upon the damned and snuff out their misery. What place does this have in a lesson on prayer and trust? Well, it means "the Lord is at hand." He is at the door. He stands there unnoticed, but at any moment he may step through the door and into the room. For the unprepared it will be a moment of stark terror, but their choking fear does not fully describe the "outer darkness where is weeping and gnashing of teeth." For the prepared -- those who are in Christ -- the idea of judgment is not paralyzing. To the profound reverse, it is joy, bliss, and fulfillment. To say "the Lord is at hand" means either joy or utter hopelessness. If you can imagine the matchless happiness of knowing that the nearby Lord may soon give you the treasure you have long worked to achieve, then you can understand what "the Lord is at hand" means.

Fourth: Be careful for nothing. It is sad that a great many people think that Paul forbids what everybody does and cannot help doing. There are many things concerning which we must be careful. It is because we are concerned about the future that we obey the gospel to receive initial remission of sins. We do not want to be cast into the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, but we desire to be in a place of eternal joy. Therefore we submit to the Lord's command to believe and be baptized to be saved. The husband is careful for the things of the wife and the wife is careful for the things of the husband because such consideration ministers to our happiness and inattention to such basic things brings misery. We buy insurance policies, visit the doctor, obey the laws of the land, lay in a store of groceries, and pay the bills because we are careful. There are many things about which we ought to be concerned. Still, the Bible tells us to "take no thought for the morrow, for the marrow shall be anxious for itself; sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof." We are not forbidden to do what common sense demands. Of course not! When Paul tells us to "be careful for nothing," he is saying that we must not be overcome by irrational worry. The gnawing anxiety that rips us apart and makes us unable to take care of present day duties is the kind of carefulness we must not indulge. We must not delight in worry for the sake of worry. If a problem persists and there is nothing we can do about it, it is our Christian duty to put it out of mind and not allow it to disturb our relationship with God, spouse, business associates, and our siblings in Christ. If there is a problem we can solve, then we must tend to it and continue happily on our march to Zion. To be always fretting and making ourselves wretched and our associates uncomfortable is unchristian. We can control what we think about and if we concentrate on heaven and its beauty, we will be relieved of unnecessary dread. We must not, by anticipating the fashion of uncertain evils, destroy our own peace of mind and the tranquillity of those around us. We must trust in the Lord -- he is at hand -- and put things beyond our control in his care.

Fifth: Prayer, supplication and thanksgiving are the ways to have surcease from needless stewing and fussing. It is useless to tell people who must live in a world like ours and face the things that we all must affront not to worry. How can we help being filled with alarm and distress? The whole world is crumbling around us and shall we be oblivious? Violence and moral shame fills our communities and shall we be unconcerned? The creation is crying out for its own destruction and shall we be silent? Even those of us who have the firstfruits of the Spirit groan within ourselves when we see rampant evil on every hand. Many things that press upon us are an enigma to us and we are helpless in their grasp. To tell a person in the midst of calamity not to worry is like telling one whose house is on fire not to be alarmed. Of course we worry. We cannot do otherwise. To say to our fellow citizens, be careful for nothing is unavailing, unless we have a great deal more to say. Paul does not simply say, Don't worry, but he gives the prescription for relief. His counsel is: Do not worry, but by prayer, supplication and thanksgiving let your requests be known to God. When you lay your burden of fretful concern about things over which you have no control at the foot of the great, white, blazing throne of the Almighty, then, and only then, you can walk away and be careful for nothing. "Cast your cares upon him, for he careth for you." Paul gives a threefold description of communication with God -- prayer, supplication and thanksgiving.

The apostle mentions three items: prayer, supplication and thanksgiving. They are not the same. Prayer is not supplication and supplication is not thanksgiving in this verse. Sometimes, in the New Testament, prayer does mean making requests, but not here. Bringing burdens to God and finding relief is effectively done through the prayer that is neither a petition nor an expression of gratitude. The Spirit is telling us through the pen of Paul to give ourselves to deep meditation, which may be the highest form of prayer. We are told several times in the gospels that Jesus prayed through the night. You seriously misunderstand the prayer life of Jesus if you think this means that he spent the entire night verbalizing his needs and expressing his thankfulness. He did both of these, of course, but not all night long. He who told us that God will not hear us for our much speaking did not himself violate this principle of prayer. "Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter any thing before God: for God is in heaven, and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few" (Eccl. 5:2). When we develop the skill of finding quiet time to think about heaven, God and transcendent things, we will have spiritual growth and maturity. It does us good to sit wordlessly and "listen to the ticking of eternity." To meditate upon the things that remain and that are therefore more excellent is to draw near to the heart of God. To contemplate things beyond earth, moon, sun and stars is to ennoble the soul. To think on things that surpass time and matter is to aggrandize and beautify the inward man. May we learn the joy and power of silent reflection. This is the prayer that builds us up and profoundly enriches our inward man.

In addition to the prayer of contemplation we are to make supplication. We must let our requests be made known to God. Anything that concerns you is a proper subject to discuss with the heavenly Father. Still, we must not make petition a mere ordering from the menu. We need to consider our deepest needs and make matters of the spirit the burden of our requests. Still, God has his ears open to our pleas and delights to hear the requests of his children. However, when we show in our lives the likeness of the manhood of Christ, he is most pleased. Spiritual discernment and understanding will lead us to request things that really matter and that should, therefore, be foremost in our thoughts. Prayer and supplication must be accompanied by thanksgiving. It is a sin not to be properly grateful. One complaint against ancient Israel was "the ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider." The brute beast recognizes the hand that feeds him, but children of God sometimes neither know nor consider. "Ah sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evildoers, children that are corrupters: they have forsaken the LORD, they have provoked the Holy One of Israel unto anger, they are gone away backward." An ungrateful heart is an offense to man and a stench to God. He who gives our daily bread deserves a look of appreciation. He who so loved us that he gave his only begotten son for us should inspire in us such profound gratitude that we feel compelled to "in everything give thanks." For the child of God, every day is thanksgiving day.

In addition to the lessons we gain from this pivotal passage on prayer, we can learn some valuable lessons from a prayer request not granted. The apostle wrote: "And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me" (2 Cor. 12:7-9).

We do not know what Paul's "thorn in the flesh" was and it is useless to speculate about it. It was real and caused pain and distress. Notice the apostle's attitude toward it. He regarded this thorn as the messenger of Satan. Adam's loss of paradise was the work of the serpent and brought the bane of physical death upon all men (1 Cor. 15:21). Job's problems came not from God but from the devil. Human misery comes from the old Red Dragon. Paul was hurting -- a thorn in the flesh inflicts pain. He had to live with it day and night. He could do nothing about it, so he learned to accept it and adjust to it. He was able to see good in it. He regarded this unrelieved suffering as a blessing because it kept him from being "exalted above measure." It is easy -- and as useless as it is easy -- to say to someone who is in anguish, "Don't fret about it. Accept it. See good in it, if you can." However, when a fellow-sufferer tells us that he knows what it means to be in anguish because he has learned to cope with wounds and that we can overcome the "messenger of Satan" and still be productive for good and right, we listen, learn and benefit. Trust includes facing what we have to face, and doing what we have to do, all the while believing it is for our good. Paul was able to see a benefit in what appeared to be a problem.

Paul's deep anguish over his persistent pain drove him to ask for relief. Three times he besought the Lord to take away the cause of his suffering. Three times his request was denied. God answered "my grace is enough for you." When an unremovable difficulty confronts us, the best way to cope with it is to concentrate our attention upon our gifts from God, especially the unspeakable gift of his son and the living hope we have in him. The thought of heaven makes the misery of earth bearable. "The toils of the road will seem nothing when we get to the end of the way." Paul understood this and after the third request laid the matter aside in his own mind and turned his face to the challenges and opportunities that were before him. He implies that he never mentioned his thorn-in-the-flesh to God again. Some have the idea that we can badger God into submitting to our requests (demands). The parable of the importunate widow is often misread (Luke 18:1-7). Jesus speaks of a hard-hearted, unjust judge who cared for neither man nor God. A widow kept after this judge to avenge her of her advisories. She wore him out by her continual appeals. To get rid of her, he grudgingly granted her request.

Jesus is not saying we can treat God that way. He is saying that if a cruel, merciless, selfish judge can be prevailed upon to do a right thing because of persistent pleas, surely a kind, benevolent, righteous, heavenly father, who wants the best for us, will be quick to give us what we need -- and to withhold what we may think we need but would only harm us if granted. After a threefold request, Paul stopped asking. He was driven to repeat the request because of the intense discomfort it caused him, but when the answer was clear, he never mentioned it to God again. He looked for good in it, endured what he had to endure, and was active in taking care of every day's duties. He did not whine and complain. He mentioned it to the Corinthian disciples because it would help them to learn how to deal with life's inescapable problems. That is a life of trust!

Let's look now at some of the things Paul said he prayed about:

  • The salvation of Israel was his heart's desire and prayer to God (Rom. 10:1)
  • Grace and peace for the saints at Galatia (Gal. 1:3)
  • That saints might have a full understanding of the gospel (Eph. 1:15-23)
  • That the saved might understand revelation (Eph. 3:14-19)
  • Asked others to pray for him that he might speak the truth with boldness (Eph. 6:18-19)
  • Expressed gratitude to God for the faith and love of others and prayed that they might be filled with knowledge, wisdom, and understanding, enabling them to walk worthily of the Lord unto all pleasing (Col. 1:3-11)
  • Advised others to continue in prayer (Col. 4:2-4)
  • Thankful for participation in his work, and help in defending the gospel; asked for their growth in knowledge and discrimination (Phil. 1:3-4)
  • That others would abound in love and asked God to establish their hearts blameless; he prayed for the coming of the Lord (1 Thess. 3:11-13)
  • Prayed for the salvation of others (1 Thess. 5:23-24)
  • Prayed God would count others worthy of heaven and that their desire for good be recognized; he begged God to bless their work of faith and requested mutual glorification (2 Thess. 1:11-12)
  • Thanksgiving for salvation (2 Thess. 2:13-15)
  • God would comfort and establish others in every good work (2 Thess. 2:16-17)
  • That the Prince of Peace would give peace to others (2 Thess. 3:16)
  • Told disciples to pray for all men, but especially rulers, and for a quite life (1 Tim. 2:1-4)
  • Instructed the saints everywhere to pray (1 Tim. 2:8)
  • Prayed for Timothy constantly (2 Tim. 1:3)
  • Prayed for those who forsook him (2 Tim. 4:16)
  • Was thankful for Philemon and prayed for him (Phil. 1:4)
  • Asked that the favor of Jesus be with Philemon's spirit (Phil. 1:25)

Notice how seldom he mentions prayers for himself and how often he tells of his prayers for others. Notice, too, how frequently he prayed that the gospel would succeed and that the saved would understand more fully the revelation of God. The items on his tongue when he bowed in prayer were: thanks, grace, peace, understanding, boldness in preaching the truth, hope, knowledge of the grace of God, wisdom, persistence in every good work, patience, abounding in love of God, the second coming of Jesus.

It will do us good to look this list over closely and compare it with the things we are inclined to ask for in prayer. As an example of what our prayers should be, let us look at one of Paul's prayers: "For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man; that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God. Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen" (Eph. 3:14-21). Notice the brevity of the prayer -- the economy of words. Notice the focus of the prayer is not on earth and the things of earth, but is upon eternal verities and realities. Notice, too, how he leaves all things in the hands of God.

Paul may have prayed many prayers that are not recorded and about which we know nothing, but the ones that are recorded and the things for which he tells us he prayed, reveal a heart set on "things that are above, where Christ is, seated on the right hand of God." It is a valuable lesson and one we all can use. Pray without ceasing.

H. A. "Buster" Dobbs, email:
P. O. Box 690192
Houston, Texas 77269-0192
(281) 469-3540

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