Having a Christian Witness in a COVID World

I rarely get sick. And thankfully, if I were to catch a common cold, it’s unlikely to become a divisive political matter. No one would contest the reality of the symptoms. Nor would anyone argue vehemently with me over the efficacy of Kleenex, rest, and over the counter cold medications. There would be no one telling me I shouldn’t cover my mouth when I cough. Instead, most people would accept and support my efforts to get better and to keep others from catching the cold from me.

Then there’s COVID. And all of a sudden, taking precautionary measures leads to polarized arguments on social media, debates about government power and overreach, protests against masks, and, worst of all, division in churches. In churches.

Now, let me be clear. When I say division, I do not mean differences of opinion on all things COVID. Nor do I mean people who opt not to attend church because of their particular convictions or concerns. Instead, I mean the breakdown of communication and relationships. I mean one group of people in a church being unhappy, angry with, or resentful of another group of people in a church. I mean the kinds of situations that tie pastors in knots, because there is no helpful solution that smoothes over everyone’s concerns and makes all parties happy. Worse, I mean people who confess Christ as Saviour and Lord but whose handling of COVID restrictions puts them in the position of acting unbiblically towards their brothers and sisters in Christ.

Let me explain.

In 1 Corinthians 8 Paul addresses an issue we will never specifically face in our day: whether or not believers should eat food that has been offered to idols in pagan temples. Many Christians in Corinth were converts from paganism. Some of them couldn’t in good conscience eat such meat because of its association with pagan worship. The passage is worth quoting at length here:

About eating food sacrificed to idols, then, we know that “an idol is nothing in the world,” and that “there is no God but one.” For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth—as there are many “gods” and many “lords”—yet for us there is one God, the Father. All things are from him, and we exist for him. And there is one Lord, Jesus Christ. All things are through him, and we exist through him.

However, not everyone has this knowledge. Some have been so used to idolatry up until now that when they eat food sacrificed to an idol, their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not bring us close to God. We are not worse off if we don’t eat, and we are not better if we do eat. But be careful that this right of yours in no way becomes a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone sees you, the one who has knowledge, dining in an idol’s temple, won’t his weak conscience be encouraged to eat food offered to idols? So the weak person, the brother or sister for whom Christ died, is ruined by your knowledge. Now when you sin like this against brothers and sisters and wound their weak conscience, you are sinning against Christ. Therefore, if food causes my brother or sister to fall, I will never again eat meat, so that I won’t cause my brother or sister to fall.

1 Corinthians 8:4-13

Notice how Paul clearly says that Christians are free to eat such meat. It doesn’t matter one way or the other. There’s nothing special about this meat. And, besides, idols are simply idols. They are not divine beings of any sort. At the same time, though believers are free to consume this meat, Paul also tells them to be careful that this right of yours in no way becomes a stumbling block to the weak. Going further, he says that if food causes my brother or sister to fall, I will never again eat meat, so that I won’t cause my brother or sister to fall.

So Paul’s concern is that our actions as believers do not cause others to stumble in their faith. To this end, he says we ought to be willing to put our freedom aside in order to prevent others from stumbling. In other words, it is not Christlike to assert our rights when the well-being of the body of Christ is at stake. Indeed, following Jesus involves sacrifice, putting others’ needs ahead of our own, and loving our neighbour even when it costs us.

Elsewhere in 1 Corinthians, Paul explicitly talks about not making use of his rights as an apostle. Speaking of his rights as an apostle, he says of himself and his co-workers that we have not made use of this right; instead, we endure everything so that we will not hinder the gospel of Christ.

Once again, the emphasis here is on not asserting one’s rights. And this is for the sake of the gospel. Note again: asserting our rights as Christians can, at times, be a hindrance to the gospel and not an expression of it.

And with all due respect to believers who feel strongly about COVID restrictions, remember that it is not a gospel issue. What we believe or don’t believe about COVID isn’t a matter of Christian orthodoxy, theological correctness, or biblical faithfulness. It’s not a salvation issue. Even if someone truly thinks that these government-mandated guidelines are the beginning of a slippery slope to even more government overreach and abuse of power, being asked to socially distance and wear masks doesn’t even come close to being asked to deny your faith in Jesus. It simply doesn’t. It certainly doesn’t qualify as persecution. Asserting otherwise is an insult to the many around the world in other nations who suffer and die daily for confessing faith in Christ.

And when we talk about setting aside our rights for the sake of the gospel, I think we can unpack this in a few ways.

First, of all Christian unity and peace in the body of Christ is a gospel issue. The relationships between people in churches is a gospel issue. It actually matters whether or not we are willing to put others’ needs ahead of ours. It actually matters whether or not we prioritize our relationships with other believers over our convictions on secondary or even tertiary issues. It actually matters whether or not we find spiritually healthy ways to deal with tension and conflict in our churches. Consider more words from the apostle Paul:

Therefore I, the prisoner in the Lord, urge you to walk worthy of the calling you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope at your calling—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

Ephesians 4:1-6

Notice how Paul explicitly connects unity and peace in the body of Christ with the work of the Spirit, with our baptismal confession, and with very nature of our trinitarian God. The way in which we handle these sorts of matters relationally in the body of Christ matters because it is part of our witness to our larger communities. Our relationships with one another ought to reflect our deeper, primary convictions about the nature of God. We do this through humility, gentleness, patience, and love.

Frankly, how you get along with fellow believers and how you are growing into a spiritually mature and emotionally healthy follower of Jesus is significantly more important than your view of masks and social distancing.

Not only that, our unity as believers is so important and so intimately connected with the witness of the church in the world that Jesus–to whom we confess our allegiance–prayed for it.

I pray not only for these, but also for those who believe in me through their word. May they all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us, so that the world may believe you sent me. I have given them the glory you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me, so that they may be made completely one, that the world may know you have sent me and have loved them as you have loved me.

John 17:20-23

Why does Jesus pray for unity among his followers? He prays for this so that, as he says, the world may know you have sent me. Others coming to faith in Jesus, knowing he was sent into the world by God the Father, depends in some measure on the unity of the church. It’s a matter of Christian witness.

So, secondly, our witness is also a gospel issue. Our relationships in the church demonstrate what we believe about God and the good news of Jesus. When there is discord in the body of Christ over secondary issues, it’s a stain on the witness of the church to the wider world.

All of this is to say, if you are a follower of Jesus, are you thinking through the way in which you express and live out your convictions on secondary or tertiary issues? Are you thinking through how you are affecting your brothers and sisters in Christ as well as the witness of the church in your neighbourhood? What does your manner of living out these particular convictions say about God, the good news, and the church?

For example, if you are on Facebook or other social media platforms, do you think (and even pray?) before you type and post? I really think that the kind of disembodied communication that takes place on social media, absent of personal presence and actual relational accountability, gives many permission to say things they wouldn’t dare say in person. Not only that, I think many use technology as a way of actually avoiding real human interaction that they would find uncomfortable or awkward or that would potentially challenge their assumptions. Rather than another, healthy way of engaging others and ideas, instead it’s a way of sidestepping the more difficult, but essential work of relationships. Often there is no conversation per se. Instead, people talk past one another without ever stopping long enough to listen.

It goes without saying that those who confess to believe in and follow the Lord Jesus should model another way. We should be voices of humility, peace, and calm. We need to be aware of the degree to which we can mistakenly allow the medium of social media dictate how we express our beliefs and interact with others. We ought to demonstrate what it means to have unity even when we disagree on secondary or tertiary matters. We should show through our relationships that the gospel of Jesus is our priority.

After all this, I should also make clear that I am not asking anyone to violate their conscience. If a Christian believer has a particular conviction with respect to COVID restrictions, and it’s a matter of conscience, my suggestion is that they follow their conscience. Hopefully, what I’ve said above makes clear that it’s the manner of following one’s convictions on this matter that is crucial. How are you relating to others who view matters differently? Are you seeking to encourage fellow Christians, even if you disagree?

As it happens, how we do this is also a part of our witness and therefore a gospel issue. And whatever else we make of COVID and all the restrictions that our governing authorities are currently requiring us to follow, those of us who know and trust the Lord Jesus need to prioritize the witness of the gospel, of which our relationships with one another in the church are a fundamental part.

Where are the Dividing Lines?

Let’s take a brief inventory:

Trinitarian versus Arian.

Calvinism versus Arminianism.

Infant baptism versus believer’s baptism.

Cessationism versus continuationism.

Young earth creationism versus old earth creationism.

Complementarianism versus egalitarianism.

Church organs versus guitar and drums.

Carpet versus tile.

Ok. So those last couple of examples might have been a little facetious. Churches never fight over music or buildings.

Right. Ok.

But my real question is: At what point do differences between Christians become something worth dividing over?

I could add to the above list more current hot-button cultural talking points such as Critical Race Theory, LBGTQ issues, COVID restrictions, masks, and vaccines, Liberal or Conservative, and Democrat or Republican.

I don’t think I have ever seen politics and culture have as profound an effect on Christians and churches as much as I have over the last few years or so–and maybe especially over the last year. I know it’s always been a reality, but with COVID-19 it feels like everything has gone up several notches. Whether the last year has simply exacerbated pre-existing differences or has given rise to new ones, I don’t know. But it’s incredibly frustrating and discouraging as a follower of Jesus and as a pastor.

What differences are fundamental and which are secondary? How do we define what we might call a “gospel” issue? Because not every conflict or issue listed above ought to carry the same theological weight. So, how do we weigh these matters?

Part of what I am wondering is how much difference of opinion can exist within one congregation, in one body of believers? If in one congregation you have significantly different political perspectives, can people of such deep but differing convictions still serve together for the sake of the kingdom? What about theological differences regarding the age of the earth and how to read and interpret Genesis 1 and 2? What if two people in a group of believers reach different conclusions? Can they still serve in the church alongside one another, pray together, and worship together?

At what point do differences become intractable? And is this always necessarily a matter of conviction or is it sometimes relational rather than theological? That is, might it be that the issue is more about my inability to accept that someone else doesn’t share my view which I hold so strongly?

In other words, can I accept someone else as a brother or sister in Christ even if they don’t believe everything exactly as I do? And where do I draw the line? Or better put: how do I determine where to draw the line?

Are Christians destined to gather only in groups where there is agreement on virtually every issue, both theological and cultural? Are we only comfortable having fellowship with Christians who never challenge our assumptions and ideas?

Look, I’m not saying that a Christian can never have a good reason to leave a church or even switch denominations or traditions. I am a trinitarian who thinks Arianism was heresy. I am a continuationist with respect to spiritual gifts. What I am asking is how we make that determination. What is our standard? And before you say our standard is the Bible, remember that people reach very different conclusions based on their interpretations of Scripture. Not that I disagree with saying the Bible is our ultimate guide to faith and practice, just that it’s a little messier than simply making that assertion.

Maybe I can put it this way. What was Jesus praying for in John 17? In case you don’t know what I mean, John 17 contains what is often called Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer. He prays for his disciples and for those who will believe because of their ministry. After he prays for his disciples, he goes on to pray this way:

I pray not only for these, but also for those who believe in me through their word. May they all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us, so that the world may believe you sent me. I have given them the glory you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me, so that they may be made completely one, that the world may know you have sent me and have loved them as you have loved me.

John 17:20-23

What kind of oneness is Jesus praying about for his disciples and future followers?

Better yet: Has Jesus’ prayer been answered? What would that look like?

I think of what I read elsewhere in the Bible too.

Therefore I, the prisoner in the Lord, urge you to walk worthy of the calling you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope at your calling—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

Ephesians 4:1-6

What sort of unity is Paul talking about? And is it the sort of unity that can exist between believers who do differ from one another on some matters? Can unity even exist if there aren’t differences? Without differences, isn’t unity simply uniformity?

Paul’s words also point to the underlying relational aspect to unity. Such unity requires humility, gentleness, patience, love, forgiveness. This unity requires effort to maintain. It is grounded in the very unity of the trinitarian Godhead of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Given the current tenor of cultural conversation on divisive issues, and the inability of many to have such conservations in a civil and winsome way, ought not the church, by the power of the Spirit, be able to provide a better example about how to deal with differences? Rather than join the arguing, are we not able–together!–to bring more light than heat thanks to the gospel of our Lord Jesus?

Perhaps more of us who say we are followers of Jesus ought to turn the above passages from John and Ephesians into prayers of our own. Maybe then we will more clearly see what unites us rather than what divides us.

Pastors

There are a lot of other pastors in the area where I live. I have had the opportunity to get to know a number of them. Some of them have become good friends. And let me say this: they are all wonderful, gifted, and passionate about their calling. Though all are pastors of local churches, they are also very different from one another. Sure, there’s always overlap among pastors with respect to gifts and skills; but there’s also a distinct variety of gifts and passions. I had coffee with a pastor yesterday whose gift, I think, is in the area of encouragement and personal evangelism. I know another pastor who’s been serving in our area for more than two decades and is incredibly musical. So while pastors often get painted with a broad brush, they are as different from one another as any of us are from those around us.

So I think this is all wonderful. But it’s also a challenge. Because every individual pastor is serving an individual congregation. We have to be careful not to expect each pastor to have all the skills of the other pastors we know. If you admire another pastor’s evangelistic gifts, you can’t automatically assume your pastor is similarly gifted. Of course, we’re all called–pastors and church members–to do the work of evangelism (2 Timothy 4:5). Yet we all know pastors and other believers who most definitely have the gift to share their faith and compel others to follow Jesus.

But even though not every pastor has the gifts or skills of every other pastor, that’s where the rest of the church comes in. Consider these words:

And he himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ, until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, growing into maturity with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness.

Ephesians 4:11-13

Hear that? God gave the church pastors and other leaders to equip the saints for the work of ministry. This is important. Even if your pastor can (somehow!) do everything well, they shouldn’t be responsible for doing everything (much less everything well). That prevents other believers from exercising their God-given calling. It keeps the church from being the church. Most importantly, it actually prevents individual Christians from growing into maturity.

Our Lord never intended any one pastor to be a “jack of all trades,” so to speak. Unfortunately, some pastors are control freaks. The addage, “If you want something done right, do it yourself,” is their calling card. If they can do it, they think they should. However, pastors ought to be in the business of helping other believers discover and use their God-given talents. What any one pastor can’t do themselves, they look for in other people in their church.

Your pastor can’t do everything. He or she can probably do some things especially well. Other stuff they can learn or figure out how to do. The rest is up to the other members of the Body of Christ. So if you’re ever discouraged that your pastor isn’t very good at administration or seems musically tone deaf or maybe isn’t the best preacher you’ve ever heard, focus on their strengths. Maybe his or her gift is pastoral care or discipleship or counselling. Then consider how others in your church can be equipped, invited, and encouraged to bring their gifts forward to complement those of your pastor. Your pastor will be glad you did.

“We’re not big, but we’re small.”

“We’re not big, but we’re small.”

That is the slogan of a fictional record store called “The Vinyl Cafe,” created by the late Canadian storyteller, humourist, and broadcaster Stuart MacLean. The Vinyl Cafe was also a weekly radio show on CBC. On it Stuart narrated funny and often poignant stories about Dave (owner of the Vinyl Cafe), his wife Morley, and their family, friends, and neighbours.

The slogan of Dave’s store–We’re not big, but we’re small–has always stuck with me.

Because it is saying that being small is a good thing, perhaps even an advantage. Other words come to mind when I think of it. Homey. Local. Available. Friendly. Accessible. Particular. Personal. Familial.

Know what I mean?

Now, the reason I share this is because I am the pastor of a small church. And for a long time I felt like being a small church was a disadvantage to overcome. As a pastor in this situation, you can–I’ll be honest–feel like a failure. You can feel less than. Insignificant. You find yourself asking, “What am I doing wrong?”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to grow. I’m certainly not saying we should be content to remain as we are. No, no. Christ calls us to live out the great commission, to reach into our communities in love and truth with his good news. That’s non-negotiable. So if a church is small because they are ignoring the calling they have from Jesus, then that’s a serious problem.

No, what I’m talking about is when churches have an inferiority complex. When as a small church we feel like we have less to contribute to God’s kingdom. When, because we think the main point is to continue increasing numerically, we feel perpetually discouraged if that doesn’t happen.

In the book of Numbers, the Israelites scout out the land of Canaan, and they give a report to Moses upon their return. Remember, this is the land God had promised to them, that he was calling them to occupy. He said he would bring them into the land. Here’s their report:

So they gave a negative report to the Israelites about the land they had scouted: “The land we passed through to explore is one that devours its inhabitants, and all the people we saw in it are men of great size. We even saw the Nephilim there-the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim! To ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and we must have seemed the same to them.”

Numbers 13:32-33

With the exception of Caleb, they didn’t want to go into the land. The Israelites were looking at their circumstances and not at God.

Pastor Karl Vaters, in his book The Grasshopper Myth: Big Churches, Small Churches, and the Thinking that Divides Us, reflects on this story from Numbers and writes: “There is no ideal church size. Every size meets the needs of the people who seek them out.”

And this: “Loving God and loving others is not a church growth strategy. It’s not a means to an end. It is the means and the end.”

And also this: “What makes a family healthy and loving has nothing to do with numbers. It should be the same in the family of God.”

Here’s the truth: small churches worship and serve a big God—infinitely big, as it happens.

In an article at The Gospel Coalition by Erik Raymond called “Don’t Despise the Day of Small Things,” he writes that “small things add up. Small things are ordained by a very big God.” The title of his article comes from Zechariah 4:10: For who despises the day of small things?

There are people who will never go to a large church. Maybe they’re really close to the people in their small church and they deeply value those relationships. Maybe they are apprehensive in big crowds. Maybe they even feel a sense of calling to participate in God’s work right where they are. Heck, some might simply want to go to church where everyone knows one another’s names.

God wants to use small churches. God can use small churches. God does use small churches.

Even large churches know the value of small. That’s why in addition to their big gatherings, most large churches also promote small groups.

Every church—large or small—has to answer one question: Why are we here? What is our purpose? The way in which God seeks to use your church will not be how he plans to use the larger church down the road or in the next town over.

So don’t worry about what God is doing with that other church. Instead, don’t underestimate what God can do in yours.

Don’t despise the day of small things.

And then trust that God—who is more than big enough to work in and through churches of any size—can also work through yours.

Consider what Paul says:

Now to him who is able to do above and beyond all that we ask or think according to the power that works in us—to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

Ephesians 3:20-21

This applies to all churches. So remember small church, you’re not big, but you’re small.

Learning to Pray from Scripture Part 2: Prayer Priorities from Paul

In my last post on learning to pray from Scripture, which you can find here, I talked about how the Bible reveals the truth about the God to whom we pray and why who God is matters to our prayers. This time around I want us to consider what Scripture teaches us about prayer priorities. To do so, I’m going to discuss a few passages from the letters of Paul.

Now, before I get there let me first draw attention to The Lord’s Prayer once again. It’s no coincidence that when Jesus teaches these words to his disciples that he begins with petitions that concern God’s glory, kingdom, and will; and only after that does he teach us to pray for our needs. If we are followers of Jesus, then God’s concerns and priorities ought to be ours also. Think about Jesus’ words elsewhere:

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you.

Matthew 6:33

Becoming a Christian, a disciple of the Lord Jesus, means putting him first in our lives. And this means, in turn, praying in accordance with God’s purposes and desires for our lives.

But if we wonder what exactly this looks like, then turning to Paul’s letters is especially helpful. You see, Paul wrote most of his letters to churches, to small communities of believers, many of which he started on his missionary travels. Therefore, he writes with the heart of a pastor who wants these Christians to grow and mature in their faith. This is why when you read the majority of Paul’s letters, there is a prayer at the very beginning. He shares how he has prayed and how he will continue to pray.

Since these churches consisted largely of newly converted first-generation believers in Jesus, from both Jewish and Pagan backgrounds, Paul wrote his letters to correct, guide, and support them as they lived our their faith in decidedly un-Christian territory. These new disciples didn’t have two or three, much less several, generations of Christians and church life to draw on for wisdom. It was new ground they were plowing. They needed wise and firm counsel if they were going to remain faithful and obedient.

So even though Paul wrote these letters and prayers to first-generation churches, we can glean a great deal from him about how to prioritize our prayers. As Paul puts elsewhere:

All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

2 Timothy 3:16-17

When Paul tells Timothy that Scripture is profitable for teaching, it stands to reason that this includes teaching on prayer. And though Paul’s prayers in his letters are not direct teaching, we are, I believe, to learn from his example. Put simply, Paul’s prayers in his letters show us how to pray for ourselves, one another, and our churches.

So here is one example:

I give thanks to my God for every remembrance of you, always praying with joy for all of you in my every prayer, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now . . . And I pray this: that your love will keep on growing in knowledge and every kind of discernment, so that you may approve the things that are superior and may be pure and blameless in the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God.

Philippians 1:3-5, 9-11

First note why Paul is thankful. The Philippians bring him joy because of their partnership in the gospel. Every time he prays for them, gratitude wells up in his heart. He declared the gospel to them and now they are living it out. For this he is glad. And because he knows God is the one who has made all of this possible, it becomes a part of his prayers.

Paul then tells them how he continues to pray for them. Though we could say a great many things about his intercession on behalf of the Philippians, we can simply say that Paul prays here for the spiritual growth of these believers. He wants their love to grow in concert with a deepening grasp of the gospel; for their lives to bear the fruit of the Spirit and of witness; and for their entire perspective to be Christ-centered, oriented towards the day when Jesus will return.

In other words, he prays, as Jesus teaches in The Lord’s Prayer, that God’s kingdom would come and God’s will would be done in the lives of the disciples in Philippi. Because such lives are what hallow God’s name.

In case we think Paul’s prayer for the Philippians is an anamoly, let’s look at another example. This one is from Colossians.

We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints because of the hope reserved for you in heaven. 

Colossians 1:3-5

Once again, Paul expresses his thanks to God for the faith of those to whom he brought the gospel. He is grateful for how the good news has changed their lives, and how they are showing love to one another.

I never hear anyone praying like this. For some reason, I don’t even pray like this in church when leading a pastoral prayer.

Maybe we should pray that we would have more and more reasons to pray like Paul here. Either that God would give us eyes of faith or that his kingdom would come and his will would be done more clearly in our midst!

For this reason also, since the day we heard this, we haven’t stopped praying for you. We are asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding, so that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, so that you may have great endurance and patience, joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the saints’ inheritance in the light. 

Colossians 1:9-12

How does Paul pray for the Colossian Christians here? He asks God to give them knowledge of his will, that they would grow in wisdom and spiritual understanding, that they would live lives worthy of Jesus, that they would bear spiritual fruit, that they would be strengthened by God so that they can endure hardship with patience, and that through all this they would have an attitude of joyful gratitude towards God.

Another example of prayer in Paul I love is from Ephesians:

For this reason I kneel before the Father from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named. I pray that he may grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with power in your inner being through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. I pray that you, being rooted and firmly established in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the length and width, height and depth of God’s love, and to know Christ’s love that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Ephesians 3:14-19

Let’s be honest. Is that not a beautiful prayer? And look at what he’s praying for on behalf of this church. He wants their faith to be firm and he wants them to grasp more and more the height and depth of God’s love for them. Imagine how an answer to such a prayer would transform many who attend church today. Imagine if our intellectual knowledge that God loves us would more fully descend and fill our hearts. I’m not sure we’d know what hit us.

Of course, I suspect some of us may read Paul’s prayers here and elsewhere and think, wow, I could never pray like that. Perhaps we find his example a little intimidating. Maybe we think Paul is a little wordy. His prayer is, after all, quite a theological and spiritual mouthful.

But think of it this way. We don’t have to pray exactly like Paul to learn how to pray from Paul. Ask yourself: what is Paul asking God to do in the lives of the Philippians, Colossians, and Ephesians? Isn’t he asking God to enable them to grow spiritually, to become increasingly mature followers of Jesus? Doesn’t he want these believers to live more Christ-centred and therefore joyful, thankful, and faithful lives? And isn’t he asking God to sustain them in faith whatever circumstances or troubles come their way?

Now, let me ask an obvious question: isn’t this how we ought to be praying for one another as followers of Jesus? Not only that, but shouldn’t this be our first concern for our brothers and sisters in Christ? Yet, is it? I humbly suggest that prayers like this are almost entirely absent from church prayer meetings, church worship services, our prayer request lists, and pastoral prayers (and, yes, that’s on me too). Instead, our prayer lists almost entirely consist of everyday matters, especially for health concerns and people’s difficult situations.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we shouldn’t pray that someone would experience recovery from an illness or that our friend or family member would see a turnaround in a challenging relationship. Or whatever. Certainly we should pray for these things.

But should those things be our priority?

Well-known pastor and author Timothy Keller says this about Paul’s prayers: “It’s remarkable that in all of his writings Paul’s prayers for his friends contain no appeals for changes in their circumstances.”

No prayers for physical healing or a change to trying situations. None. Nada. Zip.

Yet prayer permeates Paul’s letters. His passionate, loving concern for the churches he writes overflows naturally in prayer. The reality of the good news, of the centrality of Jesus and our salvation in him, fills his vision. Nothing is more important.

Do such concerns–does such passion–fill our prayers for one another?

Do we pray for our fellow church members, that their faith would grow, that they would experience God’s love more deeply, that they would become more resilient as life throws curveball after unexpected curveball?

Or instead are we so focused on the here and now that we neglect such petitions and forget that our real lives will take place on the other side of Jesus’ return in eternity?

What does a lack of prayers like those in Paul’s letters say about us, our churches, and our priorities? What does it tell us about what we value most?

I don’t say this to lay a guilt trip on anyone. Including myself. But there’s a difference between experiencing guilt and experiencing conviction. We don’t only need to experience conviction with respect to obvious things we’ve done wrong. We need to experience conviction about the good, spiritual priorities that we tend to neglect.

Here’s the thing: what does such neglect reveal about what we believe about God? What does it say about what we believe God can and desires to do in our lives and in the lives of our churches?

Imagine for a moment if more–maybe even most–believers in most churches began praying by following Paul’s example in his letters. What might God do? Well, I think the apostle Paul helps us there too. And with his words I will end.

Now to him who is able to do above and beyond all that we ask or think according to the power that works in us—to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

Ephesians 3:20-21

Next time I will talk about how we can bring all of ourselves to God in prayer.