At the first of his letters, Paul took a generous amount of time and space to write out a prayer for the congregation at Ephesus or Corinth or Thessanolica or Rome. I generally just skim through this section, treating it like more or less the small talk at the front end of a conversation.
“Hope you’re doing well.”
“Maybe we can connect soon.”
Blah, blah, blah.
Except it’s not “blah, blah, blah” material. So here are three things I think we can glean from Paul’s pastoral prayers found at the beginning of his letters.
1. Paul’s prayers are the key to understanding his whole letter.
A good rule of thumb in biblical interpretation is this: The smaller the passage the greater potential error. Think about it – you can find a verse in the Bible to justify almost anything. You want to bash in the heads of your enemies? There’s a verse for that. You want to marry a thousand women? There’s a verse for that. But we must read those verses in context.
What does the paragraph around it say? And what does the whole chapter say? And what does the whole book say? And what does the whole Bible say? It all fits together if we zoom out. Accordingly, Paul used his prayer as a simple outline of his main points in his letters. So if you want to have a good idea of his overall purpose in writing Philippians, read the prayer, and you’ll find a clue to the issues he was addressing in the congregation.
2. It’s okay to pray articulately.
I once rebelled against this idea, that articulate prayers are an example of disingenuineness. The one praying is more concerned about how he or she sounds than she is about the prayer itself. I want to back track on that suggestion, but not all the way. There is a certain desperation to prayer that I generally lack, and a certain honesty that comes with spontaneous prayers. But that’s not to say we shouldn’t pray to the best of our ability. In these lines, you find wonderful, grace and Christ-centered language that rolls off the tongue and pen like poetry. I can’t help but think the Lord takes delight in beantiful language like this.
Too often I have used spontaneity as an excuse for laziness in praying.
3. Don’t pray generally.
It’s amazing to me that Paul, a man constantly on the go to new frontiers, actually knew the specific situations going on in these congregations. Maybe the reason our prayers sound like, “God just bless them today,” or “God I pray that you would be with them today,” is because we don’t actually know the people we claim to be praying for. If we knew them, we would pray as the apostle did. We would know that they struggle with disunity. Or with self-worth. Or with a particular misunderstanding of the gospel. And the words would roll off our tongue, not in generalities, but with specific promises of God associated with them.
What do you think? What else might we learn from these “throw away” portions of Scripture?