As I was coming to the end of my study of 1 Thessalonians last week, I read a tiny two-word phrase so small that if it were not so profound I could easily pass through without even noticing. Paul closes his letter to the Thessalonians by giving them succinct and specific instructions, most likely to supply what they are lacking in their faith. We all have room to grow, even beloved congregations. Hidden snuggly in this quick-paced list of commands are two that you can easily miss, but once you notice them you will never be the same. Who knew just five words could change a person so much? “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing” (v. 16-17). These five words make up two whole verses. Whoever divided the Bible into chapters and verses must have realized the gravity of these words. Either that or he just randomly assigned verses and divided chapters. Yeah, the latter is probably true, but the point is, these five words are massively challenging for the Christian. Rejoice always? Pray without ceasing? Spend a little time meditating on these two commands and you will realize just how much you need Jesus.
But it got me thinking, while I’m praying without ceasing, while prayer is a constant attitude in my heart, what should be on my mind? How should I think about prayer? In another of Paul’s letters, I believe he gives us three things to remember when we pray. Philippians 4:6-7 calls us to pray in three ways. When you pray, keep these things on your mind.
[D]o not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
1. Pray for specific things.
The word “supplication” used in verse 6 refers to an urgent specific plea. There are some people who say they only pray for others; that they do not pray for themselves. This sounds very humble and holy, but it is very biblical and right to pray for specific personal requests. Jesus teaches us to pray this way when he tells us to pray for food and for deliverance from temptation (Matt. 6:11-13). It is good to pray for specific things going on in your life. As a Christian, you are a child of a heavenly Father who desires your good and joy in all things. It is good to ask God to provide for you, your family, and your friends. It is good to ask God to forgive you and protect you. This recognizes that all forms of provision and protection come from God. Be quick to call on God to help you when you worry personally about things in your life.
2. Pray as you remember God’s goodness.
Notice that Paul tells us to pray “with thanksgiving.” Praying with thanksgiving means remembering all of the good things God has done and is doing. Praying with thanksgiving recognizes that God is not only able to answer your prayers, but he is also willing to answer them according to his goodness and wisdom. This is also encouraging when it comes to the way God answers our prayers. God does not always answer our prayers in the way we want or think he should. Sometimes we ask for things for which we do not understand.
We are like little children asking to eat playdoh. When a child asks this, his parents don’t give him what he asked for, but instead something better. Sometimes God doesn’t give us what we ask, but he gives us something better for us, even if we do not understand it. God does not always answer prayers the way we want. But he answers them according to his perfect goodness and wisdom. The way our prayers are answered is not dependent on how wise or good our prayers are. It is dependent on how wise and good God is. Know that even if there are a lot of bad things happening in your life or the world around you, they are only temporary and the God to whom you pray is eternally wise, good, and powerful.
3. Pray expecting an answer.
This can be the most exciting and frightening part of prayer. It can be exciting to expect God to answer, because we can be confident that our loving Father gives us good gifts. However, it can also be frightening, because we are unsure of how God will answer our prayers. It can be frightening in another way as well. For example, if you pray for God to use you in any way he wants, you can be sure that he will answer this. But this might mean that he could send you to another country to share the gospel. It could mean that God could send you to have that awkward conversation with your neighbor or coworker about Jesus. Praying for an opportunity to share the gospel may just mean you will get that opportunity.
So we should pray with an expectant heart. We should pray expecting God to answer. He could say “yes,” or he could say, “no.” He could even say, “not yet.” We usually want a “yes” from God, but our Father who is in heaven knows what is best for us. Like a parent who only gives good gifts to his children, God does not answer our prayers based on what we want. This is because sometimes we want things that would not be for our best. When you pray, expect God to answer according to his glorious goodness and grace.
Mathew Gilbert (B.A. Boyce College) is Associate Pastor of Children and Preschool at The Church at Trace Crossing in Tupelo, MS. He is an M.Div student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mathew is married to his high school sweetheart, Erica. They have one son, Jude Adoniram. You can follow Mathew on Twitter @Mat_Gilbert.