You know those times when you read a Bible passage so familiar that you barely see it any more? Then a word or phrase jumps out at you, your perspective shifts, and you see it clearly. It’s like those 3D puzzles where the picture suddenly comes into focus.
I’ve been leading some studies on Acts. We’re given an idyllic picture of the first Christians two times over, just in case we didn’t get it the first time (Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-37). They prayed. They listened to the apostles’ teaching. They ate together. They sold their possessions and cared for those among them who were in need. Ananias and Sapphira spoil the picture a little (Acts 5:1-11), but the general impression is of harmonious fellowship.
Then we come to the sixth chapter of Acts, and suddenly things aren’t so rosy. One bunch of Christians is neglecting another in the distribution of food. The twelve apostles solve the problem by appointing seven deacons to oversee the process. But it’s the reason for this that really caught my attention:
And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word. (Acts 6:2-4)
There are two things that struck me about these verses. The first is how much I’d like to say, next time I’m asked to cook for a church event, or five o’clock approaches and I have to pull together a meal for my family, “I’m sorry, I can’t serve tables, I have to devote myself to the ministry of the word.” (You’ll be glad to know I haven’t given into the temptation yet; after all, cooking is one of my responsibilities, and these days I even enjoy it.) The second is that, when God called the apostles to spread the news about Jesus (Acts 1:8), they saw this as involving two main tasks: prayer and the ministry of the word. They even mentioned prayer first.
You only have to look at the letters of Paul, that apostle “untimely born” (1 Cor 15:8), to see it’s true. He prays for all the Christians he can, including those he’s never met. He prays for their knowledge of God, their growth in the faith, their endurance in suffering. He does this every day, night and day, always, constantly, continually, ceaselessly, without stopping, whenever he thinks of them (Rom 1:9-10; Eph 1:15-23, 3:14-21; Phil 1:3-11; Col 1:3, 9-14; 1 Thess 1:2, 3:10; 2 Thess 1:11-12; 2 Tim 1:5; 2 Tim 1:3; Philem 1:4-7). Of all of us, surely Paul could say, “I’m sorry, I’ve got more important things to do than to pray. God has called me to the ministry of the word” (Acts 9:15; 1 Tim 2:7). He had enough to do, what with preaching and tent-making and living in peoples’ homes as an itinerant evangelist (Acts 18:3; 1 Thess 2:9). Yet it’s clear that he spent much time in prayer, and not just any old prayer. For Paul, praying wasn’t the last item on a to-do list he never quite got through: it was heartfelt, strenuous, unremitting work (1 Thess 3:10 cf Col 4:12).
What about us? How do our priorities compare to Paul’s? We may be “ministers of the word” or we may serve in other ways, but do we pray for those we teach and serve? Do I pray for my children as well as teach them the truth about God, or am I too busy cooking and cleaning and heading off tantrums? Does the average pastor give focussed time to praying for the people in his congregation, or is he too busy writing sermons, visiting people and running church events? What about Bible study leaders, Sunday school teachers, and youth group leaders? What about the rest of us, to whom God has given the responsibility of speaking his word into each others’ lives (Col 3:16)? What about those with ministries of evangelism or giving or leading (Rom 12:4-7; 1 Pet 4:10-11)? Do we pray? Are we devoted to prayer? Or do we say, by our actions and choices, that it’s really us running the show, growing Christians into maturity, helping our friends to know Jesus? We can do it without God, thank you very much! We don’t need help! People’s hearts are in our hands, to be changed by us – aren’t they? Well, aren’t they?
Lest we think that sweaty, struggling, unceasing prayer is only for important people like apostles, Paul holds us to a similar standard. Our prayers are to be four kinds of “all”: all the time, all kinds of prayer, with all perseverance, for all believers (Eph 6:18). But how can we possibly pray in “everything”, “steadfastly”, “without ceasing”? (Phil 4:6; Col 4:2; 1 Thess 5:17 cf. 1 Tim 2:1; Luke 18:1) Clearly, we can’t pray consciously at every moment. But we can fall asleep and lie awake at night and get up in the morning and shower and love our babies and go to work and drive home and wait in traffic and walk in the door with prayer never far from our minds and our lips. We can pray our worries and our joys and our anger and our tears. We can keep praying for people even when our prayers seem to go unanswered. In some ways, prayer is as natural as breathing: the first expression of our thoughts and the first outlet for our emotions. But prayer is also earnest, dedicated labour, requiring attention and organisation and perseverance and, for most of us, the commitment to pray, with God’s help, for certain people at regular, planned times; not in obedience to a rule, but in the love that flows from God’s grace.1
There will be seasons of life when long disciplined prayers are out of the question – for example, when we’re depressed or chronically ill or during the baby years – but we can still get into the habit of praying brief prayers whenever and however and for whoever. Perhaps we can stick the names of people to pray for on the wall or write them on a bookmark, associate prayers for particular people with different daily chores, or make a commitment to pray for people when we go on Facebook or before we spend time together or after we chat on the phone. We don’t have to pray in long blocks; we can pause to pray for a shorter time here and there throughout the day. When we’re really struggling to pray, we can ask others to pray with and for us. There’s no need to wait until we’ve got our act together, or we’re in the right frame of mind, or we have a clear time and space: our Father is there, ready to hear us, and all we need do is speak to him about the mess and the people and the need.
I know. You’ve heard it before. Prayer matters. God listens to the prayers of his people (Prov 15:29; 1 Pet 3:12; 1 Jn 5:14-15). He works powerfully when we pray (James 5:16-18). He is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine (Eph 3:20 NIV). We say we know this. But I wonder how many of us, as we think about our Christian service, should write these two words on our hearts and minds, our diaries and calendars, and our Bibles and bathroom mirrors:
- ministry (or service: ministry just means service)
How would this change our priorities and shape the way we use our time?
- I have a list of people that I gradually pray through over a number of days, as well as some individuals that I try to pray for daily (the beauty of this method is that it doesn’t matter if I skip a day); others use prayer cards or a journal or a diary. The key, I’ve found, is finding a simple, flexible method of organisation that works for you. ↩