Persevering in Prayer (Colossians 4:2)
Topic: One Truth: Walk in Truth Passage: Colossians 4:2
I. Series Review
This morning, as we conclude our month-long study on “Hard But Holy Habits”, we are coming back around to where we began, back to Paul's letter to the Colossians. You may remember that we started here in Lesson 1 by talking about the Apostle's instruction in chapter 3, verse 5, where he wrote... “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you...”. That hard but holy habit is broad, isn't it? It covers a lot of ground.
For example, when Jesus calls us to love our enemies (our second hard but holy habit), he is implicitly calling us away from earthly or fleshly attitudes like pride, bitterness, and unforgive-ness. And as we really face these earthly attitudes and affections and actions in our own lives, we may recognize a need for that third hard but holy habit: confessing our sins to one another.
But as we finish this series, our final hard but holy habit, the topic we'll look at this morning, may surprise you. So let's return to Colossians by turning to chapter 4 of that letter.
II. The Passage: “Steadfastly in Prayer” (4:2)
Look with me at verse 2. Even though Paul's instruction here is short, it's extremely important:
Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. (let me repeat that)
This is a call to prayer. You may remember that last time, what James wrote about confessing sins was couched in the context of regular prayer. Now, at first, many of us might say, “Prayer? That's the final hard, but holy habit? If it is, I'm doing okay in that area. I may struggle to love my enemies and be reluctant to confess my sins to another brother or sister... but I do pray.” And if you do, wonderful. But this morning, I believe God wants to ask us, “How do you pray?”
You may have noticed that in Colossians 4:2, Paul adds three words or phrases that qualify or describe the kind of prayer he's prescribing for these disciples of Jesus. First, he tells them this prayer should be continual, second, it should be watchful, and third, it should be thankful. Let's look at each of these three descriptions and make sure we understand why Paul is teaching here; and more importantly, what God wants us to understand through his living word. So the prayer we are being called to practice here is...
1. Continual (v. 4a)
Notice those first two words in verse 2: “continue steadfastly”. This is actually just one word in the original Greek language, and that word has been translated a number of ways over the years: “devote yourselves” or “be devoted, “continue earnestly”, “persevere”, “be constant in”.
So notice what Paul is not saying here: he's not saying, “Don't neglect your morning prayers.” He's not saying, “Make sure to attend the church prayer meeting.” He's not saying, “You should always pray before you eat.” He's saying, “continue steadfastly in prayer”, or “be devoted to regular prayer.” Paul is asking them to do the very thing that he and other leaders are doing, even on their behalf:
And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding... [1:9]
Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God. [4:12]
In the same way, Paul is calling them to do the very thing he calls all believers to do:
...Be constant in prayer. [Romans 12:12], [Pray] at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. [Ephesians 6:18], ...Pray without ceasing... [I Thessalonians 5:17]
In fact, this kind of prayer was exemplified for us by the first Christians:
[The disciples] with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer... [Acts 1:14], And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. [2:42], “But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word." [6:4]
And why were they devoted to prayer in this way. One reason has to be that Jesus himself taught them ...that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. [Luke 18:1]
You see, this is not simply the practice of prayer. This is a lifestyle of prayer. This is a commitment to pray, that we hope becomes a habit of prayer, that then become a prayerful reflex. Yes, it involves making room in your life for prayer. But it's bigger than that. It ultimately means living a life so dependent on God, that prayer is embraced as absolutely essential in every way, every day. It's that outlook that drives us to pray in the mornings and before meals. It's the recognition that should excite us about praying with and for our faith family.
But Paul continues here, as he teaches the Colossians that this kind of prayer is also...
2. Watchful (v. 4b)
Remember what he wrote: Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it...
Now, what exactly does that mean? Does it mean, 'Don't close your eyes when you pray... be watchful!'? No. To be watchful is to be spiritually alert. The Greek word here is where the English name “Gregory” comes from.
Most of the time this word is used, we find it on the lips of Jesus, who often reminded his followers to “stay awake” or to be watchful in light of his coming again. In light of our main verse this morning, it's helpful to remember how, in the garden (only hours before his crucifixion), Jesus talked about both prayerfulness and watchfulness. Do you remember? He exhorted his disciples to “watch and pray”. Why? “...That you may not enter into temptation.” (Matthew 26:41)
In the same way, Paul often encouraged believers to this same kind of spiritual alertness:
He exhorted the elders in Ephesus, “Therefore be alert...”. [Acts 20:31]. He told those in Corinth, Be watchful, stand firm in the faith... [I Corinthians 16:13]. And in I Thessalonians 5:6, So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake... And as he does here in Colossians 4, Paul tied this spiritual alertness together with prayer:
[Pray] at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints... [Ephesians 6:18]
So what exactly does it mean to be “watchful” or “spiritually alert” in a lifestyle of prayer? Well, to answer that question, it could be helpful to think about what the opposite of this might look like. Could a person be devoted to prayer, but at the same time, be spiritually asleep? Absolutely. In such cases, a lifestyle of prayer is sadly nothing more than a lifestyle of lifeless ritual. It is words without heart. Practice without passion. A religious discipline, but without the spiritual devotion.
So maybe then being “watchful” in prayer means not only guarding against a mindless, mechanical, overly-methodical approach to prayer, but maybe it also means being 'tuned in' spiritually to both God's work in you and around you. Maybe it also means praying in light of his power, his priorities, his purposes, and his promises... as revealed in the word.
For example, the spiritually asleep person may only pray, “God, help me not get sick,” or, “Help me recover quickly.” But the spiritually alert person also prays beyond this: “Help me, Father, in my sickness to honor you.” “Help me to depend on you in my illness, Lord” “Use my sickness to grow me and to show others your greatness and your grace.” You see, the spiritually asleep person ultimately prays only for his or her personal advancement. But the spiritually alert person prays first for the advancement of God's kingdom. “May your kingdom come...”
Finally, this spiritual alertness may also be connected to how God answers our prayers. Are you “watchful” in terms of not only if, but how God is answering your prayers? May God help us to be watchful in our prayers! But may He also help us to be...
3. Thankful (v. 4c)
Look again at verse 2: Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.
If you and I were able to read through this entire letter this morning, we would discover that giving thanks is something Paul has already emphasized to this church:
[2:6, 7] ...as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, so walk in him... abounding in thanksgiving.
[3:15, 17] ...be thankful. ...  And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Paul similarly encouraged the Christians in Philippi: ...do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. [Philippians 4:6] Why is thankfulness in general, and thankfulness in prayer specifically, so important? Because prayer that's abounding in requests, but deficient in gratitude, can leave us spiritually lopsided. Paul wants them to go to God as the one who will answer their prayers, and has answered their prayers; to the One who, in Christ, will provide and has provided.
III. Delight In, Depend On
So what is this hard, but holy habit to which God is calling us this morning? It is continual, watchful, and thankful prayer. That's not three things. It's one thing... one lifestyle of prayer. You and I may pray, but is this how we pray? As the writer Corrie Ten Boom asked, “Is prayer your steering wheel or your spare tire?” That is, is prayer more for emergencies and special circumstances in your life, or is it a vital part, a guiding part, of your everyday, spiritual journey? Please ask yourself: is my life marked by this kind of persistent and persevering prayer?
Undoubtedly, this is a hard habit. I suspect there's not a single one of us who does not feel convicted right now. But why is this such a hard habit? Let me suggest that our struggles with persistent prayer are usually a direct result of the fact we delight in and depend on many other things more than we delight in and depend on God. (let me say that again) Think about relationships in which you have, in a healthy way, delighted in and depended on another person. Regular communication is just natural to those relationships, isn't it?"
So think about this: with all these hard but holy habits, they are not simply matters of discipline or time management. Remember... delighting in God. Depending on God. These are first matters of the heart. And genuine heart change always begins with God's word. Do you know the God of the word? He's not the 'big guy upstairs'. He's not the God mentioned on the quarter or dollar bill. He's not simply the “good Lord” of your grandma's old time religion or the higher power of AA. He is the God revealed in Scripture. He is the Creator God. He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus."
Do you know the God of the word? Not only can you know of Him. You can know Him... and walk with him... and go to him. God not only reveals himself in the word, but also, as we've seen this morning, the importance of prayer. Consider a few quotes that speak to that importance:"
“Prayer is no petty duty, put into a corner; no piecemeal performance made out of the fragments of time which have been snatched from business and other engagements of life; but it means that the best of our time, the heart of our time and strength must be given.” – E.M. Bounds"
“There is no way that Christians, in a private capacity, can do so much to promote the work of God and advance the kingdom of Christ as by prayer.” – Jonathan Edwards"
“As it is the business of tailors to make clothes, and the business of cobblers to mend shoes, so it is the business of Christians to pray!” – Martin Luther
Would you agree? Do you believe prayer really is this important? If you do not, you simply won't “continue steadfastly”. But that's the very thing to which God is calling this morning, isn't it?"
So... if this kind of regular prayer is the natural overflow of a life that regularly delights in and depends on God, how can you and I do just that? We can start by praying about such prayer in light of the gospel. Remember the Good News about Jesus: that straying, sinful men and women who delight in the world and depend on themselves, can, through the death and resur-rection of Jesus, experience forgiveness and freedom in order to delight in and depend on God."
Brothers and sisters, friends, that's why real change in your prayer life is impossible apart from the gospel; because only faith in the gospel can change the ultimate orientation of your heart when it comes to delighting and depending. Will you pray even now in light of that fact? And will you pray even now about prayer? About this kind of prayer? Let's take that first step together.