July 26, 2009
Jacques Ellul, French philosopher and theologian, once wrote a little book about prayer which he said was most certainly not a “prayer book”:
“A prayer book presupposes that the person to whom it is addressed wants to pray, already knows how to pray, and that prayer is a part of his life...But today we no longer are faced with the person who is already won over, convinced, the stuttering Christian who needs to be taught to speak yet a Christian all the same...The person of our times does not know how to pray; but much more than that, he has neither the desire nor the need to do so. He does not find the deep source of prayer within himself. I am acquainted with this man. I know him well. It is I myself.”1Is this true? In our more honest moments are we also well acquainted with this one who neither prays nor feels much need to do so? If so, perhaps Paul’s glorious little prayer in the third chapter of Ephesians will give us reason to think again.
In speaking of God’s answer to his prayer, Paul said that God was able to accomplish more than we can ask or imagine. More than we can ask or imagine? I don’t know about you, but as a youngest child — don’t tell my brothers this — as the one that my Mom and Dad always spoiled just a little more than they did their first two children, if there was one thing I learned in life, it was that what I might ask for, and the things I might imagine could be pretty big and it wouldn’t hurt anything if they were. I remember that before Christmas, when we would be asked what we hoped to find under the tree, my brothers might ask for this or that toy, or fishing rod, or drawing pad, but I wanted an airplane, or a fire truck...not toys, mind you, but the real thing. When it comes to asking, I’ve never been backward. And my imagination has never tarried far behind. After making my requests, I would imagine myself at the controls of my new airplane, or racing through our neighborhood at the wheel of my new fire truck. The fact that I never received these extravagant presents never deterred me from imagining that I might.
So you can understand that when I read in Ephesians 3:20 the phrase “to him...who is able to accomplish far more than all we can ask or imagine,” that I have to believe this is a pretty big God! That would have come as no surprise to Paul.
Paul’s prayer in Ephesians is one of those towering prayers, filled with grand words that come tumbling down on our ears so fast that we can barely begin to grasp the significance of any of them before the next batch is cascading down on us. “According to the riches of his glory;” “strengthened in your inner being;” “Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.” What does it all mean? Having made this prayer on our behalf, how will our lives be different this coming Tuesday than if he had never written it at all? When I pray — perhaps you are like I am — I tend to be a bit more blunt than Paul. I rarely find myself speaking about the “riches of glory,” though I confess that prayers about other sorts of riches may have escaped my lips over my lifetime. Phrases like “strengthened in your inner being” require some sorting out for me, I can’t get a handle on them all just one time through. Paul’s high-flying language can seem to soar somewhere just above our heads. What is he praying about, really?
Well, I have been sorting through these seven verses off and on over the years, and I have come to understand that he is praying about three things, and as is the case with most prayers, his requests required not only having the sense to ask, but the imagination to know what to ask. Once we set them out, they aren’t all that difficult to understand. We can be glad that Paul prayed these three petitions.
That you may be strengthened
Paul prayed for strength for us, for those who read his letter. The word “you” is plural, like “all of you,” so Paul’s prayer was for the whole church, not just individual members of it, not even the first readers alone, but all who have come across it, down through the ages. “That you all may be strengthened.”
Surely there is no one here today who does not know what it is to utter a prayer for strength. A two year old is discovered sorting through the cat litter box for the third time this week; his mother mutters, “God, give me strength!” A driver is making his way along the freeway through the driving rain. Suddenly he hears a pop and his right front tire starts to make a funny slapping noise. He says, “O God, strengthen me.” A congregation discovers a tragic fire has leveled their beloved little church building. With one voice, they pray together, “O Lord, give us strength to get through this.” Prayers for strength are as common as the latest unexpected curve life has thrown at us. They come from a deep place within us, a place of assurance in which we know that the one addressed in our simple prayer is able to answer, able to help.
As part of his prayer for strength for us, Paul asked that Christ dwell in us as we are being rooted and grounded in love. Rooting is familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of the life of a garden, and grounding in Paul’s Greek is an architectural term, literally “foundationing,” which is a familiar concept to anyone who has built anything larger than a doghouse. Roots and foundations are important, are the key strengths of growing things and of buildings, and both suggest a base on which something not only rests but rises. A tree grows from its roots, a building rises on the strength of its foundations, and both are apt symbols for the sort of foundational strength Paul desires for us in our relationship with Christ.
A prayer that we may be strengthened affects who we are and what we do. But this is more than a prayer for personal strength. It is a prayer that together we will be a strong church. Paul prayed for strength for fledgling little churches in an overwhelmingly pagan society. He imagined God would grant it. Two thousand years later, the church is still here, Roman society isn’t.
That you may have the power to comprehend
Paul prayed for a cruciform — cross-based — understanding. I once read that Paul’s theology of the meaning of the cross is bound up in this prayer for understanding. When he prayed that we might comprehend “what is the breadth and length and height and depth,” he referred to the four points of the cross of Christ, the ultimate symbol of self-sacrificing love, stretched out toward all the points of the universe. Paul asked for understanding throughout his ministry, and he came to imagine a church responding to Christ as no one else had conceived before he began his missionary work. He imagined a church which included not only Jewish believers, but Gentiles, all manner of foreigners who knew not the faith of Moses. And what he imagined in prayer came to be!
The work of Christ abolished the vertical barrier between God and people; now the church’s work in response was — and is — to abolish the horizontal barrier of one people from another. This is part of Paul’s prayer, and inasmuch as we cannot yet comprehend how some people shall become one with us in Christ, to that extent “the love of Christ...surpasses knowledge.” Christ’s love for people is larger than our abilities to communicate it or understand it. Still, our task remains the same.
Paul prayed for understanding. He imagined God would grant it. Two thousand years later we pray that prayer still, as the work of Christ is alive on every continent.
That you may be filled with the fullness of God
Paul prayed for the fullness of God. This is a prayer that what God has started, God will complete. Imagine a world in thrall to its creator. To imagine it is to have begun the prayer already. The fullness of God encompasses his purpose for the world, which is filled with love. Love lies at the heart of God, and the love of humanity is the way the church may respond.
So Paul prayed for strength, for understanding, for fulfillment of purpose. For all the high language surrounding them, I think these are about the most basic prayers of the human family. They encompass the desire to be able to meet life’s challenges, to understand what is at work in the events of this life, and to see one day the fulfillment of God’s full plan for the world. These encompass the sort of prayer any one of us might make, and should make!
Having concluded his prayer, Paul wrote a brief doxology concerning things made possible by the power of Christ at work within us and what it can accomplish. He offered his prayer to God, “To him who by the power at work within us...” Did you notice that phrase? The power by which God answers our prayers is the very power which is at work within us as a people of God. “To him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more...” not just the thing we ask, not just this or that, not even a bit more, but abundantly (redundantly) far more, heaps more, “than all we can ask or imagine.”
There are prayers we haven’t even thought about praying yet which God is already at work on, there are needs in this world to which God has addressed divine attention which we haven’t even run across yet. This should give us confidence that no matter how things may appear to us, our prayers are being answered already by one who is capable of answering even the prayers we should have made yet neglected to do. G.K. Chesterton once wrote,
Could be. And still he is capable of accomplishing “abundantly more...” in every life here today.“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is...It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that he has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”2
1 Prayer and Modern Man, Jacques Ellul, Seabury Press, 1973, p. vi.
2 Orthodoxy, Gilbert K. Chesterton, Doubleday, Image Books, 1959, p. 60.