When my husband and I first settled into rural church ministry twelve years ago, I was a little unprepared for the pace of life offered by the farming community where we had made our new home. We had left a much larger college town buzzing with traffic and commutes, a life where I’d had a job and goals and lots of church commitments. My first few months as a pastor’s wife in a small town surrounded by farmland was an education in listening and learning the rhythms of life in a small church in a small town.
Those days taste of summer in my memory. We moved into the church parsonage during the sweltering heat of July; a few neighbors and church members introduced themselves with offerings of local produce, sweet corn being the preeminent housewarming gift of choice.
My young pastor-husband chose to take our congregation through the prayers of the apostle Paul during mid-week prayer services that first summer in Southeast Missouri—a gesture of hope from a twenty-seven-year-old seminary graduate to his new flock. What has stayed with me from those warm summer evenings at church are the sincere prayers of the church members whose names we were just learning. Most significant at the time were plaintive petitions for rain, of all things. In the humility that comes from knowing one can do nothing about the weather was a significant sincerity in those requests for rain for the crops. These weren’t merely general blanket prayers for a reprieve from summer’s heat. These were genuine prayers stemming from love and concern for one another: there were farmers in the congregation. While I listened to the prayers of these people I barely knew, I began to understand what they believed about God. Our prayers offer an overview of our theology, and the habit of praying together is a disarming way to get to know someone.
I’ve been studying Ephesians 1 over the last couple of weeks, and surprisingly I got stuck in Paul’s prayer for the Ephesian church family in verses 15-19 (that’s not normally where people get stuck in chapter 1, by the way). I felt a pull to stay here for a few days:
This is why, since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, I never stop giving thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray the that God our our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, would give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him. I pray that the perception of your mind may be enlightened so you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the glorious riches of His inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of His power to us who believe, according to the working of His vast strength.
Ephesians 1:15-19 (HCSB)
Paul prayed that God would enlighten the eyes of the believers in Ephesus so they would understand the richness of God and grasp the following:
1) the hope of God’s calling
2) the glorious riches of His inheritance
3) the immeasurable greatness of His power
Paul’s prayer teaches us a lot about God.
What kept me in this short pastoral prayer was the integral involvement of God in each layer of Paul’s petition. These gifts Paul prays for: hope of the calling, riches of inheritance, greatness of power all seem to be mentioned and prayed for in order to encourage the Ephesian believers to continue in the faith by remembering Who is behind it. They could function as Christians because of the hope they have in God’s calling on their lives unto salvation, they could set their eyes on things above when they remembered that they belong to God, and they would be able to persevere because of the immeasurable greatness of God’s power.
God’s calling, God’s inheritance, God’s power. But all bestowed upon His people by Him because He is faithful to persevere His children to completion. The hope of God’s calling them to faith in Christ (discussed earlier in chapter 1), the glorious riches of belonging to God as His inheritance with the guarantee of a future with Him forever (1:13), and God’s immeasurably great power on which the believer can lean according to the working of His vast strength. In his commentary on Ephesians, Peter T. O’Brien says that “the Christian growth of [Paul’s] readers, as well as the furtherance of [Paul’s] own ministry of the gospel, is wholly dependent upon the living God, who gives generously to His children when they call upon Him in prayer.”*
Paul’s prayer also tells us about God’s part in our perseverance.
In my last post I made the point that our daily Bible intake functions as a sort of deposit for our future discipleship. What our hearts are absorbing now from the Scriptures will equip us for the future. I believe that with all of my heart, and I’ve known it to be true in my own life. Equally true is the possibility that we will be ill prepared for suffering when we’ve ignored the call to spend time with the Lord, when we’ve avoided meeting Him in His Word. I believe that to be true because I’ve lived it, unfortunately.
That said, we shouldn’t approach personal Bible study as a formula with which to conquer all the hard knocks life may offer us. Delving into our sacred text is not done for the sake of acquiring knowledge to win an argument or for turning passages into some kind of scriptural talisman with which to shield ourselves from suffering. Our goal in opening our Bibles is always to know God and to make Him known. Perseverance is born from that. Hope is born from that. Security, assurance, help, healing, love, wisdom—these things come in time spent knowing our God, but they come under the umbrella of knowing Him first and foremost. They are fringe benefits, so to speak. Considerable, weighty, lavishly given fringe benefits that are necessary for our growth as believers, but ultimately they stem from first staring intently at the character of God.
He is the one who pulls our hearts to faith, who promises His presence continually (and keeps good on that promise continually). He is the one who holds up our chins and reminds us that He will do this thing. He’s already done it, really. He will do the work of perseverance while we do the work of persevering. It’s Him working in us, according to His vast, vast strength. It’s a kindness that He involves us at all. After all, what is man that He is mindful of him, the son of man that He looks after him? (Ps. 8:4)He will do the work of perseverance while we do the work of persevering. Click To Tweet
The Author and Sustainer of life has made sure to bend low with reliable regularity to persevere us through suffering, through trials, through temptations. He has guaranteed His work on the cross. Why wouldn’t we endeavor to know Him daily? Why wouldn’t we get up each morning to pile up reminders of His involvement in our sanctification for the days that dawn bleak with doubt? Why wouldn’t we dwell on His faithfulness now when we will always need to be reminded of it?
The pastoral prayers in the New Testament always remind me of those early days in ministry when we listened to Paul’s requests for the first century churches as a primer for praying together as a 21st century church. I thought we had a lot to teach our church, a lot of wisdom to share. I couldn’t imagine all I would have to learn. When I listen to my brothers and sisters pray now, some twelve years later, I’ve learned to listen for what I can learn about God. The pleas from my siblings for grace, for healing, for salvation of friends or family, for provision—these prayers teach me a lot about the character of God. He is as involved in our sanctification as much now as He was in the church at Ephesus in AD 61. Listening to the prayers of other believers encourages me to press on in faith. What they’ve soaked in from their own time with the Lord in Scripture comes pouring out in petitions and pleas that speak of the necessary involvement of God in every corner of our sanctification.
What a relief it is to know that perseverance is a community project.
*O’Brien, Peter T. The Letter to the Ephesians. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Grand Rapids, Michigan. 1999.
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