Powerful Praying with Paul – 3. Don't Settle for Second-Best
Philippians 1: 9 - 11
I want to give you some very practical advice that could energise your prayer life. Here are 3 opening observations to think about:
1. Prayer is both the easiest and hardest discipline of the Christian life. It is the easiest in that the youngest child and the newest Christian can learn to pray. But it is also the hardest discipline - most difficult to maintain over a long period of time.
2. Almost everyone prays and almost everyone feels they could improve in this area. Even in our best moments, we still must admit that we have barely begun in the arena of prayer.
3. Prayer presents us with problems - we are faced with difficult questions regarding the sovereignty of God and human free will. When we pray, what should we pray for? This is where most of us live every day. What do you do when faced with a prayer list of friends, loved ones, neighbours, co-workers, missionaries, and others whom you hardly know at all? Our usual response is to pray like this: “Lord, uh… bless Sally.” Then: “Lord, uh … please bless Bill.” Then: “Lord, uh … I ask you to really bless our missionaries in Malawi.” “If you took the word “bless” out of our prayer vocabularies, most of us would never pray again.”
I believe it is appropriate to ask God to bless people, but I think we can move far beyond that, and increase the effectiveness of our prayers. We can use Paul’s prayer in Philippians 1 as a blueprint for powerful praying. A prayer that fits virtually every situation we may face - we can truly pray for anyone about anything.
The heart of his prayer is his request “that you may be able to discern what is best.” v. 10. This is a prayer for spiritual discernment. “I pray that you will know …The good from the bad, the better from the good and the best from the better.” You can hardly choose “those things that are best” unless you know what they are. Education in its truest sense is more than facts about geometry, biology, history or English literature. It is also an understanding of a moral framework that enables us to make proper judgments about the good, the better, and the best (not to mention the bad, the very bad, and the truly evil). Apart from God, how will we know the good from the bad, the better from the good, and the best from the better? We won’t. Education gives us knowledge, but to choose those things that are best, we need the wisdom that comes from God.
1. Three Requests
As we pray for others, also make these 3 requests our own.
A. Abounding Love v. 9a
Imagine an empty cup slowly being filled with water. When the water reaches the brim, it begins to overflow down the sides of the cup. That’s the picture Paul has in mind—love filling the hearts of the Philippians until it overflows. Almost all of Paul’s prayers begin with a petition for love. That’s because love is supreme among the Christian virtues. It alone will last forever. No matter how much love we have, our love can always increase. Paul prays that their love would increase in depth and in extent. He is praying that they would love more people and would love them in a greater way.
It’s easy to understand why Paul’s prayer begins with love. Since we live in a fallen world, we will often find ourselves surrounded by irritable, cranky, annoying, aggravating, frustrating, unreasonable people. That’s on a good day! Sometimes people will say foolish things or do things to deliberately irritate us. Some people are just very hard to love. What do we do then? We should pray for our love to increase. It’s one thing to pray, “Lord, get this fool away from me before I say something I shouldn’t,” another thing to pray, “Lord, please change this person so they won’t be so obnoxious.” But it’s something else entirely to pray, “Lord, I really don’t like this person. He gets on my nerves. He’s a bossy, dominating, opinionated fool. I don’t even want to love him or like him and I prefer not to be around this person at all. I now ask you to overlook my feelings and do whatever it takes to increase my love. I’m low on love, Lord, and I ask you to fill me up.” That’s a prayer God will be glad to answer. I’m in favour of honest prayer. Why not be straightforward with God about the way we feel? David poured out his soul to the Lord and used colourful language to describe his enemies. God knows how you feel anyway. It’s not as if when you say, “I can’t stand that person,” the Lord goes, “I’m surprised to hear that. I thought you liked them.” Love is the glue that holds the human race together. It enables us to overlook the faults of others while acknowledging that we ourselves are far from perfect.
B. Growing Knowledge v. 9b
Paul is asking that their love express itself in an intimate knowledge of who God is. “Insight” means moral discrimination, the ability to look at various options and to say, “This one is good. That’s not so good. This one is better. That one is best.”
We say, “Love is blind.” God says, “No, love needs clear vision.” Our love needs the guidance of knowledge and deep insight or else we will end up loving things we ought not to love and entering into relationships that are not good for us. While love is supreme, it is never enough.
Not every relationship is a good relationship. Not every choice is a good choice. Not every friendship is good for us. Not every job is a wise career move. Not every roommate is a healthy choice. Not every purchase is a wise use of our money.
We make our choices and then our choices turn around and make us. As a massive ship is guided by a tiny rudder, our lives often turn on small decisions and unexpected events. Every day we make thousands of decisions, most of them made either by habit or on the spur of the moment.
We like to think those decisions don’t matter but they do. Each decision is connected to every other decision like so many links in the chain of life itself. There is a profound sense in which you are nothing but the sum total of all the choices you have made stretching back to your childhood. Each little decision joins you to the past and leads into the future. Each decision either leads us toward the light of God or toward the darkness of despair. In the final analysis, there really are no “neutral” choices because many things that don’t seem to matter today may be of enormous consequence tomorrow. So we need “insight” from God to make wise choices. It is “sight” on the inside - inner vision that enables us to properly evaluate all the choices we face every day. When we have it, we make good decisions. When we don’t have it, we end up making the same stupid mistakes over and over again.
Where do we find this kind of insight? 1. We get it from the Word of God with the help of the Holy Spirit. As we study the Bible, the Holy Spirit takes the Word of God and reveals to us the things of God. Paul wants the Philippians to learn to think “Christianly” in every situation. 2. We get it from the Lord in answer to our prayers. So if you are confused, or if you find yourself in a deep hole because of wrong choices made over and over again, humbly ask God for the insight to make the right choices in life. That leads directly to the third petition, which is the heart of the prayer.
C. Increasing Discernment v. 10a
The Message - colourful paraphrase, “You need to use your head and test your feelings so that your love is sincere and intelligent, not sentimental gush.” NLT - “I want you to understand what really matters.” Excellent translation - Greek word for “discern” was used for testing metals like gold. There is gold and then there is “Fool’s Gold.” It looks like gold to the naked eye, but it isn’t, and it’s not worth anything. Too many Christians settle for “Fool’s Gold” in the choices they make.
Paul prays that the Philippians would have such love and insight that they would continually make wise choices in life. He is praying that they would not be satisfied with the status quo or with spiritual mediocrity but would push on to true spiritual excellence. In our day discrimination has a mostly negative tone, but in the spiritual realm we desperately need to discriminate between good and bad, good and better, better and best.
The ability to make wise choices under pressure. This is an important prayer request for parents to pray for their children. Pray that your children learn to make wise choices under pressure.
2 parts to making wise choices: 1. You must know what is right. This is crucial because we live in a world where many people evidently have lost all sense of right and wrong. Everything appears to them as shades of grey. 2. You must have the courage to choose what you know to be right. True discernment gives you vision to see what is right and then the courage to choose to do it.
2. Three Results
Paul’s prayer continues with the results that flow from the 3 requests just mentioned—love, knowledge, and discernment.
A. A Blameless Life v. 10b
“Pure” comes from 2 words - mean “judgment” and “sunlight.” When they took the pottery or the fabric into the sunlight, they could see it as it really was. The sunlight revealed the truth. To be pure means to live in such a way that the truth about who we are is clear. It means that people don’t have to wonder about what you are doing in the darkness because you have nothing to hide. You are the same in the darkness as you are in the light. You are the same at midnight as you are at high noon. You are the same on the job or at school as you are in church on Sunday morning. You are the same behind closed doors as you are in public. To be “pure” means to be a “sunlight” Christian. Your life is consistent no matter where you happen to be or who happens to be with you.
“Blameless” - referred to the bait in a trap that would catch unsuspecting animals. It came to mean a lifestyle that caused others to fall into sin. A “blameless” person is free from moral scandal. It means you don’t stumble into sin and you don’t cause others to stumble by your behaviour.
B. A Fruitful Life v. 11a
Fruit tree describes both the life of the righteous and the life of the wicked. Jesus declared - by their fruit you shall know them. That’s precisely what Paul is praying for—the fruit of visible Christian character. A fruitful life is one that is distinctively Christian in every aspect. “If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” The fruitful life can always answer yes.
This fruit comes “through Jesus Christ.” As we are rooted deeply in him, and as we draw our strength from him, his power flows through us and produces the “fruit of righteousness” in us. Jesus is the root and his power produces the fruit.
C. A Theo-Doxic Life v. 11b
Made up word - “theo-doxic” life is one that brings glory or praise to God. Such a person actually enhances God’s reputation in the world. When people see you, do they naturally think about God? Does your life serve as a good advertisement for the Lord Jesus Christ? We who bear God’s name must live so that others can see Jesus in us. “A saint is a person who makes it easy to believe in Jesus.” When this prayer is answered in us, we’ll be saints who make it easy for others to believe in Jesus.
What a fantastic prayer. Here is the application. Pray this prayer for yourself. Pray this prayer for others. Who are you praying for today? Remember that prayer is not a ritual but a matter of the heart. To pray for someone else is an act of hidden kindness that only God sees. Because God alone sees your heart, he will hear your prayer and reward you in secret. We can touch people through prayer that we couldn’t touch any other way. Prayer is the secret sword of the saints. Use it! God gave you a secret weapon so that by your prayer in secret you can change the world.
When you boil it all down to the essentials, Paul prayed that the Philippians would have the wisdom to choose the best things in life. He didn’t mean “the best things” in general; he meant God’s best for them. This is an inspiring thought and a good way to organise our prayers.
Do you want God’s best for others? Pray this prayer! Do you want God’s best in your own life? Pray this prayer! Do you want God’s best in your family? Pray this prayer! Do you want God’s best in your church? Pray this prayer! May God deliver us from “second-best” Christianity! May God deliver us from spiritual mediocrity!
“Lord Jesus, grant that our love may overflow so that we will love even the irritating people we meet every day. Give us the knowledge that comes from knowing you and the sight on the inside to see what really matters so that we can make wise choices under pressure. Make us “sunlight” Christians who bring forth good fruit and bring glory to God. We long to be people who make it easy for others to believe in Jesus. O Lord, teach us to pray like this! Please make this prayer come true in us and through us. In Jesus name. Amen.”