Pray Thankfully! (4:2)
“Continue steadfastly in prayer,” writes Paul, “being watchful in it with thanksgiving” (Col. 4:2). There’s always a possibility that someone reading this passage might walk away with the idea that prayer is an anxious, troublesome, fearful endeavor. Paul’s language might easily contribute to that, were it not for the final two words of the text. Let me explain.
If I were to exhort you concerning some spiritual activity and insisted, perhaps with great urgency, that you “continue steadfastly” in it and that you remain alert and “watchful,” you might be inclined to worry, perhaps wringing your hands, biting your nails, and pacing nervously back and forth in doubt of the ultimate outcome. Now let’s be clear about one thing: prayer is serious business. James put it pointedly: “You do not have, because you do not ask” (James 4:2). If we fail to pray we most likely will not receive. It is utterly presumptuous to think that God will do for us apart from prayer what he has promised to do for us only through prayer.
But this reality must be held in delicate balance with the equally biblical truth that God is sovereign: nothing slips his mind or through his fingers. He will accomplish all his purposes. He “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11).
This is the point, I believe, of Paul’s insistence that when we pray, and we should pray always and alertly, we should do so “with thanksgiving” (Col. 4:2b). Why does he insist on this? And more important still, how do you do it? How does one pray thankfully?
First, I believe Paul includes this qualifying phrase because he wants to instill confidence in us rather than fear and uncertainty as we pray. It’s his way of saying, “Yes, by all means be faithful and fervent in your prayers. But know this: God is always and ever on his throne. The battle in which you fight is ultimately his, on your behalf. Let gratitude for what God has done and will do permeate your petitions. In this way you will never lose hope or fall into despair or live in fear that he has abandoned you in your hour of need.”
But second, and most important, how do we do this? What does it mean to pray “with thanksgiving”? Here are a few thoughts.
First, pray with gratitude that God is actually there, alive and alert and never asleep. We do not speak into a vacuum or to a God who is preoccupied with other, allegedly more important matters.
Second, pray with gratitude that God not only lives and loves but also actually listens to what we say. He hears us! “Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. . . . He will surely be gracious to you at the sound of your cry. As soon as he hears it, he answers you” (Isaiah 30:18-19). As you pray, therefore, thank God that he loves to listen and to be gracious.
Third, pray with gratitude that the God who lives, loves, and listens is also more than able to do above and beyond all we ask or think (cf. Ephesians 3:20). I’m so thankful that the God to whom I pray isn’t a wimp or a weakling, but an omnipotent and infinitely wise Father who delights in giving good things to those who ask (Luke 11:13).
Fourth, pray thanking God that he has chosen to include you in the process! God could have ordained that all his will be accomplished independently of our participation. But he didn’t. He has chosen to achieve his ultimate ends through means, the latter being primarily our prayers.
Fifth, pray thanking God for all the ways he is changing you as you pray. Wholehearted and humble intercession transforms the intercessor. Our ideas of God are elevated. Our awareness of personal dependency is intensified. The magnitude of God’s power and providence is manifest in ways that we otherwise might never behold. Our dreams and hopes and desires are cleansed and purified as we humbly submit to his will and crucify our own.
Sixth, pray thanking God that what you are asking him to graciously do in the lives of others he has already done in yours! If we are not grateful for the salvation and healing and mercy granted us, how can we possibly be fervent and diligent in asking that God do the same for others?
Seventh, and finally, pray with gratitude to God not simply for what he has done but for what he will do. Thank him in advance for what he will do in response to your requests. Without being triumphalistic or sinfully presumptuous, we should pray with expectancy that whatever we ask, according to his will, God will do. Thank you, Lord!
The bottom line is this. It’s hard to be fearful when you are immersed in gratitude. Thankfulness turns the human soul toward heaven and away from self. Thankfulness, by its very nature, requires that we fix our focus on “that” God is, “who” God is, and “what” God has done and will do. Thankful prayer is necessarily theocentric.
Do you recall the incident in 2 Chronicles 20 where Jehoshaphat and the kingdom of Judah came under siege by the Moabites and Ammonites? After their prayer seeking God’s assistance, the prophet Jahaziel came to them with a bizarre word of counsel: “Send out the choir to confront the enemy troops and have them sing these words: ‘Give thanks to the Lord, for his steadfast love endures forever’” (2 Chron. 20:21).
He instructs them to be thankful on the front end of the battle, before the enemy is ever engaged. Let the reality of God’s steadfast love fill your heart, he told them. Praise him for who he is. Rest peacefully in what he will do. “Stand firm,” he said, “hold your position, and see the salvation of the Lord on your behalf” (2 Chron. 20:17).
Thus, “when Paul says our praying is to be done with thanksgiving, he means that we should keep our eyes on the victory of God. We do not fight as losers or even as those who are uncertain. We know God will win. And if we have eyes to see, we will recognize the path of his power again and again” (John Piper, “Walk in Wisdom Toward Those Outside,” a sermon on Colossians 4:2-4; http://www.desiringgod.org/).