Before You Ask God for Something New, Thank Him for Something Old1
One of the most instructive statements in Scripture on the nature and dynamics of prayer is found in Philippians 4:4-7. Let’s look at it briefly and then I want to highlight one particular feature of prayer that we often overlook. Continue reading . . .
One of the most instructive statements in Scripture on the nature and dynamics of prayer is found in Philippians 4:4-7. Let’s look at it briefly and then I want to highlight one particular feature of prayer that we often overlook.
“4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. 5 Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; 6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:4-7).
Paul tells us that “in everything” we are to let our requests be made known to God. That means in every circumstance, no matter how serious or casual, no matter how tragic or trivial; and at all times. The contrast is striking: in nothing be anxious, but in everything be prayerful.
We are to do this with “prayer” and “supplication.” The former term encompasses all kinds of prayer: adoration, praise, petition, thanksgiving, confession, intercession, etc. “Supplication” is more narrow and specific in its focus. Here Paul has in mind the reality of need and want. This word thus points to our dependence on God for everything.
Could this possibly be why most prayer meetings are attended by women? Men believe the way to success and respect in today’s world is by cultivating an image of self-sufficiency and radical independence. Men typically do not open up and confess their inadequacy or give indication of their great need. This is to admit weakness, a fatal mistake in today’s world. Male pride is not conducive to the kind of prayer Paul has in mind here.
When Paul speaks of “requests” he has in view the actual content of our prayers; the precise details. It’s Paul’s way of reminding us not to hide behind generalities and vague religious platitudes. Be specific. Be concrete. It’s amazing when you think of it. Prayer, on the surface, seems so impertinent: that fallen, hell-deserving finite creatures should ask the infinitely glorious Creator for anything! What makes it seem even more impertinent is the expectation we have that God might actually do or provide what we ask!
And of course all prayer is “to God,” or more literally, in the presence of God, face to face with him, as it were. Consider how this works in our relationships with other people. Often times we must know a person really well before the conversation flows freely and we open up and let them in on the struggles and needs of life. We can talk about the weather and college football and the demise of some politician and the threat of tornadoes but until we know them and are confident of their love for us it rarely goes deeper than that. There are certain things that I share with my small group that I might not share with all of you. There are things I talk about with Ann that my small group will never hear. But there are a lot of things that God and I talk about to which no one else on earth may have access.
May I suggest that if your prayer life is dull and sporadic at best it may be that you’re talking to a stranger!
Of special interest to me, however, is Paul’s counsel that we do all this “with thanksgiving.” In other words, before you ask God for something new, thank him for something old!
Thanksgiving is not here another kind of prayer, along with petition and supplication. Here it is the mood or mindset or attitude that characterizes all prayer. So why does Paul want all our prayers to be bathed in thanksgiving? There are several reasons.
First, it is hard to be bitter in the presence of God when our minds and mouths are filled with what God has done for us in the past. When you are thankful you realize that everything you have is of grace and that you deserve nothing but death.
Second, it is difficult to doubt God and his promise to answer us when you are thanking him for the blessings he has already bestowed! If you think I’m making this up, try it. For example: “But God, I’m not sure you can . . . Oh, yeah, o.k., yes, I remember when you did something similar before. O.k., thanks.” Or again, “But God, I have no reason to think you are either able or willing to step into this situation and make things right. Oh, yeah, o.k., yes, I remember now how you did this on several occasions earlier. How stupid of me to think you wouldn’t be able or willing to do it again.”
Third, thanksgiving is the fuel for future requests. In other words, if your mind is first filled with remembrance of what God has graciously done in the past, it will empower and expand your requests for what you need now and tomorrow. Having seen firsthand what God can do in response to prayer, your prayers grow and intensify. If you’ve received a little in the past, why not ask for a lot in the future?
Fourth, when you recall God’s goodness and mercy in the past it’s hard to remain burdened in the present. Thanksgiving has a way of alleviating the pressure of the present by reminding us of God’s power at work on our behalf in the past.
Fifth, by constantly keeping fresh in our minds all that we have to be thankful for, we will be less inclined to disregard others who are less well off.
Sixth, as strange as this may sound, we also need to thank God for saying No. Why in the world would we do that? Here’s why.
On some occasions, if God were to grant us the requests we make of him it would bring us harm that we are unable in the present to foresee. Contrary to what you may believe, you and I do not always know what is best for ourselves. We have to pray with confidence that God knows us better than we know ourselves. Just as an earthly father has to deny his five-year-old son’s request for a hunting knife, so our heavenly father has to deny certain requests we make of him.
On some occasions, God will say no to a request in the present because he has something far better in store for us in the future. Thus what strikes us as a definitive No is in fact a loving Wait.
There are actually some prayers to which God says “No” because unbeknownst to us we are praying at cross purposes with another believer. What happens when a job is open and two or more Christians apply for it? When God answers the prayers of one he must say no to the other. Or again, when you pray for holiness and happiness, it may be that purity comes only through persecution. Sometimes the only way God can answer your prayer for holiness is by leading you through heartache and persecution and loss.
So Paul wants us to thank God in every prayer, whether or not what we ask comes to pass as we hoped it might. If it does, thank him. If it doesn’t, thank him for having the wisdom not to give us what we couldn’t handle. If it doesn’t, thank him for how he will address your needs in a way that is far superior to how you first envisioned.