Aunty Ethel’s Elbow
The prayer part was interesting. Which is to say it was usually very dull, but interesting from an anthropological standpoint. The prayers rarely seemed to pick up on the themes of the study (except when someone felt we hadn’t agreed sufficiently with his/her point and tried to convince God to make it clear to us), but would most often be rather feeble requests of the type that asked us to pray that God would heal Aunty Ethel’s elbow, which had been giving her trouble again.
I couldn’t articulate this back then, but certainly by the time I was at uni I was beginning to feel that this wasn’t 100% what prayer could be. It was supposed to be powerful and effective, wasn’t it? There were people who could do it for hours, and find it meaningful and worthwhile. What was I missing?
I was missing, of course, the connection between the Bible study and the prayer. I was missing an understanding of how people in the Bible prayed, what they talked to God about and what they asked him for. As Alistair Begg points out in his recent book Pray Big, none of the prayers in the Bible use those two little words that we so often rely on: ‘be with’.
If you were to record my prayers, I have a sad suspicion you’d hear a lot of “be with”: “Dear Lord, I pray you will be with Tom as he goes to work, and be with Mary also, who’s having her wisdom teeth removed on Tuesday, and be with… and be with… and be with… and be with us all. Amen.” This is unimaginative. It’s limited. It’s certainly not spiritually ambitious, like Paul is. And it is, I think, unnecessary. Jesus said, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28 v 20). He’s promised to be with Tom and with Mary. It’s a bit of a waste to make the sum total of my prayer for them the request that Jesus would do what he already said he’d do, and has already started doing.1
Furthermore, Tim Keller tweeted last year, “It’s remarkable that in all of his writings Paul’s prayers for his friends contain no appeals for changes in their circumstances.” Instead “he prays for what they really need. He prays not for a change in their circumstances, but a change in their hearts.”
Alistair Begg looks specifically at Paul’s prayers for the Ephesians, and how he prayed for power, hope, riches and more. I’ve been working through Paul’s letters recently and have been struck by how much he prays for knowledge and wisdom and abundance - for the fullness of Christ to inhabit us!
...that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
It’s exuberant, it’s joyful, it’s overflowing.
He prays for them in their circumstances, and asks for prayer in his own, not to be rescued from them, but that God would be glorified in and through them. I’ve started noting down on a card in my journal the bullet point summaries of what Paul prays, and what he longs and expects to see in the believers, and am using that to guide my prayers for my friends and family each day. It has certainly made a difference, especially when praying for people whose needs I don’t know very well, or those who are facing long-term challenges and for whom, ‘please heal them’ gets a bit tired and empty after a while.
I want my friends to be healed, for their job interviews to be successful, for them to have a nice time on holiday, but far more than that I want them to know Christ and the glory of his resurrection, to grow in knowledge and depth of insight, to live in hope, and to be filled with the fullness of God.
Imagine the potential outcomes if God answers the two types of prayer: in one, Aunty Ethel’s elbow would be less sore, at least for now. In the other she would be strengthened with power through the Holy Spirit, the eyes of her heart would be enlightened to know the hope to which she has been called, and she would know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. So whether her elbow is healed or not, her life would be transformed. She would have received sufficient power, hope and love to enable her to endure - even to rejoice in - any trials, just as Paul did. Rather than simply a bit less pain, she would have a deeper, richer, more vibrant heart-level knowledge of the God who created her, knows her every pain and sorrow, and loves her abundantly.
Let’s pray bigger, bolder, better prayers, prayers that focus on what really matters and our ultimate purpose in life. Let’s seek first his Kingdom for ourselves, our friends, our churches and our communities, and all these things will be added unto them.
1. Alistair Begg, ‘Stop praying “be with” prayers’, Good Book Company blog 28 May 2019, https://www.thegoodbook.co.uk/blog/interestingthoughts/2019/05/28/stop-praying-be-with-prayers/