An old man was slowly laboring, as he walked up a long and dusty trail, set on an open hill. The trees were gone now, and the field grass was dried into a golden hue. In one hand the man held a stick, the rod that helped him ford streams and steady himself on the long journey that was nearly complete. In his other hand, he grasped a rope that alternated between slack and taught, as he tugged a loaded down donkey behind him. His skin was brown and cracked. His lips were parched, evidence of a long and difficult walk. The load on his beast of burden showed on his own frame. Both the man and the donkey appeared to be nearing exhaustion.
The graphic scene is the picture of many men and women who are walking into their respective ministries today. If you ask the children’s workers, many of them are overwhelmed. They are committed to work all week long, and Sunday has now become a burden. Families feel overscheduled and many believers secretly feel spiritually parched when it comes to things of God. The program has run them over. They feel depleted at best and unloved at worst. Add to that, they will work this week amid hearing the complaints of those who have spent no time, offered no sweat, bore no pain for the work. Many are quietly frustrated, unhappy and near the breaking point…. And they feel guilty about it. They believe that Jesus is worth it, but it has been a long time since that spirit of refreshment has cooled their overheated core.
- The heartless among our ranks will simply mutter: “Well that’s there job! Nobody encourages me in my job. That’s what they get paid for!” The truth is that the vast majority of them get NOTHING for what they do in the Kingdom. They work because they believe it is what God called them to do. They are scores of Sunday School teachers, ushers, song leaders, children’s workers, etc. Among those who do get paid, few are those who make good wages among their peers in other work areas.
- “We should encourage them more!” Another may say. That may be true, but that won’t really refresh them the way they need to be refreshed.
- “Give them more time off!” Someone else will say. Let the children’s worker be in the service every other week!” They offer.
But even time spent without working for the Kingdom won’t restore them from the reduction gained in spiritual battle. The church cannot give them back what they have lost. They are in need of something that only God can supply. The problem is the oxygen tank of restoration is only available when we will stop working, and deliberately seek its restoring power. It is found in time with the Father, and can be found no other way.
Paul was writing the letter to the Philippians at a particularly difficult time. He was under house arrest, we can surmise a number of things about what he was going through:
- Progress was slowed. After traveling much of the 10,000 land miles that made up his journeys, Paul was stopped and held to a single house near the Tiber River. He couldn’t physically check on the churches, or practically show live to them.
- Attacks increased. Both existing churches and new believers were under attack, both in the public square and by sub groups within the church. Gentiles felt they were second class citizens of the Kingdom of God, while Judaizers moved about.
- Divisions began to show. Cracks in the church were evident. People who should have been mature were picking at each other and the harmony was being interrupted by dissonant notes.
Paul sent a letter under the Spirit’s command, and it contains three essential parts:
The Prayer of the Church Planter (1:1-11) – losing frustration and gaining a positive heart.
When the problems are mounting and the people are being pushed apart, it is easy to lose our way in the troubles and frustrations. We forget that the problems we face as we attempt to share Christ with other are NOT simply “people problems” – though that is how they will appear. Leaders must pray or they will be dragged down into the problems.
The Prescriptions of the Church Planter (1:2-4:9) – how to learn to discern the best path.
When we pray consistently, God exposes the problem and sheds His light on it. When we seek Him we get answers that are consistent with His truth and dependent on His priorities. Those exposed truths are like a healing balm in the believer who will take heed. At the very least they will understand the problems they are facing. More than likely, they will see God power through some of those problems. In all of it, they will learn to put the problems and their solutions in the order that God has them.
The Pattern of the Church Planter (4:10-23) –unlocking constant encouragement secrets.
Models are one of God’s favorite ways of sharing what He desires an obedient believer to look like. Paul was used of God, not only to share the Gospel, but to model what the Gospel did in the life of one who is obedient.
Those are the “bones” of the letter, but it all started with Paul’s prayer. He prayed and he shared about prayer.
Key Principle: Prayer is the process of exchanging burdens for energy as I deliberately spend time with my Savior.
Paul taught the Philippians even as he shared his prayers for them. He managed to show love and a positive spirit toward them in spite of their arguments and internal strife. He could look past their infantile behaviors. How did he do that? He prayed and prayed and prayed for them… Paul said: “I keep thanking God as I reflect on your journey from the beginning to now. My confidence is in the Lord to finish a work He started in you.” (1:1-6). Paul’s prayer was:
- Public – he encouraged them by letting them know that he was praying and what he was praying about for them (1:1-2). 1:1 Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons: 2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Prayer in private is POWERFUL, and prayer in public is ENCOURAGING. Paul didn’t hide his prayer for them when he saw it would lift them. Let people know that you are praying if your believe it will encourage them.
- Positive – he shared a thankfulness and energy of excitement concerning them as he spoke with God about them (1:3-5). 1:3 I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, 4 always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all, 5 in view of your participation in the gospel from the first day until now. Instead of dwelling below the decks and working the engines of ministry, he took time in prayer to celebrate what God was doing above the deck with His people. It is easy in ministry to look at everything as a hassle, and to push against each task. We can so easily lose sight of the purpose of the grime and gears – and people that should be our joy become a hassle. Take the burdens and frustrations of working with people to Jesus and let Him offer your joy in exchange for the burden.
The organ in a large church broke down one Sunday morning just before services were to begin. A member of the congregation happened to be a organ repairman and he immediately went to work on the instrument – finding it was a simple electrical problem. When he finally got it fixed it was just about the middle of the sermon. He quietly passed a note to the organist which read: “After prayer – the power will be on.” (Pastor Jeff Strite, Sermon Central illustrations).
- Projecting – he prayed with a sense of their great future, showing he believed in God’s ability to do great things through them (1:6). 1:6 For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. We don’t grow people – God does. We don’t know how He will work in them or when. God is at work! We must remember that reaching into the lives of people is NOT what it appears to be. We are to work as though WE are solely responsible, but KNOW that we are NOT – God is at work! Because He loves His church, and because He is shaping His people, we need not feel all the burden. Look ahead! God is not done with His people! Look for the good things God is doing in others, and let Him see to their faults and flaws as you pray. Teaching people is fine, but most things simply are not accomplished and cannot be – apart for Divine work in the heart of another.
Paul’s prayer was therapy for his frustration with people. It was a re-energizing experience, as he poured out frustrations and filled up on the positive lift that comes with spending time acknowledging God’s holy presence. I am certain that Paul wanted to see changes that were slow coming. At the same time, instead of pouring those on another person in ministry (which is what we tend to do in the flesh), Paul poured them out consistently before the Lord. His prayer life was not in DESPERATION but in CONFIDENCE. I sometimes wonder how long it took for Paul to begin to be a positive person because of his prayer life? He doesn’t say – but he does show that it worked!
The story is told of a woman who lived in a remote valley in Wales. She went to a great deal of trouble and expense to have electrical power installed in her home. However, after a couple of months, the Welsh electric company noticed she didn’t seem to use very much electricity at all. Thinking there might be a problem with the hookup, they sent a meter reader out to check on the matter. The man came to the door and said, “We’ve just checked your meter and it doesn’t seem that you’re using much electricity. Is there a problem?” “Oh no” she said. “We’re quite satisfied. We turn on the electric lights every night to see how to light our lamps and then we switch them off again.”
Now, why didn’t this woman make more use of her electricity? She believed in electricity, and she believed the promises of the electric company when they told her about it. She went to a great deal of trouble and expense to have her house wired for it, BUT – she didn’t see the value of USING IT in her home… so she used it’s power sparingly. I suspect many believers treat time with God in prayer much the same way. They believe in the THEORY OF prayer. They recognize that God has made significant promises concerning prayer. They’ve even read and heard stories about answered prayers…BUT they use prayer’s power sparingly…(adapted from sermon central illustrations).
- Personal – he showed that he was personally attached to their situation, and truly LOVED them as people – not as a WORK. He essentially said: “It is fitting that I have confidence in you, because you are deeply rooted within me, and I feel you are with me in this trouble. God knows how deeply I long to be with all of you.” (1:7-8). 1:7 For it is only right for me to feel this way about you all, because I have you in my heart, since both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you all are partakers of grace with me. 8 For God is my witness, how I long for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.
He wanted the people to know he loved and respected them for who they are in Messiah, and that he would CHOOSE to be with them if he could. He called on God Himself as his witness that he wasn’t just putting on an appearance – he truly cared for them. They were in his thoughts throughout the day. People want to be loved and cared about – but they feel small when they are “our project”. Look for ways to express real love to those for whom you are praying. Allow God to move your words to Him from the secret closet to the spill out of your heart. The process began with empting frustration, feeding on time with Him – and then allowing that love to spill over on to them.
It is clear through the words of Paul that he was consistent in his prayers for them, because he cared about them. Luke reminds: “Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.” It is worth remembering that persistent prayer comes from a loving heart – but the reverse is also true. If I don’t love what I should love, God works in me to WILL of His good pleasure –and changes what I WANT. (cp. Phil 2:13).
Leland Patrick wrote about PERSONAL PRAYER: “When we carried our son and daughter-in-law to the airport in Birmingham, as they left to go overseas, I cried. I had told myself not to cry. Get this picture. My oldest son felt led of God to spend his life serving in southeast Asia. He was about to leave. I knew that for the rest of his life I would only see him for short visits. I knew that I would never spend extensive time with my grandchildren. I had the audacity to tell myself that I was not going to cry. When they started through security, I cried. I didn’t just cry. I wailed. People were staring at my as if there was something wrong with me. There was something wrong. My heart was broken. I cried! There was no pretense. There was no cover up. People could read me like a book…That is what happens when we get real with God. We bare our soul to Him.”
- Pointed – he wasn’t praying grand general themes (i.e. “bless my friends at Philippi”), but had specific issues he was presenting to the Master on their behalf. He said: “Here is my chief prayer for you: that rich discernment would grow from your love. I pray that you would allow that discernment lead to priorities that honor “fleshed out” in blameless behaviors until you stand before Jesus full of fruits that bring His Father pleasure.” (1:9-11). 1:9 And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, 10 so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ; 11 having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.
Paul wanted God to do a work in several specific areas of the people’s lives. First, he was concerned that the love they had would increase and not wane. Second, he wanted that love to grow toward a holy discernment that would allow them to attain the right priorities. Third, he wanted those priorities to produce practical works in the hands of the people. Paul targeted very important specifics, and he desired God to do the work behind the scenes in the lives of the people.
“It’s kind of like when you’re at a theatrical play and the curtain is closed. You don’t usually see what takes place behind the curtain. If you didn’t know better, you might never realize that while the curtain is closed the props are brought out, the scenery is changed and the actors take their positions. But every once in a while somebody slips up and the curtain is accidentally drawn back and you see what is taking place behind the scenes. That’s (in essence) what God is doing here – He’s drawing back the curtain so you see what ordinarily would be hidden from your eyes.” (Pastor Jeff Strite).
Look at the verses another way. Strip away the prayer of Paul and time spent with the Lord. Here is what Paul may have been saying to a ministry partner if he WASN’T praying, but was trying to work harder to FIX THE PROBLEMS of the ministry without God’s intervention and settling in his heart: “These people are LOVING, but they just don’t seem to GET IT. They run off after every silly thing presented to them for ministry, and can’t pick out the BEST things from the GOOD things. They choose things that are WAY OFF THE MARK of God’s real purposes. They approve of things that will defile them, and then they wonder why it doesn’t work out in their lives. We need a new class, a new seminar, a new sermon series…” Sadly, that is where the maturity stops. The church craws along in half truth and half power – because all of the answers lay in leaders spending time with God.
“God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.” -C.S. Lewis Mere Christianity
Paul publicly and personally laid before people a positive look at where God was taking them. He understood the time spent with Jesus on his knees was essential or he would lose his focus. At the same time, his prayers didn’t HINDER him from seeing the problems – the prayers INFORMED him of God’s desires concerning the problems. He GAINED FOCUS and GAINED ENERGY – rather than the sinking feeling of sharing problems with a friend or ministry partner that seems to leave you feeling powerless and victimized by problems.
Much of our prayer life can be consumed by reciting to God the problems and tossing them at God’s feet. That isn’t the response God is looking for. Look at the way God used the prayers of Paul to open his eyes to specific encouragements and exhortations that the people could grow through. Paul got SMARTER because he prayed.
God opened Paul’s eyes to truths that could be shared like a prescription that would offer medicine to the sick – but they needed to take the medicine.
George Mueller was known for his powerful prayer. In the course of his ministry to the orphans of England, he learned to count on God wholly… Once while on his way to speak in Quebec for a engagement. On the deck of the ship that was to carry him to his destination, he informed the captain that he needed to be in Quebec by Saturday afternoon. As the captain related the story, he said “’It is impossible,’ I said. ’Do you know how dense this fog is?’” “’No,’ he replied, ’my eye is not on the density of the fog, but on the living God who controls every circumstance of life. I have never broken an engagement in 57 years; let us go down into the chart room and pray.’ He knelt down and he prayed one of the most simple prayers. When he had finished I was going to pray, but he put his hand on my shoulder and told me not to pray. ’As you do not believe He will answer, and as I believe He has, there is no need for you whatever for you to pray about it.’ “I looked at him and George Mueller said, ’Captain, I have known my Lord for 57 yrs. and there has never been a single day when I have failed to get an audience with the King. Get up, Captain, and open the door and you will find that the fog has gone.’ “I got up and the fog indeed was gone, and on that Saturday afternoon George Mueller kept his promised engagement.”
Paul recognized that when the problems were mounting and the people were being pushed apart, it was not time for counseling on the “people problems” – it was time to pray and seek God for the next steps He knew that prayer is the process of exchanging burdens for energy as I deliberately spend time with my Savior. Believers must pray or they will be dragged down into the problems and overwhelmed by them.