To pray is an admission and an expression of dependence. A self-assured person is not going to pray prayers of petition; there’s no need to pray if you think you have got it all covered. A self-righteous person is not going to pray prayers of confession; there’s no need to pray if you think you’re good enough to earn God’s blessing. But the person who knows their heart before God—the person who knows the depth of their need of forgiveness and help from God—does what Paul does. They bow their knees (Ephesians 3:14).
Paul achieved great things. His ministry literally changed the world. His preaching set a fire raging round the Mediterranean—a gospel fire that stretched from Jerusalem up through Turkey into Greece and westwards to Rome. Few men have done as much, or had as great an impact, as this short, stooping, near-sighted Jewish convert.
But Paul never thought he did any of it alone. He knew he had a privileged task: “I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace… to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things” (Ephesians 3:7-9). And he knew that, without God’s help, it would be an impossible task. So he prayed. He recognized the direct link between his preaching and his praying—the first must be accompanied by the second. He was aware of the fact that “unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1). He lived out what the nineteenth-century hymnwriter Arthur C. Ainger described in “God Is Working His Purpose Out”:
All we can do is nothing worth
Unless God blesses the deed;
Vainly we hope for the harvest-tide
Till God gives life to the seed.
This undergirds all of Paul’s thinking. One plants the seed and another waters, but only God can make it grow (1 Corinthians 3:6-7). In this, Paul was following the pattern of his Master, the Lord Jesus. As we read the Gospels, we discover that Jesus was praying to the Father all the time. Presumably, the many instances that the Gospel writers record for us were the tip of the iceberg, not the whole of it. Jesus’ approach to life rested on dependent prayer. So the night before his death, in what we refer to as the upper room discourse, Jesus teaches his disciples in some of his most famous and moving words:
Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. (John 14:1)
I am the true vine … As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. (15:1, 9)
When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. (John 15:26)
Take heart; I have overcome the world. (John 16:33)
And then comes the first verse of chapter 17:
When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said…”
Jesus prayed. And he said, in effect, Father, I’m praying now that the things that I have instructed my friends about, and that they have come to understand as a result of my teaching, may actually be their experience as they go out into the world.
I find this a tremendous truth and a rather uncomfortable challenge. My prayers—whether I pray, how much I pray, about what I pray—reveal my priorities. And they reveal how much I really think I need God, or whether I am, deep down, in fact self-assured and self-righteous. If Paul, “an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God” (Ephesians 1: 1), knew that he needed to “bow my knees before the Father” (Ephesians 3:14), what of us? If Jesus Christ, the greatest teacher in the world, followed up his instruction by prayer, what of us? If Jesus
Christ, who was set on a mission that changed not just world history but all of eternity, took time to pray, what of us? If Jesus Christ, the Son of God, knew that he needed to pray, what of us?
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher at Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world. He graduated from theological college in London and served two churches in Scotland before moving to Ohio. He is married to Susan and together they have three grown children.