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When our church used to meet for prayer on Fridays, most of the prayer requests that we received were either concerning health or financial problems. I think one of the main reasons for this is the contagious influence of prosperity theology. This framework promises an anti-biblical view of God—that he has promised a here and now utopia. As we grew deeper as a church, we developed a habit of meditating on Paul’s prayers. The Scriptures helped us to look beyond earthly needs. These prayers are full of intercessions for the spiritual wisdom and maturity of believers. This doesn’t mean Paul didn’t care for people nor ignored their earthly needs. He was always keen to identify others’ needs and motivate local churches to cater to those needs. When we truly care for fellow believers, we pray that they might grow in their relationship with God. Paul’s prayer for Christians in Philippians 1:8-11 teaches us how we could pray for those whose lives are not in a crisis.
The Motive For Intercessory Prayer
Paul prays for the Philippians with God as his witness. He yearns deeply for them with the affection of Christ Jesus (Phil. 1:8). The word means kindness, benevolence or tender mercies. Moreover, this is a Christ-like heart—prompted by the same love as Christ. This is not a prayer to please the Philippians because he intercedes to God who searches hearts. Paul imitates Christ’s empathy (not just sympathy) when he prays. Christ prayed for others when he was hanging on the cross and Paul prayed for the Philippians from a Roman prison. When we genuinely pray for others, even when they are not in crisis, we join Paul in imitating the affection of Christ Jesus.
The Content Of Intercessory Prayer
While the motivation for praying for those who are not currently in a crisis is the affection of Christ Jesus, the content of such prayer is the spiritual maturity of the saints. Paul prays that the Philippians might abound more and more in true love. Paul is not just talking about ‘affection’ here but “rather a sober kind of love that places high value on a person and actively seeks that person’s benefit.”1 The love of God stems from His character. It is demonstrated especially in his forbearance and kindness (1 Cor. 13:4) and manifested ultimately in the death of Christ for his enemies (Rom. 5:6-8). Paul prays that the Philippians might live the gospel that they proclaim. Praying for the saints to abound more and more in the love of Christ brings glory to God and spiritual maturity in the body of Christ.
Secondly, Paul prays that the Philippians might be granted by God, knowledge and discernment to approve what is excellent. Knowledge here refers to the intimate experiential knowing of God through a personal relationship. This knowledge would help in assessing what brings glory to God and what doesn’t. This intimate knowledge would give the believer a moral insight to make the right decisions in his Christian walk. For example, if a believer is exposed to false teaching, he would be able to discern it quickly and switch towards what is excellent. Praying for the saints to grow in the knowledge of God brings honour to our Lord and strengthens the Church of God.
The Purpose Of Intercessory Prayer
The ultimate purpose of praying for believers is the glory of God. Our prayer is that the people we pray for would bring glory to God by maturing in true love, by growing in knowledge and discernment of God’s will, by remaining pure and blameless on the day of Christ and by being filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ. Pure here probably refers to sincere motives in relationships. Blameless has to do with not causing someone else to stumble. Paul also prays that they might bear the fruit of righteousness through Christ i.e the fruit that true believers would bear if they are in Christ Jesus. How often do we miss the grandeur of praying meaningfully for other believers, when we only pray for their health, wealth and earthly blessings ignoring their spiritual needs!
The Result Of Intercessory Prayer
We grow in a deeper relationship with God when we pray and care for the spiritual well-being of fellow believers. Initially, as we struggle to prioritise others, our selfish ambitions and vain conceit are made evident. But over time, spiritual pride is replaced by Spirit-enabled humility. Divisions and disparities are overcome by unity and maturity in the body of Christ. When we pray for the spiritual growth of fellow believers, God fills the body of Christ with joy irrespective of circumstances and with peace that surpasses all knowledge.
Here are a few practical ways we can grow in intercessory prayer:
- Develop a habit of praying for the spiritual growth of your church members every day. Call them and pray together wherever possible.
- Pray specifically about areas in which they might fall into sin and seek God’s help on their behalf.
- Pray that they might grow more deeply in their love for God and fellow believers. Pray that they might grow in knowledge and discernment. Uphold them in your prayers that they might be pure and blameless until Christ’s return for His glory.
- Request fellow believers to pray for your spiritual growth. Be honest in sharing your weaknesses so that they can pray for the Lord to help you.
1 Gordon D. Fee, Philippians: The IVP New Testament Commentary Series, IVP Academic: Illinois, 2010.