at the Cathedral Church of the Advent, Abuja. Friday, July 15, 2005
“Ever since I heard of your strong faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for Christians everywhere, I have never stopped thanking God for you. I pray for you constantly, asking God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, to give you spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may grow in your knowledge of God. I pray that your hearts will be flooded with light so you can understand the wonderful future he has promised those He called. I want you to realise what a rich and glorious inheritance he has given to his people.
“I pray that you will begin to understand the incredible greatness of his power for us who believe him …
“When I think of the wisdom and scope of God’s plan, I fall to my knees and pray to the Father, the Creator of everything in heaven and on earth. I pray that from His glorious unlimited resources he will give you the mighty inner strength through his Holy Spirit. And I pray that Christ will be more and more at home in your hearts as you trust in him. May your roots go down deep in the soil of God’s marvelous love. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep is the love of Christ, though its so great you will never fully understand it. Then you will be filled with the fulness of life that comes from God …
“Now glory be to God! By His mighty power at work within us, he is able to accomplish infinitely more than we would ever dare to ask or hope. May He be given glory in the church and in Christ Jesus forever and ever through endless ages” Eph 1:5-18, 3:14-19
What kind of praying is this? I urge us to look inward and ask ourselves if we were in the position of Apostle Paul, how we would pray for the Ephesians. Our prayers would definitely depend on our conditions as well as the conditions of the people we are praying for. The prayers we offer would also depend on our perception of these conditions. What shall we ask God to do for them? What will be our desires for them? What do we really think they lack? What do they stand in need of? What desires do love compel us to have for them? When we pray for people, we are basically indirectly answering these questions.
I will return to the Ephesians and attempt to answer some of these questions later. In the interim, let us consider a matter closer at hand:
A long standing Christian and a friend, Mrs Irina S. Audu is nearly 50 years old. She lives in relative comfort – does not need a car, a house, etc. She has children and just like many of us, she is struggling with several of the typical problems of having children grow up in the chaos we live through in Nigeria. She just got to know she has cancer and she’s been going to hospital for treatment in the past one year. Husband’s promotion is going on steadily but there are certain difficult people who are probably jealous of his progress at work. As a friend, I have been praying for Mrs Audu. I am in the process of sending a lengthy e-mail to her. I want to try to be as familiar as possible:
“Its been quite a while. How is Tonyen? (Toyen is 23 years old, about to complete NYSC) Thank God he finally graduated from university. It’s also nice to know he got the long awaited admission in the US. I pray that God will make a way and let these Yankees give him the visa. You never know what they will do next. God is able. I have been praying for you. I want God to continue to bless you. Concerning your health, I know the devil is a liar’ He will never be able to thwart God’s purpose in your life. We have His promises. Long life is our portion – no devil can change that! We will be praying for you.
“What about Anne? I pray that God will open the door for university entrance this year! (Anne has tried JAMB thrice). Or are you considering the UK option? All these bombing palaver scares me o! What shall we do? I am sure God will make a way for all our children. We thank God for Daddy’s recent promotion. All the bad belles in that place will have been put to shame and will remain so in Jesus name. Victory is ours forever. Please let me know how the treatment is going. When is your next appointment? What about …”
It is possible that you would have prayed in a different way than I have – given the same circumstances. It’s a good exercise to write down your own response to the circumstances of our dear sister. We shall consider this and compare it to the attitude in Paul’s prayer and see if God will teach us something deep about our souls and our neighbors’ needs.
John White, author of the book “Daring to Draw Near” remarked that we are often like Lot living near Sodom. “Our perspective of life is distorted. We are bombarded by false values, living perpetually among people whose goals are material prosperity, security, pleasure, prestige, etc. It is inevitable that we absorb the atmosphere around us until heaven seems remote while the here and now loom larger in our thinking”. It is the truth that we are unable to pray beyond our ability to think! We are never able to prayer beyond what we perceive to be most important. Our prayers reflect our understanding of the hierarchy of the things that matter. Our prayers say as much about us as they do about our perception of others. Look at what Paul thought to be important in the lengthy prayer concern here. Are these things that important or are they merely a way to write a religious letter? Were there no political appointments and carriages, houses or lands in Ephesus? Paul, why did you overlook them all? It is important that we pause a little and ask why our prayer concern for others are often so vastly different from the Apostle’s. Can we find the reasons? I will start by advancing some:
Perhaps we are under more pressure than those early Christians! Can that be the case? The Acts record for us the great opposition leading to a riot that took place when Paul was ministering in Ephesus. Paul’s preaching was affecting the local business of silver smiting and the “president” of the local chamber of commerce (Demertius) stirred up a riot and Paul had to be protected by the brethren. He eventually had to leave. (Acts 19:21…). Writing to the Phillipians in 4:10-13, he said “I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. I can do everything with the help of Christ who gives me the strength I need.” Furthermore, we know that several of the epistles we now read were composed, not from the comfort of a study room in an air-conditioned duplex as I am presently doing, rather, it was from the discomfort of a dark, dank and smelly prison cell of one condemned to die! No wonder he referred to himself in the epistle we are presently considering as ” … a prisoner of Christ Jesus” 3:1, ” … a prisoner for serving the Lord” 4:1
They were more comfortable. How else can we explain the great materialism in our prayers unless we believe we are poorer than the saints of old! In fact the matter was quite the opposite. Paul described the Christians of his time in these words: ” … dear brothers and sisters .. few of you were wise in the world’s eyes, or powerful, or wealthy when God called you. Instead, God deliberately chose the things the world considers foolish to shame those who think they are wise. And He chose those who are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world; those things counted as nothing at all, and use them to bring to nothing what the world considers important, so that no one can ever boast in the presence of God”. I Cor 1 :26-29. If we were to cast it in terms of our day, we could say: Not many of you were Senators, doctors or lawyers etc. There were several slaves and people who are downtrodden. Believe me, they could use some money, promotions, etc. They would like carriages (since there were no cars), etc.
We return to our question, why is it that we are often so materialistic and the biblical prayers like this one so spiritual? The same Apostle, speaking to the a group of Christians debating whether to eat food sacrificed to idols, reminded them that the purpose of God is specific and must not be obscured by the claims of the necessary bodily needs: “… the kingdom of God is not a matter of what we eat or drink, but of a life of goodness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. If you serve Christ with this attitude, you will please God …” Rom 14: 17. We could add, its not about tide deeds to lands, cars and jeeps, houses, appointments, etc.
Thy way not mine 0 Lord
However dark it be:
Lead me by thine own hand,
Choose out my path for me.
The kingdom that I seek
Is Thine so let the way
That leads to it be Thine
Else I must surely stray!
The kingdom we seek is His! We cannot find the way there by going our own way! We are sometimes like people looking at the world with a distorted mirror that shows people grotesquely deformed. We are now being coaxed and coerced to accept this distorted presentation as the reality! When we do this, we begin to aim too low!
While praying for our friend, (as I was doing above for Irina) did we realize that she was made by God? And that to God she will return? And that what matters eventually is how she manages her relationship with God? How did these thoughts weigh in our minds compared with the claims of here and now? In Acts 17:28, Paul told the Ephesians: “In Him we live and move and exist”. The Ephesians were given the kernel of eternal truth in 2:8-10 “ we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God has prepared for us in advance to do“. Therefore, contrary to our frenetic praying, it is God – not us, who takes the initiative in Mrs Audu’s life! Even in matters of the kingdom, our salvation, the initiative is God’s! “… don’t be afraid, little flock; For it gives your Father great happiness to give you the kingdom!” Lk 12:32. Mrs Audu, yourself and myself are God’s work-in-progress! I find it difficult to imagine any thought more exhilarating than this! Let’s think about it this way: Consider a piece of plastic that will eventually be part of a stereo set that will have the stamp of the Japanese company SONY pasted on it! The result of the quality of work in shaping that piece to its final product will be SONY’s responsibility! The management of SONY does not need any persuasion to do that job well. In fact, what comes out in the end is their pride! We are God’s work in progress! This fact transcends any small or big difficulties, failures or circumstances we may face. We need enablement to see through the mist and view the “great future” God has in plan for us! Is not this in the mind of HF Lyte in (44) when he sang “Hold Thou the cross before my closing eyes/Shine through the gloom, and point me to the skies;/ Heaven ‘s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;/ In life in death 0 Lord, abide with me!” Is it not this consideration that made Richard Baxter (611) to start in the vastly unfamiliar tone: “Lord, it belongs NOT to my care, /Whether I die or live/To love and serve Thee is my share/And this Thy grace must give”. Certainly, Baxter knew something about living and dying that is completely hidden from the eyes of much of Nigerian Christianity! “My main concern is NOT whether I lived or died!” Baxter, are you serious? Have you ever been to Lagos or passed the expressway? Why do you think we are gathering every week, day or night? What a release from the great burdens that oppress the modern Christian we will obtain if we only realize that in our lives, God takes the initiative! It is his good pleasure that we possess the kingdom, we are His workmanship and In him we live, we move and we have our being! What can separate us from the love of God? Again, Paul answers in Rom 8:31-39.
We are now in a position to consider the Apostolic prayer in its material particulars.
1. The Apostle’s tone is spiritual rather than materialistic. This, as we have pointed out, was not an escape from reality. It stems from the hierarchy of important matters the Apostle wants the Ephesians to apprehend. It also shows how what he perceived about their condition as well as his own mindset.
2. Gives thanks and prays for spiritual understanding so they may grow in the knowledge of God. That their hearts will be flooded with light so they can understand the wonderful future he has promised those He called. To realize what a rich and glorious inheritance he has given to his people. Once we lose here, we have failed. No other success can save us!
3. To begin to understand the incredible greatness of his power for us who believe him. The Jewish sect called Saducceess once posed to our Lord what they considered a difficult problem – Mark 12: 18-27. For all their posturing, they were suffering from a very simple disease. “And Jesus answering said unto them, Do ye not therefore err, because ye know not the scriptures, neither the power of God?” Mk 12:24. One major problem we face in our day is that we commit serious errors because we do not give the due attention to knowing God deeply thru the scriptures. It was Canon Njoku who interviewed a child in this church for confirmation once. The child knew the movement of players from one club to the other in England – even movements that happened within twenty four hours. The biblical illiteracy in both young and old is there to guarantee that we will continue posing seemingly difficult questions like the Saducees. Questions that show we are just poor in our understanding of God and His power. We need to pray for ourselves and one another that God may help us to use all the means of grace that we have at our disposal rather than majoring in all the gossips the city of Abuja offers.
4. Strength in the inner man. We all know that we are physically surrounded by bacteria, viruses, etc. Each of these is capable of ending our physical existence. Now how does the body cope and thrive in the circumstance bearing in mind that these malfeasants are present on our tongues, hands, everywhere? How do we gain “inner strength” to cope?
We have four different ways of coping – each with a spiritual parallel: Healthy living and exercise, Eating good food, Using prescribed drugs to attack certain diseases and Surgical operations. It seems obvious that a normal person may take all four measures in the course of life. It’s also clear that the first two are taken more frequently than the latter two. Those among us in the medical world know very well that we can get our vitamins from fruits and vegetables. We can also get them from drugs. Now which is the preferred method? Of course we would choose the former and get to the latter on special occasions. The daily dose of strengthening the inner man comes most often in healthy spiritual living and eating the spiritual food of getting soaked with the vitamins of God’s word as a matter of habit just like we eat food. The extraordinary measure of spiritual deliverance and demon casting must necessarily be done occasionally. There is something seriously wrong with someone who is permanently on drugs. Alas, many Christians are permanently on spiritual drugs! Luke 18 and Eph 6: 10-20 teach us about the regular way to keep ourselves in spiritual health – strengthened with might in the inner man!
5. Christ at home in the heart. The Eucharistic prayer talked about our “following His example and Obeying His commands”. We can invent no other way to make Christ “at home” in our hearts!
6. Rooted and grounded in love, to know the love of God. This is the end of faith! Eph 5: 1-2 tells us to be “Imitators of God”. It talks about the love of Christ we are to emulate that will be like a sweet-smelling savor and a sacrifice to God.
7. To be filled with the fulness of God. Can we pray for too much? Can we actually be too spiritual? “Paul, you are insane!” cried King Agrippa in Acts 26:24, “your too much learning has made you crazy!” No! No!! No!!! we cannot be too spiritual. Yet, we can be annoyingly superficial and mistake that for spirituality. At the risk of offending some, may I give an example of this? People often pray in Nigeria by shouting and disturbing others. Is it that they are very spiritual? Look at it this way: What prayers can we afford to shout publicly to the highest heavens? If I have stolen government money and have been convicted in heart to repent. If I have meddled with my neighbour’s wife and there is a scandal that I am praying God to forgive. If I have been wicked and I am now repenting. Can you hear me shout these prayers into a microphone so that the whole world will know how bad I have been? Are we not shouting standard “spiritual platitudes” that everybody knows they will be considered spiritual in saying? A gracious person is always in demand. The world needs people who are filled with the fullness of God. It has enough hypocrites and spiritual parrots.
8. The great beyond. Is it not marvelous that Paul did not think he had asked for too much after asking for the Ephesians to be filled with all the fullness of God? No! He says that God is able to do more than we can dare to ask or think!