Letter writing seems to be a lost art. After all, when was the last time someone sent you a handwritten letter in the mail? Or when was the last time you sent one? If you would see my handwriting you would be glad that I haven’t sent a letter your way. Yet, the principles of letter writing still apply to our emails, texts, and tweets. They are addressed, they do convey some sense of our emotion and reason for writing even if it’s an emoji, and they contain some kind of information. For Lambchow’s Wednesday articles we are going to begin a study on Philippians. What we call Philippians is a letter written by Paul while imprisoned in Rome to the believers at Philippi in Macedonia. Yet, God speaks to us today in this simple letter about attitudes, joy, and fruitfully following Jesus. This week we will take a look at Philippians 1:1-8.
“This letter is from Paul and Timothy, slaves of Christ Jesus. I am writing to all of God’s holy people in Philippi who belong to Christ Jesus, including the elders and deacons. May God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ give you grace and peace. Every time I think of you, I give thanks to my God. Whenever I pray, I make my requests for all of you with joy, for you have been my partners in spreading the Good News about Christ from the time you first heard it until now. And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns. So it is right that I should feel as I do about all of you, for you have a special place in my heart. You share with me the special favor of God, both in my imprisonment and in defending and confirming the truth of the Good News. God knows how much I love you and long for you with the tender compassion of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:1–8, NLT)
As you read these opening lines what emotions did you pick up on? I saw grace, peace, thankfulness, joy, confidence, love, and compassion. Paul liked the Philippians and we know from the start that this letter will be encouraging. For comparison take a look at Galatians 1:1-6. The first couple of verses show us that Paul had a standard opening which included the author(s), who the letter was intended for, and a prayer for God’s grace and peace. It’s what comes next that sets the stage. In Philippians Paul writes, “Every time I think of you, I give thanks to my God.” In Galatians we see, “I am shocked that you are turning away so soon from God, who called you to himself through the loving mercy of Christ. You are following a different way that pretends to be the Good News” (Galatians 1:6, NLT) Philippians is a letter of encouragement, Galatians is one of correction. We are going to see that attitude of encouragement over and over as we walk through Paul’s letter.
In this snippet from Paul’s letter we see some things about the way he prayed. What would you say was Paul’s attitude in prayer? I see three distinct attitudes in these verses. Specifically thankfulness, joy, and certainty. Paul often prayed with thankfulness. Consider these examples: “Let me say first that I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith in him is being talked about all over the world.” (Romans 1:8, NLT) And, “I always thank my God for you and for the gracious gifts he has given you, now that you belong to Christ Jesus.” (1 Corinthians 1:4, NLT) And, “I have not stopped thanking God for you. I pray for you constantly,” (Ephesians 1:16, NLT) Just about every one of Paul’s letters opens with some mention of prayer and thankfulness. Along my own journey of faith I’ve learned to start almost all of my prayer with thanksgiving. Sometimes it is thanking God for who or what I’m praying for, sometimes it’s thanking Him for a yet unknown answer, and sometimes it is thanking God for who He is. No matter how dark the day or the situation beginning prayers with thanksgiving seems to instantly lighten the load.
The words joy and rejoice will reverberate many times during our walk through Philippians. It was Paul’s joy to write this letter and to pray for the believers gathered in Philippi. We often come to God’s throne with heavy hearts; motivated to pray becasue our problems. I think that that is only half of the prayer life we are supposed to have. We should bring our troubles and challenges to Jesus but we should also bring our joys to Him as well. Since I have the skill set of being good with computers I tend to get phone calls when folks are having computer trouble. I don’t mind too much. What gets my goat is when that’s the only time I hear from them. Some folks only call when something bad is going on, it would be nice if they would share their joys too. It kind of makes me wonder if God feels that way at times. So, I have this habit as well for prayer. Share everything with God, the good, the glorious, and the victories as well as the challenges, struggles, and failures.
The third prayer attitude we see in Paul is certainty. Paul wrote, “I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.” Paul was certain, he had faith that God would continue to work in the lives of the believers on the other end of his letter. It wasn’t Paul’s confidence alone that did the trick; it was WHO we had confidence in. We often come to God with the faulty understanding that if we pray the right way, say the right things, or pray long enough, or pray loud enough, or pray persistently enough then God will have to answer. That thought puts the burden on us; as if our prayers somehow move God. But Paul’s attitude and example was different. Instead of trying to move God, He recognized what God was already doing and moved to join it. Other New Testament letter writers saw this as well. James said, “And even when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong—you want only what will give you pleasure.” (James 4:3, NLT) John wrote, “This is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him.” (1 John 5:14–15, NASB95) Whenever I’m up against a situation or when someone brings a prayer request my way the second prayer after being thankful is asking God to show me His will for the need. It makes it much easier to pray with certainty and faith when we know in advance what God wants or what He is already doing.
My encouragement is for you to incorporate Paul’s prayer attitudes into your own time with God. Start your prayers with thanksgiving. You may not be able to thank God for the situation but you can thank Him for who He is and what He is doing in us. Thank Him for the answer but most of all thank Him for His love. Next, bring to God your joys as well as your troubles and challenges. God is not asking us to put on a happy face when praying. In other words, we don’t need to fake joy or pretend to be happy when bad things are happening. But there is something about prayer that brings joy even when we are surrounded by darkness. Lastly, we need to pray with certainty and faith. I’m not meaning that we should pray in a way that sounds like we’re bossing God around. Perhaps a better word picture would be settledness. Knowing that whatever we bring to God is in His hands. The issue is settled even if we don’t see it yet and even if it takes a lifetime to unfold. Growing a prayer vocabulary that includes thanksgiving, joy, and certainty will change how you look at prayer. I find that it makes those moments with God much more meaningful, powerful, and fun.