16th Sunday After Pentecost: Saint Pauls Example Of Prayer
One of the best ways to learn how to pray is to study the prayers of the Bible, and to meditate on the prayers of the Church. By doing this, we learn a great deal about the content of prayer pleasing to God and the intensity with which we should pray. Content is obvious but the concept of intensity may be new to some people. Many Christians today find themselves easily distracted when they attempt to pray. We get so easily distracted by things from without and within. How different this is from the prayers of Moses or Daniel or David or Saint Paul. Contrast your prayers with those of Saint Alphonsus, Saint Ambrose, Saint Bernard, Saint Bernadine and many others. These men and women of God prayed with fire in their souls. They cried out to God with a single-minded focus that seemed to shut out the world around them.
In our Epistle reading for today we find an example of a prayer that I just described. We learn a great deal about the content of a God like prayer and the intensity with which we should pray.
For this cause I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Of whom all paternity in heaven and earth is named, That he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened by his Spirit with might unto the inward man, That Christ may dwell by faith in your hearts; that being rooted and founded in charity,You may be able to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth, and length, and height, and depth: To know also the charity of Christ, which surpasseth all knowledge, that you may be filled unto all the fullness of God.
I am especially grateful that Saint Paul wrote one of his prayers in Ephesians. I believe this is one of the greatest prayers in the entire Bible. One writer called it “the Holy of Holies in the Christian life.” Another writer called it “a prayer for the impossible.” That is a very apt description.
As we look at this prayer, it’s easy to get lost in the details. At first reading, it appears to be a complex arrangement of phrases piled one on top of the other, all leading to a very powerful doxology in verses 20-21, where he prays, “Now to him who is able to do all things more abundantly than we desire or understand, according to the power that worketh in us; To him be glory in the church, and in Christ Jesus unto all generations, world without end. Amen.”
I believe that the best way to study this prayer is to focus on the main request in verse 16 where Paul prays that God might “strengthen them by his Spirit with might in the inward man,” This is a prayer for spiritual strength in the inner being, that is the inner man. Paul prays for one thing and one thing only in this prayer. He asks God to strengthen the Ephesians by the Holy Spirit on the inside so that they can fulfill God’s will for them. Though this prayer has many parts and builds to a big climax, that is the one basic request.
How can I be so sure that there is only one basic request? The key is found in verse 13, just before the prayer begins: “I ask you, therefore, not to be discouraged because of my sufferings for you, which are your glory.” The phrase “not to be discouraged” can be translated “not to lose heart” or “not to give up.” This is extremely relevant because so many things sap our strength: discouraging circumstances, monotonous routine, physical weakness, personal failure, unwanted interruptions, unfinished responsibilities, and unresolved conflicts. Any one of those things could knock us out of commission, but often two or three of them hit us at the same time. And then we are knocked to the floor and find it hard to get up and get back in the fight.
Seen in that light, this is a prayer for something most of us desperately need every day—spiritual strength.
When we feel weak, prayer can be difficult or almost impossible. In those moments, here is a prayer that is always appropriate. It is a prayer to pray before you faint. If you are on the verge of giving up, take this prayer to heart before you throw in the towel.
When you are weak, you need strength. And strength is the exact opposite of losing heart. Or in the scriptures says in verse 13, “fainting”. To be “strengthened” means to be made powerfully strong so that you can overcome the obstacles set before you. The word for power is dunamis, from which we get the English words dynamic and dynamite. When you are made strong in the inner man by the Holy Spirit, there will be power to blast out the unbelief, and power to overcome despair, and power to rise above anger, and power to keep going when you would rather quit. Note that this power is put to work in the “inner self” or the “inner man.” That “inner man” is the control room of life where every great decision is made. This is the place where we need the most help.
So what are the results of a prayer like this?
The first great result is found in verse 17: “That Christ may dwell by faith in your hearts”
The word “dwell” comes from a Greek word which itself comes from two smaller words: meaning “down” and and “house” or “home.” The prayer is that Christ might be “down home” in your heart. It’s the picture of a man at home in his own house. We all know there is a difference between a house and a home. A house is a building; a home is a dwelling place. Is Christ just living “in” your heart or is he “at home” in your heart.
Imagine the believer’s heart as a home with many rooms. The heart has a living room, a dining room, a bedroom, a kitchen, a computer room, a TV room, many closets, and an attic. Too many believers keep Christ in the entryway, as if to say, “Jesus, I’ve got you in the door. Now stay there and don’t bother the rest of my life.” But the Lord wants to enter every room. He wants to enter your kitchen, your bedroom, your library, your TV room, your computer room, and he wants access to every closet and even to the “attic” of your heart. As long as you keep the doors locked, he can never be “at home” in your heart. And you will never grow properly as a Christian.
The question is not, “How much of the Lord do I have?” but rather, “How much of me does the Lord have?” O Christ, come in and purify my mind, ennoble my thoughts, guide my lips, and direct my path. This, then, is a prayer for a deeper experience between Christ and the believer. Until Christ is at home in your heart, he will always seem like a stranger to you even though he lives in you.
He’s not just watching me, he’s with me.
He’s not just with me, he’s in me.
He’s not just a visitor, he’s at home in my heart.
This is the first result of being strengthened in the inner man by the Holy Spirit.
The second great result of being strengthened by the Spirit in the inner man is that you will have a growing understanding of the love of Christ.
“That being rooted and founded in charity, You may be able to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth, and length, and height, and depth: To know also the charity of Christ, which surpasseth all knowledge, that you may be filled unto all the fulness of God.” (Ephesians 3:17-19)
The Greek word translated “comprehend” has the idea of grasping and holding on to something. It means a growing personal experience of love of Jesus Christ. There is a sense in which all Christians experience the love of Christ. But love itself has many dimensions. Paul is saying, “I pray that you may grow in your daily experience of the love of Jesus.” He even says, “I pray that you will come to know (in a personal way) this love that surpasses knowledge.” No matter how far you go in your knowledge of Christ’s love, you will never come to the end of it.
Let me illustrate. When a man and woman meet and date and fall in love, their love is real and true, but it is not complete. On their wedding night, they will experience love in a deeper way, but there is much more to come. As the years go by, romantic love gives way to a love that springs from a deep personal commitment made stronger and more profound by the changing seasons of life. And so a husband may truly say on his tenth anniversary, “Sweetheart, I love you more today than the day we got married.” That is more than poetry or sentiment. In a good marriage, that is reality.
Now take that principle into the spiritual realm and you will understand what Paul means by the breadth, length, height, and depth of the love of Christ. The early church took this as a sign of the cross. The “breadth and length” stood for the crossbar on which the arms of Christ were nailed. The “height and depth” stood for the vertical piece to which his legs were nailed. It is a fitting image because nowhere is the love of Christ more clearly seen than at the cross where Jesus died for us.
Christ’s love is broader than the universe, longer than time, higher than hope, deeper than death. As we are strengthened by the Spirit on the inside, we will come to a new comprehension of his love for us.