Perseverance in Prayer

A sermon on Ephesians 6:18-24 by Coty Pinckney, Community Bible Church, Williamstown, MA, 2/22/98


Do you spend time praying? Why? What is the purpose of prayer? Do you pray in order to change the mind of an unchangeable God, a God who is outside time? Or do you pray like Aladdin to the genie in the bottle, thinking that God will grant you 3 wishes? Or did you try that, and the wishes didn't come true, so now you pray out of obedience but you don't understand why?

Does prayer work? Is anything accomplished through prayer, is anything changed by you or me getting on our knees and talking to God? If God is really outside time, if he is the Eternal One who created time, if he is sovereign over all creation, then why pray?

I believe every Christian struggles with some of these questions at times. Each one of us has deeply desired something -- the salvation of a loved one, victory over persistent sin, the healing of a sick person, revival in our country, the end of the reign of an oppressive dictator -- we've deeply desired something, prayed earnestly for it, and seen . . . nothing. This is a common experience of Christians, and I am certain that some here this morning are feeling: "I've tried and tried to pray; I've tried to be like that persistent widow knocking on the door of the unjust judge -- and I don't see results. Why keep trying?"

We've now reached the end of the book of Ephesians. Paul ends this most glorious book -- this book which has been called the most sublime expression of Christian teaching -- with a call to prayer. And in these few verses, in the context of the entire book, he answers some of these questions. Please turn in your Bibles with me to Ephesians 6; we will begin reading with the 10th verse and read through the end of the book:

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might. 11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual [forces] of wickedness in the heavenly [places.] 13 Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14 Stand firm therefore, HAVING GIRDED YOUR LOINS WITH TRUTH, and HAVING PUT ON THE BREASTPLATE OF RIGHTEOUSNESS, 15 and having shod YOUR FEET WITH THE PREPARATION OF THE GOSPEL OF PEACE; 16 in addition to all, taking up the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil [one.] 17 And take THE HELMET OF SALVATION, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

18 With all types of prayer and petition pray in every season in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints, 19 and [pray] on my behalf, that utterance may be given to me in the opening of my mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains; that in [proclaiming] it I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak. 21 But that you also may know about my circumstances, how I am doing, Tychicus, the beloved brother and faithful minister in the Lord, will make everything known to you. 22 I have sent him to you for this very purpose, so that you may know about us, and that he may comfort your hearts. 23 Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 24 Grace be with all those who love our Lord Jesus Christ with incorruptible [love].

In these verses Paul gives us at least 7 lessons for effective prayer, for prayer that works. This morning I can't give you an exposition of all seven: Join us in Sunday School and next week when we will talk more about these lessons and then have a "lab time," a time when we will put these lessons into practice. In this sermon, I will mention all seven, and focus our time more on a subset of these. Then, we'll return to the question: Does prayer work? Before that, let us assume that the answer to the question is "Yes," and pray to our Lord.

Our Lord and Savior, you know that Satan loves to assail us with doubts about the efficacy of prayer. You know that your enemy tries to deceive us, to make us think that prayer is a waste of time. Thank you for these words of Paul, these words which you inspired, exhorting us to be devoted to prayer. Open our ears this morning, and my mouth, and may you fill us with your Spirit so that we might have insight into this most important teaching. In Jesus name, Amen.

Seven Lessons for Effective Prayer

First, Effective prayer follows putting on the armor of God. In verse 10 Paul tells us to be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. He then instructs us to put on the full armor of God, and tells us about that armor in verses 11-17. Remember, putting on the armor consists of turning our thoughts to God and the truths of our position before Him: He has given us His truth, which is completely trustworthy; we are the righteousness of Christ, and thus can never be condemned; God has granted us his peace, peace between us and God, peace between man and man. Then we are to take up the shield of faith, our confidence in what we cannot see, so that we are not fooled by appearances. And we are to take up the helmet of the hope of salvation, knowing that we are predestined to be glorified in the presence of Christ. And finally we are to take up the sword of the Spirit, the word of God, as God makes particular parts of his word come alive for us just when we need them.

Putting on the armor of God allows us to see the world as it really is. The world around us is full of deceit and lies. Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 5:7 to walk by faith not by sight, not by appearances. True reality is invisible to us; putting on the armor allows us to see things as they really are. If we don't first put on the armor, we will pray out of misconceptions concerning the nature of reality, who we are, and who God is.

Furthermore, if we jump into prayer without first turning our thoughts to these truths, we are not protected against Satan's attacks. Our initial turning to God in prayer causes an alarm to sound in Satan's headquarters -- he will do anything possible to keep us from praying. So as soon as we turn to God, Satan frequently attacks in any way possible. We are most in need of the armor when we begin to pray. So effective prayer requires first putting on the armor

Second, Effective prayer includes all types of prayer. Paul says we are to pray "with ALL prayer" in verse 18. The Greek word used can mean "all" or "all types," and I believe it means the latter here. There are many ways to pray, many types of prayer. Our prayer should not be the same or even of the same form each day. In this verse, Paul brings out two types, translated here as "prayer and petition." The first concerns honoring God, bowing in reverence before him, worshiping him. The second consists of our requests, both for ourselves and for others.

Our prayer life can be enriched by consciously using different types. It is easy for us to go to God with a grocery list of wrongs we want righted, sicknesses we want healed, and gifts we desire. Now, God tells us to present our requests, our petitions to him. But we must concentrate on broadening our prayers, so that we come to know God better, so that our hearts desire what God's heart desires. One method I have found profitable is praying the Scriptures: taking a passage of Scripture and praying it aloud. In some cases, this can be using only the words of Scripture, in other cases making them pertain to myself or another individual. The whole book of Ephesians is rich ground to be used as prayer; stay for Sunday School and have an opportunity to pray through parts of this book. Another method of prayer is to focus on one attribute or characteristic of God, thanking Him for manifesting himself in this way, thinking about how he has shown himself throughout history in this way. So I encourage you: pray with all types of prayer.

Third, Effective prayer is offered in every season, at all times. Paul here uses the same word for "all." The emphasis in this phrase is not that we should pray continually -- that comes later! -- but that prayer is appropriate at ALL TYPES of times or seasons. We need to pray in the good times, and the bad times; in times of tragedy, and times of rejoicing; in times of accomplishment, and times of failure; at times when we feel close to God, and at times when we feel God has let us down, when we can't even sense His presence. We need to pray at all types of times.

So effective prayer follows putting on the armor, effective prayer includes all types of prayer, effective prayer is offered in every season of our lives, and, fourthly:

Effective prayer is prayer in the Spirit.

There are a variety of interpretations offered to the phrase "pray in the Spirit." Note that the construction in Greek is the same as in verse 10, where Paul writes "Be strong IN THE LORD and IN THE STRENGTH of His might." In verse 10 Paul is not suggesting that there are different ways to be strong; rather, he is explaining the only way we can truly be strong, the only way we can fight successfully our spiritual battles. Also, recall John chapter 4 where Jesus is speaking to the woman at the well. As Jesus begins to get personal, she tries to divert the discussion to more impersonal religion: Which mountain is the appropriate one for worship, Gerazim or Jerusalem? As part of his reply, Jesus states,

God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth. (John 4:24)

Again, this is the same word, the same construction as in Ephesians 6:18. Here, too, Jesus is saying the only true worship is done in spirit and truth.

Just so, in Ephesians 6:18 Paul is not suggesting that there are two types of effective prayer, prayer in the spirit and prayer not in the spirit. Rather, he stresses that we cannot pray effectively in our own power; vain repetitions, many words are not necessarily effective prayer; lots of emotion does not make for effective prayer; the absence of emotion does not lead to effective prayer, loud calling out does not lead to effective prayer; elegant writing does not lead to effective prayer. Instead, effective prayer results from an active dependence on the Spirit within us, as we acknowledge that we don't know how to pray, as we open ourselves to His leading and His prompting.

Verse 18 continues:

with all types of prayer and petition, pray at all seasons in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints.

So fifth, Effective prayer is the result of being watchful and alert.

The word used here literally means "sleepless," or "not drowsy." Have any of you fallen asleep in prayer? I have, and I'm sure many of you have too. In fact, some of you are sleeping right now while I speak!

Paul here returns to a military image. Consider this: A war is going on, and you are on guard duty. What is your responsibility? If you stay awake for the first 30 minutes of your stint, but then get drowsy, and allow your head to droop, you are not a very effective sentry! No. Don't sleep! Don't allow yourself to doze! Don't neglect to keep your eyes peeled! You don't know when or where the enemy will attack, and the army is depending on you to be its eyes and ears.

Note that we are to stay on the alert "for all the saints." We are guarding others.

We can imagine now that we are not just individual enlisted men battling in the front lines, but a Brigadier General, in charge of a brigade of troops. We are on the alert; when we hear of an enemy attack, we shift resources to assist the beleaguered point of the line; when we notice a thin point in our defense, we send reinforcements to shore up its strength. If we know that one unit is weary from battle, we relieve them, and give them rest. A good general is always watchful, always alert, always looking to send extra help to those units that need relief.

This is the responsibility of ALL of us, as the author of the book of Hebrews makes clear. Hebrews 3:12-13 is one of my favorite passages in this regard. Here is my paraphrase:

ALL of you see to it, brothers, that not one of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But all of you encourage each one of you daily, so that not one of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness.

We have a JOINT RESPONSBILITY for every member of the body of Christ. As Paul has made clear earlier in Ephesians, we are the body, we need each other, and each of us needs to do his part if the body is to prosper fully. And doing our part includes watching, and then PRAYING.

Sixth, Effective prayer is perseverant. Paul says, "be on the alert with all perseverance."

As we mentioned earlier, a watchman is not very effective if he watches for 30 minutes and then dozes off. A watchman must be devoted to his task, being alert, staying awake, until he is relieved by another. Furthermore, the general sending aid to beleaguered troops must continue the process until defenses are strong; if he sends insufficient aid, both the original troops and the reinforcements will be overrun. Just so, we must persevere in prayer.

There are at least two words translated "perseverance" in the New Testament, and these two words have quite different connotations. The first and most common word means to hold up under pressure. There is a heavy weight bearing down on you, and you must hold up under it. This is the word used, for example, in Hebrews 12:1:

Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.

There is a difficult task ahead of us, and we must endure, we must continue through the difficulty.

That is not the word used for being perseverant in prayer. This word, instead, means to serve constantly. It is used, for example, in Acts 10, where Luke tells us that the Roman centurion Cornelius had soldiers who "persevered" with him -- they waited on him constantly, were devoted to him, were anticipating his needs and trying to meet those needs even before he asked.

This word is very frequently used in conjunction with prayer in the New Testament. Indeed, in Romans 12:12 both words for perseverance are used:

  rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer,

We are to hold up under the pressures of tribulation, but we are to be devoted to, to persevere in prayer. Both words connote continuing over a long period of time -- the difference is that prayer is seen not as a burden that must be endured but as a form of service.

So the idea of being perseverant in prayer goes along with being alert: we are watching, we are aware of what is going on, and then we DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. We watch -- and then act. Prayer is the action that results from watching.

Finally, Effective prayer is in accord with God's promises and gifts.

Look now at Paul's request to the Ephesians in verses 19 and 20:

and pray on my behalf, that utterance may be given to me in the opening of my mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that in proclaiming it I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak.

Paul is in prison. But what does he ask for? Not to be released from prison; not to be made more comfortable. Now, he does later say that he is sending Tychicus to them so that they may know all about him, and I'm sure that Tychicus related the difficulties facing Paul. But those are not Paul's primary concern, not his primary prayer request. When you ask someone to pray for you, what do you ask for? Paul asks that he might fulfill his commission, that he might use his spiritual gifts effectively. Such prayer will always be answered positively! But furthermore, note that Paul didn't rest on the fact that God had commissioned him, or that God had gifted him. He sought out prayer, because God chooses to work through our prayers.

This brings us back to the question, Does prayer work? We have seen that effective prayer follows putting on the armor of God, it is of all types, for all seasons, it should be in the Spirit, it is alert and watchful, it perseveres, and it is in accord with God's promises. But does prayer work?

Prayer is our active dependence on God, our turning to Him, acknowledging that we need him, reminding ourselves of the truths of his word that appearances around us seem to belie. When we pray we are reminded of who God is, of what He has done, of what He will do, of what He has promised. We are reminded that God is faithful. We can know that God will fulfill His promises in our lives and the lives of others

We frequently hear the expression: "Prayer doesn't change God; prayer changes us." Prayer DOES change us; that is one important reason for prayer. We only need to look at the Psalms to see this. In so many Psalms, the author begins in a terrible state of mind: discouraged, depressed, overwhelmed by his circumstances. But during the course of prayer, the circumstances do not change but the Psalmist's attitude changes. By reminding ourselves of who God is, and his past actions, prayer changes us -- for the better.

But the danger in using this expression is that we may think that the only outcome of prayer is the change within. While prayer does not change an unchanging God, prayer changes the world around us. God has ordained that he will work through our prayers.

How does God work through prayer? While we can never fully understand this, fundamentally it is no different than the way God works through any of our actions. God works through prayer in exactly the same way that he works through preaching, or witnessing, or our exercising our spiritual gifts. On our own, under our own power, we can accomplish nothing of eternal significance. But God chooses to work through us, so that when we step out under His power, He accomplished great things.

Remember when God told Ezekiel to preach to a valley of dead bones? What happened? The bones joined together, began dancing around, and flesh grew on the bones, and the people responded to the preaching! Now, did Ezekiel's preaching cause those bones to come together? Think about that. The answer is Yes: God chose to work through the obedience of His prophet to cause the bones to come together. Ezekiel could not go to any graveyard and begin speaking and see bones come together; but when speaking in obedience to God's command, Ezekiel's preaching led to the response of people who were dead.

In just the same way, God CHOOSES to use us as his instruments in accomplishing his purposes. He chooses to allow us to participate in the exercise of his power, through our prayers.

So does prayer change God? NO! Is there such a thing as effective prayer? YES! So I encourage you: PRAY. Pray through the Scriptures, pray in praise to God, thanking him, recalling his great deeds as recorded in the Bible and in church history -- and as you pray you will be changed. Pray for us, your elders, and we will be empowered and changed. Pray for your children, your friends, think of yourself as the general who has access to reinforcements to send to whoever needs them. Be on the alert! Know who needs help, and do what is most effective: Pray.


This sermon was preached at Community Bible Church in Williamstown, MA on 2/22/98.

Copyright © 1998, Thomas C. Pinckney. This data file is the sole property of Thomas C. Pinckney. Please feel free to copy it, but only in its entirety for circulation freely without charge. All copies of this data file must contain the above copyright notice.

This data file may not be copied in part, edited, revised, copied for resale or incorporated in any commercial publications, recordings, broadcasts, performances, displays or other products offered for sale, without the written permission of Thomas C. Pinckney, email, c/o Desiring God Community Church, Box 620099 Charlotte NC 28262.

(return to main sermon page)