Don’t Settle for Second-Best
February 2, 2003
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In this message I want to give you some very practical advice that could energize your prayer life. As we begin moving in that direction, here are three opening observations to think about:
1. Prayer is both the easiest and hardest discipline of the Christian life. It is the easiest in that the youngest child and the newest Christian can learn to pray. Even the slightest motion of the soul toward God is a form of genuine prayer. If a person says, “Lord, have mercy,” they are truly praying. But prayer is also the hardest discipline because it is the most difficult to maintain over a long period of time. In a sense it is easy to enroll in the School of Prayer but hard to get a graduate degree.
2. Almost everyone prays—believer and non-believer alike—and almost everyone feels they could improve in this area. Even in our best moments, we still must admit that we have barely touched the hem of the Master’s garment in the arena of prayer.
3. Prayer presents us with problems both theological and practical. On one level, we are faced with difficult questions regarding the sovereignty of God and human free will. While those questions are important, I do not propose to address them in this sermon. I would rather tackle the challenge of prayer on a purely practical level. When we pray, what should we pray for? I am much more interested in the what and how of prayer because this is where most of us live every day.
“Prayer is the very sword of the saints,” said Francis Thompson. If that is true, why do we often keep the sword in the scabbard? Lee Roberson called prayer “the Christian’s secret weapon, forged in the realms of glory.” Why, then, do we not use it more effectively?
Often we simply don’t know what to say when we pray. I’m thinking especially of those moments when we begin to pray for others beyond our most intimate circle. What do you do when faced with a prayer list of friends, loved ones, neighbors, co-workers, missionaries, and others whom you hardly know at all? Our usual response is to pray like this: “Lord, uh … uh … uh … bless Sally.” Then we go to the next name: “Lord, uh … uh … uh … please bless Bill.” Then we go to the next name: “Lord, uh … uh … uh … I ask you to really bless our missionaries in Ghana.” And on it goes. As one man remarked, if you took the word “bless” out of our prayer vocabularies, most of us would never pray again.
While I believe it is perfectly appropriate to ask God to bless people, I think we can move far beyond that, and in so doing, dramatically increase the effectiveness of our prayers. We can use Paul’s prayer for the Philippians in verses 9-11 of Philippians 1 as a blueprint for powerful praying. Here is a prayer that fits virtually every situation we may face. If we understand the meaning of Paul’s words, we can truly pray for anyone about anything.
This is a case where we do not have to wonder about the theme of Paul’s prayer. Verse 10 makes it absolutely clear because Paul spells it out. The heart of his prayer is his request “that you may be able to discern what is best.” This is a prayer for spiritual discernment.
Here is my version of Paul’s prayer: “I pray that you will know …
The good from the bad,
The better from the good, and
The best from the better.
As I thought about this request, my mind drifted to the motto of Oak Park-River Forest High School. If you look at the school’s website, it contains a shield with some Greek writing on it. The Greek writing is the word tagarista, which means “those things that are best.” It’s a noble goal, both for a high school and for an individual life. The people who proposed this motto for the high school understood that there is a moral dimension to all education. That is, the very notion that there is “the best” presupposes a better, a good, a not-so-good, and a definitely bad. You can hardly choose “those things that are best” unless you know what they are, and you cannot know what they are unless you know what is “the best.” This means that education in its truest sense is more than the impartation of facts about geometry, biology, American history, or English literature. It is also an understanding of a moral framework that enables us to make proper judgments about the good, the better, and the best (not to mention the bad, the very bad, and the truly evil). But apart from God, how will we know the good from the bad, the better from the good, and the best from the better? The answer is, we won’t. Education alone will never lead us to tagarista. Education gives us knowledge, but to choose those things that are best, we need the wisdom that comes from God, and that’s why Paul prayed this prayer.
I. Three Requests
Paul’s prayer begins with three requests for the Philippian believers. As we pray for others, we should feel perfectly free to include these three requests as our own.
A) Abounding Love
“And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more” (Philippians 1:9a). Imagine an empty cup slowly being filled with water. When the water reaches the brim, it begins to overflow down the sides of the cup. That’s the picture Paul has in mind—love filling the hearts of the Philippians until it overflows. Almost all of Paul’s prayers in the New Testament begin with a petition for love. That’s because love is supreme among the Christian virtues. It alone will last forever (I Corinthians 13:13). No matter how much love we have, our love can always increase. Paul prays that their love would increase in depth and in extent. He is praying that they would love more people and would love them in a greater way. Since the text is indefinite, we should ask if Paul is thinking about a) love for God, b) love for fellow Christians, or c) love for non-Christians. The answer of course is yes. The text is indefinite because our love for God is always tied to our love for other people. If a man says he loves God and hates his brother, he is a liar (I John 4:20).
It’s easy to understand why Paul’s prayer begins with love. Since we live in a fallen world, we will often find ourselves surrounded by irritable, petulant, cranky, annoying, aggravating, frustrating, crabby, unreasonable, cantankerous people. And that’s on a good day! Sometimes people will say foolish things or do things to deliberately irritate us. And let’s face it, some people are just very hard to love. What do we do then? There are many answers to that question, but our text suggests one very practical answer: We should pray for our love to increase. It’s one thing to pray, “Lord, get this fool away from me before I say something I shouldn’t,” and it’s another thing to pray, “Lord, please change this person so they won’t be so obnoxious.” But it’s something else entirely to pray, “Lord, I really don’t care for this person. I don’t like this person. He gets on my nerves. He’s a total jerk. He’s a bossy, dominating, opinionated fool. I don’t even want to love him or like him and I prefer not to be around this person at all. I now ask you to overlook my feelings and do whatever it takes to increase my love. I’m low on love, Lord, and I ask you to fill me up.” That’s a prayer God will be glad to answer. (By the way, I’m in favor of honest prayer. Why not be straightforward with God about the way we feel? David poured out his soul to the Lord and in the process used colorful language to describe his enemies. God knows how you feel anyway. It’s not as if when you say, “I can’t stand that person,” the Lord goes, “I’m surprised to hear that. I thought you liked them.” On more than one occasion I have prayed out my frustrations about people to the Lord and then said, “Lord, you know how I feel. I now ask you to overlook all that I’ve said and bless the person anyway.” And then, “Lord, do a work of healing in my heart so that I can love as I ought.”) Love is the glue that holds the human race together. It enables us to overlook the faults of others while acknowledging that we ourselves are far from perfect.
B) Growing Knowledge
“In knowledge and depth of insight” (Philippians 1:9b). Paul’s prayer continues with a request that the Philippians might grow in their knowledge of God. The particular word for “knowledge” means knowledge based on a deep, personal, and intimate relationship. In context, Paul is asking that their love express itself in an intimate knowledge of who God is. The word for “insight” speaks of moral discrimination, the ability to look at various options and to say, “This one is good. That’s not so good. This one is better. That one is best.”
Sometimes we say, “Love is blind.” God says, “No, love needs clear vision.” Our love needs the guidance of knowledge and deep insight or else we will end up loving things we ought not to love—and entering into relationships that are not good for us. While love is supreme, it is never enough.
Not every relationship is a good relationship.
Not every choice is a good choice.
Not every friendship is good for us.
Not every job is a wise career move.
Not every roommate is a healthy choice.
Not every purchase is a wise use of our money.
We make our choices and then our choices turn around and make us. As a massive ship is guided by a tiny rudder, our lives often turn on small decisions and unexpected events. An unplanned phone call, a chance conversation in the hallway, a friend we “happened” to meet in a restaurant, a fragment of a remembered dream, a book we meant to return but didn’t, the dry cleaning we forgot to pick up, a newspaper story that led to an idea that became a dissertation topic that earned a degree that opened a door to a job in another country. It happens all the time. You have heard me speak before about the importance of “tiny steps toward the light.” Every day we make thousands of decisions, most of them made either by habit or on the spur of the moment.
Will I get up in the morning?
Will I take a shower?
Will I eat breakfast?
Will I go to work today?
If so, will I take the car or ride the train?
If I take the car, will I listen to the radio or to a CD?
If I ride the train, what will I read while I’m on the train?
Who will I greet first at work?
Who will I see before first period starts at school?
Who will I meet for lunch?
What will we talk about?
What will I do when I get home?
What e-mails will I answer?
What Internet sites will I visit?
What books will I read?
How will I respond to my husband (wife)?
How much time will I spend with my children?
On and on the questions go. Thousands of questions, one after another, little decisions made on the fly every day. We like to think those decisions don’t matter but they do. Each decision is connected to every other decision like so many links in the chain of life itself. There is a profound sense in which you are nothing but the sum total of all the choices you have made stretching back to your childhood. Each little decision joins you to the past and leads inexorably into the future. And each decision either leads us toward the light of God or toward the darkness of despair. In the final analysis, there really are no “neutral” choices because many things that don’t seem to matter today may be of enormous consequence tomorrow. So we need “insight” from God to make wise choices. Here’s a good way to remember the concept of insight. It is “sight” on the inside, a kind of inner vision that enables us to properly evaluate all the choices we face every day. When we have it, we make good decisions. And when we don’t have it, we end up making the same dumb mistakes over and over again.
Where do we find this kind of insight? First, we get it from the Word of God with the aid of the Holy Spirit. As we study the Bible, the Holy Spirit takes the Word of God and reveals to us the things of God (I Corinthians 2:6-16). Let a man bury himself in the Bible with an open heart and very soon his whole life will begin to change. In essence, Paul wants the Philippians to learn to think “Christianly” in every situation. Second, we get it from the Lord in answer to our prayers. So if you are confused, or if you find yourself in a deep hole because of wrong choices made over and over again, humbly ask God for the insight to make the right choices in life.
That leads directly to the third petition, which is the heart of the prayer.
C) Increasing Discernment
“So that you may be able to discern what is best” (Philippians 1:10a) Eugene Peterson (The Message) offers this colorful paraphrase, “You need to use your head and test your feelings so that your love is sincere and intelligent, not sentimental gush.” Knox translates it this way: “that you may learn to prize what is of value.” The NEB speaks of the “gift of true discrimination.” The NLT offers this translation: “I want you to understand what really matters.” That’s an excellent translation because the Greek word for “discern” was used for testing metals—like gold ore or coins—to find out what they are worth. There is gold and then there is “Fool’s Gold.” It looks like gold to the naked eye, but it isn’t, and it’s not worth anything. Too many Christians settle for “Fool’s Gold” in the choices they make.
Paul prays that the Philippians would have such love and insight that they would continually make wise choices in life. He is praying that they would not be satisfied with the status quo or with spiritual mediocrity but would push on to true spiritual excellence. In a sense he is asking God for the gift of spiritual discrimination. In our day discrimination has a mostly negative tone, but in the spiritual realm we desperately need to discriminate between good and bad, good and better, better and best. I define this kind of discrimination as the ability to make wise choices under pressure. God’s people need to learn discernment so that under pressure they can make wise choices. By the way, I think this is an important prayer request for parents to offer on behalf of their children. You should pray that your children learn to make wise choices under pressure.
There are really two parts to making wise choices: First, you must know what is right. This is crucial because we live in a world where many people evidently have lost all sense of right and wrong. Everything appears to them as shades of gray. Second, you must have the courage to choose what you know to be right. True discernment gives you vision to see what is right and then the courage to choose to do it.
II. Three Results
Paul’s prayer continues with the results that flow from the three requests just mentioned—love, knowledge, and discernment.
A) A Blameless Life
“And may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ” (Philippians 1:10b). Note two key words in this phrase: The word “pure” comes from two other words that mean “judgment” and “sunlight.” In the first century the shops were often dimly lit which meant that prospective customers would have trouble viewing the wares. When they took the pottery or the fabric into the sunlight, they could see it as it really was. The sunlight revealed the truth. To be pure means to live in such a way that the truth about who we are is clear. It means that people don’t have to wonder about what you are doing in the darkness because you have nothing to hide.
You are the same in the darkness as you are in the light.
You are the same at midnight as you are at high noon.
You are the same on the job or at school as you are in church on Sunday morning.
You are the same behind closed doors as you are in public.
To be “pure” means to be a “sunlight” Christian. Your life is consistent no matter where you happen to be or who happens to be with you.
The word “blameless” comes from the Greek word family from which we get the English word “scandal.” It originally referred to the bait in a trap that would catch unsuspecting animals. It came to mean a lifestyle that caused others to fall into sin. A “blameless” person is free from moral scandal. It means you don’t stumble into sin and you don’t cause others to stumble by your behavior.
B) A Fruitful Life
“Filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:11a). The Bible often uses the metaphor of a fruit tree to describe both the life of the righteous and the life of the wicked. Regarding false prophets, Jesus declared that by their fruit you shall know them (Matthew 7:20). That’s precisely what Paul is praying for—the fruit of visible Christian character. A fruitful life is one that is distinctively Christian in every aspect. It reminds me of the question, “If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” The fruitful life can always answer yes.
Note that this fruit comes “through Jesus Christ.” As we are rooted deeply in him, and as we draw our strength from him, his power flows through us and produces the “fruit of righteousness” in us. He is the root and his power produces the fruit.
C) A Theo-Doxic Life
“To the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:11b). Don’t look for the word “theo-doxic” in your dictionary because I made it up. “Theo” means “God” and “doxic” means “glory” (as in the word Doxology). A “theo-doxic” life is one that brings glory or praise to God. Such a person actually enhances God’s reputation in the world.
When people see you, do they naturally think about God? Does your life serve as a good advertisement for the Lord Jesus Christ? I grew up in a small town in Alabama where my father was a well-known and well-loved surgeon. As a child I was often reminded that I was “Dr. Pritchard’s son.” Because I bore my father’s name, I knew I had an obligation not to ruin his name by the way I lived—and to bring honor to my earthly father if I could. The same principle holds true in the spiritual realm. We who bear God’s name must live so that others can see Jesus in us. Have you ever heard Ruth Bell Graham’s definition of a saint? A saint is a person who makes it easy to believe in Jesus. When this prayer is answered in us, we’ll be saints who make it easy for others to believe in Jesus.
Before we finish, let’s step back and consider how great this prayer is. One 19th century writer called it “The Life of God in the Soul of Man.” In some ways it covers the whole range of what God wants to do in us and through us.
1. It starts with abounding love
2. That manifests itself in knowledge and discernment
3. Resulting in the ability to make wise choices under pressure
4. And the visible fruit of a righteous life
5. That comes from a living relationship with Jesus Christ
6. So that God alone gets the glory.
What a fantastic prayer. Here is the application.
Pray this prayer for yourself.
Pray this prayer for others.
Who are you praying for today? Remember that prayer is not a ritual but a matter of the heart. To pray for someone else is an act of hidden kindness that only God sees. And because God alone sees your heart, he will hear your prayer and reward you in secret. We can touch people through prayer that we couldn’t touch any other way. Prayer is the secret sword of the saints. Use it! God gave you a secret weapon so that by your prayer in secret you can change the world.
When you boil it all down to the essentials, Paul prayed for tagarista, that the Philippians would have the wisdom to choose the best things in life. And he didn’t mean “the best things” in general; he meant God’s best for them. This is an inspiring thought and a good way to organize our prayers.
Do you want God’s best for others? Pray this prayer!
Do you want God’s best in your own life? Pray this prayer!
Do you want God’s best in your family? Pray this prayer!
Do you want God’s best in your church? Pray this prayer!
May God deliver us from “second-best” Christianity!
May God deliver us from spiritual mediocrity!
Lord Jesus, grant that our love may overflow so that we will love even the irritating people we meet every day. Give us the knowledge that comes from knowing you and the sight on the inside (insight) to see what really matters so that we can make wise choices under pressure. Make us “sunlight” Christians who bring forth good fruit and bring glory to God. We long to be people who make it easy for others to believe in Jesus. O Lord, teach us to pray like this! And make this prayer come true in us and through us. Amen.