Knowing What to Pray For

Colossians 4:2-6

March 28, 2024 | Brian Bill

Many of us have been on a trip together.  As you look around this room it may not seem like it, but we’ve been fellow passengers and on several occasions, I’ve served as your tour guide.  Our trips have not always been pleasant, but most have been memorable.  In fact, at the very mention of a return visit, most of us cringe inside.  The names for our excursions have not been something appealing like “Comfort Cruises” or “Glorious Getaways.”  Instead, they’re known simply as “Guilt Trips.”

Some of us have been taking these kinds of trips for a very long time.  And, sadly enough, many of our journeys of guilt have been launched in the church.  As we near the conclusion of our study in the Book of Colossians, my goal this morning is not to heap more guilt on you but to send you off on an expedition of grace.  

Please turn in your Bibles to Colossians 4:2-6 as I read: “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.  And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains.  Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.  Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity.  Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”

Our text falls naturally into two parts.

  • Prayer: Speaking to God about people (verses 2-4)
  • Evangelism: Speaking to people about God (verses 5-6)

Now, before you shut down and take your mental guilt trip at the mention of prayer and evangelism, let’s allow the Holy Spirit to blow freshness through this passage.  We’ve all heard messages on the need to pray and the need to witness and yet most of us struggle because we know we’re not doing enough.  We know that prayer makes a difference, that we have access to the God of the universe, that we can have peace as we pray, and that without prayer, we are powerless.  And yet, most of us don’t pray like we should.  

Prayer is at once the sweetest privilege we will ever enjoy on earth, and also the severest struggle we will endure

Even though I love to pray, I find that there is nothing that my flesh resists quite as much as being still and seeking the Lord.  Though communion with the Lord is life’s greatest pleasure, I often neglect it as if it were not even a priority.  Prayer is at once the sweetest privilege we will ever enjoy on earth, and also the severest struggle we will endure. 

In one sense, prayer is simple; but yet, it is also the most difficult part of the Christian life. Ask any believer about their battles, and nine out of ten will tell you that maintaining a warm and deepening prayer life is one of their greatest challenges.  Because so many have struggled for so long, it’s tempting to not pray at all.  But then we feel guilty for not trying harder to cultivate a life of prayer. 

I can think of several obstacles to prayer.

  • We may not yet have a true relationship with God.  In order to experience the joy of answered prayer, it’s essential that you are able to call God your Father.  You can do that only if you’ve received Jesus Christ into your life.
  • We may be more focused on asking for things than on knowing God more intimately.  James 4:3 tells us that sometimes we don’t receive because we’re asking with wrong motives.
  • We’re too proud.  If the truth were known, some of us don’t really feel like we need any help.  James 4:6: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
  • We view prayer as a chore.  When we see something as a “have to” we often fight against it.  Most of us know through experience that guilt trips are usually dead ends because guilt is a lousy motivator.  Only grace can truly bring us to our knees.

Speaking to God About Others

Let’s look first at how to speak to God about others.  Verse 2 answers the question, “How do we pray?”  We discover three helpful guidelines in this verse: “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.”

1. Pray with devotion. 

The word, “devote” means to “adhere firmly to.”  It implies unrelenting persistence and is the opposite of “hit and miss.” It brings back to mind how steadfast the early church was in Acts 2:42: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”  In Luke 18:1, Jesus told his “disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.”

Being devoted in prayer is similar to cheering on your sports team, regardless of whether they are winning or losing.  That means that when the Packers beat the Bears today you will still root for Chicago next Sunday.  Paul is saying something quite simple: Keep praying.  Don’t bail.  Don’t give up.  Be faithful.  You may have dry times and days when you don’t know what to say, but keep praying anyway.

To be “devoted” to prayer also means to be “ready at all times.”  In Mark 3:9, Jesus told his disciples to get a small boat ready for Him so that the people wouldn’t crush Him.  This word “ready” is the same word that is translated, “devoted” in Colossians 4:2.  Paul is saying, “Always be ready to break into prayer, and do it instantaneously, at all times.”  That’s precisely the admonition in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 where we’re exhorted to “pray continually.”  

President George W. Bush is a good example of this.  Because he was already devoted to prayer, he was ready to break out into more prayer when the events of September 11th rocked our country.  As we “keep at it” on a daily basis we won’t need an introduction to God when some demand or crisis suddenly comes upon us.

Paul doesn’t leave us with just an exhortation.  He also gives a couple tips on how to remain devoted in our praying.

2. Pray with watchfulness. 

Verse 2 continues by saying that we’re to be “watchful” or awake when we pray.  Paul told the believers in 1 Thessalonians 5:6 to not go asleep but to instead be “alert and self-controlled” as the time approaches for the Lord’s return.  This exhortation brings to mind the words of Jesus to His disciples the night before He was crucified in Mark 14:34, 38: “Stay here and keep watch…Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.  The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.”  Watchful prayer provides the spiritual fortitude to face down temptation.  Because Peter could not stay awake when he was supposed to pray, he gave in to temptation and denied Christ a few hours later.

Consider the difference between two military sentries.  One is guarding the Armory here in town. The other is guarding a platoon in Tora Bora, Afghanistan.  Which one is probably going to be more attentive?  Which one will be more watchful?  The one who realizes he’s in a battle.  Friends, because we’re in a spiritual battle, we need to stay on high alert at all times.  1 Peter 5:8 paints a real picture of the war we are in: “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”

3. Pray with thankfulness. 

We should never pray without thinking of at least one thing to thank God for.  Gratitude is a stimulus to prayer.  When we see answers to prayer, we will pray more.

He’s given us so many things.  We can thank Him for His presence, His provision, His pardon, His promises, and for His purposes.  Listen to how Paul puts his own preaching into practice in the Book of Colossians:

  • 1:3: “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you.”
  • 1:12: “Giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light.”
  • 2:7: “Rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.”
  • 3:15-17: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace.  And be thankful.  Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.  And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

Verse 2 asks the question, “How do we pray?” and focuses on the characteristics of prayer.  We do so with devotion, watchfulness and thankfulness.  Verses 3-4 pose another question, “What do we say when we pray?”  Let’s take a look: “And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains.  Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.”  There are at least two things we should say when we pray.

1. Ask for open doors. 

It’s amazing to me that while Paul is under house arrest he doesn’t ask for prayers for his release, or for better food, or anything else like that.  He simply wants an open door for the gospel message.  Even though he was locked up he was able to minister effectively – but he needed the prayers of God’s people for the doors to open.  

In Scripture, a door is an opportunity, or ability.  In 1 Corinthians 16:9, Paul says, “a great door for effective work has opened to me.”  In 2 Corinthians 2:12, he writes,

“I went to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ and found that the Lord had opened a door for me.”  Jesus opens and shuts doors for us as we seek Him in prayer.  Revelation 3:8: “See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut.”  God has given our church some open doors right now in our children’s ministry, youth ministry, and in the women’s ministry. Let’s pray that these doors stay open and that Jesus opens some more!

This last Tuesday night at our elder meeting we began our time by reading our text for this morning.  We then focused our prayers on asking God to give each of us open doors with the lost people in our lives.  It brought tears to my eyes to hear these guys pouring out their hearts on behalf of people who don’t yet know Christ.  I was struck by their passion and amazed at how many people we collectively are praying for.

I can open a door for you and you can open a door for me – if we pray for one another.  1 Samuel 12:23 is very challenging: “…far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by failing to pray for you.”  That means that if I don’t pray for you, and you don’t pray for me, we can end up sinning against the Lord.

2. Ask for clarity. 

Once God opens a door, it’s essential that we have the ability to proclaim the mystery of Christ with clarity.  The goal of evangelism is to make the cloudy clear.  As we’ve learned in Colossians, the mystery is that Christ has died for the sins of the whole world, and that when we receive Him by faith, He comes to take up residence in our life as Colossians 1:27 states: “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

It’s difficult for me to ask people for things but I want to ask you for something this morning.  Would you please pray for me?  I am cognizant of the fact that I will not have open doors and I will not be able to communicate with clarity unless you are praying for me.  If you don’t pray for me and I preach a confusing sermon, it’s really your fault!  Seriously, I can’t think of anything more comforting and assuring than to know that many of you are praying for your pastors every day.  

Speaking to Others About God

When we speak to God about others, Paul urges us to be devoted, to be watchful, and to be thankful.  When we wonder what we should say when we pray, we’re given two practical requests – pray for open doors and pray for clarity when those opportunities come.  As we study verses 5-6, we’ll gain some insight into how to speak to others about God.  This is where prayer dovetails with evangelism as we discover that our ability to impact people is directly related to the intensity of our intercession.

Verse 5 focuses on how we walk.  In verse 6 the emphasis is on how we talk.  We must balance our life and our lips.  Let’s look first at verse 5: “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity.” 

1. Be wise. 

To be wise in the way we walk means that we’re careful not to say or do anything that would make it difficult to share the gospel.  Often this simply means that we need to remember that those who don’t yet know Christ are watching us.  When Dr. Will Houghton became pastor of the Baptist Tabernacle in Atlanta, a man in that city hired a private detective to follow him around and report on his conduct.  After a few weeks, the detective reported that Dr. Houghton’s life matched his preaching.  As a result, the man became a Christ follower.  

When Jesus sent his disciples out to spread the good news, he told them in Matthew 10:16 to be “as shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves.”  Romans 16:19 challenges us to be “wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil.”  Brothers and sisters, we need to be careful about the way we act because people are making decisions about the validity of Christianity based upon how we’re living.  When we pray, God will give us open doors.  Let’s not shut them by our behavior.  

2. Make the most of opportunities.  

This phrase is a commercial term and means to “buy up.”  It’s the picture of finding something on sale and buying all you can afford because the price is so good.  Likewise, we’re to buy up every opportunity to speak for Christ when we see one.  

Are you making the most of the opportunities you have every day?  Try to accomplish as much spiritual good as you can in all your relationships.

3. Be gracious. 

Verse 6 challenges us to guard what comes out of our mouths.  Our wise walk should lead to wise words: “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”  It’s important that we communicate with words of grace when we speak with those who don’t know Christ.  Unfortunately, many times believers go off on people who are living in sin.  Or, we let loose about a moral issue in our culture, forgetting that there may be someone listening who is caught in that particular sin.  When we’re filled with anger and rage people feel judgment, not hope.  

We need to be more like Jesus, who was the perfect embodiment of both truth and grace.  Even when He dealt with sin, He spoke words of grace.  In Luke 4:22, after listening to Jesus teach, the people “spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips.” 

4. Be appetizing. 

We should be talking about Christ in a way that makes someone’s mouth water!

Our conversations need to be seasoned with salt.  Salt enhances flavor and makes food appetizing  “Salty speech” in Paul’s day referred to witty and clever discussion.  It was the opposite of being boring or monotone.  When we talk about our faith how can we not be interesting?  In our Growth Group right now we’ve been working on giving our testimonies.  One of the common themes in almost all of them is a funny story or interesting comment that peaks the interest of the hearer.  Salty speech makes people thirsty for more.  We should be talking about Christ in a way that makes someone’s mouth water!

Salt was also added to the Old Testament sacrifices in Leviticus 2:13. Maybe Paul is implying that we should view our words as oral offerings to God, just as our words of praise are spiritual offerings in Hebrews 13:15.  Recognizing that what comes out of our mouths is a sacrifice to God should help us to be both gracious and appetizing.

5. Be ready. 

When we choose to mix it up with people who don’t yet know Christ we need to be ready to give them an answer when they ask us some questions.  Another way to say it is that when we are gracious and appetizing, people will want an explanation.  This is a natural process that will happen when people see Christ in us.  Peter put it this way in 1 Peter 3:15: “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”

We must be ready to answer everyone.  You can do that any number of ways.  First of all, simply tell your story.  Talk about how you became a Christian.  Secondly, tell His story.  Focus on Jesus, explaining why He had to die on the cross and the need for us to respond to what He has done.  Thirdly, invite your searching friends to a Sunday morning service or an event that is specifically designed to be a tool for you to use. 

Cancel Your Guilt Trip

Now, before you leave here feeling beat up because you don’t pray enough and you don’t say enough, let me encourage you to cancel your guilt trip.  The key to praying more and witnessing more is not necessarily to become more disciplined.  Discipline is a good thing but my guess is that you’ve tried that before.

The real answer is to cultivate intimacy with God by bowing to the supremacy of Jesus.  We won’t really pray until we see prayer as a way to express our love to Christ and recognize that He is even more eager to meet with us than we are to meet with Him.  Likewise, it’s impossible to salt our speech with the deliciousness of Jesus when we haven’t been enjoying the taste ourselves.  If evangelism is what spills over when we bump into someone, then we must make sure that what bubbles over is appetizing.

Prayer and evangelism flow out of relationship.  Are you growing in your love for Him?  

Cancel your reservations on the guilt cruise and book your grace trip.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?