Col 4:2 Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. Col 4:3 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. 4 Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.
Nowhere else in Paul’s writings is the connection between the prayer of the church, and the work of mission, so simply and powerfully put.
The motive power of prayer is ‘alertness’
All of us find it hard to pray at times. So when Paul says, ‘Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful’, it should seize our interest that he is not speaking of the content or even manner of prayer, but of its motivation. Prayer, Paul says, is motivated by alertness.
Let me explain. How are ‘watchfulness’ and ‘thankfulness’ related? The answer is that they both have to do with being alert to certain realities. The watchful person is alert to the activity of sin and Satan in the world. John writes,
1 John 5:19 We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one.
The watchful person is alert to, is mindful of, is vigilant to this reality, and the consequent rebelliousness and darkness of the world.
In contrast, the ‘thankful’ person is alert to the reality of God. The thankful person takes heed that God is the Creator of all things for our enjoyment, who made us for himself, and who will rightly judge the wicked rebellion of his creatures. And the thankful person is alert to God’s entry into history: that the same love that erupted into the abundance of the universe has also paid the price for the rescue of foolish humankind.
1 John 2:1 My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. 2 He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
An evil world. An effective atonement for sins. The watchful and thankful person is alert to both these realities.
But what will bring the two together?
The bridge is prayer
Paul goes on to ask for prayer for two things. Let’s take a moment to look at what these things are, and then draw our final conclusion: that the bridge is prayer.
Firstly, he asks ‘that God may open a door for our message’. As a side note, the language of open doors has nothing to do with guidance in the bible. Paul sees a closed door, but it is no deterrent: pray that God opens it, he asks.
In other words, Paul’s prayer is that mission will be founded on the work of God. Until God opens the door – to opportunity, to people groups, to hearts, to sending churches, to generous wallets – mission is impossible.
But in God’s providence, God’s own work is not the full story.
Secondly, Paul says, ‘Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.’
There is a school of thought that suggests that the human dimension in proclamation is largely irrelevant, except as a vessel. They point to Paul’s recognition of his own inadequacies. And yet, if the quality of proclamation has no bearing on the effectiveness of mission, why would Paul ask for prayer that he would speak ‘clearly’?
After all, ‘clear communication’ is a subtle and complex exercise. It depends on the capacity of a speaker to translate ideas and meanings across the interpersonal, cultural, socio-economic and experiential gap. Clearly communicating the gospel isn’t merely about not leaving out crucial pieces of doctrine, or getting confused about the big issues. Communication that fails to recognise the culture into which it speaks isn’t even truthful communication, because it does not allow for the different meanings that may be read off words in different contexts. In this sense, for example, the KJV is not a true communication of the gospel in my culture, because a ‘superfluity of naughtiness’ (KJV; James 1:21) does not truly reflect the meaning of the biblical text.
So, Paul asks for prayer that God would work and he would be clear. I take it, then, that Paul assumes that without prayer it is less likely that either of these two things would happen. And if neither of them do happen, then the saving work of Christ and the rebellion of our world would never be bridged by the news of the gospel.
This is why we pray for mission
This, then, is why we pray for mission. We pray because we are motivated by the alertness to the reality that
- people face the sure judgement of God as a consequence of their wickedness;
- Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is sufficient for anyone in the world to be saved; and
- prayer is instrumental in the necessary work of God and effective proclamation of the Christian of the news that brings the two together.