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Learning to Pray from Paul

Written by Dustin Crowe on

Paul’s prayers—like his letters in general—so overflow with richness that you feel like you’re working to catch every drop as it pours out. There’s always more to be seen and acted on than what you find in the moment. This makes studying the Bible exciting, knowing there’s always more to be found later when we return. We never run out of “fresh grass” to feed on.

Paul’s prayer over the church at Colossae (1:9-14) is one of those crammed prayers that can not only benefit us but it can teach us about prayer. As he prays for the knowledge of God that leads a life pleasing to God, and strength so we can persevere in such an endeavor, there is so much to see, learn, pray into, put into practice, and be shaped by.

Here are six summary observations about Paul’s prayer (and his praying throughout his New Testament letters), much of which—unfortunately—contrasts to the way we tend to pray. The goal in contrasting Paul’s way of praying with our own isn’t simply to beat ourselves up but to notice where our default praying might be changed for the better.

1. Pray Selflessly

How much of your prayer life is self-absorbed? (Deep gulp.) How much of your prayer life is not only about yourself but it is to get your way and your wants? If honest, many of us pray self-centered, self-absorbed, selfish prayers that sound more like “my kingdom come, my will be done” than “thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”

What we immediately notice about Paul’s prayers is that they’re not only God-centered rather than man-centered, but they’re also for other people. It’s not that Paul never prays for himself, but when we read his prayers we see that he is regularly praying for people in his life. He prays for the people at Colossae—even though he’s never meant them—because his heart for God’s Church matches up with Christ’s heart for his Church. It’s simple, but we need the reminder that our prayers should not only seek God’s glory and kingdom above our own, but that we should pray with others in mind much more often we likely do.

2. Pray Steadfastly

Not only is Paul’s prayer life different from mine in the focus of who he prays for, but it looks different in the frequency and regularity of his praying. Paul doesn’t just pray for others on rare instances but he is steadfast, resilient, and committed in his praying. He lives out his own exhortation to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). “We always pray for you” (2 Thess. 1:11). “We always we thank God…when we pray for you” (Col. 1:3). “We have not ceased to pray for you” (Col. 1:9). Paul follows Jesus’ encouragement to not lose heart but to always pray (Luke 18:1). I know that my prayers for others are not only offered less frequently than they should be, but they tend to be reactive and defensive. When a problem or pain comes up in the life of someone I know, then I pray in response. Paul, however, prays proactively. He gets on the offense and prays for people in every season.

3. Pray Spiritually

By pray “spiritually” I don’t mean pray solely for immaterial things or religious things. What I do mean is that our prayers are not only by the Spirit but that they focus on the things of God or the things the Spirit would lead us to pray. Again, contrasting it to our own default ways of praying, more often than not we primarily pray for material, physical, earthly, and clearly tangible things that are part of our daily life. We want health when sick, wealth when finances are thin, blessing at home and work, for things to go smoothly when they are rocky, and we want answers to pending decisions. These aren’t always bad things to pray for, but wouldn’t a “natural” person or an unbeliever pray for and want these things?

How then do our prayers correspond to “the things of the Spirit” (1 Cor. 2:14), meaning the things central to the heart, promises, and purposes of God. In our passage, Paul prays for the Colossian church to know God so they might reflect him (1:9-10), and for God’s strength so they might endure with joy (1:11-12). Paul, as a whole, prayed for things of the heart whereas we pray for things on the surface. Paul prayed for things of the Spirit whereas we often pray according to our fleshly desires and wants. Paul prayed for God’s kingdom whereas we pray for our own kingdom. May we learn from Paul and shift our prayer life accordingly.

4. Pray Scripture

Part of why we often pray for the wrong things or in the wrong way is because we don’t know what to pray. Prayer is sort of the overflow of the heart and mind. We pray for the things we think about most and use the language familiar to us. Because of that, one of the most transforming things you can do for your prayer life is to pray the Bible. This can include praying specific prayers of the Bible (like Col. 1:9-14) or just praying over any section of the Bible (like Col. 1:15-23).

A lot of good things happen when we pray the Bible, including the following. When we pray the Scriptures there is power because God works through His Word by the Spirit. It helps us pray according to God’s will rather than my own because I’m directly praying God’s Word, the very things God has declared, promised, and committed to do. When we pray the Bible it also moves us away from self-centered prayers and into God-centered and/or people-focused prayers. Praying the Scriptures always gives us clear and new things to pray, helping us avoid a vague and monotonous prayer life.

5. Pray Specifically

Two things are suggested in this point. First, pray specific and detailed prayers rather than general, ambiguous, shallow prayers. If our conversations with people were as general as our prayers to God than we’d probably notice a lot of scratched heads. What do we mean when we ask God to bless someone or to be with them or to help them? Each of those is a good thing to pray, but when we narrow in on how God might bless them, be with them, or help them then there is much more clarity and power to the praying. Praying Scripture helps with this because it puts meat on our prayers.

Second, be specific when we pray for people by telling them how or what we are praying for them. In his letters, Paul doesn’t just say, “Hey Church, I’m praying for you,” but he tells them specifically what he’s praying. When you tell someone exactly how you’ve been praying for them it not only convinces them you are praying but it instills confidence and gives encouragement by knowing the specificity of that prayer. Which would give you a bigger boost of encouragement, hearing “I’m praying for you” or being told, “I’m praying for you today that God would give you his strength and power for the things you’ll face today”? Pray specifically, and as you do so for others, let them know so they might be encouraged by what you’re praying.

6. Pray on the Spot

Finally, while we don’t directly see this in Colossians 1:9-14, one way to grow in praying for others is to pray with them on the spot. Too often I’m guilty of delaying or postponing prayer by telling someone “I will pray for that (or for you).” Again, it’s not that we’re condemned or a complete failure as a Christian in doing this, but there is a better way. When someone shares with me a burden, struggle, need, or trial, almost always it would be better if I paused and prayed with them in that moment rather than only promising to pray in the future. By not praying on the spot with them, I not only miss the chance to deepen our relationship and refresh our hearts by praying together—which is a big loss—but I might actually forget to pray for them altogether.

Maybe it’s just because I’m a skeptical person, but about half the time when someone tells me they’ll pray for me it seems like they’re simply being nice or giving the “right response” but I doubt whether they will actually remember to pray for me. While I do try to remember to pray for people—especially if I tell them I will—I’ll admit that I’ve forgotten to do a time or two. When a spouse or family member, a coworker or neighbor, someone in your small group, or a fellow church member in a Sunday morning conversation shares something that needs prayed over, then why not pray then and there with them?

What else do you notice about prayer from Colossians 1:9-14, or, how have you learned to pray from Paul?

This article was originally published on

Dustin Crowe

Dustin serves as Pastor of Discipleship at Pennington Park Church, a church plant of College Park Church. He blogs about books, travel, culture, theology, and discipleship at Indy Crowe. Dustin enjoys teaching, writing, and interacting with people through both activities.

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