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Grief AND thankfulness in the Apostle Paul’s prayers

Lynne Baab • Friday December 6 2019

Grief AND thankfulness in the Apostle Paul’s prayers

In several of his letters, the Apostle Paul prays for the people he’s writing to. Ever since I memorized the prayer in Colossians in my early twenties, these prayers have been helpful and instructive to me. They have shaped the way I pray.

For this series of posts focused on the idea that mature people hold grief in one hand and thankfulness in the other, I decided to look at some of those prayers that have been so important to me. I saw something new. Take a look at these two prayers:

“For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light” (Colossians 1:9-12).

“And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:9-11).

Notice that the prayer in Colossians has a direct call to thankfulness. Neither one contains a call to grieve, but as I read them with permission to grieve, I feel a deep sadness that we fall so short of what Paul is praying for. I fall short of the kind of knowledge, strength, love and harvest of righteousness described here, and I see others falling short. I see reports in the news of the many ways Christians fall short of these goals. I truly hate the way that bad behavior on the part of Christians diminishes the appeal of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I also grieve that Christians often don’t agree on what “leading a life worthy of the Lord” (Colossians 1:10) or “what is best” (Philippians 1:10) looks like in practice. Obvious examples include our disputes about women ministers, gay marriage, use of alcohol, care for the environment, and many lifestyle choices related to how money is used.

I take heart in the fact that Paul left the model of these prayers for us. We can pray about these things for ourselves and others. We are not left grieving without anything to do – we can pray. If you like the two prayers above from Colossians and Philippians, take a look at Paul’s other prayers in Ephesians 1:15-19, Ephesians 3:14-21, and 1 Thessalonians 1:2-3.

And I take heart from the juxtaposition of two ideas in the prayer in Colossians: “May you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father” (Colossians 1:11-12). We need endurance and patience in hard situations, the kind of situations we grieve about. Here the Apostle Paul seems to be holding those hard things in one hand while calling us to hold thankfulness in the other hand, exactly what I’ve been trying to do.

I give thanks for the many times I do see a “harvest of righteousness” in the lives of people I know and in the ministry of Christians and Christian communities. God does answer these prayers in many ways. I see friends showing love in hard situations in their families and workplaces. I see my own congregation providing a meal and support every week to dozens of homeless people. I see financial generosity, care for the earth, love for strangers, and respectful witness to the Gospel. God’s goodness shines through in so many people and so many places.

I am thankful. And I grieve.

Next week: another scripture that helps me in this journey of grief AND thankfulness. Illustration: Reading (and praying?) in Princess Diana Memorial Garden, Cambridge, England, watercolor by Dave Baab. I love to get new subscribers. Sign up below.

My book on this topic – Two Hands: Grief and Gratitude in the Christian Lifenow available as an audiobook as well as paperback and kindle.

I wrote a post for the Godspace blog on using our imagination to help us pray: “Thankfulness in Imaginary Worlds.”

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