“And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.” (Phil 1:9-11)
Somewhere along the line, some clever Christian came up with the belittling idea of ‘shopping list prayers’. You know the idea – when you want to criticise someone for praying selfish, navel-gazing prayers, just deride it as a ‘shopping list prayer’.
I think the ‘shopping list’ has become a decidedly unhelpful Christian putdown. There’s nothing wrong with bringing all our requests to God. In fact, there’s everything right with it: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Phil 4:6) “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7) There is plenty to be anxious about in the average life, so bring your ‘shopping list’ to God, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
The ‘shopping list’ critique is onto something. When you read the Bible’s prayers – not to mention the whole Bible – we do need our prayers to get a big larger than, ‘I’ve got a test coming up,’ ‘work’s pretty busy,’ ‘I’m really tired,’ or ‘pray for good time management’.
The Lord’s Prayer, yesterday’s reflection, is the supreme example of how we ought to pray. Our daily needs are important enough to rate a mention in this prayer, but that’s not the focus; the focus is clearly on something much bigger – God’s plans, God’s glory, God’s gospel, and God’s name.
Like Jesus’ model prayer, the prayers of the apostle Paul are enlightening and inspiring when it comes to shaping the content of our prayers. If you want to dig deeply into this topic, the place to turn is A Call To Spiritual Reformation by Don Carson. But if you want a brief guide to help you begin the process of reorienting your prayers:
- Start by reading carefully through each of Paul’s prayers for others (eg: Romans 10:1, 15:5-6, 15:13; Ephesians 1:15-23, 3:14-21; Philippians 1:9-11; Colossians 1:9-14; 1 Thessalonians 3:10-13, 5:23-24; 2 Thessalonians 1:11-12, 2:16-17). Consider memorizing a few of these verses, or write them out and keep them with your prayer notes (depending on what system you decide to use).
- One at a time, note the specific things that Paul prays for other people. For example, in Romans 10, he prays for the salvation of his fellow Israelites. In Philippians 1, he prays that Christians will grow in gospel-shaped love, that they will be found pure and blameless on the day Christ returns, and that they’ll be filled with the fruit of righteousness. Spend some time meditating on the content of these prayers.
- Start praying this way for yourself, and for other people you know. There’s nothing wrong with using Paul’s prayers word-for-word and simply inserting people’s names.
- Pray that God would help you to pray with these kinds of concerns at the centre of your prayers.
- Look at the things Paul asks others to pray for him (eg: Ephesians 6:19-20; Colossians 4:3-4; 2 Thessalonians 3:1). Notice how gospel-centred his prayers are, how little he focuses on his own earthly needs, and how obsessed he is with the word of God being clearly proclaimed and properly received?
Don’t stop praying for your own needs to be met and your own anxieties to be met. But make sure this is not the sum total or the focus of your prayers. Pray in line with the Bible’s models. Pay attention to how older, more mature Christians around you are praying. Pray as Jesus taught you, and as the apostle modeled. Pray for God’s kingdom and God’s glory, and for the spread of the gospel in the world. After all, don’t you long to pray the kinds of prayers that God delights to answer?
Father in heaven, thank you for the wonderful models of prayer given to me in your word. Thank you that I can pray about all my anxieties and cares, but please help me not to be bound by selfish concerns. Help me instead to pray prayers that line up with your priorities and your purposes for the world. Help me to pray the kind of prayers that you most delight to answer. In Jesus’ name. Amen.