Philippians 1:4 “In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel…”
Our word “prayer” is a little generic. We could call what Paul was doing on behalf of the Philippians “pleadings.” His requests contain a note of urgency, almost begging God for his help. What was it that gave Paul’s prayers such an edge?
We might sum it up with three “P’s.” The first “P” was prison. As Paul wrote these words, he was a prisoner in Rome, waiting for his trial before the emperor. That meant Paul needed the prayers of the Philippians. But urgent prayers were needed for more than Paul’s personal welfare. This could also affect his gospel ministry. Is there anything more scandalous than a pastor going to prison? We are not unfamiliar with clergy scandals. They make it hard to reach new souls. They convince some Christians to leave the church. Paul was innocent of any wrongdoing, but were the Philippian’s unbelieving neighbors going to understand? And what might the threat of imprisonment do to the people who were already members of the church?
For the Philippians, there was poverty. By and large the people who joined this church had barely enough to support themselves. They had so little to support the gospel work the Lord had given them. But they turned out to be a model congregation when it came to the matter of Christian giving and generosity.
A third “P” was persecution. Paul had spent a night in jail in Philippi before being forced to leave town. Later he urges the Philippians to stand firm and contend for the gospel “since you are going through the same struggles you saw I had” (1:30).
Our challenges aren’t exactly the same, but they aren’t completely different, either. Sharing our faith isn’t going to land us in jail, at least not yet, but our message is still counter-cultural. Our beliefs about the sanctity of life, human sexuality, the origins of the universe, inappropriate language, the dangers of money and things, and respect for authority still inspire hostile reactions. The central tenants of our faith–that we are so utterly sinful and spiritually dead that God had to send Jesus to do 100% of the work to save us–do not find a welcome reception. People want to believe that they are basically good. They think they may or may not need a little spiritual help from time to time.
This all poses a temptation, doesn’t it? We would like to tone down our more distinctive Christian beliefs. We want to fit in instead of stick out. Then what happens? To quote Jesus, we become like salt that has lost its saltiness. We don’t make a difference. As one astute observer noted, “The church that marries the spirit of this age will find itself a widow in the age to come.”
We may not live in poverty, but we also feel the pinch of fewer resources than we think we need. That poses temptation, too, doesn’t it? We don’t want to support a losing cause, so we give less than we might. We don’t think we have enough for ourselves, so we pull back from doing the work God has given us. We start blaming. We blame the irresponsible, spendthrift leaders who want the church to live beyond its means. We blame the stingy givers who aren’t very good stewards. It can all too easily begin to pull our gospel partnership apart. Then the gospel suffers.
If God has brought us to the end of our resources; if he has surrounded us with unrelenting persecutors; if there is nothing more we can do but pray, then he has placed us in the perfect position. In order to help us, God must bring us to the end of ourselves. When leads us to the place where we can see no help for our souls but Jesus, then he leads us to put all our faith in Christ and his perfect life, his sacrifice for sin, and he saves us. When God let the Apostle Paul be troubled by his thorn in the flesh, and he could do nothing to get rid of it but pray, then he had to rely on God’s power, and God’s power alone. Paul came to see that when he was weak, then Christ’s power rested on him. Then he was strong.
And when the obstacles we face drive us to our knees in urgent and constant prayers, and there is nothing more we can do but look to him for help, then God’s power can rest on us and our mission. God will answer our prayers to bless our partnership in the gospel.