Thursday, June 07, 2018

"Watchful" Prayer?

Here's the journal entry from my quiet time with God yesterday. To see how I approach quiet time, see here. (That will explain the look, listen, respond headings you see below.)

Look: “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.” (Colossians 4:2)

This verse comes near the end of Paul’s letter to the Christian church in Colosse. He dictated it in 60 AD when he was imprisoned for his faith in Christ in Rome.

This verse struck me today for two reasons.

1. Even though he was in prison, Paul knew that believers in Jesus--disciples--always have reason to be thankful to God.

We have been saved from sin, death, futility, and darkness by God’s grace (His charity) through our faith in the crucified and risen Jesus.

Nothing can separate believers in Jesus from the new life God makes available to all people who believe in Jesus (Romans 8:31-39).

So, as Christians devote themselves to prayer--that communication with God the Father made possible by the name and power of Jesus, in which we can call down the powers of heaven to earth--we can do so with thankfulness, gratitude.
  • We can be thankful that because of Christ, we belong to God forever and that He stands with us always.
  • We can be thankful that, because of Christ, He hears our prayers and will, according to His wisdom, answer them.
  • We can be thankful that, as people assured of being raised with Jesus on the last day, God will ultimately and eternally, make all things work together for our good. So, Paul says that as Christians diligently pray, they can be thankful.
2. Paul also says that as we pray, we should be “watchful.”

Listen: I had some idea of what he might mean by this, but I asked, “Watchful of or for what?”

Watchful, an adjective, translates the Greek word, γρηγοροῦντες (transliteration: gregorountes), more literally, being watchful.

Forms of the word are used in several other places, helping to give an idea of what Paul means when he tells Christians to be watchful when they pray.

In Matthew 24:42, Jesus uses the word when speaking of the Day when He will return to the world: “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.”

He reiterates this warning in Matthew 25:13: “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.”

In Matthew 26:38, He tells Peter, James, and John, the inner circle, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”

In that last verse, Jesus clearly doesn’t have in mind a watch that would allow them to fend off or attack the temple police and Roman soldiers who would soon come to arrest Him. Jesus came into the world with the specific intention of allowing the world to put Him on a cross to take the burden of human sin and death on His shoulders. When one of the disciples later did offer armed resistance to Jesus’ arrest, He chastised the disciple.

In Matthew 26:41, Jesus gives a clearer understanding of what He means when He tells the three apostles to watch. It seems to be the same meaning Paul has in mind when he tells the Colossian Christians (and us) to be watchful when we pray. After some time in agonized prayer, Jesus discovers that Peter, James, and John, far from watchful, have fallen asleep. He tells them: “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

To be watchful in prayer then means in part to pray that, whenever we’re weak or vulnerable (always), we will not be tempted to cave into the human default behavior of sin.

“And lead us not into temptation,” Jesus teaches us to pray, which might be more accurately rendered as, “Don’t allow us to pay attention to temptation rather than to You.” This is an important point because, as Martin Luther writes in The Small Catechism, “God indeed tempts no one to sin, but we pray in this petition that God would guard and protect us from this, that the devil, the world, and our sinful nature may not deceive us or lead us into false belief, despair, and other great and shameful sins, but pray that when we are tempted in these ways, we may finally prevail and gain the victory.”

Respond: It doesn’t take much time scouring my memory to see that when, at least in my own eyes, I have most noticeably sinned, it’s been when I’ve let my guard down, when I’ve turned a deaf ear to Jesus, God’s Word, and the importuning of the Holy Spirit. It comes when I let temptation get the upper hand.

I ask myself, “How did that happen?” But the reason is always pretty much the same: It’s so easy to come up with a million rationalizations for why a temptation isn’t really a temptation, or why I can handle whatever temptations come to me, or why the sin to which temptation points me isn’t such a big deal.

But Paul (along with Jesus) says that, if I’m to avoid the sins that mar my character, negatively influence others who know I believe and show God ingratitude for His undeserved grace, I need to pray with watchfulness.

I’m sure that this means more than saying, “Lead me not into temptation” in a perfunctory way.

I’m sure that it means that I must pray for the wisdom to perceive temptation when it comes my way.

And I’m sure that it means I must pray this protection with a proper sense of my own helplessness before temptation and sin without the help and power of the God I know in Jesus.

This is no game. These aren’t mere words. When we who bear Jesus’ name become confident in our own goodness, rather than in the goodness of the God Who freely saves us through Jesus, we are at risk of allowing our lives to become swamped by sin, rebellion, and death.

So, I must be persistent in relying on God to protect me from the temptations to which, in the dark center of my soul, I want to cave.

Of course, the most alluring temptations are those that don’t seem dark at all. They’re also the most dangerous of temptations and include temptation to sins which, under different circumstances, might not be sins at all.

For example, there may be times when voluntarily working a couple of hours extra is a laudable and appropriate thing. But not when you’ve promised your spouse and family that you’ll be home in time for a family celebration.

There’s nothing wrong with a man having a romantic attachment to a woman who loves him in return, with whom he shares faith, values, interests, and an easy, wholesome rapport if both he and the woman are single or are married to each other. But under other circumstances, the temptation to connect romantically is a temptation to sin.

The serpent, a guise of Satan, who tempted Adam and Eve to sin against God, is described by Genesis, in some translations, as the most subtle of creatures. (In others, the description is rendered as “crafty.”) Temptation is subtle, which is why watchful prayers--along with partaking of the means of grace, Holy Baptism, Holy Communion, the Word of God, mutual conversation and consolation with others in Christ’s Church--are so important.

How can I be watchful in prayer?

Lord, today, I ask You to help me review every remembered interaction with people and all my pursued, prevailing thoughts to discern where I might be undergoing temptation from the devil, the world, and my sinful self. I know that Your grace covers the sins I don't remember or perceive and that as I lay my life before You, You will work like a potter on this clay made pliant by Your grace that leads to a repentant life, a life turned to Christ.

Then, help me to pray for Your protection from all temptations that might be thrown my way today. Help me to walk with You with faith, a sense of my helpless need of You, and a desire to lead a life pleasing to One Who has saved me by grace through faith in Christ. I know how much You love me. I love You, Lord! In Jesus’ name, I pray. Amen

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

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