Prayer: Joining God's Mission
“…[Pray] also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel…” (Ephesians 6:19)
“Pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ…” (Colossians 4:3)
“Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you.” (2 Thessalonians 3:1)
The Apostle Paul, the first great missionary to the Gentiles, clearly understood his work as one needing prayer. Over and over in his letters, as he calls believers to pray for all kinds of things, but especially for God’s mission to be accomplished through him. And he offers prayers for them in the same vein: “I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.” (Philemon 6)
Why did Paul pray this way and covet such prayers? First, because of the teachings of Jesus Himself. As He declared to the disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (Luke 10:2) Notice there the centrality of prayer to the mission of God. The harvest is plentiful. Yes, that means we should go out and labor, but even before the laboring, the command of the text is that we would pray.
When we teach about prayer, I think we can focus too much on ourselves, our needs and desires, our joys and sorrows. Inasmuch as our prayers reach outward, it is to touch people who directly touch us: our families, our local churches, our neighbors. There is nothing wrong with such prayers; indeed, next week we’re going to be talking about them. But when we begin there, it actually misses one of the biggest themes of prayer in the New Testament: it is deeply missional, engaged with God’s work of salvation in the world.
There is no greater example of this than the prayer that Jesus Himself taught to His disciples. As Matthew records it, the first three requests of the Lord’s Prayer are explicitly about God’s Mission: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:9-10) We pray that God’s name would be holy—meaning set apart and honored. That His kingdom, His reign of peace and justice, would come, and that His good will for the world would be done. And we pray all of this for the whole earth, just as it is true in heaven.
Not only does the prayer start with that mission: once we recognize its focus, it transforms the petitions that come after. “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11) sounds less like a request for “stuff I want” and more like asking for sustenance as we seek to bring God’s kingdom and do His will. “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12) is hard for some Christians to interpret because of the link it draws between God’s forgiveness and our own, but it makes perfect sense if we see it in the context of the mission: “Lord, make us people of forgiveness who can show the forgiveness at the heart of the gospel.” And resisting temptation and escaping evil (or “the evil one”) are prayers for protection and holiness of heart as we go about the work of God.
When we focus prayer on God’s mission, it works two beautiful transformations. One is that it shapes our hearts toward Godly priorities. James warns us that one of the quickest paths to powerless prayer is selfishness. “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” (James 4:3) Again, that verse is not saying we ought not bring our needs before God. But the question is the context of desire within which our needs exist. If I ask for provision to be doing the work of heaven, God is eager to answer. If I ask simply to satisfy my appetites, that is often to ask outside the will of God.
Missional prayer helps reorient all of what we pray toward God’s priorities and purposes in the world. It awakens our hearts to needs and shapes our passions to be like those of our Father. Indeed, the beginning to growing as people eager to serve God is praying for His kingdom to come and His will to be done.
In addition, as we engage with that mission, prayer focused on what God is doing becomes prayer that is easy to offer because it naturally flows out of the work of the kingdom. Dallas Willard, the author and philosopher, says that “prayer is talking to God about what we are doing together.” As we join with God’s mission, prayers that otherwise might feel difficult to muster the energy for become blazingly needful and alive.
So that is the challenge for this week: reflect on your prayer life and ask how you can incorporate more fully God’s mission into it. There are many ways to do this. Let me just suggest two.
First, pray for people engaged with the mission of God. This obviously includes missionaries; our church and most others have a list of men and women called to minister the gospel around the world. Pray for them. At the same time, also think about others you know who are doing the work of the kingdom. Lift up those especially engaged in helping the poor, in counseling, and in various works of teaching and mercy. It can be helpful to make a list and pray through it regularly.
Second, pray for places of particular need. Again, this can be global—in the past I have used resources to pray for a different country each day (a helpful source can be found at www.operationworld.org). Prayer can also be focused on needs you see or causes you are passionate about. For instance, start praying for racial justice, homelessness, or some other issue in our city, country and world.
As you do this, also pray for yourself, that you would grow a heart that resonates with God’s mission and have open eyes to see where He is calling you to join it.
- What do you think of the idea that prayer in Scripture often starts with God’s mission rather than our needs?
- How do you think intentionally praying for God’s mission can help us be faithful on that mission? How do you think it can help us be faithful in prayer?
- Do you have any questions or reservations about this kind of prayer?
- Brainstorm some examples of people and places you can commit to praying for as you long for God’s name to be holy, His kingdom to come, and His will to be done?
Practice: Work through the Lord’s Prayer, one petition at a time (see below). Pray the line, then have a few minutes where people can give specific requests related to each petition. Focus your prayers on God’s mission in the world and see where it takes you.
The seven petitions of the Lord’s Prayer:
- May Your name be holy
- May Your kingdom come
- May Your will be done
- Give us this day our daily bread
- Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors
- Lead us not into temptation
- Deliver us from evil (or “the evil one”)