To introduce our summer preaching series on Philippians, I called my sermon How to Pray for the People You Love, because that’s what the apostle Paul does in the opening verses of his letter.
Some years earlier, Paul had planted this church in the city of Philippi, and although his ministry had taken him elsewhere, their warm relationship had continued across the time and distance between them. As Paul writes,
you have a special place in my heart. . . .
God knows how much I love you and long for you
with the tender compassion of Christ Jesus. (Phil. 1:7-8)
These were clearly people that Paul loved, and his prayer is instructive for us today for how we can pray for the people we love.
So what can we learn about how to pray for the people we love from Paul’s prayer at the start of his letter to the Philippians?
The people we love include those both near and far
At the time of this letter, Paul was apparently in prison, although his letter does not tell us where. It may have been Rome, or Caesarea, or Ephesus, but whatever the exact location, it meant that the people he loved in Philippi were far away. What kept them close was their partnership in prayer and in practical ways.
Paul had first shared the gospel with them, and they had then become his partners in ministry — praying for him, supporting him financially, even sending one of their members to help him while he was in prison. They weren’t his biological family. They weren’t people in his immediate circle of friends. They didn’t even live in the same community, and for those who had joined the church after Paul left, he may not even have met some of them. Yet he loved them and prayed for all of them.
In this way, Paul expands what it means for us to pray for the people we love, because he enlarges the circle of prayer. So instead of praying only for my own family and friends and community, I too can enlarge my circle to include those near and far, to include people that I might not see regularly, to include people I might not even know personally.
That’s why as a church we could pray for the people we sponsored from Colombia and Congo even before we met them. We could pray for the workers handling their paperwork and arrangements. We could pray for our volunteers who eagerly prepared to welcome them. We could enlarge our circle of prayer even beyond our partners in ministry in our congregation, for as Jesus said to his disciples, we are to love our neighbors as ourselves — and that includes praying for them as people we love.
We can pray for the people we love with thanks
Paul begins his prayer for the people he loves with gratitude:
I thank my God every time I remember you. (Phil. 1:3)
Author Anne Lamott has identified three essential prayers: Help. Thanks. Wow.
So for example, on the Sunday I preached on this topic, we started our singing with Wow prayers by singing 10,000 reasons and How Great Thou Art. There is an awesome wonder — a wow factor — for all of God’s creation and for all of God’s goodness to us.
We included prayers for help in our prayers of the people and in a special prayer of blessing for a newly married couple. In my own prayers and in our prayers as a church, we may tend to focus on these prayers for help. It seems as if we’re always asking for something — for more Sunday school teachers to fill in our teaching roster for next year, for healing, for comfort, to bless this food, to grant us a good night’s rest.
But what if we also pray with thanks as Paul does here in Philippians? What if, along with asking for more Sunday School teachers, we would give thanks for the teachers who have already volunteered and for the growing number of children that are part of our congregation? What if, along with asking God for help with our job situation or our family problem, we would give thanks to God for placing us where we are? What if, along with asking God to guide us in the future, we would give thanks for how God has led us in the past, and leads us in this present moment? How might giving thanks change our prayers and change us?
We can pray for specific needs and for love, understanding and growth in character
I pray that your love
will overflow more and more,
and that you will keep on growing
in knowledge and understanding.
For I want you to understand what really matters,
so that you may live pure and blameless lives
until the day of Christ’s return.
This is another prayer for help, but it’s bigger than my prayers and our prayers may sometimes be. As I look over our church prayer list each week, I pray that those in pain might find relief, that those receiving treatment for physical and mental illness might be restored to health, that those facing uncertain circumstances might find resolution. Those are good, practical prayers, like the Philippians praying for Paul’s release from prison that he mentions later in his letter.
But besides these prayers for specific needs, we can also pray for love and growth in knowledge and understanding as Paul prayed for the people he loved. He prayed that they might understand what really matters in life, and be people of character. Whatever specific challenges we might face in life, God is growing us in these ways as well.
We can pray with confidence in God
For all of our prayers, we can trust God. When we’re not sure how to pray, when words fail us, when we’re too numb to pray and can only sit in silence, when our prayers don’t seem to make a difference, we can remember that God holds us and holds the people we love. As Paul wrote to the Philippians:
I am certain that God,
who began the good work within you,
will continue his work
until it is finally finished on the day
when Christ Jesus returns.
May it be so, Lord Jesus. So let us continue to pray for the people we love — with a wide embrace for people near and far, with thanks, with prayer for specific needs and for love, understanding and character through all the challenges of life. May we pray with trust and confidence in God. Amen.
April Yamasaki is lead pastor of Emmanuel Mennonite Church, Abbotsford, B.C., and the author of Sacred Pauses (Herald Press, 2013). She blogs at aprilyamasaki.com, where this post originally appeared.