For the six weeks leading up to Easter we learned how to strengthen our prayer life by looking at what Jesus taught about prayer and how and when He prayed, but Jesus is not the only biblical leader who can teach us about prayer. For the next couple weeks we are going to look at what three other Biblical leaders and pillars of our faith have to teach us about prayer, King David, the Prophet Elijah and the early church leader, the Apostle Paul. Each man was called by God for a very unique task and each of them had a rich prayer life and their habits and teaching on prayer have something important to say to us today. This week we are going to start with Paul.
Paul began his life as Saul and he was a strong Jewish leader. He was an outstanding student who became an important Pharisee and leader in the synagogue at the time of Jesus. After Jesus’ resurrection when the early Christian church experienced tremendous growth, Saul saw this movement of Jesus as a threat to the Jewish people and traditions so he began to try and stop the spread of their message. At the end of Acts 7 Paul gives the ok for the people to stone a follower of Jesus named Stephen and then he goes on the road to Damascus to round up more leaders in the early Christian Church to arrest and execute them.
It is along this road to Damascus that Saul is struck to the ground by a light that blinds him and through that light hears the words of Jesus who asks Saul why he is persecuting him. After Saul has his sight restored by Ananias, a follower of Jesus, he immediately accepts Jesus as the Messiah, is baptized and commits himself to following Jesus. To mark this change, Saul changes his name to Paul and becomes the most outspoken leader in the Christian Church. Paul was chosen by God to take the message of Jesus to the Gentile world which took Christianity from being just a sect within Judaism to becoming its own religion. Paul also wrote 13 of the books we find in the New Testament and in those writings he has a lot to say about how we live our faith and how to pray. If there is one word that could summarize Paul’s understanding of prayer it would be this –THANKSGIVING.
Paul lived and taught the importance of being thankful and we see this clearly in all but one of his letters to the churches. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, Corinthians, Colossians, Thessalonians, Ephesians and Philippians he begins by giving thanks. Look at Ephesians 1:15-16 and Philippians 1:3-8
So Paul gave thanks to God constantly not matter what the circumstances were and he also teaches us to be thankful. Look at Colossians 2:6-7 and 3:15-17
For Paul, being thankful is just a natural part of life and faith and prayer and he shows us and teaches us that being thankful is what it means to follow Jesus. We hear this again in Philippians 4:6-7.
So we are to bring all our prayers to God with thanksgiving. Whether it is something good or bad we are to always pray with thanksgiving. Now being thankful when things are going well is easy, what’s hard is to be truly thankful when we are stressed, anxious or in trouble but this message of being thankful always aren’t just words for Paul, he knew what he was talking about. Paul found help and strength and peace by being thankful during difficult times and his example shows us that we can overcome our own anxiety, fear and stress by being thankful.
Because Paul was such an outspoken leader he was arrested multiple times for sharing his faith. At one point Paul and his friend, Silas, where in prison because they wouldn’t stop talking about Jesus. After being flogged they were thrown into a prison cell where it says they started to pray, but they weren’t crying out to God in frustration, anger or doubt, it says that they were praising God and singing hymns. I invite you to read this whole story in Acts 16 this week, but look at what it says in Acts 16:25-27.
At their lowest point they are still giving thanks and singing hymns and they teach us that even when everything is working against us, we can still be thankful. In fact, it is often when we are at our lowest and most difficult places in life that we need to remain thankful because it is in those moments that we bear the greatest witness to our faith. When we go through difficult times, people watch us. People who know we are men and women of faith watch to see how we will handle our situations. Is our faith real? Does faith really help people in times of need? Will we still trust in the God we say we love and believe in? Paul and Silas did. In prison they were trusting God and making that known and it says the other prisoners were listening. They were looking to see what Paul and Silas would do and so with that opportunity to witness to their faith Pal and Silas were thankful and sang praises to God.
But it wasn’t just to give witness that Paul chose to be thankful in this situation; he could do it because he had learned through his life that God would work to bring something good out of every terrible situation. Paul shares this truth with us in Romans 8:28. So when bad things happened, Paul just looked for an opportunity to see how God could turn it into something good. In prison Paul had an opportunity to share his faith with prisoners who he would never meet otherwise so he sings praises so that they could hear and see his faith. In time Paul shared the truth of Jesus with the jailor who that night placed his faith and trust in God. So Paul flipped this situation and turned the bad into something good, and in the process – God set him free – the chains fell off and the doors to the prison opened. Paul knew that God could turn around any situation and bring something good from it which is why he could give thanks even in bad situations. At one point Paul even says, to live is Christ but to die is gain. So even in death we find something good, eternal life, so whether he lives or dies Paul is at peace and can be thankful.
It is because of this attitude and faith that Paul can boldly teach about prayer and that brings us to the verses for today, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 and I’d like us to say this together.
So for Paul, prayer and begin thankful went hand in hand. When we pray we need to give thanks to God because God is always working for His good and brings about His perfect will. The other thing we need to understand about being thankful in prayer is that it really does make a difference in our lives here and now and can improve our lives today – scientific studies have proved this many times.
Several years ago a study was done which showed that people who specifically gave thanks before they went to sleep at night slept better and woke up more refreshed than those who didn’t. It makes sense, doesn’t it? If we give thanks and fill our mind with positive things then we are less anxious, our bodies and minds relax and we sleep better. Even if or for some of us when we wake up during the night, if we remain thankful we will be less stressed and fall back to sleep faster. Studies continue to tell us how important sleep is to our overall health and mental health so if we want to be healthier we need to sleep better and to sleep better we need to be thankful.
Brene Brown, who is a researcher and the author of the wonderful book Daring Greatly, says that she has found such a strong link between being thankful and our experiencing joy in life that she has made a commitment as a researcher to never talk about joy or happiness without taking about gratitude. She believes strongly that giving thanks helps bring a sense of wholeness to our lives and so we simply are happier and healthier when we are thankful, but her research went to show that it wasn’t just an attitude of being thankful that made a difference it was the spiritual practices of expressing our thanks that mattered. She found that people and families that practiced things like gratitude journals or gratitude jars where you write down the things you are thankful for every day is what made the difference.
One of the points Brene Brown makes and I think the Apostle Paul would agree with is that if we want to become thankful we have to cultivate gratitude. Children do not learn to say thank you on their own. Studies have shown that children are 4 times more likely to spontaneously say “hi” and “bye” than they are to say “thank you”. If you are a parent or have ever worked with children you know this. We have to teach our children to say thank you. As a parent what is it that you have to say to your child over and over again when they are given a gift or a compliment? What do you say? We have to teach children to be thankful which means we need to teach ourselves to be thankful. It is not always a natural response but it can be if we will cultivate the practice.
When we work at being thankful so it becomes a natural part of who we are our health and overall happiness improves, but our relationships can improve as well. Marriages can improve when spouses learn how to be thankful for their partners. When people get married many think the relationship is going to be wonderful, but it doesn’t take long to realize that your spouse isn’t perfect and if you focus on their faults, you could find any number of reasons to walk out on the relationship, but if we can focus on what is positive and learn to thank God for the good we see in our spouses then relationships improve and we realize the blessing of marriage.
The same is true for our families. Children and students out there, if every day you can learn to give thanks for what you see in your parents, the relationship you have with your mom and dad will improve. They will still drive you crazy, but you will also begin to understand how crazy in love they are with you and appreciate what they bring to your life. Parents, the same is true with your teens. Families will grow stronger if we learn to be thankful and practice routines of giving thanks for one another.
Jobs can also improve when we stop looking at the negatives and start being thankful. I worked in Yellowstone National Park one summer and for half that summer I hated my job. I worked in the kitchen and just didn’t like it so I kept trying to get another job. I finally got another job and you know what – it was worse. So I had to humble myself and ask for my old job back, which they gave me and once I was back in the kitchen I was grateful for all that I had and once I started being thankful for washing dishes and flipping burgers – my life got better.
We all end up in jobs we don’t like and you might be in one right now, but instead of looking at all the ways the job is driving us crazy and making us miserable, we need to give thanks for what we have and find the opportunities God is giving us. It might just be that by giving thanks through the struggles that at some point God will set us free from that job and bring us another one – but until that day comes we need to be thankful for the opportunities God has given.
The one truth about prayer that Paul teaches and shows us again and again is that we need to be thankful. Being thankful can improve our lives. Being thankful can strengthen and heal relationships. Being thankful can open our eyes to the opportunities God has placed in front of us. Being thankful through the dark and difficult days we face gives us strength until the light shines again. Being thankful can bring us peace because we know that God is working in every situation to bring about something good. So (will you say it again with me), Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
Prayer Part 2 ~ Being Thankful
We could summarize Paul’s teaching on prayer in one word:
1. Each day explore an example of Paul’s practice of or teaching on prayer:
• Acts 16:16-34
• 1 Corinthians 1:1-9
• Ephesians 1:15-23
• Philippians 1:1-11, 4:4-13
• Colossians 2:6-7, 3:15-17
• 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
• Philemon 4-7
2. If you are going through a difficult time, how can God flip it to bring about something good? (See Romans 8:28)
3. Each day practice being thankful by finding specific things to thank God for in these different areas. Pick one per day.
• Marriage or significant relationships
• Family (children / parents / siblings)
• The Church
• Your own life (health, faith, gifts, talents…)
4. Each night before you go to sleep, identify 5 things from that day for which you can give thanks. Say “thank you” to God for these things.