Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.
–H. W. Longfellow, “A Psalm of Life”
Paul not only talks about prayer (1 Thessalonians 3:10), he prays (v. 11-13). He prays not only in private and public, but in writing.
I can imagine Paul’s secretary writing furiously as he feverishly speaks his mind. Then, he pauses, opens his hands to heaven and prays this prayer:
“Now may God our Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we do for you, so that your hearts are strengthened in holiness to be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (1 Thessalonians 3:11-13 NET).
This intercessory prayer for the beleaguered Thessalonians is strong on the Christian purpose.
1. God acts.
Paul is confident of God’s action to open up the way so he can visit the Christians in Thessalonica (v. 11). Paul had had to leave the city in a hurry because of Jewish persecution. He had tried time and again to return, but, he said, “Satan thwarted us” (2:18). Paul knows, however, that God is all-powerful and in spite of the devil’s efforts, his insistent prayers will bring divine strength to bear against evil for righteousness’ sake.
We feed godly purposes and feel the inivisible opposition at work. So we place our cause in the Lord’s hands and let him clear our path.
2. The spiritual counts.
Paul doesn’t ask the Lord to remove the Thessalonians from their dire straits or ease the persecution that assails them. He is concerned, not so much for their external circumstances, but for their inner state. He wants hearts full of love (v. 12), not smooth sailing, healthy bodies, or pockets full of cash. What counts is what’s going on inside their head, not around them. He’s concerned with the way they treat others, not with how they are treated.
We’re not wrong to pray for external circumstances, but our major point of action is our own attitudes and motives, so our prayers will often focus on the spiritual rather than the material.
3. Last-time results.
Paul is focused on the last, great day, on “the coming of our Lord Jesus” (v. 13), not merely on today’s events. All effort, every movement, each breath, should contribute to passing the final test. Holiness is the eminent quality needed to stand before God, to be ushered into his eternal presence, to rejoice in the pure and perfect Creator.
Paul’s thought is this: Love each other to encourage holiness among you all, so you’ll pass muster when Jesus comes. Present actions see the eternal purpose.
If the Christian’s personal prayer is “Maranatha!” — Come, our Lord! (1 Corinthians 16:22) –, his intercessory prayer is to help everyone get ready for his coming. And he not only prays, but preaches. This is why Paul “was discussing righteousness, self-control, and the coming judgment” before the governor Felix (Acts 24:25).
4. The greater Kingdom.
Paul is ever conscious of being a part of something greater than a time or place. He wants the Thessalonians to remember that they are not alone. The Lord will return “with all his saints” (v. 13), with those faithful who have served him thus far.
When tough times make us focus on our narrow circumstances, we need a greater vision of the grand scheme of things. We’re at one point in a great, long history of God’s people. We’re at one place in a global movement of God’s working. Our failures and, yes, even our successes, need to be tempered by the breadth and length of the kingdom of God.
“Farther than today”
To pray with purpose and to act with intention. When we do that, we’ll find ourselves tomorrow farther than we are today, and closer to the day of the Lord’s coming.
Intercessory prayer, as all prayer, will be strong on the Christian purpose, a purpose-driven prayer, to borrow one author’s phrase.