It’s probably happened to the best of us, but prayer can prove to be a challenge. Sometimes we don’t know where to start. At other times we have so much to pray for we don’t know where to finish. Maybe our mind drifts. Or maybe we just don’t get around to it, unless we are desperate. This short book by Alistair Begg takes a look at the first-century apostle Paul and his prayers for the church in Ephesus in Ephesians 1:15-23 and 3:14-21. From this, he guides the ordinary person on how to pray like an apostle – to pray prayers bigger than we could have imagined.
From the introduction, we are asked to think about what we pray for and to whom we pray to. It’s not just a question of praying, but to actually enjoy it! Can we pray big prayers? Do we know God as a Father and can we pray to Him in that way? By looking at Paul’s prayers for the Ephesians we can see how he prays as he sets them an example.
The book is set out into eight chapters and can be read a chapter a week with the aim of getting the reader to pray and practice what they have read. However, it doesn’t need to be read that way – it can be read through in a short space of time due to the length of the book. It would be worth taking time in prayer and reflection no matter how you decide to read it. This book is one that will hopefully leave you wanting to pray!
Alistair starts by explaining how prayer is dependant upon God as a person recognises their need for forgiveness and help. This was modelled by both Paul and Jesus who prayed to God the Father. Our prayers reflect what we really think about our need for God:
‘My prayers – whether I pray, how much I pray, about what I pray – reveal my priorities. And they reveal how much I really think I need God, or whether I am, deep down, in fact self-assured and self-righteous.’ (pg. 22)
Throughout, there are quotes from various people throughout history as well as samples from hymns to further our understanding of prayer. It is written in a clear, accessible way with humour and warmth by someone who has lived the challenges and triumphs of prayer and seen it portrayed in the Bible. At the end of each chapter there is a short prayer to the Lord based on what has been written which is a great way to focus the heart and mind back to the One in whom we are praying too.
One of the ways I have been challenged and convicted by reading this book is through the content of my prayers. Often it is easy to pray about myself with prayers that reflect my needs and wants. However, Paul was writing to the Ephesians from prison and did not pray about his situation or for his release (not in his letters anyways!). Alistair summarises this, challenging us to have the eyes of our hearts opened to eternity and it has given me food for thought as I pray:
‘All that matters may be brought before God, but what we bring before God is not always what matters most.’ (pg. 30)
It’s not that we cannot pray about the practical aspects of our lives, but we need to make sure that we pray spiritually from the truths found in scripture which inform how we pray.
The rest of the chapters are practical and they look at five ways that Paul prays for the church. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but it certainly helps for those of us who might need a helping hand on how to pray and what to pray for. They are prayers for: focus, hope, riches, power and love. At first glance this could be interpreted in the wrong way (the prosperity gospel came to my mind regarding power and riches!), but it is far from that.
By praying for focus, it is to have eyes to see Christ which can only be because of the Spirit who opens our eyes. The Holy Spirit gives wisdom and revelation of who God is which gives us a deeper knowledge of Him – and we need to know Him!
What I love about the chapter praying for hope is that it talks of a secure hope based on confident knowledge of God’s promises and faithfulness in His Word. Even with the certainty of death for each of us, there is a certain hope because of Jesus who is risen will one day return and death is not the end for those who follow Him.
Thinking about the hope we can have when we know Jesus, we have an inheritance waiting for us. The inheritance is God Himself for all eternity – this is what it means to be rich. Not only do we get to be with God, but God chooses to be with us! He loves us.
When we pray for power, we are reminded that the same power that raised Jesus from the dead is in all His followers by the Holy Spirit. I love that Alistair uses the example of the disciples who were completely transformed. After Jesus had died, they had felt defeated and practically gave up. Jesus was dead. The teacher who they had followed for three years was crucified. Yet, suddenly they were out proclaiming that Jesus was alive and they were witnesses. Their defeated hearts were suddenly bold and empowered. Many of them died for the truth of what they had seen – the risen and ascended Jesus. It is by the power of the Spirit that the disciples could do this and that Christians today can ‘stand up and speak up for Christ’ (pg. 70).
Even in our fears and weaknesses we can rest in His power. It is often in times of affliction and suffering that Christians have grown in their faith – God’s power is made perfect in weakness:
‘We experience the power of God keeping us going and keeping us growing, keeping us obeying and keeping us witnessing, not when the band is playing and everybody’s marching, but when the music has faded and we are crawling along.’ (pg. 71)
I know that in my own life and those close to me who have experienced hardship, suffering and trials, our faith has grown as we lean into Jesus and stand on His Word and the Spirit leads us into all truth. His power in our lives is evident when we dependent on Him alone, not on anything that we, or others, or the world can give.
Chapter seven is about knowing how loved we are by God and how we can know His love. We can experience the love of God through a church that loves one another well, through using our mind as well as our emotions and comprehending the breadth, length, height and depth of God’s love, especially through Jesus:
‘Christ’s love is measured by contemplating the depth to which he went to secure our salvation and the height to which he was then exalted.’ (pg. 77)
Although we cannot measure the love of God, we can see its effects as we are adopted as children of God. We can know Him as Father and we are loved by Him as His child. By the Holy Spirit we are brought into a deeper communion with the Lord and we can know the love He has for each one of us.
The final chapter of this book brings it all back to our actual lived out experiences. How can what we have read be applied practically? By ourselves we cannot make it happen and we cannot try harder. It is only by the power of the Holy Spirit. For me, I have always found it easier to understand God as Father and as Son, but God as Spirit has been harder for me to comprehend at times.
Alistair helpfully tells the Christian to look in the mirror. It was the Holy Spirit working who brought the conviction of sin in our lives. It was the Holy Spirit who showed us that it was Jesus who was the Saviour we needed – that we could do nothing; it was all because of what He had done on the cross. All of this is evidence of the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. That blessed me immensely to see how the Spirit has been at work in my life over the years. Who would have thought the answer would be in the mirror?
‘Pray Big’ will expand your understanding of prayer and perhaps show you something new that you could try. I recommend this to Christians who are looking to pray bold and big prayers and believe that He listens and responds in ways that we cannot even begin to imagine. It will bring you closer in your walk and I encourage you to take your time in prayer. Remember who you are talking to and how loved you are by Him! It has been a convicting, wonderful read that has brought me closer to God through prayer.
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher at Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world. He graduated from theological college in London and served two churches in Scotland before moving to Ohio. He is married to Susan and together they have three grown children.