The grizzled, weather-worn football coach rose from his desk in the Driver’s Ed. classroom. He was about to impart knowledge. Maybe he was going give us the secret to passing our exam on the first try. Maybe he was going to let us go early. Maybe he was going to share his game plan for Friday’s contest against East High. He didn’t say many words, so when he did speak, we listened. He walked to the front of the class to dispense one brief nugget: “I have one word for you: Pay attention.” We snickered. Apparently old Coach Deti had suffered one too many concussions on the gridiron. Or maybe the mistake had been intentional—an old man’s attempt at humor. I’ll never know. But I’ll also never forget those two (not one) important words. Pay attention. They’re crucial not only behind the wheel of a car, but in almost any arena of life.
Paul, writing to the Colossian and Laodicean churches, agreed. In his final instructions to them, he said this: “Devote yourselves also to prayer, keeping alert in it with an attitude of thanksgiving” (Col. 4:2, emphasis added). Different versions phrase it differently, but all maintain Paul’s original exhortation: Pay attention when you pray. Is he telling them to drink some Five-Hour Energy before hitting their knees so that they don’t nod off? Or something else? It’s difficult to be dogmatic in exactly what Paul meant, but let me share four areas where watchfulness in prayer is necessary.
#1: Stay Awake
If you’re like me, this is what you automatically think of when you consider being watchful in prayer. Paul is warning his readers against dozing while they pray. I think this is good. Our prayers are certainly more thoughtful and effective if we’re awake while we’re offering them. While I don’t think God is ever displeased with us when we nod off while praying—after all, we’re choosing to pray (or trying to) over taking a nap. That’s gotta count for something! However, if the only time we pray is right after getting up or right before going to bed, when our minds are ready for sleep, and we don’t do anything to fight it, we’re missing out. Maybe you’re the type of person who nods off every time you sit still. So don’t pray while sitting still! Pray while you take a walk or as you jog on the treadmill. Pray during your commute to work. Pray while you shower. No, God doesn’t get mad at us when we fall asleep praying—in fact, I think it’s probably pleasing to Him when our last thoughts of the day are given to Him—but our prayers are more efficacious if we fight the sleepiness and stay mentally alert as make our requests known to God.
#2: Stay Thankful
Prayer can easily become a to-do list for God, no different than a kid’s letter to Santa or a wife’s Honey-Do list. It’s right and good to bring our requests to God, but we’re not summoning a genie or ordering a Frosty
at Wendy’s. He’s not a lackey at our beck and call. He’s our God, infinite and almighty, willing to come to our aid, but still awesome and holy. In His kindness, He chooses to bless us. Because He is our good and loving Father who never gives us rocks when we ask for bread or snakes when we ask for fish. He meets our needs and very often answers our prayers with an enthusiastic “Yes!” But if we’re not careful, we can forget all of that and sound like Veruca Salt demanding everything from a golden ticket to a golden goose without ever stopping to say thank you. We must pay attention to our attitude and to our heavenly Father. We may come boldly, but may we never come presumptuously.
#3: Stay Focused
Some scholars believe that this little phrase in Colossians—“keeping alert in it”—carries eschatological overtones1. By that I mean, they believe that it’s an instruction to keep alert in prayer for the coming kingdom of Christ. They come to this conclusion mainly because of the verb used in the phrase gragoreo, which is used elsewhere in the New Testament to indicate this type of watchfulness. While this view goes a little farther than I’m comfortable going, I do agree that in our prayers, we ought to pray with a kingdom focus. To put it another way, we must pray with eternal things in view. Are my prayers all for things that have no lasting value, that further my kingdom? “Give my husband a raise at work.” “Help Johnny to get an A on his test.” “Give us safety as we travel this week.” “Provide money for a new dishwasher.” These are all legitimate prayer requests, but if I stop there, I have totally ignored eternal things. Does my husband’s paycheck have any eternal ramifications? Not in and of itself. But my heart’s contentment and trust of God’s provision do. Performing well on a test at school is wonderful, but it doesn’t have any lasting value. However, learning to do all things excellently for the glory of God certainly does. Let’s pray with eternity in mind, remembering that His kingdom is coming, and our hearts’ responses to our circumstances will have much longer-lasting consequences than the outcome of the circumstances themselves.
#4: Stay Biblical
The final aspect of attentive praying is that we must pay attention to our requests, being as specific and biblical as possible. If I’m not careful, I can end up praying, “God be with ______________” over and over, without ever stopping to consider what that means. Is God not omnipresent? Surely He’s already with that person. So, what am I really wanting? “God bless the pastor” is a nice thought, but better is a prayer that prays specifically for challenges he might be facing. Perhaps you feel like you just don’t know what to pray for a person or situation. Why not choose a verse or passage of Scripture to pray. We know that it’s certainly God’s will that His Word come to pass. Pray 1 Peter 5:2-4 for your pastor, asking God to keep temptations away. Or take one of Paul’s prayers from his epistles and make it your prayer for your spouse, friend, brother, sister, son, daughter, etc. (Col. 1:9-12; Eph. 1:18-19; Eph. 3:14-21; 2 Thess. 1:11-12). I’m not talking about long, fancy prayers. Don’t get intimidated. Pray with an open Bible or use verses (or snippets of verses) you know as prayer requests. Finally, ask how you can pray for another person, and listen carefully when you talk with them. The burdens of their heart will probably come across in conversation. Let’s pay attention to what we’re doing so that our prayers don’t become vague and meaningless.
Drowsiness is just the beginning of Satan’s ploys to get our prayers off track. He also attacks our focus, our specificity, and our gratitude. We must be watchful for these devices as we come boldly before the throne of grace.
1 Moo, Douglas. The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, MI, 2008, p. 320.