“For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:9-14).
This particular prayer by the Apostle Paul contains 143 words in the New International Version. In the King James Version, it comes in at 132 words. In the New Living Translation, 171 words. And in the Amplified Bible, a whopping 223 words. (After I preached this, a friend told me that this prayer takes up 135 words in the New American Standard Bible. Someone else who had the Greek text counted 109 words—but Greek is an efficient language). Like several of his other prayers, it is one long sentence in Greek—filled with participles, infinitives, and clauses that seem to pile on top of each other. Even though the NIV breaks it down into three sentences, that doesn’t help very much. Paul packed a lot into these six verses. If you read it out loud, the whole prayer takes about a minute to read. I’m sure that this is a Reader’s Digest version in which Paul gives us a summary of what was probably a much longer prayer. You could take any phrase in this prayer and form a prayer around it. It is dense with spiritual truth.
I want to make sure we don’t get lost in the details and miss the main point. Here is a simple outline of the prayer: It contains one request, one purpose, and four results.
The Request - Colossians 1:9
First, Paul has only one basic request in mind. You can find it in verse 9 if you lift the key phrase out and hold it up for a close inspection. He is “asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will.” That little phrase is the heart and soul of this prayer. Paul is praying that the Colossians will know the will of God for their lives. He is asking God to give them wisdom and spiritual insight so that they will know God’s will. That’s a very practical prayer, if you think about it. Almost everyone I know thinks about the will of God at one time or another. We tend to apply the phrase to the major decisions of life: where to go to college, the search for the right job, the decision about getting married, which church to attend, buying a new home, a job offer that may take us to a distant state, going to the mission field, investing our money, having children, and so on. Those are all legitimate applications of the will of God, but Paul seems to have something bigger and deeper and broader in mind when he uses the phrase. I think the key is the word “fill.” In its basic form, the word means to be filled to overflowing. It can also mean “engulfed” or “overwhelmed” by something. It has the idea of “fully possess” or “control” or ‘become the dominating influence.” If a person is frightened, we say he is “filled with fear.” If he speaks harshly, we say he is “filled with anger.” If he is generous to all he meets, he is “filled with kindness.” So what does that concept mean in this verse?
If you are filled with the knowledge of God’s will, then you will want what God wants for your life.
In many ways, this is a very challenging standard. Oftentimes we pray “Your will be done” without ever considering what those words really mean. Too often we mean something like this: “O Lord, show me your will so I can carefully consider it to see if it fits into my plans.” But that’s a prayer God will never answer because he does not offer his will for you to consider it, as if it were an invitation to have lunch next Thursday if you happen to be free and if you don’t get a better offer. To truly say “Your will be done in my life” means something like this:
“Lord, let your will be done in me whatever it costs, whatever it takes, wherever it leads.”
“Let your will be done even if it means that my will is not done.”
“Let your plans go forward even if it means changing my plans.”
To say it that way implies a huge spiritual truth that we can express in a simple syllogism:
A. God has a will (or desire) for your life.
B. But you also have a will (or desire) for your life.
C. When you pray “Your will be done,” you are asking that his will take precedence over your will.
Only one will can be done at a time. Either God calls the shots or you call the shots. Either He is in control or you are in control. It’s not easy to pray like that because it means giving up control of your own life. But you aren’t really in control anyway. It only seems that way.
“I’m going to relax now.”
Several years ago I had lunch with a man who for many years had been rising to the top of his profession. I do not know his salary but I am sure he is well compensated for his labors. But his outward prosperity is only part of the story. In his life he has known his share of pain and sorrow. Tragedy has struck close to home once and then twice. He is outgoing and friendly and you feel drawn to him immediately, but if you look closely at his eyes, you can see the evidence of the burdens he has carried.
When we ate lunch, he was in the middle of great turmoil at his job. Every day he faced the reality of going to work knowing that his superiors have not appreciated his contributions to the firm. This was true even though he was far and away the top producer and the star performer. His labors brought enormous profit to his company. Every day was a battle to get up, go to work, and keep a smile on his face. But he looked so relaxed when I ate lunch with him. How did he do it? He told me that a great change had come to his life in the last few days. It was a change on the inside, a change in the way he looked at things. “Pastor, I’ve been pushing and pushing and pushing. Trying to fix things up. Trying to make a better deal. Holding all my cards, dealing them out one by one. It hasn’t worked. The Lord finally said to me, ‘Why don’t you let me take over?’ So I did. I told the Lord He could take over. Nothing has changed at the office. Things are going to get worse before they get better. They’re going to make things miserable for me. But that doesn’t matter. I’ve given it all to the Lord. That means I don’t have to figure out all the details of my future.” Then he added, “I’m going to relax now.” He was a good man in a hard place. But you wouldn’t know it to look at him. Somehow he grasped the great truth that praying “Thy will be done” means letting go of your own life. My friend learned it the same way we all have to learn it—through pain and difficulty and the hard times of life. As we were walking back to his car, he said, “Every day I pray this simple prayer, ‘Thy will be done.’” No wonder he had a smile on his face. It’s hard to pray that prayer because it means giving up control of your life. But that doesn’t mean your life will go out of control. It just means that your life is surrendered to God’s control.
This leads to some very practical questions:
§ Do I want to know God’s will so I can consider it or do I want to know God’s will so I can do it?
§ Am I willing to be engulfed with God’s will or do I simply want help in making a hard decision?
§ Am I ready to love what he loves, to go where he sends me, to obey what he tells me to do, to suffer when that is required, to wait when that is required, to endure when that is required, and to rejoice when that is required?
§ Have I agreed with God in advance that I will do his will even before it is revealed to me?
§ Will I take the daily small steps that are before me while waiting for the big steps to be revealed?
§ Do I understand that the will of God is more about who I am on the inside than where I am on the outside?
§ Am I ready for my life to change if that’s what needs to happen?
This is the heart of the prayer—that we might be filled to overflowing with the knowledge of God’s will so that we want what God wants for us and we do what he wants us to do.
The Purpose - Colossians 1:10
Second, Paul has only one purpose in mind. This purpose is the necessary result of being filled with the knowledge of his will. And this purpose is not possible without coming to the place where we say, “Your will be done—nothing more, nothing less, nothing.” We find it expressed this way in verse 10: “And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way.” This is an astonishing statement if you think about what it means. Note the word “worthy.” It comes from a root that means “heaviness” or “weightiness.” Sometimes in evaluating certain people who don’t measure up to our expectations, we call them “lightweights.” A “lightweight” person is someone whose contribution in life is trifling and doesn’t amount to much. All of us, if we are honest, think about our own value and our own worth from time to time. Since we aren’t going to live forever, we want to know that our time on planet earth has mattered, that we didn’t squander our opportunities, that we made a difference to someone, somewhere, somehow. And each one of us has personal failings, cracks in the soul, hidden fissures of sin and failure and doubt and compromise that we alone know about. We may put up a good front and even smile bravely on Sunday morning, but deep inside we know that we are far from what we want to be. Sometimes those feelings of self-doubt may overwhelm us to the point where we wonder why we should even bother to get out of bed in the morning. But here we are called to something very exciting: to walk worthy of the Lord and so hear him say, “My child, I am pleased with you in every way.”
It should be noted that this doesn’t happen automatically, and here we must think carefully about what we believe. In Christ we have been fully accepted by God and adopted into his family. We have been blessed with every spiritual blessing already. There is a true sense in which God is pleased with us already because we are united by faith in his Son, and he is fully pleased with Jesus. In a related way, a parent will listen to a child play the trumpet and miss 10 out of 11 notes. Everyone else winces but Dad will beam and say, “That’s my boy!” We all understand that sort of family pride. But there is another sort of pride that comes when a son or daughter, through hard work and years of dedication, accomplishes some great goal and brings honor to the family name. That’s what Paul has in mind here. It means to live so that God is pleased with us.
“Tell them about Jesus.”
Rick Husband was the commander of the space shuttle Columbia that disintegrated over Texas a week ago yesterday. Everyone who knew him knew he was a Christian. Before the shuttle took off on January 16, Rick stopped the crew and prayed for them. NASA workers commented that they had never before seen a commander pray with his crew. At T minus 2 minutes before liftoff, a NASA controller commented that it was a perfect day for launch and Rick replied, “The Lord has given us a beautiful day.” Before the flight, he left a recorded devotional video for each of his two children for each of the 17 days he would be gone. That was 34 videos that he recorded so his children would not miss the daily devotions they had with their dad. In a video made for his home church in Houston, he explained the values of his life: “If I ended up at the end of my life having been an astronaut, but having sacrificed my family along the way or living my life in a way that didn’t glorify God, then I would look back on it with great regret. Having become an astronaut would not really have mattered all that much. And I finally came to realize that what really meant the most to me was to try and live my life the way God wanted me to and to try and be a good husband to Evelyn and to be a good father to my children.”
After the shuttle disaster, his pastor in Houston visited with Evelyn Husband. She showed the pastor documents Rick had to sign in case something tragic happened on the mission and he did not return home. The documents contained personal messages to his family members. At the bottom of the documents, Husband wrote a special note to his pastor that said, “Tell them about Jesus. He means everything to me.”
Rick Husband has gone to heaven, but while he was on the earth, he lived a life worthy of the Lord. No doubt he has heard these words, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of the Lord.”
When I read that, I asked myself, “What is the secret of a man like Rick Husband? Where does this sort of faith come from?” I think I know the answer. Years ago he yielded control of his life to Jesus Christ. Everything else that happened to him flowed from that one great decision. Somewhere along the way, he told the Lord, “I want to do your will. If it means being an astronaut, that’s what I’ll do. If it means going up in space and not coming home to my family, I am willing to do what you call me to do.” I don’t know if he said it in those words, but that was the commitment of his heart. You don’t make the kind of impact he made without that kind of commitment. Rick Husband is gone but he left behind a shining legacy. If we want to leave behind that kind of testimony, we must first truly say, “O Lord, your will be done in my life. No strings, no conditions, no special deals. I give you my life to do with it as you will.”
When we want what God wants, when we surrender our will and our agenda, when his purposes become our purposes, then our lives will be dramatically changed, and we will find purpose and meaning in everything that happens to us. Life becomes an adventure with God every day. When that happens, our lives become joyful, visibly different, and eternally significant. And God is pleased with us.
The Results - Colossians 1:10b-14
The remainder of the prayer involves four results that follow from walking worthy of God and pleasing him in everything.
First, we will have a life that bears fruit (v. 10b).
Second, we will have a life that grows in the knowledge of God (v. 10c).
Third, we will have a life that endures in hard times (v. 11).
Fourth, we will have a life that gives thanks continually (v. 12-14).
If you stand back and look at it, this is an amazing way to live. A life filled with good works, an ever-growing knowledge of God, the ability to endure hard times with joy, and a thankful spirit for all that God has done for you.
So here is the prayer. Paul prays that we might be filled up to overflowing with the knowledge of God’s will. That means yielding our agenda to his control so that his purposes become our purposes. When that happens, our lives are radically changed from the inside out. We set out to please the Lord in everything. Suddenly, we become difference-makers in the world (like Rick Husband). We’re involved in God’s agenda, which means we’re doing more than just taking up space until we die. Life now has purpose and meaning. We have a reason to get out of bed in the morning because we’re linked with God in his Kingdom work on the earth.
And all of this is because of Jesus Christ. He gave us an inheritance so we know we have a great future. He took us out of the darkness so now we can see things clearly. He made us citizens of his Kingdom so now we have everything we need. He redeemed us by his blood so we know our sins are forgiven. Sometimes at the end of a TV program, you see a statement like this: “This program made possible by General Motors or IBM or Exxon.” Perhaps we should add a sentence to the end of verse 14: “This prayer made possible by Jesus Christ.” All that we have comes directly from him.
One final word and I am done. This week while I was speaking at Word of Life Bible Institute in New York, I finished reading Wild at Heart by John Eldredge. It’s a fine book about the search to discover the true purpose for a man’s life. Toward the end of the book, the author relates that while rummaging through a bookstore, his life was changed by two sentences in a book he happened to pick. Those two sentences were so insightful that he didn’t read another word. “I sat the volume down without turning another page and walked out of that bookstore to find a life worth living.” Fascinating expression: a life worth living. Sounds a lot like the prayer in Colossians 1. This is what the book said: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” I’ve been pondering that ever since I read it last Thursday night. It seems profoundly true to me. What is it that makes you come alive? It is right here that Paul’s prayer hits us right between the eyes. For too long we have thought the will of God was boring, dull, negative, tame, and something like homework in Algebra class. You have to do it but you don’t have to like it. How wrong we are! To be filled with God’s will means that we are finally free to come alive. To be filled with God’s will means we are finally free to fulfill our destiny. To be filled with God’s will means we are free from the tyranny of following the world’s agenda for us. To be filled with God’s will means we are free to risk everything for the sake of Christ and his Kingdom. If you ever decide to seek God’s will, your life may be many things, but it won’t be boring. The man was right. The world needs people who have come alive. I would simply add that the world needs people who have come alive through the knowledge of God’s will. And that’s a perfect description of the people who pray this prayer. Amen.
Dr. Ray Pritchard is the founder and President of Keep Believing Ministries.