Continue in prayer, and watch in the same with thanksgiving; withal praying also for us, that God would open unto us a door of utterance, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in bonds: that I may make it manifest, as I ought to speak. Walk in wisdom toward them that are without, redeeming the time. Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man. (vv. 2-6)
One of the most common sins among Christians today is that of prayerless-ness. No doubt this has been true throughout the centuries. And yet we are again and again not only exhorted, but distinctly commanded, to pray.
· “Men ought always to pray, and not to faint.”
· “Pray without ceasing.”
· “Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit.”
· “Praying in the Holy Ghost.”
To these might be added many similar expressions, reminding us that prayer is in very truth “the Christian’s vital breath.” It is the life of the new man. One can no more have a happy, triumphant Christian experience who neglects this spiritual exercise than one can be well and strong physically who shuts himself up in a close room to which the sun never penetrates and where pure air is unknown. The soul flourishes in an atmosphere of prayer.
And yet the Christian has sometimes been asked, “Why do we need to pray? If God is infinitely wise and infinitely good, as the Holy Scriptures declare Him to be, why need any of His creatures petition Him regarding anything which they conceive to be either for their own good or for the blessing of others? Is it not a higher and purer faith that leads one to ignore these exercises altogether and simply to trust Him to do what He sees to be best in every circumstance?” Those who reason thus manifest but little acquaintance with the Word of God, and little realize the needs of the soul.
Prayer is, first of all, communion with God. Our blessed Lord Himself, in the days of His flesh, is seen again and again leaving the company of His disciples and going out into some desert place on a mountainside or into a garden that His spirit might be refreshed as He bowed in prayer alone with the Father. From such reasons of fellowship He returned to do His mightiest works and to bear witness to the truth. And in this He is our great Exemplar. We need to pray as much as we need to breathe. Our souls will languish without it, and our testimony will be utterly fruitless if we neglect it.
We are told to continue in prayer. This does not mean that we are to be constantly teasing God in order that we may obtain what we might think would add most to our happiness or be best for us, but we are to abide in a sense of His presence and of our dependence upon His bounty. We are to learn to talk to Him and to quietly wait before Him, too, in order that we may hear His voice as He speaks to us. We are bidden to bring everything to Him in prayer, assured that if we ask anything according to His will He hears us. But because we are so ignorant and so shortsighted we need ever to remember that we are to leave the final disposal of things with Him who makes no mistakes. Without anxiety as to anything, we may bring everything to Him in prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, making known our requests in childlike simplicity. Then, leaving all in His hands, we go forth in fullest confidence as our hearts say, “Thy will be done,” knowing that He will do for us exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think.
We need to be often reminded that we cannot pray as we should unless we are careful as to our walk before God, and so we are told not only to continue in prayer but to watch in the same, and that with thanksgiving. “Watch and pray.” Here are two things that must never be separated. It is so easy to slip into a careless condition of soul, to become entangled amid worldly and unholy snares, so that we lose all spiritual discernment and our prayers become selfish. When this is the case, it is vain to think that we shall obtain anything from the Lord. But where there is watchfulness and sobriety, with honest confession and self-judgment when we realize failure has come in, we can pray in fullest confidence, knowing that all hindrance is removed.
Here, as in Philippians 4, we are reminded that thanksgiving for past mercies should accompany prayer for present and future blessing. To receive God’s good gifts as a mere matter of course soon dries up spiritual affection, and we become self-centered instead of Christ-centered and foolishly imagine that God is in some way bound to lavish His mercies upon us whether we are grateful or not. In our dealings with one another we feel it keenly if ingratitude is manifested and kindness goes unacknowledged. Even though we may give unselfishly we like appreciation, and a hearty “thank you” makes one all the more ready to minister again where there is need. And we may be assured that our God finds joy in His people’s praises. He loves to give, but He delights in our appreciation of His benefits.
Paul, unquestionably the greatest preacher and teacher that the Christian dispensation has known, was not above requesting the prayers of the people of God. He felt his need of their prayer help, and so he says, “Withal praying also for us, that God would open unto us a door of utterance, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in bonds: that I may make it manifest, as I ought to speak.” He did not feel that because he was in prison his work was over. Although unable to face the multitudes in public places as in past years, he was ever on the lookout for opportunities of service, and he would have the saints join with him in prayer that even in his prison cell a door of utterance might be open to him. How natural it would have been for him to give up in despair and settle down in utter discouragement, or simply to endure passively the long, weary months of imprisonment, taking it for granted that nothing could really be accomplished for God so far as gospel fruit was concerned until he should be free. But he was of another mind entirely. His circumstances did not indicate that God had forsaken him nor that He had set him to one side. He was eagerly looking for fresh opportunities to advance upon the enemy.
We are told that just before the first battle of the Marne in the World War of 1914-1918, Marshal Foch, the great French general, reported: “My centre is giving; my left wing is retreating; the situation is excellent; I am attacking.” This was not mere military bombast, for the marshal realized that apparent defeat could be turned into victory by acting with resolution and alacrity at the very moment when the enemy seemed to be triumphant.
Doubtless the Devil thought he had gained a great advantage when he shut Paul up in prison, but from that prison cell came at least four of the great church epistles and some of the pastoral letters, which have been the means of untold blessing to millions throughout the centuries. And from that cell, too, the gospel went out. First to the prison guards and through them to many more in Caesar’s palace who might not otherwise have been reached. How important it is not to give ground to Satan, but in prayer and faith to turn every defeat into a victory by seizing the opportunity and advancing against the foe, assured that our great Captain knows no retreat.
Alas, we spend so much time halting between two opinions, debating what we should do, and doing nothing. We need the grace of decision that will enable us to seize the opportune moment and act upon it in the fear of God. And this is emphasized in the verse that follows: “Walk in wisdom toward them that are without, redeeming the time.” In our relationships with men of the world, how we need to remember that opportunities to warn of judgment to come and to point them to Christ once given may never come again. Therefore, the tremendous importance of buying up such privileges of service in the light of the judgment seat of Christ.
The day of grace is fast passing away. We meet men once, perhaps, never to see them again. While it is perfectly true that we cannot be forever pestering people about what they would call our religious notions, yet it is the part of wisdom to be on the lookout for every opening that will give us the privilege to minister Christ to their souls.
To each man’s life there comes a time supreme,
One day, one night, one morning or one noon,
One freighted hour, one moment opportune,
One rift through which sublime fulfillments gleam,
One space when faith goes tiding with the stream,
One Once in balance ‘twixt Too Late, Too Soon,
And ready for the passing instant’s boon
To tip in favor of uncertain beam.
Ah, happy he who, knowing how to wait,
Knows, also how to watch, and work, and stand,
On Life’s broad deck alert, and at the prow
To seize the passing moment, big with fate,
From Opportunity’s extended hand,
When the great clock of Destiny strikes NOW!
But if we would witness to the Lord in such a way that our testimony will really count we must be careful that our walk agrees with our speech. Careless behavior when in the company of worldlings will only make them feel that we do not ourselves believe the tremendous truths which we would press upon them. How careful preachers need to be in regard to this! The world is so quick to judge and will only turn away with disgust from a man who is serious on the platform but frivolous among men. He who is solemn as he preaches of divine realities but is a giggling buffoon when out in company need not think that he will make any permanent impression for good upon the hearts and consciences of those among whom he mingles. Many a servant of Christ in his anxiety to be accepted of men and to become what is called today “a good mixer,” sincerely hoping thereby to commend his message, has found to his sorrow that he has paid too high a price for his popularity. He has but cheapened himself and his ministry by coming down to the level of natural men who know not the power of the new life.
I remember well a friend speaking once of two preachers. One was perhaps a bit unduly serious, not that anyone can be too sober as he faces the realities of eternity, but the man in question was perhaps a bit too stern to readily make friends among those whom he wished to help. The other was the very soul of cordiality. He would tell a good story, smoke a good cigar, and make himself hail-fellow-well-met with all and sundry with whom he came in contact. Speaking of him my friend said, “Dr. Blank is a fine fellow. I do enjoy an hour in his company. He makes me forget all my troubles, but,” he added thoughtfully, “if I were dying I’d rather have Mr. So-and-So come and pray with me.”
Ah, my brethren, let us not forfeit our high and holy calling as Christ’s representatives in order that we may obtain popularity among men who have little relish for divine things. This does not mean that we are called upon to be disagreeable in our behavior or conversation, for we are told, “Let your speech be alway with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man.” Gracious speech flows from a heart established in the grace of God. Of Jesus the psalmist wrote, “Grace is poured into Thy lips.” He could say, “Thy gentleness hath made me great.” But this did not make Him indifferent to evil nor unfaithful in dealing with those who needed rebuke.
“Seasoned with salt” suggests the preservative power of faithfulness. There is always a danger that a gracious man will become a weak man and will lack courage to speak out faithfully when occasion demands it. In the law it is written, “Thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbour, [thou shalt] not suffer sin upon him.” We are all our brothers’ keepers to a certain extent. While nothing is more contrary to the spirit of Christ than an overweening, captious, fault-finding spirit, yet where Christ’s honor is at stake, or where we realize a brother is standing in dangerous places, we need the salt of righteousness to season gracious speech in order that we may know how to speak to every man.
And if we would perfect ourselves in this grace we need to live more in company with the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. Follow Him through the Gospels in His wondrous ministry of grace and truth here on earth. See how marvelously He met each individual case. F. W. Grant has well said, “Our Lord had no stereotyped method of dealing with souls.” He took up each case on its merits. He did not talk to the woman at the well in the same way He addressed Nicodemus, the ruler of the Jews. He probed the depths of each heart and ministered according to the need.
Jesus’ devoted follower, the apostle Paul, the author of this divinely inspired letter to the Colossians, was ever exercised in regard to the same thing. He was “made all things to all men if by any means he might save some” (author’s translation). In the Jewish synagogue he reasoned out the Scriptures like the most able rabbi or doctor of the law. When he stood on Mars Hill among the Athenian philosophers he was a master of rhetoric and showed full acquaintance with Greek thought and literature. But he spoke “not as pleasing men, but God, which trieth [the] hearts,” until his great address was interrupted by the excited throng about him, who spurned the idea of the resurrection of the body. Addressing the idolaters of Lycaonia he met them on their own ground and appealed from nature to nature’s God, seeking to turn them from their vanities and draw their hearts to the Creator of all things. How different in all this was both the Master and the servant to many who today seem to pride themselves on their outspokenness and indifference to the views and opinions of others.
Is it any wonder that men turn from them in disgust and refuse to listen to what seems to them but the dogmatic utterances of self-centered egotists. On the other hand, as intimated above, there are those who seek to be gracious but who utterly lack faithfulness, and who would gloss over any doctrine or evil in the lives of their hearers rather than run the risk of giving offense. How much divine wisdom is needed, and how close must the servant keep to the Master Himself in order that he may know how to answer every man.