Praying with Joy (Sermon)
Imagine if you or I went on a date like we often pray. So, if my date with Cari mirrored how I pray. First of all, that date might end up being very short. By the time my car pulled out of the driveway, the date would be over. Sometimes I may not’ve even had time to start the car to go on the date before I was done. But on this particular day, I set aside time to pray. If my date looked like my time of prayer, I don’t think my wife would be thrilled with how often I yawned and nodded off during our date. Or how easily distracted I was—the number of times I quick checked an email and responded partway through a sentence.
Maybe it’s a day that I was really focused. I was devoted to a significant time of prayer. What would my wife think if on our date, I pulled out a long list of names, and started reading through them, saying somewhat generic things about each one? “The Millers—their dog is old and their grandma is sick, or maybe the other way around.” “The Johnsons—they’re really busy right now, bless them.” After working my way through the entire list, I ended, breathed a sigh of relief, and announced the date was done. I even walked away from the date pleased with myself that I had done my duty. I had faithfully made it through the entire thing. Hadn’t even fallen asleep once.
I’ve been married long enough to know that my wife wouldn’t feel honored and appreciated by my robotic performance of duty. I honor her when I love her enough to enjoy a date with her. When a date with her brings me delight.
Prayer, like a date, is a conversation between two people who love each other; yet so often it feels like a chore. As the apostle Paul introduces this letter to the church in Philippians, he says a phrase which jumped out to me. It caught my attention. He told them he prayed regularly for them, and he says he makes his “prayer with joy.” Praying with joy. Would you describe your times of prayer as joyful? I generally place prayer in the column marked duty, not the column marked delight. But it doesn’t need to be this way. It shouldn’t be this way. Prayer can, and should, be marked by joy.
What does joyful prayer look like? Our first thought may be that it’s prayer in good times, but as Don reminded us last week, this letter was written from prison. Paul was chained to a Roman soldier. Joyful prayer is not dependent on circumstances. So what makes joyful prayer possible? I think we find the answer in Paul’s example. Now before we dive in, I need to be honest with you. Preaching this particular passage and this topic makes me feel hypocritical. I too seldom connect prayer to joy, but I’m convicted and encouraged that I need to more often. I don’t stand up here as someone who’s figured this out, but as someone learning it along with you. What does joyful prayer look like?
Joyful Prayer Rehearses God’s Work
The prayer begins with gratitude to God. Gratitude for what? Gratitude to God for the work He’s done in the lives of the Philippian Christians. God not only saved this group of Christians, but He brought them into a partnership with Paul that supported and sustained the work Paul was doing of taking the gospel to other places.
(Philippians 1:3–5 ESV) I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.
God made this group partakers of His grace (v.7), and the outflow of grace is gospel partnership. Receiving the gospel of grace naturally leads people to partner in the spread of the gospel of grace. This was true of this young church. God brought Paul to the city of Philippi, God brought people into Paul’s path to hear the Gospel. God saved those people and gathered them into a church. That church supported Paul, both in prayer and giving, as he went to a new city to state the gospel again. Paul saw all of this as evidence of God’s work in them.
Thinking about others, specifically about the evidence of God’s work in their life, energized Paul’s prayer. If your prayer time lacks joy, then start here. Start by thanking God for the good work He’s doing in people around you. Last Saturday at the men’s prayer breakfast we began our time this way. Short statements of gratitude to God for the His work in people’s lives. It was thrilling—I don’t know how long it went on for because I wasn’t paying attention to the clock. I was listening, reflecting, and thanking God.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never gotten bored telling a story. When I’m with a group of people and start telling a story, I enjoy it. Just this week I started to tell a story to our community group. It’s a story I’ve told a few times lately, and Cari has heard me tell it. Someone made a comment that sparked the story. When I began, I saw (out of the corner of my eye), Cari’s head go down and heard the sigh. We might get bored hearing the same story over and over, but not telling it.
Tell God stories about the good things you see Him doing in the lives of those around you. Thank Him for the evidences of His grace you see in other people.
In order to do this, you need to know other people. The apostle Paul uses the same phrase four times in his prayer.
V.4—“every prayer of mine for you all”
V.7—“feel this way about you all”
v.7—“you all are partakers”
V.8—“I yearn for you all”
Paul didn’t just love this church in general; he loved the individuals who made up this church, all of them. He invested in each of them. He prayed for each of them. He thanked God for each of them. And the more of them he knew and the more he knew about each of them, the more things he could thank God for.
If you want to pray with joy, you need to invest in more relationships here and you need to invest in deeper relationships here. Like the apostle Paul, we should all make it a goal to know everyone at Redeemer and learn how God is working in them. I know what some of you are thinking. You’re thinking, “There’s too many people. I can’t possibly get to know every person.” How do you know? Have you tried? Have you made it a goal and failed? It may be impossible, but you’ll never know until you actually try. “There’s too many people” is an easy and lazy excuse. It’s something we say to make ourselves feel better for not trying.
The way to get to know more people, to hear their stories, to see God working in them is to start small. Start with your community group. Start with the people who volunteer in the same children’s class or on the same ushering team. One by one invite them out for lunch or over for dinner. Ask them their story. Find out how God is working in their life. Write it down. The next time you go to pray, pull it out and tell God about your conversation with that person. Thank God for saving them and for continuing to work in their life.
Not only will this energize your praying, but it will also protect you from a critical spirit. It’s interesting to see how Paul told each church he was thankful for them, even the church in the city of Corinth. That church was messed up. In spite of their mess, Paul still saw evidences of God’s grace in them. Thanking God energizes prayer while killing pride.
One pastor gave this advice: “If you’re a super-critical person, always focusing on what’s wrong, then you won’t be a grateful person. Don’t look for perfection before you show gratitude; look for evidences of grace in people’s lives. Be quick to thank God for Christian virtues in others, and remember that sanctification is a slow process.”[i] “Be quick to thank God for Christian virtues in others”—that’s great advice. Start your time of prayer by thinking about faces from this room and thanking God for what you see Him doing in their lives. Joyful prayer rehearses God’s work.
Joyful Prayer Trusts Future Grace
The apostle Paul not only rehearses evidences of God’s past work in the lives of the believers in Philippi, but he also looks ahead with confidence to what God will do in the future.
(Philippians 1:6 ESV) And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.
He is convinced, persuaded, certain that what God began in them He would continue until the very end.
Often when we pray for people, we’re praying for them in times of need. Maybe the need is a health problem, a relationship problem, or a financial problem. We don’t know how it will turn out, and so we pray with uncertainty. Paul’s prayers focused primarily on the ongoing effects of the gospel in people’s lives, and so he prays with a level of certainty and confidence. He knows that when God calls a person to Himself, He will keep that person to the end, no matter what circumstances they face. This confidence is clear in Paul’s letter to the Romans.
(Romans 8:29–30 ESV) For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.  And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
Those called by Jesus will ultimately be glorified—they will join Him in His glory forever.
The apostle John said it this way:
(1 John 3:2 ESV) Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.
The grace that saves a person will sustain that person until the end.
If when you pray, you begin to rehearse evidences of God’s grace in people’s lives. It will naturally lead to a question. Will it continue? Will the good things God is doing in them persist? If you were uncertain, then it would be hard to remain joyful. Your joy in prayer would be replaced by a growing sense of anxiety, even dread. But our joyful prayer continues because we’re confident that the grace we see now will not somehow expire in the future.
Last month, I preached at our first church plant—Christ Fellowship near Madison, WI. The youth pastor of the church I grew up in happened to be visiting that day. Both Cari and I had him as our youth pastor in middle school and high school, and we both volunteered with him throughout college. After the service he came up to speak to me. He had a huge grin on his face. He not only thanked me for the sermon, but he told me he’d love for my sons to volunteer one summer at a Christian camp he now runs. Why was he so joyful after the service? Because he prayed for Cari and I consistently all those years we spent in the youth ministry. It’s one of God’s sweet gifts to us to see endurance over decades. When we pray for each other, we can do so confidently, knowing that God will never give up on His children.
Brothers and sisters, confidence in future grace is what nourishes a life of faith. Jesus knows this. He created us this way, and it’s why He attaches promises to commands. He tells us to go into the world and make disciples, and then promises the grace necessary to sustain obedience—“I’ll be with you everywhere and always.” We can never outpace grace. No matter how far we go or how long we travel, grace is our constant companion. Your tank may run dry, but God’s grace will never run out.
Our confidence is in God’s grace and not our own performance. I can’t help but contrast what Paul says to these Christians in Philippi with what he said to a group of Christians in Galatia. To the Philippians he says, “God will complete what He began.” To the Galatians he asks, “Why are you trying to complete by works what God began in you through faith?” The key to endurance is trusting the grace of God. It’s to remind ourselves daily that our standing before God is fixed. Our identity in Christ is unchanging.
The God who promised to restore His creation will fully restore His people. And the day Christ returns will be a day of joy the likes of which we can hardly imagine.
Joyful Prayer Nourishes Deep Affections
We can feel the love Paul has for these saints throughout this prayer, but he mentions it specifically in verses 7—8.
(Philippians 1:7–8 ESV) It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.  For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.
See how strongly the apostle loves this group of Christians. He “yearns” to be with them. The word “yearns” evokes a dog straining at a leash, eager to run. It’s like a child at the airport waiting for a parent to return, being held back at security. He yearned to be with them. So he clearly loves this group of Christians, but I have a question for you to consider. Does he pray for them because he loves them or does he love them because he prays for them? Let me ask it again: Does he pray for them because he loves them or does he love them because he prays for them?
I don’t think we can pick one or the other. Prayer both reveals and shapes our affections. He prays for them because he loves them, and he loves them even more because he regularly prays for them. Joyful prayer deals with what we care most deeply about, and it also shapes what we care most deeply about. He cares deeply about these Christians.
The reason he loves them so much is not because he’s an inherently compassionate person. His affection for them comes from Jesus (v.8), and it’s because they’re partakers with him of grace (v.7). This isn’t natural affection, but the fruit of Jesus at work in Paul’s heart.
Now, they had gone through some challenging times together—they’d been with Paul when he was imprisoned for the Gospel. They’d been at his side when he had to defend the gospel against attacks. So this affection was deepened by walking through difficulty together, but shared experience was not the ground of this affection.
The ground of this affection was union with Jesus Christ. They had each experienced the transforming grace of Jesus—they had met Jesus and been changed. Their lives were different because they had been immersed in the overwhelming, extravagant mercy of God. Paul deeply loved these Christians, and so he prayed for them. When you’re praying for what you really care about, prayer won’t be a drudgery.
Let me make two statements that at first may sound the same, but are more like two sides of the same coin.
First, if you love people, you’ll talk to God about them. Prayer is a sign of love. True love motivates prayer.
Second, if you want to love people, start to talk to God about them. Prayer is not only a sign of love, but a spark for love. If you’re struggling to love someone, begin praying about them. Begin talking to God about why you don’t love them, but why you want to. Rehearse any evidences of grace you see in them. Pray for them to grow and flourish. If you begin praying for someone, God will help you grow to love them.
We’re most animated when we talk about what we love. Prayer that’s honest with God about what you love will never be boring. It will never be dull. Joyful prayer nourishes deep affections.
Joyful Prayer Anticipates Spiritual Growth
He ends the prayer (v.9—11) with requests for them to grow, and he makes these requests with confidence. He’s already told them God would work in them to complete them. These requests reveal what God is doing and will continue do do in these believers.
(Philippians 1:9–11 ESV) And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment,  so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ,  filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.
He prays and anticipates that they will grow more loving—their love will abound more and more. Love for whom? For God? For each other? For the nations? Yes, all of the above. The love God pours into His people is not confined to a select group, but overflows in love for all people.
What does love abounding more and more look like? As God answers this prayer, how will it be evident in the lives of these Christians? They’ll give more and more of themselves to other people. They won’t be stingy with their time, energy, money, or affection. They’ll grow more and more selfless—putting the needs of other people before their own. They won’t be petty and mean-spirited, but generous and patient.
I love that he prays for their love to “abound more and more”—he doesn’t ask for them to have a little more love or a touch more love. He asks for it to abound, expand, overflow, and to do so over and over. He asks for God to do something big in their hearts. When you pray, don’t set your sights low. Aim high. Pray for things money can’t buy, and people can’t accomplish. Pray for things that require God to do the impossible.
As I pray for us a church, I’m tempted to focus my attention primarily on a new building, especially this Spring as we launch an initiative to fund it. I will pray for God to provide a building—‘cause He’ll have to do so. But I want my prayer first to be that God would change our hearts to make us more generous people. I want to pray for each member of Redeemer to increase in faith. I want God to do a work in and through us that defies human explanation. And I’m confident He will. Confidence in God’s continued work produces joy in prayer.
The Beatles released a song in 1967 called “All You Need Is Love.” The song, though catchy, was wrong then, just as it’s wrong now. You need more than love, and we see that in Paul’s prayer. He wants them to grow in love, but he knows that love is not enough. He wants their love (v.9) to come with increased knowledge and discernment so they will approve what’s excellent (v.10). Like the Beatles, our culture is confused about the nature of love. We’re told love accepts whatever another person says. Love affirms whatever another person feels. But that’s not real love. Real love seeks what’s best for others, even if they don’t see it.
We know this is true in parenting. Real love doesn’t allow kids to do whatever they want to do. Little kids want to do lots of stupid things. Little kids put dangerous things in their mouth, run out in the street, touch hot stoves, stand behind cars that are backing up, and on and on. Love doesn’t say, “That’s fine, sweetie. Do whatever you feel like.” Love seeks what’s best for them, even if they don’t like it.
The reason Paul prays their love to grow in discernment is because he knows how much help we need to love others well.
You know you should love your spouse, but do you always know how to best love your spouse?
You know you should love your kids, but do you know how to love them when they’re rebellious and seem to want nothing to do with you?
You know you should love your neighbor, but do you know how to love that cranky neighbor who keeps getting angry at you for no reason?
We need supernatural insight to know how best to love people when it’s difficult. Discerning love helps us “approve what is excellent.” That’s our goal. We want to love others with such insight that we point them to what’s excellent. We help them see and understand what’s best. Friends, this is why Bible study, discipleship, and teaching are such an important part of our life together. Constant exposure to God’s Word sharpens our spiritual senses, so that we perceive what is excellent. It’s not a single sermon or study that trains us for discernment. It’s the combined weight of months, years, decades of Scripture that gives us insight.
Spiritual growth has two goals (v.10—11): the return of Christ and the glory of God. The more we grow, the more prepared we are for the return of Christ. We’re becoming more like Jesus, filled with the fruit of His righteousness. And the more we grow, the more people will see the glory of God on display in us. Our joy in Christ will be evident.
When we pray for each other, we should ask for and expect spiritual growth.
Praying with joy—that’s my desire. Is it yours? Yet too often, prayer and joy seem at odds. More like mortal enemies than best friends. This passage shows us how prayer and joy work together. We can enjoy prayer. Prayer can fuel our joy.
There are two things in life that always kills joy—selfishness and shallowness. This kind of praying eliminates these two joy-killers.
We can’t thank God for the growth of others and pray for their continued growth while still being selfish.
We can’t expose our deepest affections while being shallow.
Prayer becomes joyful when it causes us to look out and dig deep.
Think about the kinds of stories we most love. They’re not stories of selfishness and shallowness. Their stories of someone laying down his life to save someone else. Stories of a group of people coming together for something bigger than their individual lives.
In the Lion King, Simba starts off as selfish and shallow. What if he never changed?
What if Robin Hood stole from the rich, but kept it for himself so he could buy more stuff?
What if the princess were kidnapped and guarded by the dragon, but none of the knights would go rescue her because they were too busy playing video games?
Stories of selfishness and shallowness are a waste of time. No one wants to hear them. But stories of transformation, growth, sacrifice, and love—these are the stories we enjoy. These are the stories that excite us, that delight us. Let these stories—real stories of God’s transforming and sustaining grace in the lives of people around you—let them energize your praying. Learn them, tell them to God, and watch your joy in prayer increase.
This sermon was originally preached at Redeemer Community Church in 2020.
[i] Tony Merida and Francis Chan, Exalting Jesus in Philippians, Christ-Centered Exposition (Nashville: Holman Reference, 2016), 22.