Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. ... Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God.
– Colossians 4:2, 12 ESV
A little known book by Evald Lovestam, Spiritual Wakefulness in the New Testament, 1963, points out that being spiritually awake is actually a crucial biblical theme. And the main means for becoming spiritually wakeful is prayer. In the last chapter of Colossians, written from prison to the young church in Colossae, Paul describes in striking terms the Christian practice of prayer.
First, prayer is something you simply must do — and work at doing it until you do it well. Continue steadfastly translates a word that means to persevere through difficulty until you prevail. One lexicon translates “to be obstinate”! This is not a talking about praying with intensity (though we should seek to do that, too) but about praying habitually, no matter what. It means to always make time for it — to be pig-headed and obstinate in doing so.
We might object that Paul’s readers did not face all the distractions and the busyness of modern life. And yet the first century Colossians knew almost nothing of ‘leisure’ time or ‘work-life balance.’ For so many of them, life was filled with arduous, backbreaking work around the clock. But cultural situation is never an excuse. Christians have to pray just like we have to breathe and eat.
If you don’t do it, you will spiritually wither up and blow away. Continue steadfastly in prayer.
Second, we are to be watchful in it. This is not just an admonition to be attentive rather than lethargic in prayer (though we should.) Rather, this is talking about an important theme in the New Testament – spiritual ‘wakefulness.’ The word means to be awake and alert enough to see things as they are, and especially to see danger coming. Jesus told his disciples to “be wakeful and pray” (Mark 14:38) or temptation and sin would overtake them before they knew it.
In Romans 13:11-14, the verses that converted St Augustine, Paul calls people to ‘wake from sleep’ — the sleep of the darkness of this world — and live in the light. So what does it mean to be ‘spiritually wakeful’ in and through prayer? It means that you will never see your own heart, and especially your worst faults, clearly except through prayer — you will live in denial. You will not see the realities of life clearly enough to make wise decisions. You will have too high or too low or too simplistic a view of things, based on what you want to believe about things.
Unless God, his holiness, and his love are intensely real to you in prayer, you will put too much stock in your heroes, or political agendas, or philosophies, or your own goals and accomplishments. That will distort your view of things and cause you to be too trustful or too mistrustful and so you will make missteps. But prayer is the way to spiritual wakefulness, for seeing what really matters — God and salvation and the coming kingdom.
Third, we are to be thankful in it. It’s too easy to miss the importance of this. The word Paul uses for prayer in verse 2 generally means to petition, to ask God for things, but we should never do that without accompanying every request with thanksgiving. In Philippians 4:6, Paul also says that the solution to anxiety is to petition God for everything on your heart — but always with thanksgiving. Why, we might ask, are we to thank God before we know whether he will grant our request? The answer is that, on the basis of Romans 8:28 and other texts, we know that he will give us either what we asked or something better — he will give us what we would have sought if we could see the entire picture of history and life and knew all he knows.
To petition with thanksgiving is to drill gratitude into our hearts even as we spread our needs before God. To the degree we can do that, as Paul says in Philippians 4, we deal a deathblow to anxiety.
Fourth, in the person of Epaphras (verse 12), we learn that this kind of steadfast, wakeful, and thankful prayer is difficult. Epaphras is struggling on your behalf. The term Paul uses is for strenuous wrestling with an opponent. Why would prayer be like that? Prayer is opposed by our physical bodies — it is hard to keep our attention focused. It is also opposed to our hearts. It is hard to petition with thanksgiving — we don’t really want to thank God before we learn if he has given us exactly what we want or not.
Real prayer is work, often hard work. Yet it ultimately is the way to wakefulness, inner peace, and liberation. When in Mark 14 Jesus told this disciples to ‘stay awake and pray,’ they failed. Yet he did not. He made heartfelt prayer to the Father, asking him, if possible, to let the “cup” of wrath and death pass from him. His prayer was not answered. Yet because he was faithful and went to the cross, we can know that God always hears us, despite our sin (1 John 5:14). So be wakeful, and pray.