In Bunyan’s classic allegory, The Pilgrims’ Progress, he describes a point at which Christian comes to the Valley of the Shadow of Death. He is warned away from it by two men fleeing from its horrors in these words: “We saw there the hobgoblins, satyrs, and dragons of the pit; we heard also in that Valley a continual howling and yelling, as of a people under unutterable misery, who there sat bound in affliction and irons; and over that Valley hangs discouraging clouds of confusion. Death also doth always spread his wings over it. In a word, it is every whit dreadful, being utterly without order.” Christian’s response is that this is the way to the Celestial City, and so he ventures forward cautiously, carefully, and, frankly, fearfully. When he begins to approach the Valley, we are told that in “the midst of this valley, I perceived the mouth of hell to be, and it stood hard by the wayside. Now, thought Christian, what shall I do? And ever and anon the flame and smoke would come out in such abundance, with sparks and hideous noises, (things that cared not for Christian’s sword, as did Apollyon before), that he was forced to put up his sword, and betake himself to another weapon called All-prayer. [Eph. 6:18] So he cried out in my hearing, ‘O Lord, I beseech thee, deliver my soul!’ [Ps. 116:4].” Bunyan’s character, Christian, is not saved by the sword but by the weapon of All-prayer. Bunyan, of course, took this from the words of Paul in our text: “Praying always with all prayer…” (Eph. 6:18).
Now I’m not sure that Paul actually intended prayer to be considered a weapon. In any case, he does not liken prayer to any part of the soldier’s armor and weaponry. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that prayer is to accompany the Christian soldier throughout our warfare. This does not describe so much a particular weapon as it does the attitude with which a Christian is to do war with the enemy. Prayer is to pervade every aspect of our combat. We are to stand with the armor and take our weapons as we pray to the Lord for help and depend upon him for strength and guidance.
I think perhaps the best Biblical illustration of this comes from the reign of good king Jehoshaphat. In 2 Chron. 20, we are told that the nations and Moab, Ammon, and their confederates united to attack the nation of Judah. Against their numbers, the army of Judah was no match. So what did Jehoshaphat do? He “set himself to seek the LORD, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah. And Judah gathered themselves together, to ask help of the LORD: even out of all the cities of Judah they came to seek the LORD” (20:3-4). In the next few verses, you have this great prayer of the king to the Lord (ver. 5-12), which ends with these words: “O our God, wilt thou not judge them? For we have no might against this great company that cometh against us; neither know we what to do: but our eyes are upon thee.”
God responds to their request through the words of the prophet Jahaziel (ver. 14-17). The gist of it was this: you will not have to fight; God will fight for you. And that is exactly what happened. Judah believed the word of the Lord. And so instead of going out to battle with swords flashing, they go into battle line with a line of priests singing praise to the Lord. We read, “And they rose early in the morning, and went forth into the wilderness of Tekoa: and as they went forth, Jehoshaphat stood and said, Hear me, O Judah, and ye inhabitants of Jerusalem; believe in the LORD your God, so shall ye be established; believe his prophets, so shall ye prosper. And when he had consulted with the people, he appointed singers unto the LORD, and that should praise the beauty of holiness, as they went out before the army, and to say, Praise the LORD; for his mercy endureth forever” (ver. 20-21).
In the end, Judah didn’t even have to fight. Instead, God turned the enemies of Israel upon each other, and God’s people just watched as their enemies destroy themselves. The key to the victory here was not the power of the sword, but the power of prayer. Not that prayer is itself powerful, of course. Prayer is only as powerful as the God to whom it addresses is powerful. But since the God of Judah is the God of the universe, their enemies had no power over them. They stood in the evil day through prayer.
Here is a NT illustration of the principle of the text before us. In several of the gospels, we have this story of the father whose son is afflicted by demons. He had asked the disciples to cast out the demon but they were unable. At the time, Jesus and three of his apostles were gone (they were on the Mount of Transfiguration). They returned just as things were getting pretty embarrassing for the disciples that had been left. Our Lord then cast the demon out with no problem. Flummoxed, the apostles asked the Lord why they were not able to do this themselves. I want you to hear the Lord’s very interesting reply: he told them they were not able to cast this demon out “because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, if ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, ‘Remove hence to yonder place;’ and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you. Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer” (Mt. 17:20-21).
Our Lord’s response points to two realities that we would do well to take heed to. First, that prayer is the response of faith and that the measure of our faith can be determined by our prayer life. The words, “this kind goeth not out but by prayer” indicate that the disciples had not sought the exorcism of the demon through prayer. In other words, they were relying on their own power and ability, as strange as that might seem. I suppose that, after you’ve cast out a few demons, anyone could get cocky. But our Lord says that it was their unbelief that was their undoing on this particular occasion, and then points to their prayer life. Faith and prayer go together. Sinful self-confidence and self-righteousness and prayerlessness go together too. And whereas the Lord blesses the former, he will not bless the latter.
The second reality to which our Lord’s words point is that some situations require more conscious seeking and dependence upon the Lord than others. They had cast out other demons, but this one wouldn’t budge. Why? “This kind” was different from the others. I don’t know particularly much about demons, but apparently some are worse than others. This points up to a general principle: there are some things in the spiritual realm you are not going to be able to accomplish apart from a life of faith and prayer. Talents and ability and personality won’t do it. These things may count for a lot in this world and its priorities, but not before God. As the Psalm puts it, “He [God] delighteth not in the strength of the horse: he taketh not pleasure in the legs of a man.” Rather, “the LORD taketh pleasure in them that fear him, in those that hope in his mercy” (Ps. 147:10-11). It’s when we are weak (in terms of our own personal strength) that we are truly strong (in terms of God’s grace and empowerment, 2 Cor. 12:9-10).
These two illustrations, one from the OT and one from NT, show us why the apostle would say what he does here. Prayer is immensely important. It is important, not as another box to check on our spiritual duties list, but as a way to express our dependence and faith in our Savior. These illustrations show us that true spiritual victory is accomplished not so much by what we do, but by what God does by his grace for us and through us. And the only way to truly live this reality out is through prayer. If we really believe that it is not by might nor by power but by the Spirit of God (cf. Zech. 4:6) that we conquer, then this conviction will express itself in regular, real, believing prayer.
But the apostle does not focus so much on the why of prayer here. He assumes it, more or less. Rather, he focuses on the how of prayer. How are we to pray? Here is how: “always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints: and for me, that utterance may be given unto me, that I may open my mouth boldly, to make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in bonds: that therein I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak” (Eph. 6:18-20). In particular, there are four universals that are to characterize our prayer life: we are to pray with all prayer, at all times, with all perseverance, and for all the saints.
There are different kinds of prayer. There are prayers of thanksgiving, prayers of deliverance, prayers of praise, prayers for direction, and so on. Our prayers ought to be as varied as our needs. In fact, the description of prayer by the term “supplication” points to prayer as that by which we address to God our needs. It is a word which points in the direction of neediness, of lack, of want, and of entreating God to meet us at our point of need. We come to him, not as one who is “rich and increased with goods and have need of nothing” but as those who are “wretched and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17). The Psalmist described himself as “poor and needy” (Ps. 40:17), a fit description for you and me as well! The great thing is that, despite our poverty and emptiness, “yet the Lord thinketh upon me” and therefore we pray, “thou art my help and my deliverer; make no tarrying, O my God.”
We are to commit to God all our needs, both small and great. We are not to think that there is anything too small for the notice of our God, who knows even the number of the hairs upon our heads. He who cares for the grass of the field and the birds of the air certainly cares for our littlest needs. There is nothing that escapes his notice, nothing beneath his dignity for which we cannot pray. Isn’t this how the apostle exhorts us in his letter to the Philippians? “Be careful [anxious] for nothing; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God” (Phil. 4:6).
In doing so, we will learn to bring all our life under the sovereignty of God, which is where it should be. This is what the apostle James is getting at, when he rebukes those who cavalierly make plans without consideration of God’s will in the matter. “Go to now, ye that say, Today or tomorrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain: whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor, that appeareth for a little time and then vanisheth away. For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this or that” (Jm. 4:13-15). Approaching every situation with the prayer, “If the Lord will,” is the only way to submit our hearts to God’s sovereign will over our lives.
But prayers of supplication are not the only category of prayer. Prayer is not just to be a litany of needs presented before God. Thanksgiving ought to be a great part of our prayer life. If we don’t make room for thanksgiving, we will end up forgetting just how blessed we already are in Christ. Thanksgiving is a preventative to bitterness. It also keeps us from developing an entitlement attitude. Thanksgiving reminds us that God doesn’t owe us anything, that everything comes to us as a gift of grace.
Then there should be confession. “If we confess our sins” is a necessary part of walking in the light as he is in the light (1 Jn. 1:9). May God prevent us from ever taking on the attitude of the Pharisee who could only see the sins of others and not his own. When we pray asking for God to cleanse us from all unrighteousness, we are acknowledging our dependence upon the redemptive work of Jesus Christ and our need of God’s righteousness which comes to us through him by faith. It is also the first step to dealing with our sins. If you cannot even bring up your sins in secret confession to God, how in the world are you going to even begin to think of mortifying them in our life? So let confession be a part of your prayer life.
And then there ought to be the element of worship in our prayers. What I mean by this is that our prayers ought to be characterized by a sense of awe and reverence and humility and joy. It’s why when our Lord taught his disciples to pray, the very first words are, “Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed by thy name” (Mt. 6:9). We are so liable to pride that we need to constantly be humbling ourselves. But we also need to be reminded just how small we are and how great God is. It is the first step in true religion. There is a book, written by Ed Welch, entitled, When People are Big and God is Small. It’s a book intended to deal with all the problems that come from magnifying people and minimizing God. And certainly a lot of problems start here.
But ultimately the reason for the element of worship in our prayers is that God is worthy of our worship. He is worthy in a way no one else is. He is the only source of eternal joy and gladness. At the end of the day, our greatest need is God himself, not the things he gives, but himself. When we worship him, we are acknowledging that reality. Let us pray with “all prayer and supplication.”
Before we address the next universal, notice that the apostle describes this praying and praying “in the Spirit.” This points to the reality that prayer is not just a matter of turning prayer wheels. It is real communion with the living God. You are not going to really pray if you don’t believe that. But the point of the apostle is that this is exactly what prayer is for the Christian. Christ has provided a way into the very presence of God. “Through him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father” (Eph. 2:18). Prayer therefore is not something we do just to make ourselves feel better. It is not something we do to lower our blood pressure. No, it is talking to God in the most real and literal sense and knowing that God is listening to you.
In fact, Paul says in his letter to the Romans, that even in the situation where we find ourselves unable to know what to pray, the Spirit of God himself steps in and prays for us: “Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. And he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God” (Rom. 8:26-27). This being the case, why is it that we do not avail ourselves of this privilege more than we do? Paul is saying that, apart from sin separating us from fellowship with God, there is literally no way you can go wrong in prayer. Even when you don’t know how to pray, even then we can pray the most spiritual prayers!
In the KJV, the apostle opens by saying, “Praying always.” The text literally says, “on every occasion,” or, as some translate it, “at every opportunity.” As the apostle says in another place, we are to “pray without ceasing” (1Thess. 5:17). I take this to mean that the Christian is to maintain an attitude of prayer throughout the day and throughout one’s life. There is never a moment when we do not need God, and therefore there is not a moment when we should not be able to pray. Theologian John Gill once described prayer as the breath of the regenerate man, and I think he is exactly right. Prayer is not just something we do at discrete points in time; it is an attitude that we ought to carry with us throughout the day.
Again, this points to the privilege that belongs to the Christian. The fact that we are to be continually engaged in prayer means that heaven’s gates are always open to the Christian. If we do not avail ourselves of the privilege of prayer, it is not because God is not listening. It is because we have become self-satisfied, like the apostles who couldn’t cast out the demon and didn’t even think to avail themselves of the power of prayer.
Praying at every opportunity goes hand and hand with another part of Paul’s description of the how of prayer: “watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication.” This points to maintaining an earnest purpose for preserving prayer as a part of our lives. It means that we don’t give up when we don’t get what we pray for. It means that we don’t stop praying because we feel neglected by God. It means that we keep praying even when we don’t feel like it.
The fact of the matter is that prayer is hard. Anyone who tells you different must have a different experience from most of the saints throughout history. Prayer is hard because it is part of a spiritual battle, and battle is hard. The devil knows that God blesses prayer and it is to his advantage that he keep you from praying.
This is why our Lord spoke the parable of the unjust judge in Luke 18. Do you remember how this parable is introduced by Luke? He says, “And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint” (Lk. 18:1). Our Lord spoke this parable to encourage us to pray because he knew that it is easy for us to become discouraged and to stop praying. Looking at the parable, it seems that our Lord’s point is that, like the widow, we have to keep coming to God, even we it doesn’t seem like God is listening to our requests. God does not always answer our prayers on our time schedule. God answered Isaac’s prayer for Rebekah twenty years later, it seems. God answered Zachariah’s prayer for Elizabeth long after he had stopped praying for it and had completely given up on it. But God had heard, he had listened, and he did answer their prayers.
Now this doesn’t mean that if we badger God long enough, he is eventually going to give in to our every request. Thank God he doesn’t! But it does mean that every prayer is heard and received with love, and is answered according to the counsels of infinite wisdom, power, and grace.
We don’t give up on prayer, because giving up on prayer means that we have given up on God. But God is faithful, and he will never give up on us. Therefore, let us pray with all perseverance.
Finally, Paul says we are to pray for “all saints.” It has been pointed out many times over that the Lord’s Prayer is a communal prayer, not a prayer of the rugged individualist. In the same way, Paul reminds us that when we pray, we are to pray for all the saints. Of course this doesn’t mean every Christian in the world. But it does mean that we are to pray for those believers that are in the sphere of our influence and notice. Begin with your own home, and then work outward in increasing circles of people you are connected to. Of course this doesn’t mean we don’t pray for our own needs. But God doesn’t have us on this earth for ourselves; we are here to serve others. And part of that service to others is to pray for them.
You see this illustrated in several delightful ways in the NT. I think of Epaphras, who is described to the Colossian believers as “a servant of Christ . . . always laboring fervently for you in prayers, that ye may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God” (Col. 4:12). It is what James exhorts us to when he writes, “Pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (Jm. 5:16).
And Paul himself wants to get in on this, as he does in other places as well (cf. Rom. 15:30). In particular, he asks them to pray for him so that he will have boldness in proclaiming the gospel.
It is well that we hear this. Do we not often think, “Well, what’s the point? Why pray when God is sovereign?” Whereas we ought to say, “Why pray at all if God is not sovereign?” If God’s hands are tied, if he has already done everything he can and now it’s up to us, then there really is no point in praying. But if God is sovereign, then we can have confidence that our prayers will be answered. We can have confidence because the Scriptures teach us that God has chosen to use prayer to further his purposes in the earth. And having chosen prayer, we can be sure that God will use it. God’s sovereign control over all things is no reason to sit on our hands and do nothing. Prayer is God’s sovereignly chosen means to advance his kingdom, his glory, and our eternal good in this world and the next.
This being the case, we cannot expect God’s blessings apart from prayer. There is very real danger lurking around the corner for those who do not pray. The apostles found this out when they slept instead of praying. We should hear our Lord’s words to them and appropriate them for ourselves: “Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mt. 26:41). They didn’t and entered into temptation. Peter denied Christ, and the rest abandoned him.
So let us pray. With all prayer, at all times, with all perseverance, for all the saints. It’s an incredible privilege given to us through the redeeming work of God’s own Son. Therefore let us take every advantage of this amazing blessing!