Greetings in the name of the Lord!
Prayers for the Difficult
Imagine you are an avid long distance runner and someone comes up to you who has never run a marathon and asks, How can I run a marathon? What would you say?
You’d probably ask them about how much they currently run to diagnose how far along they are and then you’d start talking about the kind of training they need to do, the kind of diet they need to be on, the kind of running shoes they need to invest in, and all sorts of other tips you have learned over the course of your running experience.
That’s how you would answer the “how” question: Here are the things you need to do. Keep that in mind as we look at 1 Corinthians 1 today. Because I am going to be talking today about how to pray for problem people. Here are the things you need to do.
I am so struck by Paul’s prayer for the Corinthians in 1:4-9, because of the things going on in Corinth and what led Paul to write the letter. Here’s a snippet of what the NIV Study Bible says: Paul received information from several sources concerning the factions and disturbing moral irregularities in the church. Immorality had plagued the Corinthian assembly almost from the beginning. Paul had written previously concerning moral laxity. Although the church was gifted, it was immature and unspiritual. Most of the questions and problems that confront the church at Corinth are still very much with us–problems like immaturity, instability, divisions, jealousy and envy, lawsuits, marital difficulties, sexual immorality and misuse of spiritual gifts.
It’s helpful to know what Paul was facing as he wrote this letter. But things were worse than that. Many in the church were at odds with Paul himself and were rejecting his authority as a leader. In short, they were disrespecting him.
For Paul this was a problem, not so much because of what they thought of him, but if they disrespected him they were in effect rejecting the gospel he was bringing. And that was a killer for Paul! So the question is what were their problems with Paul?
In this chapter and the ones to follow you get the idea that Paul is dealing with some cocky people who valued intellect, human wisdom and public speaking skills. They didn’t think Paul had those abilities and wasn’t worthy of respect. So Paul had to remind them that…
18 The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” 20 Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?…
26 Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things–and the things that are not –to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God–that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.”
It appears that their high value on philosophy and wisdom pushed them toward intellectual arrogance and that was the reason they tended to take sides:
10 I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought. 11 My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas ’”; still another, “I follow Christ.”
You can almost see them puffing out their chests with pride. Later on we will see that this arrogance led some of them to mock Paul and accuse him of not being worthy of their attention or obedience.
So here is what Paul is dealing with: disrespect bordering on disdain. Disobedience. Disarray and dysfunction in the church. Distortion from the pulpits. Corinth was a mess. These people were a problem to Paul. So much so that this letter was not received well. These people persisted in their arrogant opposition to Paul so that Paul had to get even stronger with them. He wrote another letter known as the “severe letter,” he visited them again, and then he wrote a fourth letter that we now call 2 Corinthians.
They tended to be very impressed with flamboyant orators and intellectuals, and considered those types to be more credible than Paul. So he had to defend his apostleship by showing how much more committed to the Lord he was compared to the others (2 Corinthians 11:23-28).
I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.
And then listen to the last thing in his list of suffering which Paul presents as if it tops all them:
28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.
That’s how much of a problem these people were to Paul. His heart was being beaten up by them. And what we read in 1 Corinthians 1 is just the tip of the iceberg. Factions and arrogance.
All of that is why I found his prayer to be very impressive and instructive. And in it I see lessons we can take away for how to pray for people who are causing problems. So as I begin to read, I invite you to think specifically of some person or people group who are a problem to you and follow Paul’s example.
4 I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus.
Three things in this verse:
• He thanks God for them! These are people who don’t respect him and who make his heart ache. And yet he finds a way to thank God for them. But what’s even more amazing…
• He always thanks God for them! That means he is praying often, not just one and done. But notice it does not say he always and only thanks God for them. It doesn’t mean he never also prays, “Lord, these people are so ornery! I don’t like what they are doing or how they are treating me.” Et cetera. But it appears that his habit is to pray often and make sure he starts out looking for how he can thank God for them. So what does he find to say thank you for?
• He thanks God for evidence of God’s grace in them. He says, “I thank God because of His grace given you” and then goes on to describe what he sees in verses 5-7. “I see that:
o You have been enriched in every way.”
o Our testimony about Christ was confirmed in you.”
o You do not lack any spiritual gift.”
Think of the person or people you have in mind. Can you think of evidence of God’s grace in them? Can you see what God has done or might be doing in their lives? What if you were to start out every prayer thanking God for those things?
But now I want you to see that what Paul notices to thank God for is directly tied to the problems he sees in them as well. Do you remember what their problem was that Paul launches into immediately after this opening prayer? An arrogance about the intellect: about what they know and how they articulate it.
Now notice how Paul crafts his prayer. He talks about their “speaking and knowledge.” He talks about them being very gifted, but… his prayer acknowledges that all of their abilities have come from the Lord. That’s the corrective that they need in their heart:
• “You have been enriched in every way”
• “Our testimony about Christ was confirmed in you.”
Each of these statements is in the passive voice showing that they did nothing to have what they had. Their problem was their boastfulness, as if their intellect and wisdom and abilities were something they should be congratulated for. So this leads to another point about praying for problem people. Yes, you lead with thanks—always—thanks that is based on evidence of God’s grace. But here’s the fourth point we see in Paul…
• He discerns and concentrates on the heart of the problem. His prayer emphasizes and works hard to draw them back to a place of humility. They have received grace; they have been enriched. None of what they have has come because of who they are or what they’ve done. Remember, that’s how Paul concludes the chapter.
Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise… 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus.
That was their core problem and his prayer concentrated on that. So think about the people you are praying for. What is their core problem? It’s OK to have that be the focus of your prayers. Prayer is not PollyAnna thinking; prayer does not sugar coat reality.
But I want to point out an important rule: You must know your place. The reason we know how Paul was praying is because he actually told them. He wrote it in this letter. But you must understand that this was his role. It is not necessarily your place to go to problem people and say, “I just want you to know how I’m praying for you about your problem…”
If you are not in a position in which a person is accountable to you by relationship or because they have voluntarily made themselves accountable to you, it’s not your place to step out of the mode of prayer into the mode of correction. You simply have to stay in the mode of prayer and deal with the problem there.
That’s why Paul’s last part of his prayer is so important.
• He maintains a hopeful perspective.
8 He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful.
So there you have it: Paul’s example of praying for problem people. Did you have some people in mind that you could start employing this prayer model?
Well, before you try it and before I ask you to try I need to let you know that it won’t work. Because there’s one other thing that is missing, which is not found in the words of Paul’s prayer, but in the fact of his prayer.
Let me explain by going back to the question I asked at the beginning. If you were a marathoner and someone came to you asking for your advice on how to run a marathon, what would you say?
We would tell them how to train, what to eat, how to avoid injuries, what kind of running shoes, etc. But when it comes to running a marathon, losing a lot of weight, or learning how to play an instrument…when it comes to doing anything that will take a lot of resolve there is one question to ask if you are going to answer their “how” question: How can I run a marathon? Answer: Do you really, really want to run a marathon?
There’s no point in training a certain way, or eating certain foods, or buying expensive running shoes if you are not intensely committed to running a marathon. There’s no point going on another diet unless you are intensely committed to losing weight.
There’s no point following Paul’s example of praying for problem people unless you really, really want to have a right and loving relationship with these problem people one day. Do you lack resolve?
I am reminded of the day Jesus met a lame man beside the pool of Bethesda…
John 5:3 Here a great number of disabled people used to lie–the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. 5 One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”
You see, apparently Jesus had discerned that his problem was in part a habit of excuse-making and a lack of resolve to take advantage of the healing opportunity in this therapeutic pool in which many other people had found healing. That’s exactly what came out in his response:
7 “Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.”
8 Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” 9 At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked.
See? The man lacked the needed resolve. But what I want you to notice is that, in this case, Jesus in effect says to him, “I will give you what you have not been able to supply, because you lacked the necessary resolve and determination. I will instantly correct your paralysis without requiring anything from you.”
He didn’t say, “Excuses, excuses, excuses. I want you to work harder at getting into the pool. Next time the water is troubled, I expect you to give your best effort.”
Problem people are problem people. And they often paralyze us in fear, or frustration. And we don’t know what to do. And we can watch Paul’s example of how to pray for them, but we can’t work up the love that it takes to pray with thanks, always, seeing evidence of God’s grace. We can’t get over the problem they are causing us to see instead their core problem and care more about them than for ourselves. And we certainly can’t pray with hope. For all of these reasons and more, we stand before the Lord who calls us to pray for those who frustrate us or hurt us, and we say, “I have no way of getting into a pool of grace that heals my heart and helps me to love them.”
But to you, Jesus says, “Get up. Get on your knees and pray. And I will make you able.”
How can you pray for problem people? Yes, Paul’s example is good. But it won’t happen until Jesus makes you really, really want to pray. So tell him you can’t, “I try, but I just can’t get there. I need someone to help me into some kind of pool of forgiveness and grace.”
And to you Jesus does not say, “I want you to work harder. No more excuses.” He says, “I’m healing your heart. Just trust Me. Get up and start praying.” And when you do, you will enjoy God. Because he will change your heart. Amen