Though it’s in the background of my sermon, these opening verses are a prayerful expression of Paul’s thanksgiving for God’s work in the lives of the Thessalonians. While this thanksgiving itself is not a prayer—maybe we could call it a prayer report—its prayerful characteristics are worth investigating in this reflection. And as we think about these verses from the angle of prayer, I want to draw out three points.
First, this is prayer to God and not to others. That is to say, he’s not trying to impress people with his prayers but to genuinely communicate with his God. To be sure, Paul is reporting the content of his prayers to the Thessalonian church in order to build them up, but he is not aiming to impress them with either his theological knowledge or his passion. Especially when we pray with others, there can be a temptation to pray to those others who hear us rather than for them.
A solid but somewhat modest preacher was once asked to pray for a group when there were several other pastors present. This modest preacher declined the invitation, saying that he hadn’t had time to prepare and that there were many other preachers present who could do it. The man who asked the preacher to pray then said to him, “Sir, you are to speak to your Master, and not to the other preachers; and my Bible tells me that the Lord is not so critical as men are.” May our prayers always be directed toward God and not offered up to impress man.
Second, this is earnest prayer. Paul tells the Thessalonians that he thanks God always and prays constantly for them. That doesn’t mean that every waking moment was taken up with prayer for the church of the Thessalonians, but it does mean that his prayers for them were earnest. Whether he told them before he left that he would pray for them or not—and he likely did—he was earnest in his prayers in that he prayed for others with the solid conviction that it was something worth doing.
One commentator has pointed out, however, that prayer in the modern American church is always at risk of becoming “polite religious jargon,” something like what Southerners do when they say, “We should get together soon.” But as Paul writes to the Thessalonians (and all the churches, for that matter), “I’ll be praying for you,” is not an empty phrase but a settled commitment and deeply faithful statement about how much he loves the body of Christ and what he’s going to do about it.
If you suffer from the temptation to turn the phrase “I’ll be praying for you” into “polite religious jargon,” the antidote is to cultivate a deeper appreciation for the power of prayer—so that you might even think twice about saying, “I’ll be praying for you”—with the goal of praying earnestly to God.
Now, in light of this, another question may arise: how frequently, then, should we pray for one another? In his letter to the Thessalonians, he is simply saying that he makes it his regular practice to give thanks to God for this congregation; they are not forgotten by him in his prayers. How frequently a particular person or cause is mentioned in your prayers, then, is more a matter of wisdom and discretion than an unyielding rule. If you are tempted to let the pendulum swing to the opposite extreme from polite religious jargon, then you are tempted toward legalism. Let it go and enjoy your freedom in Christ to pray earnestly without any external burden.
Finally, note that Paul prays for all of the Thessalonians. That is to say, his prayers are impartial. While he will have critical words for some of the Thessalonians, he nevertheless gives thanks for all of them. Apart from his letter to the Galatians, Paul gives thanks to God for the churches without partiality, including the church of Corinth, which received a healthy dose of criticism from Paul in both of the letters we have from him to them. Our takeaway, then, is that we ought to pray impartially for one another, even if we have good reason to criticize one person or another.
In the end, Paul is offering to us a model of how we can pray for one another to the glory of God and the good of his people. May we seek to pray for one another to God, earnestly, and impartially.