One of the implications of the sermon text this week is that prayer to the living and true God is something that has a real impact. In vv9-10, Paul asks a rhetorical question: “What thanksgiving can we return to God for you…” that has the obvious answer, “None.” There is no way for Paul and Silas to repay God for how he has answered their prayers to see the Thessalonian church face to face and supply what is lacking in their faith. To be sure, there is more in-person visitation and improvement in faith and love that Paul desires, but through Timothy’s visit and God’s own sustaining grace to that church, Paul’s prayers have been answered.
Part of the significance of these verses, then, is that prayer to the living and true God has a real impact in this world. That should be a source of great encouragement to you, especially as we compare it to the modern notion of “sending thoughts” when bad things happen. After all, what profit is there really in friends or politicians sending thoughts during a tragedy? What real power do friends or politicians have through their thoughts? Even when thoughts turn into action, to what extent can friends or politicians make a real impact?
Compare “sending thoughts,” then, with beseeching the God who made heaven and earth. He laid the foundation of the earth; he prescribed limits for the sea and said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther;” he has cleft a channel for the torrents of rain and a way for the thunderbolt (cf. Job 38:4-27). Because of his great power and wisdom and love, when we lift up our hearts and voices in prayer to him, we are drawing near before the one who can do all his holy will and who delights to give mercy and help in time of need. When we pray, then, to God, there is a real impact, and that is a great reason for us to endeavor all the more to pray for one another.
What, then, should we pray for when we pray to God for one another? A great first place to start is to pray for the things that God has already promised to do for his people. David is a model of this kind of prayer, for after God made a covenant with David, David prayed back God’s words to him with full confidence that what God had promised he would do. We, too, can search the Scriptures for the promises of God to his people and pray these things back to God as we pray for one another.
Gary Shogren encourages us to do this even when it might seem “useless” to do so. “Pray for matters that perhaps, according to your theology, are already sure things. Do you pray for [one another]? That [we] will continue to grow and be steadfast? Or even, as Paul implies here [in 1 Thess 3:6-13] that [we] will stay Christian? ‘But I believe in eternal security!’ you might answer. Very well, and so do I. But the Holy Spirit carries out his work in part through the prayer of fellow believers.”1
As we pray for one another using the promises of God, we should pray for the whole person. Just as Paul has expressed his feelings for and about the Thessalonian believers in this text and the one from last week, so we should pray with expressions of our affections for one another. After all, one of the warnings that our risen Lord levels against the church in Ephesus is that they had abandoned the love they first had (Rev 2:4). Moreover, one of the signs of the end times is that the love of many will grow cold (Matt 24:12). While love is not merely affection, it is not less than an expression of our longings and desires. Let us pray for one another’s affections for God and God’s people so that we might avoid prayers that border on mere behavioral adjustments.
Finally, we should not neglect the importance of praying for increased knowledge and good works. Together with affections, our knowledge and will complete who we are, and so it is good to use these three categories as helpful aids in how we can pray holistically for one another while we use the promises of God as our raw materials. And none of this will be an exercise in futility, because we will be praying to the God who made heaven and earth, the one who hears and answers our prayers.
1Gary Steven Shogren, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, ZECNT (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 149.