Forgive: The Impossible Command

The God we worship is a God of the impossible.

God has a knack for doing what is impossible, creating the universe out of nothing, creating humans in the likeness of God with souls that can laugh in joy and cry in compassion, turning water into wine, overcoming death with resurrection, setting the Holy Spirit in the receptacle of our frail and fallible souls.  Mark 9:23 declares, “All things are possible with God.”  Luke 1:37 asserts, “For nothing will be impossible with God.”  Job 42:2 announces, “I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted.”  And Jeremiah 32:17 affirms, “Ah Lord God!  Behold, You have made the heavens and the earth by Your great power and by Your outstretched arm!  Nothing is too difficult for You.”  

God does what is impossible, and God calls us to do what is impossible. 

For example, Colossians 3:13 presents us with this impossible command: “If anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”

The concept of forgiveness sounds good until we are deeply wounded by the injustice of another.  Shortly after World War II, C.S. Lewis remarked, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive, as we had during the war.  And then, to mention the subject at all is to be greeted with howls of anger.”

On September 1, 2004, ongoing tensions between two Russian ethnic groups, the Ossetians and Ingush, erupted in intense violence.  A group of Ingush and Chechen gunmen seized a school in Beslan, Russia, taking 1,100 hostages.  By the end of the 52-hour siege, 334 people had been killed—most of them children.  Tanik Kuizev’s 12-year-old daughter was among the hostages.  Though she made it out safely, her cousin did not.  When interviewed about the tragedy, Tanik Kuizev responded, “They say, ‘forgive, forgive.’  How do you forgive something like this?  How do you explain this?  Forgive?  No way!” 

Corrie ten Boom’s parents sheltered Jewish persons during the Nazi occupation of Holland. When apprehended, Corrie and several members of her family were locked up in concentration camps.  Some family members died during incarceration, but Corrie made it out alive.  Following the war, Corrie traveled around the world sharing a message of forgiveness…until one Sunday at a church service in Munich, Germany.  Lewis Smedes relates what happened that day: “After the sermon, greeting people, she saw a man come toward her, hand outstretched: ‘Ja, Fraulein, it is so wonderful that Jesus forgives us all our sins, just as you say.’  She remembered his face; it was the leering, lecherous, mocking face of an SS guard of the shower stall.  Her hand froze at her side.  She could not forgive. She thought she had forgiven all.  But she could not forgive when she met a guard standing in the solid flesh in front of her.”

Sometimes the command to forgive becomes impossible for us.  It is impossible for us to give to others what we do not have within ourselves to give.

But while Jesus hung upon the cross, with guards below Him gambling for His clothes, with a crowd of people mocking Him, and with His disciples deserting Him, Jesus declared, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  

Jesus was able to give what is impossible for us to give because grace, mercy, and compassion live uncompromisingly in Him.

The only way we could possibly keep the command to forgive is if the grace and mercy and compassion of God would live in us.  That’s why in the verse preceding the command to forgive one another, Paul describes us as “God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved” (Colossians 3:12), and he tells us to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience” (Colossians 3:12).  We cannot give what is not in us to give, but when Christ fills us with Himself we can now give from that with which He fills us. 

That is, in fact, what Corrie ten Boom did when she found herself unable to forgive her lecherous shower guard.  Lewis Smedes continues, “Ashamed, horrified at herself, she prayed: ‘Lord, forgive me, I cannot forgive.’  And as she prayed she felt forgiven, accepted in spite of her shabby performance as a famous forgiver.  Her hand was suddenly unfrozen.  The ice of hate melted.  Her hand went out.  She forgave as she felt forgiven.” 

Let’s be clear though: Forgiveness is not overlooking a wrong.  It is not pretending that a wrong was right or okay or even acceptable.  Forgiveness is not necessarily abandoning the prayer for or the quest for justice to be done.  Forgiveness is letting go of the grudge I hold against another.  Forgiveness is the conscious decision to stop holding to my heart the burning coal of hate that is tearing apart my insides.  Forgiveness is recognizing that it is not within my authority to condemn a person.  Forgiveness is giving the person over to the justice and/or grace of God. 

Forgiveness is the best thing we can do, but it is something we can only do with the help of the One who does the impossible.

Christian faith = a life of total upheaval

In Colossians 3:1-2 Paul encouraged the new Colossian believers (and us), “Since then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.”  In verse 5 he adds, “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature.”  And in verse 8 he exhorts us, “But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.”  What Christians often fail to recognize is that a call to Christ is a call to us to turn away from an old way of living and to turn into a new way of living.  

Such a turn from one way of living to another is not easy and should never be taken lightly.

In 1997, just 10 days after she was born, Delimar Vera was snatched from her crib in Philadelphia and whisked away to New Jersey by Carolyn Correa who also burned the house down to cover up the kidnapping.  For six years, Luzaida Cueva, Delimar’s mother thought her daughter had died in the fire.  But the truth was eventually found out, and on March 8, 2004, Delimar was reunited with her real mother.  Delimar had been raised in a home in New Jersey under the name Aaliyah with those whom she thought were her family.  Suddenly she was moved to Philadelphia with a new name and a new mother and a new set of family.  In an article in USA Today on March 10, 2004, David Fassler a University of Vermont professor of child psychiatry remarked, “An unusual and tragic situation like this shakes the very core of a child’s sense of stability and predictability of the world around them.”  University of Pennsylvania assistant professor of psychology Sara Jaffee added, “I would be very, very surprised if things go as happily and smoothly [as they did during the reunion].  There are just so many changes this little girl has to face.  I would be really surprised if this doesn’t take some toll on her.” 

A Christian is like someone who had been stolen away from our real home, raised in another home, then rescued and restored to our true heavenly Father.  After being raised in the wrong home, what makes us think that it will be easy to leave the old life behind and to learn easily to live a new kind of life?

No wonder Paul uses such active verbs and such challenging phrases when calling us to move from one kind of way of living into a different kind of way of living:

  • “Seek the things that are above” (verse 1)
  • “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (verse 2)
  • “You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (verse 3)
  • “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly” (verse 5)
  • “You must get rid of all such things” (verse 8)
  • “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices” (verse 9) 

The Christian life is not a life of settling in or settling down.  It is a life of total upheaval. 

C.S. Lewis points out, “I think that many of us, when Christ has enabled us to overcome one or two sins that were an obvious nuisance are inclined to feel that we are now good enough.  He has done all we wanted Him to do, and we should be obliged if He would leave us alone…. But the question is not what we intended ourselves to be, but what He intended us to be when He made us….

“Imagine yourself as a living house.  God comes in to rebuild that house.  At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing.  He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on.  You know that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised.  But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense.  What on earth is He up to?  The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of—throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards.

“You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage, but He is building a palace.  He intends to come and live in it Himself.” (Mere Christianity, p. 172-173 & 174)

Do not go into the Christian life—or stay in the Christian life—thinking it is a matter of holding your own.  It is a matter of changing over and over again as we are made more and more into the likeness of Christ. 

The Power of Grace

Sometimes, in reading passages of Scripture like Colossians 2:16 (“Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths.”) or Colossians 2:18 (“Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions….”) it is easy to dismiss them as irrelevant to me since I have never been condemned over my choice of food, and I have never been involved in new moon festivals, and I have never felt pressured toward self-abasement or the worship of angels.  But if I should skip this section of Scripture, thinking it to be irrelevant to me, I would miss the important principle that applies to a broader audience than just this group of self-abasing, new moon celebrating people who lived in Asia Minor many centuries ago.  

This portion of Scripture (Colossians 2:5-23) was written for any believer whose soul has been moved by the love of God and who wants with all of his or her heart to love God back in equal measure.  It is written for every believer who feels bad about the sin in his or her life—who has struggled with a bad habit that he or she wants to get rid of—and who wants to set things right with God.  It is written for those who are trying desperately to please God. 

Sometimes, in such desperation, we will go as far as the Colossians did (observing strict legalistic rules about what we can eat or drink or touch or handle, or by participating is special religious festivals, or by clamoring for visions or other intense religious experiences.  More often we do it through the burden we put upon ourselves to try harder or to do better.  This becomes for us a “Performance Trap,” and we become entrapped or enslaved to the pressure of trying to please God.  In Colossians 2:8, Paul portrays this as being taken “captive.”

The Performance Trap heaps upon us the burden of things we must do to make God happy.  It is as though we have racked up a pile of IOUs that we must pay back to God. 

But Paul offers us words of hope.  In Colossian 2:13-15 he writes, “And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with Him, when He forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands.  He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.  He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.” 

The “record that stood against them” comes from the Greek word cheirographon which can be translated literally as “hand-written.”  William Barclay explains the significance of this word: “Its technical meaning—a meaning which everyone would understand—was a note of hand signed by a debtor acknowledging his indebtedness.  It was almost exactly what we call an IOU.  It was a signed admission of debt and default.  Men’s sins had piled up a vast list of debts to God.” (The Daily Study Bible, p. 170)

That’s the bad news: Through our sins, we have “piled up a vast list of debts to God.”

Here’s the good news: Jesus has “erased” that debt.  The ink of Paul’s day was different than the ink of today.  It had no acid in it that scored itself into the page.  Rather it lay on the surface of the paper.  It was not unusual for a scribe to choose to use a piece of paper a second time.  He would simply take a sponge and wipe away the writing that had been on the paper and write something new. 

That’s what Paul tells us Jesus did with our IOU, our list of debts to God.  He wiped them away in order to write something new upon the slate of our soul.  The words He has written are “Forgiven,” “Beloved,” “Precious Child.”  That’s who we are to God now—not because of our success in the Performance Trap but through the grace of God

In verse 15 Paul says that Christ “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in [the cross].” 

The Performance Trap drives us to do something that we hope might set us right with God, but grace invites us to find our peace and our hope in what Christ has done for us.  Gary Preston offers a helpful analogy: “There’s a story about a traveler making his way with a guide through the jungles of Burma.  They came to a shallow but wide river and waded through it to the other side.  When the traveler came out of the river, numerous leeches had attached to his torso and legs.  His first instinct was to grab them and pull them off.  The guide stopped him, warning that pulling the leeches off would only leave tiny pieces of them under the skin.  Eventually, infection would set in.  The best way to rid the body of the leeches, the guide advised, was to bathe in a warm balsam bath for several minutes.  This would soak the leeches, and soon they would release their hold on the man’s body.”

 The Performance Trap drives us to do something—to put our energy into trying to pull out our sins, our errors, our shortcomings.  But it doesn’t work, and infection sets in.  Immersing ourselves in the grace of God is our only real hope.  No wonder Paul begins this section of his letter with this invitation: “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in Him, rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”

Encouraged & united in love

Before meeting Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul was a rigid theologian.  He was leading the way in prosecuting those whom he deemed to be heretics.  Following his conversion, Paul continued to focus more intently on arguing the merits of our faith than on loving people toward God.  So in Damascus he “baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ” (Acts 9:22).  But it didn’t take long for the people in Damascus to conspire to kill him.  Upon fleeing to Jerusalem, he went back to his custom of debating people (Acts 9:29), but when he was sent away, Luke reports that “the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace” (Acts 9:31).  Eventually, Paul’s rigidity resulted in a division from his missionary partner who had been nicknamed Son-of-encouragement (Barnabas) by the Christian community (Acts 15:36-40).

Somewhere along the line, though, Paul matured in his faith, and as Christ’s character rubbed off on him, Paul learned the truth of what Madeleine L’Engle would write many centuries later, “We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.” 

Paul learned that the most important thing we can do is to love one another.  In Colossians 2:1-2 he stressed, “For I want you to know how much I am struggling for you, and for those in Laodicea, and for all who have never seen me face to face.  I want their hearts to be encouraged and united in love….”

I appreciate Paul’s choice of words here.  Love (both that which is given and that which is received) encourages our souls and unites us (or binds us together).

Encouragement: In his book Tuesdays With Morrie, Mitch Album records an encounter he had with Morrie Schwartz while Morrie was dying of ALS.  The encounter begins with advice from Morrie to Mitch: “‘Invest in the human family.  Invest in people.  Build a little community of those you love and who love you.’  He squeezed my hand gently.  I squeezed back harder.  And like that carnival contest where you bang a hammer and watch the disk rise up the pole, I could almost see my body heat rise up Morrie’s chest and neck into his cheeks and eyes.  He smiled.”  The love they shared together brought not only encouragement to their souls but even warmth to Morrie’s body.

Continuing on, “‘In the beginning of life, when we are infants, we need others to survive, right?  And at the end of life, when you get like me, you need others to survive, right?’    His voice dropped to a whisper.  ‘But here’s the secret: in between, we need others as well.’” (p. 157)

Pearl Buck remarks, “The person who tries to live alone will not succeed as a human being.  His heart withers if it does not answer another heart.  His mind shrinks away if he hears only the echoes of his own thoughts and finds no other inspiration.”  For the health of our souls, we need to love and to be loved by one another.  

Unity: An unknown writer shares, “My mother used to ask me, ‘What is the most important part of the body?’  When I was younger, I thought sound was very important, so I said, ‘My ears, Mommy.’

“She said, ‘No.  Many people are deaf.  But you keep thinking about it, and I will ask you another time.’  Several years passed before she asked me again.  Since making my first attempt, I had contemplated the question.  This time I told her, ‘Mommy, sight is very important to everybody, so it must be our eyes.’

“She looked at me and told me, ‘You are learning fast, but the answer is not correct because there are many people who are blind.’  Stumped again, I continued my quest for knowledge.  Over the years, Mother asked me a couple more times and always her answer was, ‘No, but you are getting smarter every year, my child.’ 

“Last year, my grandpa died.  Everybody was crying.  Even my father cried.  My mom looked at me when it was our turn to say our final good-bye to Grandpa.  She asked me, ‘Do you know the most important body part yet, my dear?’  I was shocked when she asked me this now.  I always thought this was a game between her and me.  She saw the confusion on my face and told me, ‘This question is very important.  It shows that you have really lived in your life.  Every body part you guessed in the past, I have told you was wrong, and I have given you an example each time, but today you need to learn this important lesson.’  She looked at me as only a mother can.  I saw her eyes well up with tears.  She said, ‘My dear, the most important body part is your shoulder.’  I asked, ‘Is it because it holds up my head?’

“She replied, ‘No, it is because it can hold the head of a friend or a loved one when they cry.  Everybody needs a shoulder to cry on sometime in life, my dear.  I only hope that you have enough love and friends so that you will always have a shoulder to cry on when you need it.’  Then and there I knew the most important body part is not a selfish one but is one that is sympathetic to the pain of others.” 

A marvelous miracle & laborious plodding

A Christian is a strange species of being.  The very nature of faith and of a personal relationship with Almighty God fills our lives with a variety of paradoxes.  A.W. Tozer points out, “A real Christian is an odd number anyway.  He feels supreme love for One whom he has never seen, talks familiarly every day to Someone he cannot hear, expects to go to heaven on the virtue of Another, empties himself in order to be full, admits he is wrong so he can be declared right, stoops down in order to be lifted up, is strong when he is weakest, richest when he is poorest, and happiest when he feels worst.  He dies so he can live, forsakes in order to have, gives away so he can keep, sees the invisible, hears the inaudible, and knows that which passes knowledge.”  I would add to Tozer’s list that the Christian life is the strange mixture of the miraculous indwelling of God’s own Spirit in us and the believer’s deliberate, laborious plodding along toward spiritual growth.  We are a mix of what God is doing in us and what we are pursuing toward God.  Discard either side of the mix and the Christian faith becomes empty. 

In his book Prayer, Philip Yancey shares a moving story about the first part of the mix, the miraculous indwelling of God’s Spirit:

“I have seen evidence of God’s presence in the most unexpected places.  During our trip to Nepal, a physical therapist gave my wife and me a tour of the Green Pastures Hospital, which specializes in leprosy rehabilitation.  As we walked along an outdoor corridor, I noticed in a courtyard one of the ugliest human beings I have ever seen.  Her hands were bandaged in gauze, she had deformed stumps where most people have feet, and her face showed the worst ravages of that cruel disease.  Her nose had shrunken away so that, looking at her, I could see into her sinus cavity.  Her eyes, mottled and covered with callus, let in no light; she was totally blind.  Scars covered patches of skin on her arms.

“We toured a unit of the hospital and returned along the same corridor.  In the meantime this creature had crawled across the courtyard to the very edge of the walkway, pulling herself along the ground by planting her elbows and dragging her body like a wounded animal.  I’m ashamed to say my first thought was, She’s a beggar and she wants money.  My wife, who has worked among the down-and-out, had a much more holy reaction.  Without hesitation she bent down to the woman and put her arm around her.  The old woman rested her head against Janet’s shoulder and began singing a song in Nepali, a tune that we all instantly recognized: ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’   

“‘Dahnmaya is one of our most devoted church members,’ the physical therapist later told us…. ‘[W]e have a little Christian chapel here, and Dahnmaya comes every time the door opens.  She’s a prayer warrior.  She loves to greet and welcome every visitor who comes to Green Pastures, and no doubt she heard us talking as we walked along the corridor.’  

“A few months later we heard that Dahnmaya had died.  Close to my desk I keep a photo that I snapped just as she was singing to Janet.  Whenever I feel polluted by the beauty-obsessed celebrity culture I live in—a culture in which people pay exorbitant sums to shorten their noses or plump up their breasts to achieve some impossible ideal of beauty while nine thousand people die each day from AIDS for lack of treatment and hospitals like Green Pastures scrape by on charity crumbs—I pull out that photo.  I see two beautiful women: my wife, smiling sweetly, wearing a brightly colored Nepali outfit she had bought the day before, holding in her arms an old crone who would flunk any beauty test ever devised except the one that matters most.  Out of that deformed, hollow shell of a body, the light of God’s presence shines out.  The Holy Spirit found a home!” (p. 273-274) 

The other side of the mix has to do with us deliberately and laboriously plodding along toward spiritual growth.

Chuck Swindoll comments, “I love babies…. I think it’s a delightful, enjoyable experience to watch babies grow up and to become little people, little men and women…. But you and I know that there are some things about little babies that are not very attractive.  We humor them because they’re babies.

“Here’s a list of things: They are dependent and demanding.  They are unable to feed themselves.  They are unable to stay out of messes.  They love to be the center of attention.  They are driven by impulses, such as hunger, pain, sleep.  They’re irritated when they’re dirty, even though they made the mess, and you’ve gotta clean it up.  They have no manners, no control.  They have little attention span, no concern for others, no abilities or skills. 

“Now these are natural things that are a part of babyhood.  But when you see adults with those characteristics, something tragic has happened, something terribly unfunny.  The Christian who is not interested in growing wants to be entertained.  He wants a diet of milk when he cries for it.  He wants his way.  And he’s gonna get it, no matter how many he will have to disrupt to get it.

“You see, in order for a Christian to handle solid food, he has to have a growing, mature digestive system.  He needs teeth. He needs to have an appetite that is cultivated over a period of time for deep things, for the solid things of God.  Spiritual babies must grow up.  Some of the most difficult people to live with in the church of Jesus Christ are those who have grown old in the Lord but haven’t grown up in Him.”

We need the work of God in us, and we need to work at growth.

Who is Jesus?

Who is Jesus?  And what does it matter to us who He is? 

In Paul’s letter to the Christians in Colossae, Paul describes Jesus as “the image of the invisible God” (1:15).  The Greek word Paul uses here is eikon.  A diminutive form of that word is found in an ancient letter from a Greek soldier named Apion to his father Epimachus.  Apion writes, “I send you a little portrait of myself painted by Euctemon.”  The use of eikon here gives us a bit of an idea about who Jesus is: His is the visible portrait of the invisible God.  As John 1:18 puts it, “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made Him known.” 

In his commentary on Paul’s letter to the Colossians, William Barclay adds a further explanation: “When a legal document was drawn up, such as a receipt or an IOU, it always included a description of the chief characteristics and distinguishing marks of the contracting parties, so that there could be no evasion and no mistake.  The Greek word for such a description is eikon.”  In today’s context, the distinguishing mark of a person would be the person’s signature, or fingerprints, or DNA.  That’s who Jesus is.  He is the signature of God.  He is the fingerprint of God within this world.  He bears the very DNA of God.  If we want to know the character and nature of God, what we need to do is to look at Jesus.   

Paul also describes Jesus as “the firstborn of all creation” (1:15) and as “the firstborn from the dead” (1:18).  The wording here can be a bit confusing to us.  We may think Paul is suggesting that when God got around to creating things, the first “thing” He created was Jesus.  But in the writings of that time, the term “firstborn” was not as much a description of time or sequence as of stature and honor.  Paul was not implying that Jesus was the first “thing” God created, but he was stressing that Jesus has the place of honor over all of creation and over the resurrection from the dead.  Paul makes this clear in verses 16-17: “For in Him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through Him and for Him.  He Himself is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.”  Jesus is the One who has sovereignty over creation and over resurrection.  If we want to be at peace with creation, and if we want to be at peace with death and resurrection, the way to do it is through the One who has authority over them.  

Paul also describes Jesus as the One through whom God was pleased to reconcile all things to Himself (1:20-22).  According to the Associated Press, on July 15, 1994, Victoria Hoffman accidentally drove into a rain-swollen lake.  While holding her 7-year-old son up, she struggled to keep her own head above water enough to scream for help and gasp for air.  When rescuers arrived, she used her last bit of strength to shove her son to the rescuer before she was pulled under water to her death.  On the cross, Jesus gave us into the hands of our Rescuer while giving up His life to save us.  Jesus is the One who reconciles us to God!  As Paul put it in Colossians 1:21-22, “And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, He has now reconciled in His fleshly body through death, so as to present you hold and blameless and irreproachable before Him.” 

The True Treasure of Prayer

Someone observed, “The disciples, upon whose shoulders rested the initial responsibility of Christianizing the world, came to Jesus with one supreme request.  They did not say, ‘Lord, teach us to preach,’ or ‘Lord, teach us to do miracles,’ or ‘Lord, teach us to be wise.’  They said, ‘Lord, teach us to pray.’” 

The disciples—probably because they beheld Jesus’ devotion to prayer—valued the importance of prayer.  In the busyness of our hectic lives, though, we have forgotten the value of prayer.  In an article entitled “Fatal Omission,” Ben Patterson points out, “Prayer is always getting nudged aside, neglected, or perfunctorily performed as more pressing concerns take center stage.  Many of us feel we just have too much to do to have time to pray.  That is the problem.  At bottom, we don’t believe we are really doing anything when we pray—other than pray, that is.” 

A significant portion of the problem comes when we fail to grasp that the more important aspect of prayer is not what we get but what we become.  We easily get obsessed with the issue of receiving “answers” to our prayer requests, but God is more focused on what kind of people we are becoming.    

Through the practice of prayer, we get the opportunity to become people of greater patience, and to become people of deeper compassion, and to become people of higher integrity.  And as we pray for others, we get the privilege of standing beside them and of being part of the team that supports them in becoming more and more of what God would have them to be.  

In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he takes this privilege seriously.  He comes alongside them and becomes part of their team of supporters as he prays to God over what they can become in Christ.  He prays for their lives to be pleasing to God as they bear fruit in every good work (verse 10), for them to be strong (verse 11), and for them to be able to endure life’s challenges with patience and joy (verses 11-12).  The first thing he prays for, though, is that they will “be filled with the knowledge of God’s will” (verse 9). 

The way Paul expresses it here suggests that being “filled with the knowledge of God’s will” leads to the other matters Paul prays about on their behalf.  For the will of God has less to do with taking a predetermined turn in the road as with becoming the kind of people God would have us to be. 

The prophet Micah addresses this when he states, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)  What God wants for us (what He wills for us) is to become people of integrity, justice, compassion, mercy, kindness, and humility.  “In the end,” Mark Labberton argues, God’s will for us—His call upon our lives—“is about continuous formation into the likeness of Jesus Christ far more than it is about finding direction or getting a job.” (Called, p. 135).

Prayer has to do with trusting God, and it has to do with us becoming more and more of what God would have us to be.  Brennan Manning pulls these two matters together well in a story he shares: “When the brilliant ethicist John Kavanaugh went to work for three months at ‘the house of the dying’ in Calcutta, he was seeking a clear answer as to how best to spend the rest of his life.  On the first morning there, he met Mother Teresa.  She asked, ‘And what can I do for you?’  Kavanaugh asked her to pray for him.  ‘What do you want me to pray for?’ she asked.  He voiced the request that he had borne thousands of miles from the United States: ‘Pray that I have clarity.’

“She said firmly, ‘No, I will not do that.’  When he asked her why, she said, ‘Clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of.’  When Kavanaugh commented that she always seemed to have the clarity he longed for, she laughed and said, ‘I have never had clarity; what I have always had is trust.  So I will pray that you trust God.’”