I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
Paul’s letter to the Philippians is sometimes described as a love letter. Even these first few verses make it abundantly clear why. Paul and the Philippians enjoy a tremendous bond of Christian friendship, where each party holds the other in affection, love, and support. For while it was traditional in the ancient world to begin a letter with section of “thanksgiving,” this one overflows with Paul’s gratitude for their support, both when he was among them and now that he is apart and suffering in prison.
But these verses also illumine for us part of the nature of prayer. There are two elements in particular that deserve our attention. First, thanksgiving is at the heart of prayer and it is a tremendously powerful thing. Paul begins this section of his letter with this simple but profound statement: “I thank my God every time I remember you.”
Imagine, for a moment, what it would be like to start our letters like this. Or to start our conversations. Try it. Seriously. The next time you have a significant conversation with a friend, start by telling the other person that every time you think of her, you give God thanks for her friendship and support. Or the next time you have a significant meeting at work, start by telling the whole group why you are grateful to work with them. Or the next time you sit down with your family, turn to each one and say what you are grateful for about each one.
Thanksgiving is powerful because it builds up the other person, names what is beautiful and wonderful, and links it to the goodness of God the giver of all gifts. Each of us could do with a little more thanksgiving in our life.
Paul gives thanks for the Philippians, and because he treasures them he also prays for their wellbeing, praying “that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best.” We sometimes think of prayer as an individual matter, giving thanks for the good we have received or beseeching God for our needs. But prayer can also be deeply communal, as we seek after the welfare of those we know and love. Indeed, love might be described most simply as a commitment to seek unfailingly the good of another. And this is Paul’s prayer.
This is something we can practice, too. Casting about in our minds for those we know – live with, work with, play with – and asking in our prayers that God would strengthen in them what is good and prepare them for the challenges ahead. Sometimes way ahead – a wise friend once said that I should start praying now that my children – then in elementary school – would find a loving spouse. How wonderful, when you think about it, to commit to years of praying for the welfare of your children. And we can do this for each other in so many ways.
Giving thanks, seeking after and praying for the welfare of another. These are powerful things, not only for those we pray for, but also for ourselves. Because gratitude and love invite us simultaneously to be so fully ourselves – bringing all that we have and are in the moment – and yet draw us beyond ourselves for the good of another. Yes, in this self-focused culture that will take time to learn, but as you practice prayers of gratitude and love I think you will find yourself more confident, more at peace, more at wellbeing with yourself, those around you, and with God.
Prayer: Dear God, let us give thanks for all the people you have placed in our lives, seeking after their welfare and entrusting their strengths and needs to your love. In Jesus’ name, Amen.