Watchful in Prayer
“Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving” (Colossians 4:2, ESV).
The word watchful in this verse most basically means to be awake, not sleeping. It is frequently used in the sense of being alert, attentive, and vigilant. The implication here is that praying effectively means keeping a diligent lookout for some things. But what? How can we “be watchful” in prayer?
• Watch for every opportunity to pray. This is Paul’s admonition in the first part of our text: to “continue steadfastly” (“devote yourselves,” NASB) in prayer (cf. Ephesians 6:18; 1 Thessalonians 5:17). Jesus taught men “that at all times they ought to pray and not to lose heart” (Luke 18:1), with some of His parables illustrating the need for persistence and energy in prayer (Luke 11:5-13; 18:1-8). And Luke observes how the earliest disciples were seriously committed to prayer (Acts 1:14; 2:42; 6:4). We should be, too. How much time do you spend in prayer each day?
• Watch for reasons to pray. If you have trouble thinking of things for which to pray, just take a look around; you’ll find all sorts of matters that need to be brought before God. Pray about sin and temptation (who among us doesn’t need to do that?). Pray about good qualities you want to develop or bad traits you want to change. Pray about the everyday things that concern you (health, finances, family, job). Give thanks for the things that bless your life (again, who among us has nothing to be grateful for?). Pray for others — the sick, the needy, the lost, the hurting. Pray for the church — for its growth, unity, love, and peace; for overseers, deacons, evangelists, teachers. Does that brief list give you a place to start?
• Watch how you pray. To many ancient pagans, prayer was like working a combination lock: if you uttered just the right words, in just the right way, just the right number of times, you unlocked the favor of the gods. But Jesus said, “When you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words” (Matthew 6:7, ESV). “To repeat a verbal formulary is not prayer,” wrote George Barlow. “Genuine prayer involves thought, diligent inquiry, passionate entreaty, unwearied perseverance.” There is nothing wrong with using words that we’ve heard others use in prayer. But let’s not disengage our hearts and minds, nor substitute the mere repeating of certain words or phrases for a real outpouring of the heart to God.
• Watch out for things that may hinder prayer. Sin gets in the way of effective prayer. When ancient Israel stopped listening to God, He told them, “When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide My eyes from you. Yes, even though you multiply prayers, I will not listen” (Isaiah 1:15; cf. 59:1-2). The New Testament warns that our prayers may be hindered by sin in our family relations or in brotherly love, or when we pray from an unforgiving heart or from wrong motives (1 Peter 3:7-12; Matthew 6:14-15; James 4:2-3). “He who turns away his ear from listening to the law, even his prayer is an abomination” (Proverbs 28:9).
• Watch for results from prayer. Prayer, by definition, anticipates a Divine response. “And this is the confidence which we have before Him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us” (1 John 5:14). God is willing to grant us what is good (Matthew 7:7-11). Knowing this, we should pray in faith, not doubt. “For the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord, being a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways” (James 1:6-8). Prayer gets results (James 5:16); we should always pray with that expectation.