Meditations in Colossians: 6. Thankful
Col 1:3 We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you
There are some things that sound very obvious when you read them until you stop and pause and reflect on just what is being said and then ask is it the norm as we know it? I find this with Paul’s comment about always thanking God whenever he prayed for these Colossian believers. It sounds such a simple thing and yet I wonder about it when I think about the church in general.
Note three things before we stray into wider pastures. Fist he doesn’t say he always prays for them here. He does later. He did say that to the Thessalonians but not to all the others. With a heart and a ‘parish’ as big as Paul’s it is realistic to accept that he couldn’t pray for every church all the time, but just as the Spirit put them on his heart or when he especially had them in mind when he had either recently visited, wanted to visit or simply wanted to write. Second, note that it is when he prays for them as prompted by the Spirit (we assume) that thanks is a key part of his prayers for them. Third, we will see when we read on, that he has specific reasons for giving thanks and we’ll consider them separately later on as we progress through this chapter.
Having said those things let’s ponder on this idea of thanking God for others rather more widely. If we are honest, a) how much do we pray for other Christians and b) how often do we give thanks for them? I have sat in prayer meetings for many years and it is fairly rare for churches to genuinely pray for each other. Yes, there are churches that pray their way around the area, praying for neighbouring churches but (and I am trying to be honest here) I wonder how real are those prayers? Even more how real is it to suggest that we give thanks for one another? I believe the answers to these questions is, still trying to be honest, little prayer for others and even less giving thanks for them. Now there are simple and obvious (when you think about it) reasons for this and it is not being unkind, it is just stating obvious facts about modern life.
Fact number one is that in any area (and I am talking about the UK here, but it is often true of the USA as well and maybe other Westernised nations also) there are a lot of churches. In the small ‘town’ where I live there are seven churches. In a seven mile radius I would guess at least fifty churches. In Paul’s day there was THE church at Ephesus, THE church in Galatia and so on. The more congregations there are the less likely we are to pray for one another.
Fact number two is that you only give thanks for someone meaningfully when you know them. Paul had been to the places to which he wrote (or mostly) and, according to the accounts, mostly had spent some meaningful time with each of them and so would know the people and be able to put faces to them when he thought about them.
Fact number three is that you would give thanks for them when you knew what they were doing, how they were getting on and, especially, how they were a) growing and b) coping with the pressures of persecution and general opposition against them. These churches that Paul related to were new churches and therefore survival and growth were real issues. The day in which they came into being also had many competitors (pagan religions) and oppressors (from Judaism and from Roman emperors). The life of churches of that day was a crucial issue and of importance so that it was good to know how others were growing and coping. When you heard how they were doing, that was a cause to be thankful.
Fact number four is that you give thanks when you have meaningful relationships with other churches, especially when it was born out of your apostolic ministry. According to Paul’s letters, there was a lot of coming and going among the churches from Paul and his apostolic team bringing input and encouragement. Although there is some input from ‘visitors’ or ‘visiting speakers’ few churches today have regular apostolic or prophetic ministry input and indeed I suspect many ‘church leaders’ would feel threatened if such ministry came in and many churches ruffled at the strong discipleship encouragement that such ministries bring.
Thus we see that Paul’s declaration about thanking God for when he prayed for these churches was founded on a) a limited number of specifically identifiable location churches, b) places where he had been to and so knew the people, c) churches that were in early days of growth and also suffered opposition and d) churches founded out of his personal ministry. These are the motivating factors behind Paul’s prayer and specifically praying with thanks.
Perhaps the other almost too obvious to comment upon but vitally important fact is that there were things to give thanks for. Churches were growing, churches were standing in the face of opposition and there were good reasons to give thanks for them. How often today when we hear of what goes on elsewhere do we hear of strife or difficulty, upset and dissension. How rarely do we hear of churches that are abounding and expanding with new birth (instead of transferences). Perhaps today we should be pleading with God for all our churches, for there appear more grounds for that than for thankfulness. But perhaps that is overstating it. We can give thanks that brothers and sisters ARE there even if they are struggling.