The word of the day is “earnestly.” In our reading of Colossians 4:2-9, St. Paul closes his letter with some parting counsel. Before ending his Epistle with salutations, the Apostle writes, “Continue earnestly in prayer, being vigilant in it with thanksgiving” (vs. 2).
With these words, Paul urges the believers in Colossae to continue to pray. That should go without saying. Prayer, after all, is the breath of the soul. The body cannot survive for more than a few minutes without breathing. Likewise, the neglect of prayer deadens the soul.
Paul not only urges us to pray, but he teaches us how we should do it. He writes that we should offer our petitions and supplications to God with intensity. The Orthodox Study Bible uses the word “earnestly” to convey Paul’s advice on how we should go about praying. Other translations render the same term as “steadfastly.” But this tepid vocabulary hardly captures the meaning of the original language. The root of the Greek word refers to strength and force. Paul is saying that prayer must be vigorous. We might say that for Paul, effective prayer requires intense exertion. It takes a strong effort that overcomes all obstacles (Strong’s #4342).
Luke speaks of such intensity when he writes about the life of the early believers immediately after Pentecost. He writes in Acts, “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and prayers” (Acts 2: 42). Imagine how fired up the believers were after the first outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Their prayers, as well as their teaching, fellowship, and Eucharistic worship were amazingly powerful.
Characteristics of Forceful Prayer
In our reading, Paul goes on to identify three characteristics of forceful prayer. First, it is vigilant. That is, it is awake, alert, and on guard against diversions. Distractions in prayer are born of inattentiveness. The mind forgets its intention of presenting its supplications to the Throne of God. When we notice this mental meandering, we must strongly and immediately return to our single-minded focus on God’s mercy.
The second quality of fervent prayer is thanksgiving. Gratitude to God warms the heart and fills our supplications with zeal and devotion. A lack of appreciation for our blessings makes the heart cold. Then our appeals to God become demands rather than childlike requests to our Heavenly Father.
Finally, in this passage, Paul suggests the third trait of energetic prayer. Fervent prayer calls upon God urgently for the needs of others. For example, Paul asks the Colossians to pray for him. Specifically, he urges them to pray that God would open a door for him to proclaim the Word of the mystery of Christ, even while he is imprisoned (vs. 3).
Yet consider: Paul is an Apostle with the divine calling to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles. Why would he have to ask the congregation at Colossae to pray for Him? Wouldn’t his prayers be sufficient? The answer is that when we add our prayers to the petitions of others, their power is magnified. Moreover, they are especially powerful when they are inspired by the mutual love of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Here are two quotations from the church fathers: 1) From Evagrios Ponticus: “Do not be afraid, for if you pray fervently to God, the demons will retreat, lashed by His unseen power” (Ponticus 2010, 94). 2). From St. Ambrose of Optina: “If you do not feel like praying, you have to force yourself. The Holy Fathers say that prayer with force is higher than prayer unforced. You do not want to but force yourself: ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is taken by force’” (Matt. 11:12). (St. Ambrose of Optina +1891 Anon.).
Anon. “Prayer.” Gleanings from Orthodox Christian Authors and the Holy Fathers http://www.orthodox.net/gleanings/prayer.html.
Ponticus, Evagrius. 2010. “On Prayer.” In Excerpts from the Philokalia.