Text: Eph. 3:14-21
14 For this reason I kneel before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name.
16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
Praying for Power
Another of Paul’s Prayers for the Ephesians Ephesians 3:14–21
How did you learn to pray? If like me you were reared in a conservative Christian home and early taught the King James Version of the Bible, then you learned to pray in Elizabethan English. When I was growing up, this was not judged to be a holier or more reverent form of English; it was simply the language of the English Bible that almost all English-speaking Protestants used at the time. I do not recall what I said when I first dared to pray out loud at a public prayer meeting. But even though I was very young, it opened something like this: “We thank Thee, heavenly Father, that in Thy grace Thou hast condescended to visit us.” Ironically, when our family prayed in French (I was reared in a bilingual home), our prayers were in reasonably up-to-date French. This owed a great deal to the fact that our French Bibles were more current, linguistically speaking, than our English ones.
However, if you grew up in a modern, secular home and did not become a Christian until you were in your third year at university, your first public prayer sounded a little different. Perhaps you were led to Christ by a Campus Crusade group. You went to their studies and meetings, and eventually, when you had enough courage to pray in public, your prayer began like this: “Jesus, we just want to thank you for being here.”
I am not suggesting that one of these prayers is better than the other. God, after all, looks on the heart. My only point is that Christians learn to pray by listening to those around them.
Nothing is intrinsically bad about this. If we lived in a time and place where Christians were characterized by knowledgeable, anointed praying, it would be a wonderful privilege to learn from them. Sadly, although there are a few signs of resurgence, prayer in the West has fallen on hard times, and there are few models to hold up to a new generation of believers.
Then how shall we reform our praying?
Surely the best answer is to turn again to the prayers of the Bible. If every part of our lives is to be renewed and reformed by the Word of God, how much more should that be so of our praying? If our generation does not cast up many prayer warriors whose habits in prayer accurately reflect the standards of Scripture, it is all the more urgent that we return to the primary source. Then we shall learn afresh what to pray for, what arguments to use, what themes on which to focus, what passion is seemly, how these prayers fit into a larger Christian vision, how to maintain the centrality of God himself in our praying.
The prayer before us has two rich and lengthy petitions, which we shall examine in depth. Paul roots them in two grounds or reasons, and he ends the prayer with a word of praise, a powerful doxology.
Two Central Petitions
Two petitions emerge directly from the text. Paul prays (1) that God might strengthen us with power through his Spirit in our inner being (3:16–17a) and (2) that we might have power to grasp the limitless dimensions of the love of Christ (3:17b–19).
At heart, the first petition is a prayer for power. Paul regularly prays for power. Already in this epistle (as we saw in chap. 10), Paul has asked God for power for his readers: “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe” (1:18–19a). Here Paul prays for power more directly: “I pray … that he may strengthen you with power” (3:16).
The nature of this power is carefully circumscribed. The power for which Paul prays is mediated through God’s Spirit: “I pray … that he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit” (3:16). No less important, the sphere in which this power operates is what Paul calls the “inner being”: “I pray … that he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being [lit., the inner man]” (3:16). Exactly what does Paul mean by that?
We gain the clearest picture of what Paul means when we consider another passage he wrote where he uses exactly the same expression. In 2 Corinthians 4:16–18, Paul writes, “Though outwardly [lit., in “the outer man”] we are wasting away, yet inwardly [lit., in “the inner man”—exactly the same expression as in Eph. 3:16] we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporal, but what is unseen is eternal.” Paul’s body, his outer being, is wearing away under the onslaught of years and of persecution; the inner being is what is left when the outer man has wasted completely away.
Most of us in the West have not suffered great persecution, but all of us are getting older. In fact, sometimes we can see in elderly folk something of the process that Paul has in mind. We all know senior Christians who, as their physical strength is reduced, nevertheless become more and more steadfast and radiant. Their memories may be fading; their arthritis may be nearly unbearable; their ventures beyond their small rooms or apartments may be severely curtailed. But somehow they live as if they already have one foot in heaven. As their outer being weakens, their inner being runs from strength to strength. Conversely, we know elderly folk who, so far as we can tell, are not suffering from any serious organic decay, yet as old age weighs down on them they nevertheless become more and more bitter, caustic, demanding, spiteful, and introverted. It is almost as if the civilizing restraints imposed on them by cultural expectations are no longer adequate. In their youth, they had sufficient physical stamina to keep their inner being somewhat capped. Now, with reserves of energy diminishing, what they really are in their inner being is coming out.
Even for those of us who are still some distance from being senior citizens, the restrictions and increasing limitations of the outer being make themselves felt. My body is not what it was twenty years ago. Every time I take a shower, a few more hairs disappear down the drain never to be seen again. I have arthritis in two or three joints; I have to watch my intake of calories; my reaction times are a little slower than they used to be; I now need reading glasses. And some day, if this old world lasts long enough, I shall waste away, and my outer man will be laid to rest in a hole six feet deep. Yet inwardly, Paul insists, in the inner being, we Christians “are being renewed day by day.”
The Christian’s ultimate hope is for the resurrection body. But until we receive that gift, it is our inner being that is being strengthened by God’s power. In a culture where so many people are desperate for good health but not demonstrably hungry for the transformation of the inner being, Christians are in urgent need of following Paul’s example and praying for displays of God’s power in the inner being. In short, Paul’s primary concern is to pray for a display of God’s mighty power in the domain of our being that controls our character and prepares us for heaven.
We must ask two important questions about Paul’s first petition.
What purpose does it have? After all, many people pursue power. Simon the sorcerer wanted the power of the Spirit so that he could manipulate people and maintain his position in the community. Most of us know Christians whose talk about the power of God in their lives seems dangerously close to a perpetual game of one-upmanship. Their chase after power in some triumphalistic sense is a long way removed from the stance of the apostle. After all, the Paul who wanted to experience more of the power of Christ’s resurrection also wanted to share more deeply in Christ’s sufferings (Phil. 3:10), a balance almost unknown in the West. Exactly why, then, does Paul pray that Christians might know more of God’s power?
We shall better grasp the nature and focus of this power for which Paul prays if we observe its purpose. “I pray,” Paul writes, “that out of his glorious riches [God] may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (3:16–17a).
One cannot help but notice the trinitarian character of the prayer. Paul asks the Father (v. 14) that we might be strengthened through his Spirit (v. 16) so that Christ (v. 17) might dwell in our hearts through faith. Even so, on first reading this expressed purpose strikes the Christian reader as a bit strange. Do we not hold that Christ by his Spirit takes up residence in us when we become Christians (see John 14)? Why then does Paul say that the purpose of his prayer is that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith? Isn’t he already doing that?
It helps to recognize that the verb here rendered “to dwell” is a strong one. Paul’s hope is that Christ will truly take up his residence in the hearts of believers, as they trust him (that’s what “through faith” means), so as to make their hearts his home.
The picture becomes clearer if we think of an analogy. Picture a couple carefully marshaling enough resources to put together a down payment. They buy their house, recognizing full well that it needs a fair bit of work. They can’t stand the black and silver wallpaper in the master bedroom. There are mounds of trash in the basement. The kitchen was designed for the convenience of the plumber, not the cook. The roof leaks in a couple of places, and the insulation barely meets minimum standards. The electrical box is too small, the lighting in the bathroom is poor, the heat exchanger in the furnace is corroded. But still, it is this young couple’s first home, and they are grateful.
The months slip past, then the years. The black and silver wallpaper has been replaced with tasteful pastel patterns. The couple has remodeled their kitchen, doing much of the work themselves. The roof no longer leaks, and the furnace has been replaced with a more powerful unit that also includes a central air conditioner. Better yet, as the family grows, this couple completes a couple of extra rooms in the basement and adds a small wing to serve as a study and sewing room. The grounds are neatly trimmed and boast a dazzling rock garden. Twenty-five years after the purchase, the husband one day remarks to his wife, “You know, I really like it here. This place suits us. Everywhere we look we see the results of our own labor. This house has been shaped to our needs and taste, and I really feel comfortable.”
When Christ by his Spirit takes up residence within us, he finds the moral equivalent of mounds of trash, black and silver wallpaper, and a leaking roof. He sets about turning this residence into a place appropriate for him, a home in which he is comfortable. There will be a lot of cleaning to do, quite a few repairs, and some much-needed expansion. But his aim is clear: he wants to take up residence in our hearts, as we exercise faith in him.
When people take up long-term residence somewhere, their presence eventually characterizes that dwelling. The point was well understood by Jean Sophia Pigott when in 1876 she wrote a poem addressed to Jesus. The first verse expresses the joy of faith:
Thou whose name is called Jesus,
Risen Lord of life and power,
O what joy it is to trust Thee,
Every day and every hour!
Of Thy wondrous grace I sing,
Saviour, Counsellor, and King.
But it is the third stanza that captures just what Paul means when he prays that Christ might dwell in our hearts through faith:
Make my life a bright outshining
Of Thy life, that all may see
Thine own resurrection power
Mightily put forth in me.
Ever let my heart become
Yet more consciously Thy home.
Although the language is different, the notion is deeply akin to a much-loved emphasis among the Puritans. Adopting the language of Galatians 4:19, they were profoundly concerned that Christ might be formed in believers.
Make no mistake: when Christ first moves into our lives, he finds us in very bad repair. It takes a great deal of power to change us, and that is why Paul prays for power. He asks that God may so strengthen us by his power in our inner being that Christ may genuinely take up residence within us, transforming us into a house that pervasively reflects his own character.
The idea of getting rid of the old and dirty, and adopting the new and clean, of putting off the old and soiled and taking on the new and radiant, occurs in Paul’s writings in many forms. For instance, these verses from Colossians ought to be read slowly, meditatively, and with frank self-examination:
Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Col. 3:5–17)
This passage is both powerful and practical. In concrete terms it spells out the changes Paul expects to take place in the lives of believers—or, to maintain the language of his prayer in Ephesians 3, it spells out the changes Paul envisages as he prays that God’s power will so operate in our inner being that we become suitable residences for the risen Christ. This is the kind of purpose Paul has in mind when he prays for power.
We may ask a second important question about this petition: With what measure of resources is the prayer to be answered? It is one thing to ask, what of the supply? The text answers our question. “I pray,” Paul writes, “that out of his glorious riches [God] may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (3:16–17, emphasis added). What are these “glorious riches” on which Paul is prepared to rely?
For Paul, the expression refers to what God has already secured for us on account of Christ. This is clear from another and perhaps better-known passage: “And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19). From Paul’s perspective, everything that is coming to us from God comes through Christ Jesus. Christ Jesus has won our pardon; he has reconciled us to God; he has canceled our sin; he has secured the gift of the Spirit for us; he has granted eternal life to us and promises us the life of the consummation; he has made us children of the new covenant; his righteousness has been accounted as ours; he has risen from the dead, and all of God’s sovereignty is mediated through him and directed to our good and to God’s glory. This is the Son whom God sent to redeem us. In God’s all-wise plan and all-powerful action, all these blessings have been won by his son’s odious death and triumphant resurrection. All the blessings God has for us are tied up with the work of Christ.
So the supply of the riches of God’s glory in Christ Jesus is as lavish as the benefits secured by Christ. To depreciate the supply is to depreciate Jesus; to doubt the provision God has made for us is to doubt the provision God has secured in his Son. It is far wiser to understand and believe that the God who has already so lavishly blessed us in his Son has no less lavish reserves of power to pour out on us as he brings us to Christian maturity. That is one reason why Paul petitions God for this transforming power: he is persuaded that the supply is as extensive as the benefits secured by Jesus Christ at Golgotha.
This first petition, then, is a plea for power—power to be holy, power to think, act, and talk in ways utterly pleasing to Christ, power to strengthen moral resolve, power to walk in transparent gratitude to God, power to be humble, power to be discerning, power to be obedient and trusting, power to grow in conformity to Jesus Christ. Here is no merely creedal Christianity. Biblical Christianity, of course, insists that certain truths be believed and openly threatens all those who refuse to believe; it is, in short, profoundly creedal. But it is not merely creedal. The devil himself can recite the Apostles’ Creed, and doubtless confesses its truth, yet he has personally experienced nothing of its transforming power. But God’s purpose for the men and women he redeems is not simply to have them believe certain truths but to transform them in a lifelong process that stretches toward heaven. And so Paul prays along just such lines: he asks his heavenly Father that out of his glorious riches he might strengthen believers with power through his Spirit in their inner being, so that Christ may dwell in their hearts through faith.
That brings us to the second petition: that we might have power to grasp the limitless dimensions of the love of Christ. Here too the point emerges directly from the text: “And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge” (3:17b–19).
Like the first petition, this one is a prayer for power. Here, however, the power of God in our lives, given in response to this prayer, operates a little differently. Its purpose is to enable us to grasp the limitless dimensions of Christ’s love.
Paul does not mean to suggest that his readers have never before known God’s love for them in Christ Jesus. Far from it: he knows they are Christians and therefore acknowledges that they have been “rooted and established in love” (v. 17). He cannot think of their salvation without reminding himself that it utterly depends on God’s sovereign love. Even in the first chapter of this epistle, Paul has devoted himself to the praise of “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” on the grounds that “he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves” (Eph. 1:3–6). Small wonder, then, that he thinks of Christians as those who have been “rooted and grounded in love.”
The remarkable fact about this petition, however, is that Paul clearly assumes that his readers, Christians though they are, do not adequately appreciate the love of Christ. He now wants them to have the power to grasp just how great the love of Christ is. This is not a prayer that we might love Christ more (though that is a good thing to pray for); rather, it is a prayer that we might better grasp his love for us.
This cannot be merely an intellectual exercise. Paul is not asking that his readers might become more able to articulate the greatness of God’s love in Christ Jesus or to grasp with the intellect alone how significant God’s love is in the plan of redemption. He is asking God that they might have the power to grasp the dimensions of that love in their experience. Doubtless that includes intellectual reflection, but it cannot be reduced to that alone.
Because some wings of the church have appealed to experience over against revelation or have talked glibly about an ill-defined “spirituality” that is fundamentally divorced from the gospel, some of us have overreacted and begun to view all mention of experience as suspicious at best, perverse at worst. This overreaction must cease. The Scriptures themselves demand that we allow more place for experience than that. In the midst of extraordinary despair, the psalmist learns the secret of deepest contentment: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Ps. 73:25–26). Paul reminds us that “the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17). One of his prayers asks for a certain kind of experience: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:13). So precious is the love of Christ to him that he needs only to come near the theme and he bursts into a spontaneous line of adoring praise: “I live by faith in the Son of God,” he writes and then adds, “who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). Peter tells his readers, “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Pet. 1:8–9). The fact that they “have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Pet. 2:3) becomes an incentive to purity. It cannot possibly be reduced to mean only that they have found Christianity to be intellectually satisfying.
Even in the epistle before us, Paul will go on to make a rather stunning contrast: “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18). The assumption is that whereas wine offers a kind of high, it is treacherous, for it leads to debauchery. By contrast, the “high” engendered by the Holy Spirit brings no debauchery, no hangovers, but purity, right relationships, and the joy of the Lord (the next verse goes on to speak of making “music from your heart to the Lord”).
So when Paul asks God that Christians might have the power to grasp the limitless dimensions of Christ’s love, he does not use the language of merely intellectual comprehension. How do we appreciate love? How do we measure it? Can we speak of forty buckets of love? Of three-and-a-half acres of love? Paul resorts to metaphor and then to paradox. His metaphor is linear measure: “to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ” (Eph. 3:18). His paradox is more stunning yet: “and to know this love that surpasses knowledge” (v. 19)—that is, to know what is beyond mere knowledge.
What we must understand is “that those biblical documents in which the writers give their teaching by telling of their experience must set standards of spiritual experience, just as they do of divine truth, and must be expounded in a way that brings out and enforces the one as much as the other.”
We must not think that Paul is appealing for uncontrolled mysticism. For him, the love of Christ is not merely something to be privately experienced. Christ’s love was supremely displayed in history on a hideous cross outside Jerusalem some years before Paul wrote. That love was a wonderfully rich redemptive plan God himself had graciously disclosed across the centuries and then brought to fulfillment in the death and resurrection and exaltation of his Son. Paul is not fostering some experience of love outside the constraints of the gospel. He is certainly not hinting that any “spiritual” experience whatsoever is valid and important. What he presupposes, rather, is that apart from the power of God Christians will have too little appreciation for the love of Christ. They need the power of God to appreciate the limitless dimensions of that love. And so Paul prays for power.
We may sing about these things more fluently than we talk about them. For a century and a half, the church has sung:
Loved with everlasting love,
Led by grace that love to know;
Spirit, breathing from above,
Thou hast taught me it is so.
O this full and perfect peace!
O this transport all divine!
In a love which cannot cease
I am His, and He is mine.
Heaven above is softer blue,
Earth around is sweeter green;
Something lives in every hue
Christless eyes have never seen.
Birds with gladder songs o’erflow,
Flowers with deeper beauties shine,
Since I know, as now I know,
I am His and He is mine.
His forever, only His:
Who the Lord and me shall part?
Ah, with what a rest of bliss
Christ can fill the loving heart!
Heaven and earth may fade and flee,
First-born light in gloom decline;
But, while God and I shall be,
I am His, and He is mine.
George Wade Robinson, “I Am His, and He Is Mine,” 1876
Those who read Christian biographies know that many men and women of God have reveled in a deep experience of the love of God. It is said that R. A. Torrey earnestly sought God’s face, and one day while he was reading the Scriptures and praying, he was so overwhelmed with a profound consciousness of God’s love for him that he began to weep and weep. Eventually he asked God to show him no more: he could not bear it.
A genuine and deep perception of the love of Christ rarely comes to the person who is not spending much time in the Scriptures. Even so, such perception may be triggered by tragedy—a terrible bereavement, for example, or prolonged suffering. As a boy of about ten years I experienced something somewhat analogous to this. I had been very ill and had spent several weeks in the hospital. The threat to my life was removed, and I returned home for a slow convalescence of several months. One afternoon I awoke from sleep to find my mother sitting beside my bed, quietly crying. As only a ten-year-old could, I blurted out, “Why, Mum, you dolove me!”
Of course, that finished her off, and she rushed from the room. But as I think about that afternoon, I understand a little better why I spoke as I did. If you had asked me the day before whether my parents loved me, I would have answered unhesitatingly that they did. But the illness gave me an opportunity to witness my mother’s tears, and that gave me cause to reflect. Instead of delivering the party line, “Of course my parents love me,” I self-consciously analyzed what was going on and articulated my conclusion. If the result was neither well put nor well timed, the reflection itself was right and good and marked a step in growing up.
In a not dissimilar way, sometimes it is when we suffer, when we observe the universality of death’s decree, when we are debilitated, when we observe an extraordinarily barbaric bit of cruelty, when we are sidelined by a chronic illness, that we are impelled to pause and reflect on the love of God for sinners and rebels such as we are. We serve the Lord Christ, who suffered in our place, who learned obedience through the things that he suffered. The trinkets and baubles that otherwise capture so much of our attention fade away, and the eternal things assume their rightful place. Then we know what it means to confess that God’s love is “as shoreless and as endless as eternity.”
Paul wants us to grasp something of the limitless dimensions of the love of Christ, to know this love that surpasses knowledge, so he prays that we might have God’s power so as to be able to take this step. But why? Why does he think it so important? He tells us: he wants his readers “to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (3:19b).
To put the matter simply, Paul wants us to have the power to grasp the love of God in Christ Jesus, to the end that we might be mature. To be “filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” is simply a Pauline way of saying “to be all that God wants you to be” or “to be spiritually mature.” A similar expression is found in the next chapter of this epistle, where Paul tells us how various people in the church are to serve “so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (4:12–13). God himself, Christ himself, is the standard. God elsewhere says, “Be perfect, for I am perfect,” and “Be holy, for I am holy”; now he says here, in effect, “Be mature, be complete, as I am mature, complete.”
Do you see the stunning implication? Paul assumes that we cannot be as spiritually mature as we ought to be unless we receive power from God to enable us to grasp the limitless dimensions of the love of Christ. We may think we are peculiarly mature Christians because of our theology, our education, our years of experience, our traditions; but Paul knows better. He knows we cannot be as mature as we ought to be until we “know this love that surpasses knowledge” (3:19). That is why he prays as he does: he wants us to grow in our grasp of Christ’s love so that we will become mature, “filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (3:19).
We can intuitively understand how this works from our experiences in the natural realm. Perry Downs, a colleague at the institution where I teach, and his wife, Sandy, have for years served as foster parents. Most of the children they have helped, now well over twenty, have been newborns and have stayed with them until adopted. But some years ago, the agency with whom they are connected asked them to take in twin eighteen-month-old boys. Perry and Sandy hesitated but agreed to accept them when the agency assured them that the boys would be with them only for about six weeks.
The first night in the Downses’ home, the boys were put to bed, and not a peep came from their bedroom. Curious, Perry crept into their room a half hour later. He found both boys wide awake, their pillows wet with tears, but neither was making a sound. It transpired that they had been beaten for crying in several of the homes in which they had been placed before coming to Perry and Sandy’s. This was their ninth home. Testing suggested that the twins were irremediably damaged emotionally and intellectually.
As it happened, the twins stayed with Perry and Sandy for close to two years. By the time they were adopted, they were judged within the “normal” range of intellectual and emotional capacity.
Of course, this is only one story out of millions. We need only read our newspapers to be reminded that, all things being equal, unless a child is reared in a home where love and discipline surround every step, that child will not attain emotional maturity. Countless studies have shown, for instance, that a girl reared without a strong and loving father rarely learns how to give and receive love. Inevitably, that will breed trouble in her own marriage. With the massive breakdown of the nuclear family, we have only begun to reap the whirlwind.
Not for a moment would I suggest that emotional scars are beyond repair. The grace of God reaches into every kind of environment and powerfully transforms broken people. But all things being equal, apart from the intervention of the grace of God, all of us know that for a human being to grow to full emotional and interpersonal maturity, the stability of a loving and disciplined home is an indispensable ingredient.
The same thing is true in the spiritual arena. Just as a human being cannot enjoy normal maturation and develop into a mature person without the structure of disciplined love in the home, so also a Christian who does not grow in the experience of the love of God in Christ does not grow to full maturity. That is what Paul presupposes in his prayer. He prays that Christians might have power to grasp the limitless dimensions of the love of God, so that they will be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
Like all analogies, this one is not perfect. In the case of the twin boys, they had been deprived of love and the structures of discipline; in our case, we run from such love, and we deprive ourselves of such love—much like the prodigal son. But the result is the same: wretched immaturity, impoverished relationships, destroyed trust, a bankrupt sense of spiritual reality.
It takes nothing less than the power of God to enable us to grasp the love of Christ. Part of our deep “me-ism” is manifested in such independence that we do not really want to get so close to God that we feel dependent on him, swamped by his love. Just as in a marriage a spouse may flee relationships that are too intimate, judging them to be a kind of invasion of privacy when in reality such a reaction is a sign of intense immaturity and selfishness, so also in the spiritual arena: when we are drawn a little closer to the living God, many of us want to back off and stake out our own turf. We want to experience power so that we can be in control; Paul prays for power so that we will be controlled by God himself. Our deep and pathetic self-centeredness is precisely why it takes the power of God to transform us, if we are to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge and grow to the maturity the Scriptures hold out before us.
It is wonderful to revel in the love of God. Truly to experience that love, to live in the warmth of its glow, invests all of life with new meaning and purpose. The brotherhood of the saints takes on new depth; “fellowship” becomes precious, not the artificially arranged shaking of hands in a service or the shared pot of tea or coffee. Forgiving others becomes almost natural because we ourselves, thanks to God’s immeasurably rich love, have been forgiven so much. Others may despise us, but that makes little difference if God loves us. How shall trouble or sorrow or bereavement drive us into macabre despair, when we can say, with Paul, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” (Rom. 8:35). Our speech, our thoughts, our actions, our reactions, our relationships, our goals, our values—all are transformed if only we live in the self-conscious enjoyment of the love of Christ. Our testimony is then no longer dry and merely correct; it is living and vital as well. We are, in short, growing up spiritually.
We should not think that Paul is advocating some kind of Lone Ranger Christianity, as if he is interested only in the maturation of the individual Christian. Far from it. He writes, “I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (3:17–19, emphasis added). “It needs the whole people of God to understand the whole love of God,” writes John Stott. In fact, it is hard to imagine any individual Christian genuinely growing in this regard yet unconcerned about fellow believers. It is inconceivable that a genuine, deepening grasp of the love of Jesus Christ could remain entirely privatized. Paul wants the entire church to grow in this way; and he prays to this end. This entire petition has been pondered in a contemporary sonnet:
To grasp how wide and long and high and deep
The love of Christ, experience it when
Mere knowledge bursts its categories, then
Escape the fragile frame of language, reap
The richest crop salvation brings, and heap
Up mem’ries of a sea of love, again
And yet again cascading o’er us—men
Can know no other bliss so rich and deep.
Lord God, in love you have established us
And rooted us in soil no less fine—
Not single plants exposed to every gust
Of wind, but all the saints drink love sublime.
Make me to know—a creature hewn from sod—
The measure of all fullness found in God.
Is this not what you want? When was the last time you prayed along these lines? Do you not want to make it your goal to do so? Why not incorporate this sort of petition into your daily praying for the next six months? Can we perhaps hear God whispering, “You do not have because you do not ask God” (James 4:2)?
Two Grounds for Paul’s Petitions
I do not intend in these pages to expound both of those chapters. Still, it is easy enough to summarize their principal thrusts, to identify the direction of Paul’s argument. The apostle praises God for his sovereign grace in bringing lost Jews and lost gentiles together into one new humanity, one new community. This God accomplished through the redemptive work of his Son on the cross. Addressing gentile converts, Paul concludes, “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (2:19–22). Then Paul adds, “For this reason.… For this reason I kneel before the Father” (3:1, 14). For what reason? Paul prays for this reason, namely, that God’s declared purpose in creating this new humanity is to bring the people in it to the kind of spiritual maturity portrayed in the extended metaphor of the “holy temple in the Lord … a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” In other words, Paul’s prayers are entirely in line with God’s purposes. Thus God’s declared purposes become for Paul a reason for advancing these particular petitions to his heavenly Father. In short, Paul is praying in line with what he knows of God’s will, just as he did in Ephesians 1 (see chap. 10 of this book).
We quickly learn that God is more interested in our holiness than in our comfort. He more greatly delights in the integrity and purity of his church than in the material well-being of its members. He shows himself more clearly to men and women who enjoy him and obey him than to men and women whose horizons revolve around good jobs, nice houses, and reasonable health. He is far more committed to building a corporate “temple” in which his Spirit dwells than he is in preserving our reputations. He is more vitally disposed to display his grace than to flatter our intelligence. He is more concerned for justice than for our ease. He is more deeply committed to stretching our faith than our popularity. He prefers that his people live in disciplined gratitude and holy joy rather than in pushy self-reliance and glitzy happiness. He wants us to pursue daily death, not self-fulfillment, for the latter leads to death, while the former leads to life.
These essential values of the gospel must shape our praying, as they shape Paul’s. Indeed, they become the grounds for our praying (“For this reason … I pray”): it is a wonderful comfort, a marvelous boost to faith, to know that you are praying in line with the declared will of almighty God.
“Father” in Western thought does not have many overtones of dignity and authority. But in the ancient world, the father was not only the one who sought the good of his family, but also the one who dispensed favors and ruled the clan or family unit. The God whom we approach in prayer is not simply the transcendent Other. He is the heavenly Father, and we are “members of [God’s] household” (2:19). The God whom we approach is not only powerful, but he is also related to us: he is our Father. Did not Jesus himself teach his disciples to pray, “Our Father …”?
Indeed, it is difficult not to see that Paul is alluding to Jesus’s teaching: “So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt. 6:31–33). Or again: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.… Which of you, if you son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matt. 7:7–11).
So as Paul approaches God with his petitions, he reminds himself that the God he addresses is his heavenly Father, the archetypal Father, the Father of all who are truly his people in heaven and on earth. He is a good God; he knows how to give good gifts. Paul dares to approach this God with these requests because he knows God to be a good God, a heavenly Father. Thus the nature and character of God become for Paul a fundamental ground for intercessory prayer.
The more we reflect on the kind of God who is there, the kind of God who has disclosed himself in Scripture and supremely in Jesus Christ, the kind of God who has revealed his plans and purposes for his own “household,” the kind of God who hears and answers prayer—the more we shall be encouraged to pray. Prayerlessness is often an index to our ignorance of God. Real and vital knowledge of God not only teaches us what to pray but gives us powerful incentive to pray.
A Final Word of Praise (3:20–21)
Paul has been asking God for some blessings of extraordinary value; he has been petitioning the Almighty for blessings that are immeasurably great. Now in his closing doxology (his “word of praise”), he puts these petitions in perspective by stressing two themes.
Partly, of course, this confidence is nothing more than the entailment of belief that God is omnipotent. To an omnipotent God, there cannot be degrees of difficulty. But surely Paul is saying something more than that about God. God is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, not only because he is powerful but also because he is generous. He loves to give good gifts to his children. To think of God in any other way is to demean him; to think of God in this way is itself tantamount to a call to pray.
We simply cannot ask for good things beyond God’s power to give them; we cannot even imagine good things beyond God’s power to give them. Paul’s concluding word of praise thus becomes an immensely powerful incentive to pray.
We may have improved a little on the quality of what we ask for, but the deeper question is this: Do we bring these petitions before God both with a proximate goal (that we might receive what we ask for) and with an ultimate goal—that God might be glorified?
For that, surely, is the deepest test: Has God become so central to all our thought and pursuits, and thus to our praying, that we cannot easily imagine asking for anything without consciously longing that the answer bring glory to God?
That is Paul’s vision in his concluding word of praise. He prays that there might be glory to God, both in the church, as the church progressively obeys God and pleases him and makes him the center of its existence, and also in Christ Jesus, presumably as Christ Jesus is lifted up by the church in thought, word, and deed.
Here, then, is how we shall reform our praying. We shall learn to pray with the apostle not only in his petitions, but also in his words of praise, in his ultimate goal, in his profound God-centeredness.
Questions for Review and Reflection
God’s Love, God’s Power—In Us
Love and power, power and love: these are the themes of perhaps two-thirds of the novels, plays and poems ever written. The love of power has laid waste continents and empires. The power of love has driven weak people to do powerful things—and, not infrequently, powerful people to do foolish things. These are the forces which shape our lives, our homes, our countries, our politics, our world.
And these are the themes that run through the great prayer that Paul prays for the young Christians to whom he is writing. People sometimes say that in a letter like Ephesians the first half is ‘doctrine’ and the second half is ‘ethics’—half of the letter on what to believe, half on how to behave. But in fact, as a glance back through the first three chapters will reveal, much of Ephesians 1–3 is not ‘teaching’ so much as prayer. The present paragraph isn’t a sudden change of style or mood. It is simply going back, explicitly, to where the letter has been all along, praising God, and praying for the young church.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that these chapters don’t contain ‘doctrine’. Indeed they do. Perhaps the best Christian doctrine is that which emerges from the life of prayer. Better that way round than an arid intellectual exploration coupled with some perfunctory acts of worship.
There is nothing perfunctory about Paul’s worship and prayer. One gets the sense, here and elsewhere, that his life revolved around it. This, we may suppose, is part of the secret of the extraordinary power that seemed to flow through his preaching, his pastoral work and his writing.
One of the great Christian leaders of the late twentieth century, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of Cape Town, used to spend several hours in prayer very early in the morning. Nor was prayer then forgotten for the rest of the day. A friend of mine who travelled around with him described how, wherever they went, whatever new thing they were doing, Desmond would pause and pray.
The Western church has perhaps allowed itself to be lulled into thinking that prayer and action are at opposite ends of the scale of Christian activity. On the contrary. Those who want their actions to be effective for God’s kingdom—as Desmond Tutu’s undoubtedly were—should redouble their time and effort in prayer. Prayer brings together love and power: the relation of love that grows up between God and the person who prays, and the flowing of power from God to, and especially through, that person.
That is what Paul’s prayer here is all about. Essentially, it is a prayer that the young Christians may discover the heart of what it means to be a Christian. It means knowing God as the all-loving, all-powerful father; it means putting down roots into that love—or, changing the picture, having that love as the rock-solid foundation for every aspect of one’s life. It means having that love turn into a well-directed and effective energy in one’s personal life. And it means the deep and powerful knowing and loving into which the Christian is invited to enter; or—to put the same thing another way—the knowing and loving which should enter into the Christian. Paul, quite clearly, knows all this in his own experience. He longs that those who have come to put their faith in Jesus should know it too.
At the heart of all this is a phrase which has become popular in the language of Christian experience: ‘that the king may make his home in your hearts, through faith’. People talk easily, perhaps too easily, about ‘inviting Jesus into your heart’, or ‘having Jesus in your heart’. The danger here is that it’s easy for people, particularly when they are soaked in the culture of Western-style individualism, to imagine that being a Christian consists simply in being able to feel, or believe, that Jesus has somehow taken up residence within. In fact, Paul speaks far more often of Christians being ‘in Christ’ than of Christ being ‘in Christians’. It’s important to see our individual experience within the larger picture of our membership in God’s family in the Messiah, within the worldwide plan Paul has been talking of in these three chapters.
But of course, when that’s been made clear, then it is also important that the living Lord, the king, should make his home within each Christian. That is what strengthens and renews us in our inner being (verse 16). That, as verse 17 implies, is what enables us to put down roots into God’s love and to be built up as a secure, unmoveable house. That, as Paul says in the climax of the prayer in verses 18 and 19, will expand our mental and spiritual vision of the whole range of divine truth. Everything that might be offered in the fancy religions of Paul’s day and ours (just this morning I came across a book offering new, secret knowledge which could apparently revolutionize my life, but which of course by-passed Jesus), all the ups and downs and to-ing and fro-ing, the breadth and length and depth and height, of knowledge whether human or divine—all is ours in the king and in his love. Having him, we are filled with all the fullness of God. The prayer comes back to where it stopped in chapter 1 verse 23.
Once all this is in place, the results should start to emerge. Verses 20 and 21 are often used as a benediction in church services, and it’s easy to see why. As we draw to the end of a time of prayer, the overarching aim should be to give God the glory. But if it’s the true God we’ve been worshipping, we should be filled with a sense of new possibilities: of new tasks and new energy to accomplish them.
Read verse 20 carefully. Then think of what God might do in you and through you—you as a community, you as an individual. Now reflect on the fact that God is perfectly capable of doubling that, trebling that, going so far beyond it that you would look back at the present moment and wonder how you could be so short-sighted.
But this isn’t a magic trick. God’s power is not ours to do what we like with. If you want to get on the map of verse 20, ask yourself whether you’re on the map of the three chapters it’s taken to get Paul to this point. Carson, D. A. (2014). Praying with Paul: A Call to Spiritual Reformation (Second Edition, pp. 159–181). Baker Academic.  Wright, T. (2004). Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon(pp. 38–41). Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.