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Spiritual prayers in physical suffering

This evening we had a Bible study on Ephesians 1:15-23 and the prayer it contains.

Paul was writing to a church he had spent two years teaching and raising. The church was in a major cultural city with one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the temple to the goddess Artemis. There was much wealth to be made in the pursuit of false gods and goddesses, and this was threatened by the conversion of many to Christianity and the teaching that all other gods were worthless. Ephesus was also a place of much witchcraft and magic, to the extent that when the new Christians burnt their books on this matter, the burnt books amounted to 50,000 days’ wages. It was a place where money, materialism and magic were the ruling powers, and they were very powerful.

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians reassures them that, despite being Gentiles and once enslaved to the powers of darkness, they are now solidly and strongly rooted in Christ’s church with the Jews. Although the powers of the world are opposed to them, Christ has triumphed over the powers and there is no need to be afraid.

We studied the Ephesians 1 prayer as an example of what to pray in difficult times. It seems worth noting, however, that the context of the letter to the Ephesians is very different to the context of coronavirus.

The Ephesian church was in a cultural mega-city, a prosperous and thriving place. This materialistic culture was threatened by a religion that banned the mass purchase of pagan paraphernalia or the luxurious and licentious living of the rich. Conversely, some Christians might have felt threatened by the strength of the materialistic culture in which they lived.

Certainly we may feel the same: that the Christian faith is opposed by a culture that is individualistic, materialistic and self-defined. In the midst of this Christianity can feel weak and threatened. We are often called bigoted and are side-lined as irrelevant in modern society. Because sexual freedom has become the social custom amongst the leaders of society, it is easy for Christians to feel threatened and persecuted merely for holding to different sexual norms.

But when Paul challenged Christians to leave behind sexual freedom for Godliness, it wasn’t the only charge he placed upon them. If it were, Christianity might not have made much impact upon the world, for it would not have challenged the money. It was only when Christians rejected the money-making mechanisms of paganism and witchcraft that the people of Ephesus began to object.

The Christians in Ephesus needed to be encouraged in the face of material opposition from those in power. Christians in the UK are not so much opposed as ignored.

Christians in the UK face a global pandemic that is causing much suffering. Christians in Ephesus were in a prosperous, thriving city. Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians, whilst universally applicable, may not have been the only thing he would have written to a church facing universal suffering unconnected to Christianity.

Indeed, when prophecy was made of a famine about to come over the entire Roman world, the Christians in Antioch took immediate practical action to send financial aid to Judea. And part of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians is an exhortation to copy the Macedonian churches in giving generously to help the churches in Jerusalem. He said this ‘not as a command’ but as a test of the genuineness of the Corinthian Christians’ love (2 Cor 8:8).

The Ephesian prayer is a great reminder of the importance of God above all else. But it is not to say that suffering does not matter. Suffering may well be light and momentary in relation to the eternal glory of heaven, but suffering is still painful today. Our God sees all our sorrows, collects our tears and keeps track of our suffering (Ps 58:8). He knows and cares when we hurt.

When Jesus stood at Lazarus’ tomb, he felt grief and sorrow and pain. It did not matter to Jesus that this was ‘light and momentary’ suffering compared to the glory of heaven: he wept with sorrow and grief. It did not matter that he was about to wrap up this suffering in joy and redeem the situation to one of far better glory: he wept with sorrow and grief. Suffering rightly makes us sad. And because he was sorrowful and grieved, Jesus relieved the suffering and brought Lazarus back to life.

Just as when he raised the only son of a widow and brought back to life the young daughter of a synagogue ruler, Jesus relieved suffering simply because he wants to relieve our earthly suffering here on earth. Jesus could easily have told Mary, Martha, the widow and Jairus that they should not weep, for when the righteous and devout perish, they are spared from evil and enter into peace and rest (Is 57:1-2). He could easily have said that the suffering on earth does not matter, because compared to the glories of heaven it is only light and momentary (2 Cor 4:17). He could have reminded them of the hope of seeing their loved ones again in the future, and said that nothing matters compared to the preaching of the gospel.

But suffering does matter to Jesus. He wants to relieve it here on earth.

We should always pray that God gives us the Spirit of wisdom and revelation so that we may know him better. We should always pray that the eyes of our hearts may be enlightened in order that we may know the hope to which he has called us, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints and his incomparable power for those who believe.

But we should never make that the only answer to suffering.

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