How to pray for power

powerA lot is said about power these days.  Power evangelism.  “Powerful” church services.  There is even a power-Bible.   Is praying for power wrong for Christians?  Does it conjure up images of witches and warlocks mixing potions and reciting spells, while requesting power from some evil, occultic being?  Is prayer for power legitimate and biblical?

The apostle Paul writes in Ephesians:

(16) in order that he may give you power according to the wealth of his glory to be strengthened through his Spirit in the inner person, (17) that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith in order that you, being rooted and grounded in love, (18) may have the strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, (19) [and] to know the love of Christ that exceeds knowledge, in order that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

(Ephesians 3:16-19)

Christ in us

Paul prayed in this passage that God would empower (v16) the Ephesian believers out of the “wealth of his [God’s] glory”. The purpose of the Spirit’s empowering was that Jesus would permanently dwell (v17) in the believers. Harold Hoehner believes that this is not a reference to Christ’s indwelling at the moment of conversion, but instead denotes the goal of Christ “being at home in” the very centre of the believers’ lives. It may be more exegetically correct to observe that Christ dwelling in the believers’ inner person (“hearts”, v17) is not the stated purpose or reason for the Spirit’s empowering. Rather, Christ’s dwelling in the hearts of believers explains and amplifies what it is to be strengthened by the Spirit. Christ dwelling in the believers’ hearts is a further definition of the Spirit’s strengthening. Paul was therefore praying that God, out of his vast resources, would enable the Ephesian believers to be empowered by the Holy Spirit. This would be demonstrated when, more and more, Christ Jesus would be at the centre of their lives, exercising his rule and reign over every aspect of their being. Christ was to rule over the believers’ reason, will and decisions.

The ἵνα (“so that”) clauses

The two purposes (“ἵνα”, v18) of the Spirit’s strengthening by Christ’s indwelling are stated in v17b-19. The first purpose was for the believers to comprehend the vastness of the power of God and the second was for the believers to know the enormity of the love of Christ. The second purpose is dependent on the first.

Powerful God

The author’s first request was that his readers may “comprehend what was the breadth and length and height and depth” (v18). The request is made without any reference to an object for these four dimensions. Scholars have argued for various implied objects, from the wisdom of God to the dimensions of the heavenly inheritance! The most common interpretation views the matchless love of Christ as the object of these dimensions. Paul was therefore praying that the Ephesian believers would be empowered to grasp the vastness of Christ’s love for them. Clinton Arnold, however, has convincingly argued that the four dimensions in v18 would have been best understood by the original readers as a reference to the power of God. The four dimensions appear in the magical papyri as an expression of supernatural power.

Superstitious background

The Ephesian believers, with their background of magical beliefs and practices, would not have been confused by Paul’s lack of a corresponding object to the four dimensions, but would probably have recognised the terms as an expression of supernatural power. Arnold suggests the following paraphrase for v18, “[I pray] that you might be able to grasp with all the saints what is the incredible vastness of the power of God”. Paul’s prayer in chapter three then further intensifies his prayer in chapter one. Not only should the believers be aware of God’s great power (ch.1), but the believers should also experience that vast power in their lives through divine inner strengthening (ch.3).

Loving Christ

The second purpose Paul mentioned for the inner strengthening of the Holy Spirit was that the believers may “know the love of Christ that exceeds knowledge” (v19). The knowing of that which is humanly unknowable is only possible by the empowering and enabling of God in Jesus. This was not a request for the readers to love Jesus more, but for the readers to understand Christ Jesus’ love for them.

Selfish magic

Paul has carefully and deliberately crafted this prayer in stark contrast to the attitudes of the pagan world. In the Greco-Roman world, magic was used for self-serving purposes, in order to gain an advantage over others in a variety of ways, whether it be cursing others or attracting a lover. God’s power, according to the author of Ephesians, enables the believer to know (or grasp) the extraordinary love of Jesus (v19) and to be rooted and grounded in that love (v17). Elsewhere in the letter Paul shows that the vast power of God is needed for the believer to live consistently with this love (5:2). The prayer for power and strengthening is not a prayer for selfish personal benefit or fulfilment, but a request to the all-powerful God, who is rich in glory, that he empower the believers to grasp Christ’s love for them.

Divine fullness

The ultimate goal of this prayer (“ἵνα”, v19) is that the believers “be filled with all the fullness of God”. The author had already referred to the church as Christ’s “fullness” (1:23). Here again the tension between the “now/ not yet” in all Pauline writings is observed. The Ephesian church is “already” the fullness of Christ, but the believers should still be filled with the divine fullness to a greater degree.

Praying for power

Paul therefore, using terminology and concepts readily understandable to his readers, prayed for power in the lives of the believers for the over-arching purpose of spiritual maturity (“Christ may dwell in your hearts”, v17) and spiritual comprehension (of Christ’s power and Christ’s love), in the midst of a power-seeking, power-manipulating environment. Knowing the vast power within them for God’s intended purposes would further enable the believers in that first-century polytheistic world to rid themselves of the prevalent fear of the “powers” and to better understand their newfound status as believers in Christ Jesus.

We should be praying the same for our Christian friends and church members.