Romans 12:12 “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.”
My hope is that this message and this week will launch you with new faith that prayer is God’s path to hope and joy and endurance and love, and with new resolve to make time to pray regularly alone and with your family and with some group of fellow believers.
What Does It Mean to “Be Constant in Prayer”?
First, let’s first talk about the meaning of “Be constant.” Then let’s put this call to be constant in prayer in connection with what we saw last week in the rest of verse 12. Then let’s see it illustrated in Ephesians 1.
The word “constant” here doesn’t mean that every minute you are praying. It means persist in prayer. Persevere in it. Stay at it. Be devoted to it. Don’t give up or slack off. Be habitual. It’s the opposite of random, occasional, sporadic, intermittent. In other words, Paul is calling all Christians to make prayer a regular, habitual, recurring, disciplined part of your life. Treat prayer the way you treat eating and sleeping and doing your job. Don’t be hit and miss about it. Don’t assume it will fill in the cracks of other things. Dealing with God in prayer deserves more than a dial-up on the fly.
He is, of course, available any time. And he loves to help any time. But he is dishonored when we do not make time in our day to give him focused attention. All relationships suffer without regular focused attention. Paul is calling all of us to a life or regular, planned meetings with God in prayer in which we praise him for who he is, and thank for what he has done, and ask him for help, and plead the cause of those we love, including the peoples of the world.
So “be constant in prayer” in this new year. Ask God to help you. Resolve to use your sanctified will to make it happen. Plan the time and the place and the method. (For the most practical things I have written on how to be constant in prayer, see pages 155-173 of When I Don’t Desire God.)
How Does the Call to Constant Prayer Relate to the Rest of Verse 12?
Now how does this persistent prayer relate to the rest of verse 12 and what we saw last time? Romans 12:12 says, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.” We also saw that the whole paragraph makes love the visible overflow of rejoicing in hope. So when we put it all together it looked like this:
First, tribulation is the normal environment where we live. It’s the soil where we are planted in this fallen world. Job 5:7 says, “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.” Job 14:1 says, “Man who is born of a woman is few of days and full of trouble.” If you have not tasted this, you will. Learn now that tribulation in this world is normal for the Christian.
Second, Christ has broken into our tribulation (Galatians 4:4-6) and became the ground and goal of our unshakeable hope. He became man and embraced all our suffering. He chose it. He carried it. And in his death and resurrection he defeated it. All of it.
The moral evil and the physical evil. Sin, Satan, sickness, sabotage—Christ defeated them all by dying in our place and rising form the dead. In this triumph he secured for his people—all those who trust him—freedom from sin, freedom from Satan, freedom from sickness, and freedom from sabotage, partially now and perfectly in the age to come.
In other words, Jesus Christ has become the ground of our hope. And he himself is the goal of our hope (Romans 5:1-2, 6).
Therefore, third, in the tribulation of life we can and do rejoice. For those who know and trust Jesus Christ, tribulation does not destroy joy, it drives the roots of joy down deep into hope. So Paul says, “rejoice in hope.” “Sorrowful yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10) is the spirit of all joy in the seasoned Christian life.
Many of our greatest hymns were born in suffering and capture this truth that tribulation is normal here and joy grows with deep roots in this soil. For example, have you ever thought about the paradox of the first verse of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”? It pictures the church as the true Israel in exile here in this world.
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Emmanuel shall come to thee O Israel!
Now we mourn in this exile far from our perfect heavenly home where every tear will be wiped away. But even now, “Rejoice! Rejoice!” Why? Rock-solid certain hope! “Emmanuel shall come!” He has come once and purchased our freedom from all sin and Satan and sickness and sabotage. And he will come to perfect it for his true Israel.
In this we rejoice.
Fourth, that joy sustains patient endurance. Verse 12 says, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation.” Joy in hope is what enables this patient endurance. Without hope and the joy that flows back to us now from hope, we could not endure the tribulations appointed for us.
Fifth, this endurance through tribulation by means of joy in hope is what sustains the sacrifices that love demands.
The best illustration of this is Jesus himself in Hebrews 12:2, “For the joy that was set before him [he] endured the cross.” The greatest act of love that has ever been performed was sustained by the joy of hope.
“For the joy set before him” he died for us. How do you keep on loving people, and sacrificing to do them good, the way Jesus did? For the joy set before you, that streams back into the present and becomes your strength (Nehemiah 8:10).
So rejoice in hope, and by means of that hope-sustained joy, patiently endure your tribulation in the path of love. And how does prayer fit in? It is God’s appointed means (along with the word, which we will see next time) to awaken and sustain hope.
And since hope is the key to joy in tribulation, and joy is the key to endurance, and endurance is the key to love—prayer, as the key to hope, is at the bottom of everything in the Christian life.
So let’s look at one biblical illustration of how prayer awakens and sustains our hope.
Paul’s Hope-Awakening, Hope-Sustaining Prayer
Ephesians 1:15 is a prayer: “For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers.”
So he is praying for Christians. “I have heard of your faith . . . therefore I am praying for you.” We should sit up and take notice. Here is a God-inspired way of praying for yourself and other believers. Paul is praying for all Christians here. So this applies to us. This is part of what we should pray. First give thanks, then ask for what we need.
Now what does Paul ask for? What is the deep need of every Christian? First, Paul makes a single request in verse 17, and then he breaks it down into three specific requests, all relating to hope.
Look first at the single, general request, verse 17: “. . . that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him.”
The deepest need of every person is to know God. Not just to know about him, but to know him as your personal Creator, Redeemer, Judge, and Friend. So his first request is “that God . . . may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him.” Do you know God? Really know him? Or more helpfully, we should ask, are we growing in our knowledge of God? Are we going deeper in how well we know God? This happens, Paul shows us, by praying for it. And this is not a one-time prayer for Paul. It is continual. “I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers . . . that you might know God.” Be constant in this prayer! Pray this for yourself continually. Pray this for your family. Pray this for the church and especially her leaders.
More specifically in verse 17 he prays that we would have a “spirit of wisdom and revelation” so that we can know God. We cannot know God without the help of the Holy Spirit. And what the Holy Spirit does is to awaken and transform our spirit so that we can see and savor the wisdom and revelation that God gave to his apostles and prophets. He is a Spirit of wisdom and revelation, and he creates a spirit of wisdom and revelation.
When you read the Bible or listen to a Bible-saturated sermon you are hearing the wisdom and revelation of God. But what happens? Do you see it? Does it have an effect on you? Does it move you? Does it make you hungry for more of God? Does the wisdom and revelation appear beautiful to you? Do they taste sweet? Can you say with the psalmist, “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (Psalm 119:103)?
If not, the first step in the remedy is prayer.
“Father, grant me a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of yourself. Please, don’t leave me to myself. I am so worldly. My thoughts and feelings are so unspiritual. I scarcely feel any awe or trembling or sense of spiritual beauty or sweetness or glory. Have mercy and by your Spirit awaken in me a spirit of wisdom and revelation so that when I read or hear your wisdom and your revelation I will have ears to hear and eyes to see the wonder of it (Psalm 119:8).”
Pray that for yourself. Be constant in that prayer. God will show you more than you ever dreamed he would.
Now in verses 18 Paul prays in different words what he has just prayed for generally. The focus of all our knowing and all our seeing and all our savoring—all God’s wisdom and all God’s revelation—is God himself. That is why the first petition in verse 17 is that we might know him: “. . . A spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him.” But now he breaks this down into three requests.
Another way of speaking about a “spirit of wisdom and revelation” is to speak of the “eyes of the heart being enlightened to know.” So that’s what Paul prays in verse 18. He tells the Ephesians that he asks God that “having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know . . .” Then he asks that they know three things with the eyes of the heart.
Before we look at them take note here of this phrase “eyes of the heart.” That is what we need to have enlightened.
The glory of God in his wisdom and revelation is not seen by the physical eye. You can read and hear God’s revelation till you are blue in the face, and if the eyes of your heart are not enlightened, you will not see and savor the beauty and sweetness of God’s wisdom and revelation. You will not know God.
Something must happen to us. We must have a heart that sees spiritual reality. This is a gift from God. That is why Paul is praying for it. The things we need most, we cannot get on our own.
That is why prayer is utterly crucial in the Christian life. When someone says, “I get along just fine without prayer,” they don’t know what they are missing. They are missing it now. They will miss it forever. If you can get something now on your own, you will lose it at death. It’s not worth much.
But if you pray for what you cannot get on your own now, and God gives it to you—a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him, that is, the enlightenment of the eyes of your heart to know him—you will not lose that at death. And it will give you sweetness of pleasures now and inexhaustible joys for eternity. That is what we should pray for.
Now notice the connection with hope. Three things Paul asks that we would be able to see and know with the enlightened eyes of the heart— 1) Verse 18b: “what is the hope to which he has called you”; 2) verse 18c: what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” (that is, the inheritance that God is and gives to the saints); and 3) verse 19: “and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe.”
The power is part of the promise of hope, because without this divine power we won’t make it to the inheritance. God keeps the inheritance in heaven for us, and God keeps us for the inheritance, lest we fall and give up on hope in the midst of our tribulation (see 1 Peter 1:4-5)
“O God, awaken and sustain my hope in you. Be my treasure now. And be my inheritance always. Please open the eyes of my heart to see the wonder that you are. Grant me the spiritual taste buds to taste and see and savor that all you are for us in Jesus is better than all the world. And so sustain my hope. And may this hope sustain my joy in tribulation and may this joy sustain my endurance and may this endurance sustain my love for people, and may my love make you irresistibly attractive to the world.”
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, and most recently Expository Exultation: Christian Preaching as Worship.