Some Questions About Prayer from Ephesians 5:20

By Mark D. Roberts

November 18, 2018

De Pree Journal

Ephesians 5:20 reveals that, once filled with the Spirit, we should be “always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This verse sparks several questions:

1) How can we give thanks “always”? That seems impossible.

2) Should we really thank God for “everything”? Really?

3) Does this verse teach that we should always end our prayers by saying “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”?

When I was writing my commentary on Ephesians, I gave plenty of thought to these questions. Here’s what I came up with:

[Ephesians 5:20] identifies one of the most common and appropriate expressions of worship: thanksgiving. Whether in song or speech, when we are filled with the Spirit, we will offer expressions of gratitude to God. We do this “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:20), that is, under the authority of Christ and for his purposes. It does not mean that every prayer of gratitude must end with the words “in Jesus’s name,” though this practice can be a helpful reminder that all of our prayers should be offered under Christ’s lordship and for his sake.

Always (5:20). How should we thank God “always”? It’s unlikely that Paul means giving intentional, verbal thanks every single waking moment. Surely there were times when his verbal skills were focused on something other than forming prayers of gratitude. I believe Paul meant at least two things when he said we should be “always giving thanks.” First, this verse encourages us to pause often in the midst of our busy lives to perceive God’s gifts and thank him for them. Second, Ephesians 5:20 urges us to develop an inner perspective of gratitude, to live each moment with an awareness of the blessings we have from God and our debt to him.

We may also wonder what it means to thank God “for everything.” Are we to thank the Lord for heresy and falsehood? For depression and death? For despair and darkness? Common sense suggests that we should not thank God for that which is contrary to God’s own will. In 1 John 1:5, for example, we read that “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.” So if we thank God for moral and spiritual darkness, we are giving him false credit for that which is evil and risking outright blasphemy.

But we should also realize that apparently bad things turn out to be parts of God’s good plan. God even uses human evil for his providential purposes. In Genesis we read that Joseph suffered many terrible things, including attempted murder by his own brothers, being sold into slavery, false accusation, abuse of power, and unwarranted imprisonment. As he was rotting in jail, Joseph may not have been ready to pray, “Lord, thank you that I am rotting in jail.” But in retrospect, Joseph saw how God used it for his own benefit, not to mention the benefit of his family and a whole nation. Thus, later in life Joseph said to the brothers who had once tried to kill him, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen 50:20).

There are times when we simply don’t know how to pray, when we’re not sure if the things happening to us are of God or are manifestations of evil. In times like these, we may not know exactly how to thank God for everything. But even then we can still thank the Lord for his presence with us, for his compassion, for never leaving or forsaking us, for saving us from sin and death, and for giving us the sure hope of his future. We can thank God that nothing happens outside of the scope of his sovereignty and that he can and will use all things for his purposes. We can thank him that the most horrible action in all of history— the torture and murder of God’s own Son— turned out, in the mystery of his grace, to be the ultimate demonstration of divine love.

In brief, here’s how I would answer the questions with which I began.

1) How can we give thanks “always”? That seems impossible.

It’s unlikely that Paul meant “always” in a most literal way, as if we are supposed to be saying literal prayers of gratitude at all times, even when we’re sleeping. So, though we mustn’t over-interpret “always,” this verse does challenge us to thank God more often throughout the day, pausing occasionally to express gratitude for one of God’s good gifts. Moreover, we can develop an inner perspective of gratitude. By thanking God intentionally and consistently, our hearts will be formed so that thankfulness becomes part of our spiritual DNA.

2) Should we really thank God for “everything”? Really?

Again, we mustn’t force Paul’s hyperbole into rigid, literalistic categories. We should not thank God specifically for things that are evil. But we can thank God even in the midst of evil and suffering. The main point of this verse is to encourage us to thank God for so much more than most of us do.

Let me encourage you to set aside an hour, get some paper and a writing instrument (so you won’t be distracted by your computer or phone), and write down all of the things you are thankful for. You’ll be amazed by what you come up with, wonderful things for which you have never thanked the Lord before.

3) Does this verse teach that we should always end our prayers by saying “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”?

It’s a fine practice to conclude your prayers with some version of “in Jesus’s name.” But that’s not what is meant by this verse. Rather, to pray “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” is to pray in his authority and for his purposes. If saying “in Jesus’s name” at the end of your prayers helps you to do this, then, by all means, do it. But what’s most important is that you pray covered by the authority of Jesus and seeking his will most of all.

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is the executive director of Fuller’s De Pree Center and the primary writer of the Life for Leaders daily devotions. His most recent book is a commentary on the New Testament letter to the Ephesians (Zondervan, 2016). Mark and his wife Linda, an executive coach and spiritual director, have two adult children and one lively Golden Retriever.

Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders,...

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