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New Years [2018]: Getting Out of the Spiritual Doldrums (Ephesians 3:14-21)

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December 31, 2017

Doldrums: Technically, the word refers to a part of the ocean near the equator where the winds are often calm. If a sailing vessel with no motor gets into the doldrums, it isn’t going anywhere. Webster further defines “doldrums” as (1) a spell of listlessness or despondency: blues; (2) a state of inactivity, stagnation, or slump.

I’m guessing that some of you may have drifted into the spiritual doldrums. You’re not doubting or denying the faith. You’re not thinking about becoming an atheist. But you’re not going anywhere spiritually. You’re spiritually stagnant. Your Christian life has become routine and boring. If this describes you in any way, I hope to motivate you to get out of the doldrums and make this a year when you make some significant spiritual advances.

For over a year now, the Lord has put Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 3:14-21 on my heart. I put it on a 3x5 card and have prayed it over and over for myself, my family members, and this church. It’s a “go-for-broke” prayer. In football, when a team desperately needs a touchdown, the quarterback will sometimes throw what they call a “hail Mary” pass. It’s a pass way down the field which, if caught, will often result in a touchdown. Paul’s prayer is like that but even greater. He prays (v. 19) that these believers will be “filled up to all the fullness of God.” Then, as if that weren’t beyond the limits, he prays (v. 20) “to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think”! God’s power is the limit! So here’s a New Year’s goal to help move you out of the spiritual doldrums:

To get out of the spiritual doldrums, pray this prayer often so that you and others will experience a year of unprecedented growth in the Lord.

James (4:2) says that often we don’t have because we don’t ask. So don’t be guilty of not asking God to do this year that which is humanly impossible. Remember the angel’s word to Mary (Luke 1:37), “For nothing will be impossible with God.” To make this a perfect sermon (smile), I have seven points:

1. Pray this prayer often for yourself, your family members, and this church this year.

Do as I did: Put these verses on a card, tuck it in your Bible or put it on the table where you eat breakfast, and pray it over and over. Extend the prayer to missionaries and to the lost people you want to come to Christ. Note four things about this prayer:

A. Pray more for spiritual growth than for physical or material needs.

Paul wrote this letter from prison. Prisons in that day did not feed the prisoners three square meals per day. Probably his only clothes were those on his back. He was getting up in years and with all the physical abuse his body had suffered, he probably had a lot of aches and pains. What would you be praying for if you were in those circumstances? “Lord, please get me out of this prison! Provide the funds that I need for food and clothes! Heal my aging, aching body!” But Paul didn’t pray for any of those things. When he finally does ask for prayer for himself (Eph. 6:19-20), he asks for boldness in his witness!

Paul begins, “For this reason….” This takes us back to Ephesians 3:1, which looks back to chapters 1 & 2, but especially to 2:19-22. Paul is saying, “Because God saved you by His sovereign grace and made you as Jews and Gentiles into one new man, the church; and because you are being built together as a dwelling place of God in the Spirit; therefore, I pray.” What he prays is that God would make real in their experience what is true of them positionally in Christ. In other words, he prays more for spiritual growth than for their physical or material needs. (This follows the pattern of the Lord’s Prayer, Matt. 6:9-13.) Spiritual growth is paramount.

B. Pray in humble submission to and dependence on the Father.

Paul directs his prayer to the Father. He could have said, “I pray,” but instead he says, “I bow my knees before the Father.” He is not mandating a posture for prayer as much as he is revealing an attitude for prayer. Kneeling revealed reverence, submission, humility, and adoration before God. The Greek word translated, “before,” means, “toward,” or “face to face with.” Along with the word, “Father,” it implies the intimacy of a child coming before his loving father, who will warmly welcome him.

In that culture, “father” was not only a term of intimacy, but also of authority. The act of naming implied the authority of the one giving the name. While we are invited to come to God as our loving Father who delights in His children, we should always do so with reverence and submission to His sovereign authority. He is not our “good Buddy in the sky”! He is the Almighty, Holy God, before whom the angels cover their faces in reverence (Isa. 6:2)! Prayer is the admission that we are totally dependent on God. We can’t do life on our own. But the Father is able and willing to help!

C. Pray based on God’s grace, not your performance.

“Grant” (v. 16) means to give freely. We receive all of Christ’s riches through God’s grace, His unmerited favor. While we must confess and forsake all known sins if we want God to hear our prayers (Ps. 66:18), we don’t approach His throne on the basis of our being worthy to deserve His blessing. We come to Him as unworthy sinners, but through the merits of our High Priest, who invites us to “receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16). John Newton says ( “This is faith: a renouncing of everything we are apt to call our own and relying wholly upon the blood, righteousness and intercession of Jesus.”

D. Pray in faith, knowing that God’s supply is limitless.

Paul prays (Eph. 3:16) that the Father would “grant you, according to the riches of His glory.” He owns the world and all that is in it (Ps. 24:1; 50:10-12). But Paul has in mind not so much material riches as the spiritual riches that God has freely provided for us in Christ. He begins Ephesians (1:3), “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ.” He goes on to say (Eph. 2:7), “that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” Those riches display God’s infinite glory. Paul does not ask God to give out of the riches of His glory, but according to those riches. If a billionaire gives you $100, he gave out of his riches. If he gives you $10 million, he gave according to his riches. The supply of God’s riches for us in Christ is bottomless! So pray, believing that He can fulfill your request! What should you pray for?

2. Pray for the Father to grant that you will be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner person.

Ephesians 3:16: “that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man ….” Two reasons for this request:

A. You are praying for the power of His indwelling Spirit because your problems are beyond your strength to solve.

This is not a dramatic, one-time experience, but rather an ongoing experience of God’s power to change our hearts, as we walk in the Spirit every day. As Jesus stated (John 15:5b), “… apart from Me you can do nothing.” We’re totally dependent on Him, although we often forget this, as seen by our prayerlessness. It’s good to ask yourself often, “If God withdrew His Spirit from me, how long would it take me to miss Him?”

B. You are praying for power through His Spirit in the inner person because God changes outward behavior by changing the heart.

Modern science has made some amazing discoveries, but it hasn’t discovered how to impart life to a dead animal or person. But that’s what the new birth is about! God makes those who were dead in their sins alive in Christ (Eph. 2:5) through the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit (John 3:3-8; Eph. 1:19-20).

So, pray for inner transformation for yourself and for others, not just outward behavioral changes. Many Christians mistakenly think that if a person prays to accept Jesus as Savior or “invite Him into their heart,” then he is born again. Maybe, but maybe not! The question is, did God change his heart? Is it evident that he has new life in Christ? Are his desires and motives different than they used to be? Does he now love God and His Word? Does he hunger and thirst for righteousness?

The battle against temptation and sin is a battle that is won or lost in the heart or inner person (Mark 7:21-23). You may be able to change your outward behavior through techniques or methods that you learn in counseling or through a 12 Step group. But if God doesn’t change your heart, you’re just putting a tuxedo on a pig! The Pharisees looked good on the outside, but Jesus said that they were like whitewashed tombs: clean on the outside, but inside they were full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness (Matt. 23:27-28). Genuine Christianity is not just a moral improvement program. We need changed hearts. It begins at the new birth, but continues throughout life. For that kind of inner change, we need nothing less than the daily power of the Holy Spirit. Only He can make your heart the kind of place where Jesus is pleased to dwell.

3. Pray that Christ may dwell in your heart through faith.

Ephesians 3:17a: “so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith ….” Paul was writing to believers. So, doesn’t Christ dwell in the hearts of all believers? Yes, but this is something more. He’s talking about Christ being at home in our hearts.

A. Christ dwells in your heart as you trust and obey Him.

Biblical faith is not passive, where you “let go and let God.” Rather, it is an active reliance on God and His promises, often in the face of impossible circumstances. Biblical faith is always linked with obedience. If you trust God, you obey God. To obey God, you must trust that His Word is true. Jesus spoke of the link between our obedience and His being at home in our hearts (John 14:23), “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him.” Christ is not at home with a disobedient Christian who keeps a dirty house.

B. Christ dwelling in your heart means that He progressively takes over every area of your life.

This is a lifelong process where you welcome Christ into every aspect of your life, so that there is no known area that you would be uncomfortable having Christ be there.

Perhaps no one has put it better than Robert Munger, in his little booklet, “My Heart, Christ’s Home” [IVP]. He tells of how after Christ entered his heart, in the joy of that newfound relationship, he said, “Lord, I want this heart of mine to be yours. I want to have you settle down here and be perfectly at home. Everything I have belongs to you. Let me show you around and introduce you to the various features of the home so that you may be more comfortable and that we may have fuller fellowship together.”

So he proceeded to take Christ into the study, which represents what the mind focuses on. The Lord had some cleanup to do there! They went on to the living room, where they agreed to meet each morning to start the day together. That went well until Munger got busy and started skipping those times. He had viewed those quiet times only as a means for his own spiritual progress, rather than as a time to fellowship with the Lord. They moved on through all the rooms of the house, remodeling and cleaning wherever necessary. The final room was a hall closet that Munger had kept locked. It was where he kept those secrets that he had tried to keep hidden from the Lord. He finally had to give the Lord the key so that He could clean out that closet.

That’s how God works in our hearts. He wants to move from room to room until every area of our lives is suitable for His dwelling place. He does this as we trust and obey Him.

4. Pray that you will be rooted and grounded in love.

Ephesians 3:17b: “that you, being rooted and grounded in love ….” Paul mixes his metaphors, using one from botany (rooted) and another from architecture (grounded) to strengthen his point. We should keep the connection with the earlier part of the prayer in mind. The result of being strengthened with power through God’s Spirit in the inner man is that Christ will come to be at home in our hearts through faith, resulting in our being rooted and grounded in love.

Paul does not specify whether this is God’s love for us or our love for Him or our love for others. So at this point, he is talking about love as the main principle of the Christian life. God’s great love for us as demonstrated in sending His own Son to be the sacrifice for our sins undergirds everything. Stemming from that, all of His commandments are summed up by the two great commandments, to love God and love others. Thus the Christian life is rooted and grounded in love. Pray that you and others would sink down roots into God’s love as seen at the cross. Pray that His great love in sending His Son to die for your sins would be the foundation of everything in your life, both Godward and toward others.

5. Pray that you will be able to comprehend with all the saints the unfathomable extent of the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge.

Ephesians 3:18-19a: Pray that you “may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge ....”

“May be able” means, “to have the strength.” To “comprehend” means “to lay hold of or seize.” Every true child of God knows the love of Christ to some extent (John 3:16; Rom. 5:8). But this verse states that you can never know it fully because it is beyond human comprehension. Paul wants you to make the immeasurable love of Christ yours on a deeper level. While this knowledge is based on information, it is more than mere information. Paul wants us to experience the limitless love of Christ (Rom. 8:35-39). Obviously, this isn’t something you will achieve this year or in this lifetime. But, you can still grow to know it better.

Note, however, that you will not come to know the unknowable love of Christ by yourself. There is a corporate emphasis in this prayer. “Every family” (Eph. 3:15) should probably be translated “the whole family,” referring to the church. In Ephesians, Paul is talking about the church being built together into a dwelling place of God (Eph. 2:19-22). In verse 18 he prays that we may be able to comprehend the magnitude of Christ’s love with all the saints. Then in the doxology (v. 21) he prays that there will be glory to God “in the church and in Christ Jesus.”

I have experienced Christ’s love in many ways in my life, but you have experienced His love in other ways in your life. And that experience is multiplied throughout the entire church, both locally and worldwide. So when you get together with other believers, ask them to tell their story of how they came to know Christ. How has He shown His love in their lives? Share your story and how you have experienced Christ’s love. But we could pool all of the stories of all believers worldwide, and we still wouldn’t fully know the breadth and length and height and depth of His love! It surpasses knowledge!

6. Pray that you will be filled up to all the fullness of God.

This is the summit of this “Mt. Everest” prayer (v. 19): “that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God.” It’s comparable to Paul’s aim in Colossians 1:28 of presenting “every man complete in Christ.” It refers to the perfection of which God Himself is full. It is a prayer that God will totally fill or control every aspect of your life: your mind, your attitudes, your goals, your motives, your emotions, your relationships, your finances, and every decision you make. It’s comparable to Paul’s goal (Eph. 4:13) that “we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.” It means “to be all that God wants you to be,” or “to be spiritually mature” (D. A. Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation [IVP], p. 195).

As with this entire prayer, this is a process that will never be complete in this life. But it is God’s goal that every believer be conformed to the image of His Son (Rom. 8:29). So we should join Paul (Phil. 3:14) in pressing “on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Finally,

7. Pray for God to do far more abundantly beyond all that you can ask or think for His glory.

Eph. 3:20-21: “Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.” Two things:

A. Pray big prayers, for God to do that which is humanly inexplicable.

Don’t be guilty of praying small, safe prayers. As I said, this is a “Hail Mary pass” kind of prayer. You’re going for broke, asking God for things that are way beyond human ability. But no prayer is too big or too difficult for God! Phillips Brooks said (, “Pray the largest prayers. You cannot think a prayer so large that God, in answering it, will not wish you had made it larger. Pray not for crutches but for wings.”

But, one caution: Sometimes, for reasons we cannot understand, God does not answer our prayers the way we had hoped. Paul prayed fervently for the conversion of the Jews (Rom. 10:1), but that prayer wasn’t answered. I’ve prayed for the conversion of some who have died without Christ. I’ve prayed for broken marriages that were not healed. I’ve prayed for sinning Christians to repent, but they persisted in their sin. So there is a mystery about prayer. We can’t always understand God’s ways. But, even so …

B. Pray for God to be glorified by converting sinners and sanctifying His saints.

God’s glory is the goal of redemption. Pray that God will convert sinners for His glory. That requires nothing less than His resurrection power (Eph. 1:19-20). He must grant faith and repentance (Phil. 1:29; 2 Tim. 2:25). But if He can save Paul, the chief of sinners, He can save and sanctify the most difficult people you know. So pray that He will do far more abundantly beyond all that you can ask or think for His glory.


Thus, to get out of the spiritual doldrums, pray this prayer often for yourself, your family members, and this church. Pray for the Father to grant that you will be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner person. Pray that Christ would dwell in your heart through faith; that you will be rooted and grounded in love; that you will be able to comprehend with all the saints the immeasurable extent of the love of Christ; and, that you will be filled up to all the fullness of God. Pray for God to do far more abundantly beyond all that you can ask or think, for His glory.

My granddaughter, Jubilee, made me a bookmark with this verse from John Newton: “Thou art coming to a King, large petitions with thee bring, for His grace and power are such none can ever ask too much.” Wherever you’re at with the Lord, there is always more. Get out of the spiritual doldrums! Pray Paul’s prayer for yourself and others this year! Pray for a year of unprecedented growth in Christ!

Application Questions

  • Talk with a friend about a time you were in the spiritual doldrums. What helped you to get out? What didn’t help?
  • To what extent do you experience Christ dwelling in your heart through faith? How could you make this more regular?
  • Is your Christian walk centered on Christ’s immeasurable love or more on your performance? How can you change this?
  • What are you praying for that is way beyond human explanation or expectation?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2017, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Life, New Year's, Prayer

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