To see Paul’s full meaning in this exhortation it helps to understand that here, as in several other places in his letter to the Colossians, he uses military expressions. In the second chapter of the epistle, for example, Paul says that he is delighted to see “how disciplined you are and how firm your faith in Christ is” (Colossians 2:5). Here, the word translated “disciplined” is a military term meaning literally to stand “shoulder to shoulder” as in a battle grouping, and the word “firm” means having a solid, immovable front, like a tight battle formation.
In the same way, when Paul writes that we should be “watchful and thankful” in prayer, he returns to this underlying military motif. The idea of being “watchful” connotes the alertness and vigilance of a sentry on duty, a soldier standing guard at his post, or a watchman on a city’s walls or guarding a city gate.
There is a lesson for us in Paul’s use of this term. It brings to mind words of Isaiah from the Old Testament: “I have posted watchmen on your walls, Jerusalem; they will never be silent day or night. You who call on the Lord, give yourselves no rest, and give him no rest …” (Isaiah 62:6-7).
We do not know if Paul had these words in mind when he instructed the Colossians to devote themselves to being “watchful” in prayer, but the intent of both writers is identical. Isaiah and Paul both make it clear that our prayer is to be continually active and that we should be constantly alert to our own needs and the needs of others. This is the opposite of unfocused, ritual, or occasional prayer – it is specific, situational, and constant. Isaiah makes this last aspect particularly clear in telling us that we should give ourselves no rest (just like a guard on duty) and even that we should give God no rest! Paul makes the same point in Colossians 4:2 less poetically, but just as clearly, in stressing that we should “devote” ourselves – a word meaning “to continue without stopping” – to this kind of watchful prayer.
The Two Halves of Prayer
The apostle then proceeds to say that we should show that we are thankful. For Paul the activities of being watchful and thankful cannot be separated – they are two parts of the same activity of prayer just as inhaling and exhaling are two parts of breathing. We already saw that Paul continually thanked God for the Colossians in his own prayers (Colossians 1:3) and now he shows that they too should give thanks. The implication is that we should be no less alert to the things for which we should give thanks – whether they are blessings we or others have received. Nevertheless, Pauls’ stress in this verse is primarily on our own needs and thanks, as he adds, in the very next verse, “And pray for us, too … (Colossians 4:3).
Colossians 4:2 also indicates that our thanksgiving should be constant. Just as Paul wrote that he and those with him “always thank God … when we pray for you” (Colossians 1:3), so now he implies the same continuity of giving thanks that we saw in his command to “devote” ourselves to asking for our needs.
Although our prayer should be set within praise and other aspects of interaction with God (see our free e-book on prayer), Paul shows in Colossians 4:2 that the two central aspects of prayer are in fact simply asking and thanking. The two cannot be separated and they form, together, the core of our relationship with God himself. Asking and thanking are not only the two aspects of prayer that Paul shows we must do, but also – and equally important – the two things we must do continually.
* You can download our free e-book on prayer here.