Why do flight attendants give parents flying with young children the instructions, “If there is a change in the air pressure in the cabin and the oxygen masks are deployed always put the oxygen mask on yourself first and then on your child,”? It’s because if the parent puts the mask on the child first they might risk passing out. Flight attendants can’t place the oxygen mask on everybody. They need people in the event of an emergency to follow their instructions to the letter. It would be infinitely worse for the child to permanently lose a parent than to momentarily pass out from a lack of oxygen. As soon as the parent has the mask on they are free to help their child. At first it might seem selfish, but when you think about these instructions you know it is the most loving choice we can make for the sake of our child.
I am reminded of the wisdom of praying for myself first whenever I fly and hear these instructions. Praying for myself is never selfish. It is a mature precaution. When a friend calls with a serious prayer requests I can easily become emotionally overwhelmed without this me-first prayer cover. But, if I petition first for myself I am strengthened to intercede for others and can continue seeking God’s heart about a need.
In Ephesians 3:14-21 Paul prays a prayer for the church in Ephesus. Technically Paul is not praying for himself in this passage, but his prayer is so insightful we would be prudent to apply some of these words. As we analyze the makeup of this prayer we uncover some great direction for me-first prayers.
14) For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15) from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16) that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17) so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18) may have 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 surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
20) Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen ESV
Before Paul begins he asks God to draw from the riches of his glory (16), when he answers this prayer. Jesus is rich in glory; he does not have to be stingy when we seek his intervention. We are not going to exhaust the riches of Christ’s glory by petitioning God too much with a need.
First, in verse 16, Paul prays that the Christians in Ephesus would be strengthened with power through his Spirit in in their inner being. So, it is easy to see from reading this prayer that one of the most important things I need to pray for myself is that my inner being would be made strong. What would it really look like if, with with God’s power through his Spirit I was made strong? To further explain this Paul is going to pray for their faith and a deeper experience of God’s love for the Ephesians.
In verse 17 Paul’s next phrase is, “so, that Christ may dwell in your heart through faith.” One way God strengthens me is through faith, so I can experience Christ’s indwelling presence. An increase of faith is an important request because without an active trust in Christ I struggle to discern his activity within me. Jesus is still active and alive in my life, but I can be clueless to his presence. Continued faith and trust in him is the key to my growing awareness of his movement. Trust will also be the key to experiencing Jesus presence when I don’t understand confusing events. I become aware of Christ’s indwelling presence through faith in him.
Secondly, I need to be strengthened in my inner man so I can be rooted and grounded in love (17). Growing up in a desert region like Tucson I have always been fascinated when a drought-tolerant plant rooted and established in the soil can survive on less water. It is fascinating to watch these plants put out roots into the deep recesses of the soil, searching even around solid rocks to find hidden water. The Ocotillo is an extremely drought-tolerant plant when it is established, but it can take two summers of regular watering to ground this plant in your landscape. When watering the Ocotillo you have to do more than water the root ball; you also have to water the canes of the plant. If you sprinkle the canes you will trick the plant into thinking it rained and it will leaf out. If it leafs out you know it is growing roots. Once it is established it can live on the normal rainfall of an arid region. During drought it might drop its leaves but it will not die.
Paul wants the Christians in Ephesus to be rooted and established in love. Why? Without love we are nothing (1 Cor. 13:2). So, what does it look like to be rooted and established in love?
If we are not careful to cover ourselves first in prayer we endanger our spiritual lives like a young Ocotillo. To be grounded in God's love, we need a deep, regular watering of God’s love because our roots are often still too shallow. Every traumatic story dries us out, but the answer is not to run from hurting people. In the desert shallow watering will produce plants with shallow roots. Any small windstorm can topple a plant with shallow roots. The answer is to grow deeper roots and deeper roots only grow when the water runs deep. The roots will always follow the depth of the water.
Every summer the Sonoran Desert is visited by a deluge called the monsoon rains. Theses storms flood the region and establish drought-tolerant plants across the valley. Cacti are not no-water plants; they are low-water plants. A succulent collects and stores water for a drought every time it rains. Like the desert flora our spiritual lives will not be established without a deep flooding of God’s love.
To be rooted and established in love Paul writes I must know the breadth, the length, the height and the depth of Christ’s love (18). Paul is describing massiveness when he chooses words like breadth, length, height, and depth. God’s love is massive. I need a greater revelation of how massive is this love. If I am to be useful as an intercessor, I will be placed in many situations where I see, hear, and share life with those in heart-breaking trauma. Emotionally, I will not be able to handle the sadness I encounter in others or the sadness I encounter in my own life without a greater revelation of the massiveness of God’s love. I must see God’s love as greater than the prayer request before me.
Not only do I need a fresh revelation to strengthen my inner being, but also this love needs to move beyond mere head knowledge. Paul wants me to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge (19). An intellectual or purely doctrinal pursuit of God’s love will not strengthen me enough. Sound doctrine is important, but intellectual knowledge alone will not be a deep enough watering for me to draw from. I need examples in my life of when the love of God washed over me and filled every empty crevice of my heart. I need to know the love of Christ experientially and emotionally, for it to enter my core being. I need to know in my deepest heart that God loves me with completeness. When I am convinced God’s love has touched me, my inner personhood will be transformed and I will gain a new holy boldness when petitioning for others.
When I am made strong in my inner being, Christ dwells in my heart by faith and I emotionally have experienced God’s love. These all lead to the last phrase from verses 19. I will be filled with all the fullness of God. Being filled with the fullness of God is a by-product of being strengthened in my core being.
So, what might change if we first chose to pray Paul’s prayer for ourselves? Don’t we want to find out? I do.
Father I thank you that all the families of the earth are named by you. I thank you that Jesus is rich in glory and that my prayer requests are not going to exhaust your glory. With your great power strengthen my inner being so that Christ may dwell in my heart through faith. I want to trust you even when things I don’t understand happen. Make me strong in faith so I can discern your presence in me even in the midst of the unknown.
Father I want to be rooted and established in love so my core strength draws from your love. I want a fresh revelation of how massive is your love for me. I need this revelation to surpass my head knowledge. I want the love of Christ to wash over me and flood the deepest crevices of my emotions today. Because I want to do things in your strength, not mine, I want to be filled with your fullness, God.
I can ask these things because you are abundantly able in your great power to do all I ask or can even think of. To you alone be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.