In the conclusion of his letter to the church in Colossae, Paul expresses a desire to make Jesus and his kingdom first in everything:

“Devote yourselves to prayer; stay alert in it with thanksgiving. At the same time, pray also for us that God may open a door to us for the word, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains, so that I may make it known as I should.”

– Colossians 4:2–4 CSB

Paul is asking the Colossians to pray for three things that anyone who wants to be obedient to the gospel should be praying as well.

1. Paul prays for wisdom to fulfill gospel obligations (v. 4).

Paul believed he had been given a particular, personal assignment in the kingdom of God. In Colossians 1, he called it a commission, a “stewardship;” something given only to him; something that if he didn’t do it, wouldn’t get done. We see throughout Paul’s letters that Paul believes every Christian has been given a commission just like this.

Years ago, a mentor of mine helped me wrestle through questions of the will of God by telling me, “You know, J.D., not everything that comes from heaven has your name on it.” That has been incredibly liberating. It frees me from pursuing everything and calls me to ask, “What does have my name on it?”

God has an assignment for you. Not just for his church. Not just for that famous pastor you know.

For you.

I find it encouraging that Paul feels like he needs to pray for this. He needs God to give him clarity about what his assignment is. Frankly, sometimes I don’t feel totally sure what God wants from me in any given moment.

In moments like this, I have two primary sources of comfort. First, I remember that I’m a sheep, and sheep are helpless idiots. If they get anywhere, it’s not because of their savvy, but because of their shepherd’s guidance. The good news is that I’ve got a really good Shepherd who has promised to guide me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Second, throughout the Bible, God repeatedly demonstrates he can use whatever instruments he wants to accomplish his purposes. He even spoke once to someone through a donkey, and, as my friend Joby Martin says, ever since then he has continued to use jackasses to speak to people. (This is good news for many of us.)

God had a purpose for Paul, and Paul prayed for wisdom to perceive what it was and the courage to fulfill it.

2. Paul prays for the ability to pursue new gospel opportunities (v. 3).

By this point in his life, Paul had done a lot: He’d been on several missionary journeys, he’d planted lots of churches, he’d spent a lot of time in prison, and testified before a bunch of Roman rulers. If there was ever anyone who could say, “I’ve done my part,” it’s Paul.

But here he is, asking God to open new doors for the gospel.

Jesus had said that there was more joy in heaven over the one that repents than 99 who already belong to him. For Paul, this meant that as long as there was breath in his body, he was going to keep reaching for that lost one. His work would be done when Jesus called him home.

I believe that eternity is real. I believe that lost people matter to God. I believe God is still going after the one. So as long as I have opportunity, I am going to keep serving and striving.

3. Paul prays for strength not to waste gospel circumstances (v. 3).

Paul sees his circumstances as divinely arranged for the sake of the gospel, and he asks the Colossians to pray for strength not to waste those chains.

Most of us are not literally in chains like Paul. But what if we saw our difficult circumstances as divinely appointed for gospel purposes? That is, in fact, the promise of being a follower of Jesus! All things in our lives may not be easy, but they are all directed for gospel purposes.

Go back and read that last sentence again.

Maybe, in your sickness, God wants to demonstrate to family members and friends—or even your doctor—that you have a hope that goes beyond physical healing.

Maybe, in your workplace, you didn’t get the promotion so you can show your peers that your identity is not wrapped up in having success—you have a better and more secure identity as a child and servant of God.

Maybe, in your disappointed dreams, God wants to use you to show people what it really means to rely on him.

We shouldn’t go out seeking chains. Life will bring them our way. It’s not a question of if, but of when. And when life shackles us, we have a choice to make: Will we respond as those who have no hope, or will we endure as those who have been given a hope beyond the grave?

God is honored when his suffering people are delivered from hardship. He is also honored when his suffering people cling to him in the midst of the valley.

Paul was in chains, but he was still looking for what God was doing. He saw every setback as a set-up from God. What if we saw ours the same way?