[On Wednesday nights I'm leading a study called Teach Us to Pray: Building a Life with God. This is Part 2: Prayer in the Context of a Disciplined Christian Life]
Prayer, simply put, is communion and conversation between God and us. That simple definition, though, assumes something very important, namely the existence of a relationship between God and us; after all, one talks to and listens to someone else, to someone that one knows.
That relationship is the context within which our prayers are to happen. We need, then, to consider the nature of our relationship with God.
God’s desire is to share a close and intimate relationship with us. We see God express this desire in the Old Testament in, for example, Exodus 29:43-46; we see Jesus express it in beautiful and powerful words on the night that he was betrayed (John 15:14-15). Now, if God desires to live among us, and that desire was certainly proved when Jesus came into the world, and if Jesus called his original disciples and by extension calls us as his present disciples his friends, then we have an amazing opportunity, don’t we? It is the opportunity to live in a vital, intimate, dynamic relationship with God.
But do we? Or do these lives that we are supposedly living in relationship with God seem, in the words of Paul Scherer, “too trivial to be true”? (Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines, p. 24) Are our lives characterized by passionate longing like what we see expressed in Psalm 42:1-2b: “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God”? If we are developing a deep relationship with God then such longing will be great. Is it?
I’d like to name two related steps/moves that will help us to develop the kind of relationship with God that God wants us to have and that, whether we realize it or not, we want to have, too.
1. Embrace the true nature of our Christian life
The true nature of our Christian life is that it is a life! Many people tend to think of salvation in terms of a past event, as in “I was saved in 1966.” While that is not an inaccurate way to think or talk, since there was a time in the past that we first put faith in Christ, such a way of thinking and talking is incomplete. It is incomplete because it does not say nearly enough. We need to also say: (a) the Christian life has no end (because it encompasses our entire earthly sojourn and our subsequent heavenly sojourn) and (b) the Christian life has no limit (because it encompasses every facet and part of our lives).
The true nature of the Christian life is that it is Christ’s life in us! Scripture teaches this in, for example, 1 John 5:11-12 and Romans 5:10. Dallas Willard has powerfully argued that while salvation certainly involves the forgiveness of sin, we need to think of it more in terms of the imparting of life:
God’s seminal redemptive act toward us is the communication of a new kind of life, as the seed—one of our Lord’s most favored symbols—carries a new life into the enfolding soil. Turning from old ways with faith and hope in Christ stands forth as the natural first expression of the new life imparted. That life will be poised to become a life of the same quality as Christ’s, because it indeed is Christ’s. He really does live on in us. The incarnation continues. (p. 38)
Because the crucified and resurrected Christ lives in us, because his life has been imparted to us by the grace of God, we really can live his kind of life in the world.
Which leads to the second step/move that will help us develop the kind of relationship with God that we need:
2. Practice Christian discipline
Willard also points out that we can only expect to develop the kind of life that Jesus lived if we do what Jesus did; such emulation of Jesus is modeled for us by many of the great Christian saints down through the years and we can learn from them, too. We can and we need to do what Paul told Timothy to do: “Train/exercise yourself in godliness” (1 Tim 4:7).
Jesus was the Son of God in a unique way; he was human and divine—and yet he trained himself to live the kind of life that he lived. By observing the life of Jesus and the lives of those who have learned from Jesus we can learn to follow what Richard Foster has called “the path of disciplined grace” (Celebration of Discipline, p. 7).
Next time I will say some more about what some of the disciplines are that will help to train us and that will put us in a position to be changed by God so that we grow in grace and in faith and in service. For now, I end with an illustration about the value of the regular practice of such disciplines.
One thing always bothered me about Popeye the Sailor, whose cartoons I greatly enjoyed when I was a child: why did he wait until he was in a crisis, such as being pulverized by Bluto, to eat his spinach? I mean, wouldn’t he have been better served if he had eaten a well-balanced diet that included regular helpings of spinach rather than having quickly to devour some just before it was too late? Besides, wouldn’t eating spinach regularly have put an end to his practice of carrying a huge can of it around in his shirt, which couldn’t have been very comfortable? And wouldn’t a little exercise have helped, too?
It seems to me that we Christians are too often like Popeye. We wait until a crisis arises before we get serious about our relationship with God. When the crisis comes, then we get around to praying or reading our Bibles or seriously seeking God. Aren’t we better off if we engage in the disciplines of the Christian life in a devoted and regular way? When we do we build up our strength over time so that when the crisis arises we have a storehouse from which to draw. That’s so much better than trying to find help in a big hurry just in that moment when we must have it or else.
Popeye is just a cartoon character, of course, but real life teaches us the same lesson. Moreover, Jesus in his life models for us the exercise of spiritual discipline all along the way so that he could face the tremendous crises of his life, culminating in his crucifixion, with strength and faith.
Conclusion: Prayer will be the vital communication and communion with God that it is supposed to be when we live out the truth that salvation is Christ’s life in us, that is a total way of life for us, and that we can grow in that life through exercise and discipline.