Summary: The practice of prayer helps us grow spiritually to know God better and become more like him.
[Background Image: Fresco of Michael Angelo on the Sistine Chapel, Imago Dei]
Last week we looked at our need to grow spiritually, the Apostle Paul tells us in Col. 2:6-7, “And now, just as you accepted Christ Jesus as your Lord, you must continue to live in obedience to him. Let your roots grow down into him and draw up nourishment from him, so you will grow in faith, strong and vigorous in the truth you were taught.”
Paul uses the illustration of a tree. In order for a tree to be full, healthy, and growing it must send its roots down deeper in the earth. The size of the tree will be determined by how much the roots grow down and out. The same is true with us in a spiritual sense. The observable parts of our lives, our behavior (what we say and do) and our character (integrity), are all directly related to the invisible part, our roots, our spiritual life, our relationship with the Lord. I cannot emphasize this enough; as long as our spiritual roots in Christ are shallow we will continue to struggle with our behavior and our character because they are directly linked to our spiritual life. If we are going to experience the abundant life God has in store for us we need to grow spiritually. Growing spiritually means we receive God’s grace to know him better (in other words it’s relational) and mature to be more like him (we reflect Jesus’ character and actions, doing what he would do). As our roots go down in Christ, God does a work in our life, he changes us so our behavior and our character reflect him.
Just because we are Christians doesn’t mean we are growing spiritually. To get to the heart of determining whether we are growing spiritually we can look back over the years and ask ourselves, do we have a closer relationship with Christ more and reflect him more than we did a year ago, five years ago, ten? Are we more loving, kind, patient? Do we have more joy and peace? Or do we have a shorter temper and get angry easier, do we worry more, struggle more with materialism? If we are not changing to be more like Christ, we are not growing spiritually. We have stagnated, we are root bound. A plant that is root bound may look good, but it will now grow, and eventually it will start to suffer. Fortunately, God loves us too much to leave us that way. God wants us to know him more, to grow to be more like him. God wants us to have an abundant fruitful life. God nudges us forward.
To help nudge us along God has given us practices, or disciplines, as they are sometimes called, to help us grow spiritually, these are the same practices Jesus did when he walked this earth. These practices are not magical, doing them won’t change anything in your life, rather they make us available to God to be changed by him. Imagine we are out in a sailboat but rather than rely on the sail we start paddling (“I’m going to change my ways, change my life, be a better person”). We move forward, but very slowly. When we practice these spiritual disciplines what we are doing is making the decision to stop paddling on our own, and adjust our sail to catch the wind of God’s Spirit and allow His Spirit to move us. As we catch God’s Spirit he in turn helps make the spiritual growth happen in us. Sometimes we may need to make slight course corrections by turning the rudder (there are some things we have to do or change on our own, which we will look at today) but it is still the Spirit who makes the difference.
The first practice we are looking at today is prayer. The reason we are starting with prayer is because prayer is the most essential way God uses to relate to us and to help us grow. We talk a lot about prayer in the church. We know it’s important. We know we should pray for other people, particularly for those who are sick because we believe God will bring healing, and we know we should pray for those who need to come to faith in Christ, because we believe God will change their situation. But what we don’t often understand is that prayer changes us too. Richard Foster writes in his book Prayer, “The primary purpose of prayer is to bring us into such a life of communion with the Father that, by the power of the Spirit, we are increasingly conformed to the image of the Son (Prayer, 57).” Did you catch that? In prayer we become so close to the Father that His Spirit works in us to conform us to be more like his Son, Jesus. Prayer is a primary means of spiritual growth.