Let’s consider the shaping power of the indwelling Christ. Christianity is Christ. He came not only to save us from our sins, but to be an indwelling presence to shape us into his likeness. He is not to be an infrequent guest, one we invite only to share special occasions.
The primary dynamic of the Christian life is abiding in Christ. Spiritual formation is “the dynamic process of receiving through faith and appropriating through commitment, discipline, and action, the living Christ into our lives to the end that our life will conform to and manifest the reality of Christ’s presence in the world” (“Alive in Christ,” 26).
Prayer, then, or living prayer, is recognizing, cultivating awareness of, and giving expression to the indwelling Christ (ibid., p. 26).
The gracious invitation of Christ is “abide in me.” This invitation is recorded in John’s Gospel. It was reflective of John’s interpretation of Jesus, and what Jesus means for us. You find it both in John’s Gospel and in his First Letter. In the Gospel, Jesus says, “abide in me, as I abide in you” (John 15:4). Earlier, we find these beautiful words of Jesus: “and I will pray the Father, and he will send you another Counselor, that he may abide with you forever” (John 14:16). In John’s First Letter, we read, “by this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us his Holy Spirit” (1 John 4:13).
In many of the modern translations of the Bible, you don’t find the word “abide.” The reason is the translators concluded that Americans do not use the word “abide” anymore. We use “be with” instead. But the truth is we don’t understand these texts in their richness and depth unless we use the word “abide.” Abide means more than to “be with;” it also means to “stand with,” to be “faithful to,” to “stand firm,” and “never to leave.” For that reason, other translations use the word “remain,” because that means to “stay with.”
What does it mean to abide in Christ? At least three things: to abide in Christ means realizing his presence; responding to his prodding, and resting in his peace.
We abide in Christ first by realizing his presence. To realize is to make real. So how do we make real his presence? We make real his presence through the spiritual disciplines, through Scripture and worship, and certainly through prayer.
The central focus of prayer as a discipline for spiritual formation is to wait in the presence of the Lord, especially to wait in the presence of the sacrificial Lord, in order that we might remember his love for us and in order that we might stay aware of the price he paid for our salvation.
If you are thinking, “I pray, but nothing seems to happen; I don’t feel anything; I’m not realizing Christ’s presence,” that’s the reason we have to think about making real Christ’s presence. The presence of Christ in our life is not something that happens automatically, it’s something that we realize by what we do and how we respond. And that’s also the reason we name Scripture as a way that we make real the presence of Christ. Our prayer life is going to be dry and barren if we do not live with Scripture. We live with Scripture in order to meet Christ there, in order that God might speak to us; and when God has spoken to us through his Word, we, in turn, can speak to him.
We make real Jesus’ presence by prayer and Scripture, but also by worship – our private worship in our daily quiet time, but also worship in which the people of God come together to confess their sins and to receive the forgiving grace of Jesus Christ.
We make real the abiding presence of Christ by prayer, by Scripture, and by worship. And when we realize his presence, we can abide in him.
But we also abide in Christ by responding to his prodding. He does prod. Sometimes he comes into our lives in unexpected ways to afflict us in our comfort. Sometimes he comes into our lives in unexpected ways to comfort us in our affliction. However he comes, he comes to prod. As we respond to that prodding, we abide in Christ.
Christ prods through Scripture and prayer and worship in our quiet time, but he also does it through other people. To cultivate the presence of Christ, to abide in him, we need a few people who love us, who will pray for us, and who will in some way seek to hold us accountable and responsible as Christians from day to day.
One of the best ways to do this is to covenant with these few people to meet regularly, and ask each other questions like this:
At what time during this past week did you feel closest to Jesus Christ?
At what time during this past week did you feel that Christ was calling you to a particular discipline?
At what time during this past week did you feel that your faith was being tested because of failure or some severe demand that was being made of you?
Through that kind of responsible, mutual commitment to one another, Christ will prod, and as we respond to his prodding, we abide in him.
This kind of discipline and sharing makes prayer living prayer. We allow grace to operate in our lives by allowing Christ to be alive in us. We affirm the living Christ. Freedom and joy in the Christian life depend on this. Christ is alive today. He is a now reality. This reality must become personal: Christ is alive in me.
To allow Christ to be alive in our lives is to enter into a healthy dependence upon him. Most of us are aware of what we ought to do in any given situation. Our problem is how we put that knowledge into action, and what we need is power.
So it’s not enough to abide in Christ by recognizing his indwelling presence, we must exercise his presence, that is, depend upon him, and allow him to work in us.
We abide in Christ by realizing his presence, by responding to his prodding, and by resting in his peace. That means not an escape from the world, but a resting in Christ, which enables us to engage the world. I mean the sort of thing that can come to us in the midst of the noise and din of our daily life, in the dark night of confusion and suffering, in the tension of temptation and the rigorous demands of the struggle for moral responsibility. The anonymous poet knew the secret of this resting in Christ’s peace:
There is a viewless cloistered room as high as heaven, as fair as day,
where though my feet may join the throne, my soul can enter in and pray.
One beckoning even cannot know when I have passed the threshold o’er,
for he alone who hears my prayers has heard the shutting of the door.
When we have that resting in his peace, nothing can come that we can’t overcome. When we have that, having discovered that center of our being and our certainty and our security, nothing can come that we can’t cope with and conquer. You’ve seen it as I have; to one person a set of circumstances are great mysteries, baffling burdens and heavy problems; to another these same experiences become, in the words of Samuel Rutherford, the kind of burden that sails are to a ship and wings are to a bird. To one person, life’s experiences are dark valleys and steep mountains and rough places, to another every valley becomes exalted and every mountain is brought low and the rough places are made plains, because that person is resting in Christ.
During this Lenten season, will you accept Jesus’ invitation to prayer that transforms? “Abide in me…and I will abide in you.”
For further study, see “Alive in Christ” by Rev. Maxie Dunnam (Abingdon Press, 1987).