How often, when we pray, do we mainly focus on what we want? Yes, when catastrophic events occur, such as the current bushfires in drought-stricken Australia, we pray for God’s mercy that he might send drenching rain. That said, don’t we expect God to answer our personal requests so that we can enjoy life to the full?
The quest for life in all its fullness is not new. Back in the 1960s the solution was reckoned to be found in sex, drugs and rock-n-roll. Yet the aspirations of the themes of ‘Love, sweet love,’ and ‘Lucy in the sky with diamonds’ and Woodstock, revealed their dark side in the nightmare of Charles Manson and his set. The hopes and dreams of the 1960s proved to be false.
Further back in history, in the first century Roman world, people often looked for solutions in spiritual experiences. And, as happens today, some of these ideas began to spill over into the life of the early churches – the church in Colossae, for example. While there doesn’t seem to have been a specific false teaching there, Paul the Apostle saw the need in his Letter to the Colossians to challenge a false understanding of fullness that went beyond the truth of God’s gospel that they had embraced (Colossians 1:6).
Indeed, from comments Paul makes in chapter 2:18, we learn that the Colossians wanted a knowledge and an experience of God that seems to have been influenced by a Jewish mysticism (merkabah mysticism) that claimed to carry as if in a chariot into the very presence of God, those who scrupulously observed the law.
To provide some context, in the first part of chapter 1 of his Letter, Paul had thanked God for the faith, love, and hope of the Christian believers in the city of Colossae. These people had responded to the breaking news about God which Paul calls the word of the truth.
He continues with a prayer of petition: For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you… And it’s important we note for what he prays: Asking God that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding… (1:9).
He prays for two aspects of growth. In verse 9 he prays for growth in their thinking— hence, knowledge, wisdom, understanding. In verse 10 he prays for growth in their lifestyle – and so, living a life …; pleasing …; bearing fruit …
There is an instructive link between thinking and lifestyle. Paul prays for growth in knowing God and his ways so that God’s people may grow in a life of Christian integrity. This is essential if we want to see spiritual renewal. Psalm 143:10 puts it this way: Teach me to do your will, for you are my God. Let your good spirit lead me on a level path.
Notice, the psalm doesn’t say, Lord, teach me your will… But rather, teach me to do your will… The psalm-writer knows God’s will, but needs to be taught to do it. This is why Paul asks that the Colossians may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding…
Spiritual wisdom picks up an Old Testament theme: the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. This is not an abject fear of God, but rather the humble recognition of God’s might, majesty, dominion and power.
Fullness. Paul’s prayer points to the way we can begin to experience life to the full. It involves a spiritual understanding which comes, not through ecstatic spiritual experiences or repetitious mantra, but through an understanding of the will of God learned through regular and thoughtful Bible reading. Getting to know God, as with every relationship, takes time.
All this is not simply an abstract exercise: as we get to know God and his mind, so our lives are changed and increasingly bear the fruit of living life to the full. Indeed, a clearer understanding of God equips us to live lives more worthy of him. And this includes discerning ways we can be more responsible in our care of the world in which we live.