Tenor Luciano Pavarotti said that his father, a baker, introduced him to music and urged him to work hard to develop his voice. A professional tenor in his hometown of Modena, Italy, eventually took him as a pupil. Pavarotti also enrolled in a teachers’ college.
After graduation, he asked his father, “Shall I be a teacher or a singer?”
“Luciano,” his father replied, “if you try to sit on two chairs, you will fall between them. For life, you must choose one chair.”
Pavarotti added, “I chose one. It took seven years of study and frustration before I made my first professional appearance. It took another seven to reach the Metropolitan Opera. And now I think whether it’s laying bricks, writing a book—whatever we choose—we should give ourselves to it.
“Commitment, that’s the key. Choose one chair.”
For followers of Jesus, is there a “chair” we should choose in this new year above all others?
Biblical scholar William Barclay would have agreed with the world-famous tenor. He observed, “A man will never become outstandingly good at anything unless that thing is his ruling passion. There must be something of which he can say, ‘For me to live is this.’”
What was the “this” for which Paul lived? The apostle was clear: “For me, to live is Christ” (Philippians 1:21).
The phrase can mean “Christ is my life” or “my life is centered in Christ.” The New Century Version thus translates the phrase, “To me the only important thing about living is Christ.” The New International Reader’s Version similarly renders it, “For me, life finds all of its meaning in Christ.” The New Living Translation has it, “For to me, living means living for Christ.”
How, then, do we make Christ our life? How do we find life’s meaning in him? How do we live for him? What does this mean in practical terms?
Of all we could say about spirituality in response, I have been drawn in the new year to a simple but largely overlooked life principle.
For what do we pray?
Eighty-two percent of Americans say that when they pray, they focus on their friends and family; 74 percent say they focus on their own problems. Just over half (54 percent) pray about good things happening in their lives, while 36 percent pray for their future prosperity.
How many of us focus on Jesus?
Many of us have a transactional religion: we go to church on Sunday so God will bless us on Monday. We pray about our needs so God will meet our needs. We read the Bible so God will lead and bless our lives.
This is unsurprising. In fact, those who do not approach God in this way are countercultural in the extreme.
Here’s why: You and I inherited from our Greek cultural ancestors a business relationship with God (or the gods, in their case). They envisioned deities governing every conceivable need and aspect of life, then they prayed or sacrificed to these gods so that the gods would in turn give them what they wanted.
If you were an ancient Greek and you were going to war, you sacrificed to Ares so he would keep you safe and give you victory. If you were sailing, you sacrificed to Poseidon. The Romans adopted their gods and their transactional religion, passing it on to the larger world.
In a similar fashion, we pray to give God what he wants so he will give us what we want. But what God most wants from us is what we most need: intimacy with himself.
This is why Paul testified to “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8). “Knowing” translates a Greek word meaning to “experience intimately.” Many of us know about Jesus—Paul wanted to know him in the same way you can know any other person.
So should we.
The best way to know any person is to spend time with them. Reading about them, hearing experts discuss them, even serving causes they advocate is no substitute for time in their presence.
And of all the ways to experience the presence of Christ, prayer is foundational. Not just transactional requests for our needs to be met (though these are welcome, as Jesus taught us Matthew 7:7–11), but transformational time spent with him. Read his word; contemplate his magnificence in his world; praise him for who he is; thank him for what he has done. Sit in silence asking his Spirit to speak to your spirit, his Mind to your mind.
This year let’s make it our highest purpose to know Christ. Let’s make this the one “chair” in which we sit every day, the one focus that gives focus to the rest of our lives, the one practice that empowers all the rest.
When last did you pray for no reason except to spend time with Jesus?
When next will you?