Those familiar with the Gospels know it’s really no “secret.” It was prayer. To our Savior prayer was as essential for well-being as food and water and this didn’t go unnoticed by His followers. They sought to acquire the ability He obviously possessed in abundance. “Now Jesus was praying… When he stopped, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray…’” (Luke 11:1). Now, it’s not that they didn’t pray. They’d been raised Jewish and praying was an integral part of their religion. But through observation they saw there was something drastically better, more gratifying about the way our Lord prayed. Therefore they yearned to do it like He did. James S. Stewart wrote, “No doubt often before this they’d felt the difference between Jesus’ prayers and their own, His so sure and strong and real, theirs so weak and stammering and intermittent, His so comprehensive and God-inspired, theirs so erratic and spasmodic and unsatisfying.” As a Christian I, too, want to communicate with my Heavenly Father as intimately as Christ did so I find the disciple’s appeal as valid today as it was then. I’m constantly aware that my prayer life is altogether too puny. Therefore this subject greatly interests me. Perhaps you feel the same. Larry Crabb once confessed, “All I knew about prayer was to ask for things in case God might give them to me and to thank Him when He did. I grew up loosely committed to the ‘just-in-case’ prayers. You know the kind – pray for something just in case it makes a difference.” He found there’s a lot more to it than that.
A few things are noteworthy from the get-go. It’s apparent Jesus never deemed it necessary to argue the validity of praying any more than He did the existence of God. To Him the Heavenly Father was real and every individual’s freedom to commune with Him was real, as well. Neither was up for debate. Prayer is as natural an instinct for humans as breathing. The impulse to pray is undeniable. Even primitives seek a spiritual connection with their Creator. That’s because God implanted in everyone’s heart a fundamental urge to pursue and establish a relationship with Him. Christ considered that urge a given. And for the disciples the proof of its benefit was unmistakable. In their Master they could detect no uncertainty whatsoever pertaining to His bond with His Father. Jesus was the greatest person they’d ever encountered so whatever He did was something they knew they oughta be doing, too. We need to cop the same attitude. Since our Master prayed its essential importance is beyond question. Jesus talked a lot about prayer. But it wasn’t hollow rhetoric for He put into practice everything He taught. That’s why it’s vital we Christians learn everything we possibly can about prayer.
The Gospels confirm praying wasn’t just a feature of Christ’s faith – it was the foundational cornerstone of it. It was foremost in His mind the moment He woke every day: “…Jesus got up early in the morning when it was still very dark, departed, and went out to a deserted place, and there he spent time in prayer” (Mark 1:35). After preaching to and miraculously providing lunch for over 5,000 hungry folks you’d think He’d stop for a nap but He didn’t. He sent the apostles ahead and, “After saying goodbye to them, he went to the mountain to pray” (Mark 6:46). Those are just two examples of many that firmly establish our Lord’s devotion to prayer. It’s logical to assume if the Gospel writers had documented every instance of Christ’s stepping away to pray in private the Bible would be at least twice its size. For to Jesus prayer was life itself and nothing took precedence over it. And prayer wasn’t something contingent on what mood He was in. This isn’t to imply Christ was some kind of Stoic, unaffected by gladness or sorrow, laughter or tears, elation or fatigue. He felt the same things we feel. Yet He always turned to prayer for sustenance. And it wasn’t something He made Himself do out of obligation. His greatest joy was to spend time with His Heavenly Father whom He loved passionately and without apology. Crabb wrote, “He wanted nothing more than to let everyone see how wonderful His Father was, even if it cost Him His life.” Thus when my rudimentary prayers don’t energize me I have to ask myself if it’s due to my lack of sincere affection for God, a self-posed accusation akin to poking my heart with a sharp stick. Ouch.
The most common reason given for not praying is we’re too doggone busy to bother. How incredibly lame is that? Some of us will mount our theological high horse and claim that our work, because we perform it obediently, is an acceptable form of prayer in and of itself, making getting on our knees superfluous. But that excuse falls flat when we look at Jesus. He was arguably the busiest person who ever trod terra firma. If you don’t believe it, peruse the first few chapters of Mark. Every day and night there were sick folks, cripples and desperate-for-hope sinners flocking to Him for relief yet He never posted a “closed” sign. Surely every healing took something out of Him until He experienced exhaustion. However, Christ always managed to spend “alone time” with God daily. He literally carried the weight of the world upon His shoulders but He never forgot to pray. Yes, His work on earth was crucial but it was never a substitute for prayer.
Another thing that can interfere with our prayer life is impatience. In modern society we’ve gotten used to getting what we desire “on demand” and that expectation has seeped into the spiritual realm. But instant gratification is not a promise God ever made to us. The great I AM isn’t a vending machine or a phone app. Hebrews 5:7 tells us, “During his earthly life Christ offered both requests and supplications with loud cries and tears…” In other words, Jesus understood prayer was sometimes a strenuous, emotional activity necessitating the undistracted focus of His mind, heart and soul. In His curious parable of the obnoxious neighbor recorded in Mark 11 our Lord actually commends the pesky neighbor’s unrelenting persistence. He’s saying if you don’t get what you need from God, keep asking! God’s not insensitive to our wants and the squeaky wheel does have better odds of getting the grease. Look, God’s no fool. He perceives if our prayers are half-hearted/insincere and, when they are, they’re treated accordingly. Once again Jesus serves as our ideal. He responded mercifully to the Syrophoenician woman who wouldn’t take “no” for an answer in Mark 7. Blind Bartimaeus, despite being told to shut up, continued to shout “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Mark 10:47) until Christ healed him. On another occasion the friends of a paralyzed man went so far as to tear a hole in the roof over our Savior’s head in order to lower him to where he could receive complete restoration. Jesus was teaching us the Heavenly Father has great respect for those who display true determination in their prayers.
An unconfessed sinful habit or one we haven’t yet repented of can also cause problems in our prayer life. Christ taught, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8). We have to ask ourselves if we’re even trying to be pure in heart. Sin’s the ultimate deal-breaker and blessing-blocker. David wrote, “If I had harbored sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened” (Psalm 66:18). I dare say our own unacknowledged iniquities may be the biggest obstacles standing between us and God’s graces. Jesus, of course, knew no sin. His heart was pristine, pure. Thus the communication link between Him and His Father was never interrupted for a nanosecond. In other words, the more Christ-like we strive to be every single day of our lives the stronger our relationship with our Heavenly Father will be. “…Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48) isn’t so much an impossible-to-obey command as it is a worthy goal for all Christians to strive for.
So we know that for Jesus praying was an irreplaceable component of His 24/7 routine. He also didn’t hesitate to turn to prayer whenever a situation called for it; i.e. when major career decisions needed to be made. Before He chose His inner circle of apostles He “…went out to the mountain to pray, and he spent all night in prayer to God” (Luke 6:12). He knew who was most capable of giving Him reliable guidance. Jesus also depended on prayer to supply Him with extra strength when battling evil. One day His disciples couldn’t exorcise a particularly nasty demon from a young man no matter how hard they tried. After Christ drove it out they asked Him why they’d failed. He answered them solemnly, “This kind can come out only by prayer” (Mark 9:29). When the ominous clouds of temptation hovered over Gethsemane, enticing Him to stray from His Father’s will, He relied on prayer to keep Him faithful: “…In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:44). And finally, when He was in the midst of His darkest hour upon the cross, having been tortured inhumanely for the crime of telling the truth, He prayed openly to His Father: “Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!’” (Luke 23:46). Fair to say that for our precious Redeemer prayer was a whole lot more than some symbolic gesture. Therefore Christians should regard praying the wisest thing we can do in any situation – good or bad.
As we investigate Jesus’ “secret weapon” further we discover four different elements in His prayers. First is the communion aspect. What that means is Christ sometimes engaged in prayer simply for the sake of fellowshipping with God. Luke 9:29 notes a significant change came over our Savior when He prayed. It states, “As he was praying, the appearance of his face was transformed…” When we contemplate the prayer life of Jesus (and before we try to mimic it) we must concede it’s more than merely asking God for blessings. Tact is respectful. If we pester our best friend only for favors over and over again it won’t be long before they no longer wanna be our best friend. Stewart wrote, “Jesus would have men go to God when there’s nothing to ask, go to Him not for His gifts but for Himself alone.” The second aspect is that of expressing genuine gratitude. We should offer our Heavenly Father thanks not only for the good stuff but the not-so-good stuff, too. Nowhere in the Gospels is it recorded that our Lord went to God with a list of grievances/gripes. Hard at times as it must’ve been, Christ was always grateful. When He illustrated to the apostles in Luke 22 that His blood, represented by the wine, would soon be shed for the sake of the world He expressed thanks to His Father. Likewise when He showed them, via tearing the bread apart, how His body would be cruelly broken. Even with the heaviness of an impending agonizing execution hanging over His head Jesus still led them in offering God praises: “After singing a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives” (Mark 14:26).
The third aspect is the controversial petitionary one. While there are several admirable reasons for praying, asking for what we need/want shouldn’t be arbitrarily left out of the mix. The popularity of the well-intentioned-but-woefully-misguided “prosperity Gospel” movement inadvertently caused a backlash effect that had many preachers sternly warning Christians against asking anything of God. Students of Jesus know He was never skittish about petitioning His Father for blessings and, furthermore, that He encouraged His followers to do the same. When He presented His disciples with what’s known as “The Lord’s Prayer” He started with “When you pray, say: ‘Our Father…’” (Luke 11:2). By using the familial term “Father” Christ was giving us divinely-granted permission to approach God with our sincere requests without trepidation. Since Jesus told us we need not approach God like we’re scared because He loves us there’s no reason not to ask Him for blessings – as long as the qualifying plea of “Thy will be done” is included. The worst that can happen is God’ll say “no” because He has a better idea. As He taught us in Isaiah 55:8, “Indeed, my plans are not like your plans, and my deeds are not like your deeds.” We must develop sufficient trust to accept that “He who created the universe” knows exactly what He’s doing. Yet that still shouldn’t discourage us from asking. Stewart wrote, “…The tendency to disparage petitionary prayer argues chiefly a lack of faith. Down at its roots is lurking the thought that God isn’t fully at liberty, but in some sense bound, in some degree a prisoner in His own universe. And what Christ would have us realize is that God’s alive and God’s free, and that therefore true faith will always do as Jesus Himself did and carry its requests straight to the throne.”
The fourth aspect of Jesus’ prayers is requesting God’s intercession. That means we’re to spend time unselfishly praying for others. Our Savior prayed for poor little children. He prayed for His lost sheep. No doubt He prayed for Judas Iscariot because we know for a fact He prayed for His sworn enemies who wanted Him dead. He prayed for His apostles: “Simon, Simon, pay attention! Satan has demanded to have you all, to sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. When you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31-32). Thus it’s only proper we pray fervently for those who are suffering from debilitating and often life-threatening illnesses to be made whole again; that we pray for those who don’t know the transforming love of Christ; that we pray for our discombobulated, fallen planet that so desperately needs to embrace the truth that can set it free from the chains of discord, hatred and divisiveness. The Bible tells us God can be persuaded to intercede as long as it doesn’t defy His perfect will. There’s an amazing amount of power in prayer. Paul implored us to “go for it,” encouraging us to “…Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Civilization would benefit immensely if all people followed Paul’s sage advice. We Christians should show them how it’s done. Brennan Manning wrote, “…There’s only one thing God asks of us – that we be men and women of prayer, people who live close to God, people for whom God is everything and for whom God is enough. That is the root of peace.”