“Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray” (Mark 6:45-46).
In these verses, as in other places, we see Jesus get away from the busyness of his preaching ministry in order to spend time alone with his Father in prayer. This is a glimpse of the eternal fellowship the Son had with the Father before the world began, but now seen in the humility of his incarnate life. It points us to the fact that Jesus is our High Priest and Mediator, who intercedes for us even now, as he did while on earth. In addition to Jesus’ prayer life revealing precious truths about Christ himself, it also serves as an example for our prayer lives. Let’s consider several points on prayer.
1.Reframing our Prayer Life.
First of all, as we think about prayer, we might need to reframe the way we think about prayer. For Jesus, prayer was communion with his Father, who loved him before the world began (John 17:24). We should also see it this way. God our Father has loved us before the world’s foundation (Eph 1:4-10). He has manifested his love for us in sending his only-begotten Son to be the propitiation for our sins and give us life (1 John 4:9-10). Such a great love he has for us that he has called us his very own children (1 John 3:1). Therefore, when we come to God in prayer, we are coming to speak freely to our Father who has loved us with a free, eternal, unchangeable love.
Sometimes we think of prayer as a command from a harsh God. Maybe it comes across this way in the preaching we listen to. But that is a Satanic lie we’ve believed. God is not harsh. He is overflowing with compassion and mercy. Our thoughts of God are often too hard. Our thoughts of God should be high and lofty, but that means that we should have a high and lofty view of his rich goodness, eternal love, and great mercy toward us. This changes the way we view prayer from a ritual to a relationship.
Sometimes we might compare our prayer life to those great giants of the past, who we hear had great prayer lives. Perhaps we think of Luther, who is said to have spent three hours in prayer every morning. Or we think of the disciple James, who was called “Old Camel Knees” because he prayed so much that his knees were disfigured. Will we ever becomes such prayer warriors? We seem to fall so short. Friends, you are not Luther or James. And their life is not a law of God. It is an encouragement, but if we compare ourselves we often end up condemning ourselves and judging one another. Praise God that these men had such wonderful prayer lives. Maybe some day, we will get there. But we won’t get there by condemning ourselves. That may actually drive us further from the Lord and quench our prayer life.
It is helpful to recognize that these spiritual giants were also people who struggled with prayer. The disciples couldn’t pray for even one hour with Jesus in the garden. He summed up their struggle perfectly in the words, “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:37-38). John Bunyan (who many of us think of as a great giant of the faith) wrote, “I speak from experience—I have a very difficult time praying to God as I ought to…For, my heart, when I go to pray, I find it so opposed to going to God, and when it is with him, so opposed to staying long with him, that many times I am forced in my prayers first to beg God that he would take my heart and set it on Himself in Christ, and when it is there, that He would keep it there! Many times I do not know what to pray for, I am so blind, or how to pray, I am so ignorant!…No one knows how many byways the heart has, how many back alleys, to slip away from the presence of God. Also, how much pride it has when it can pray eloquently! And how much hypocrisy, when praying before others! And how much little awareness of prayer there is between God and the Soul in secret, unless the Spirit of Supplication is there to help?”1 Pretty relatable words! He had trouble getting into prayer, staying in prayer, focusing in prayer, and having the right attitude in prayer! These struggles are well known among us as well.
In the midst of all our struggles to pray, let us remember that we come to God in a relationship of love, and that there is now no condemnation in Christ Jesus. Our Father understands our struggle, but he still wants to hear from us.
2. Cutting Out Distractions and Getting Alone for Prayer
Sometimes Jesus needed to compel his disciples away and say goodbye to others in order to get alone to pray. He went up the mountain to pray, a quiet place in the wilderness. We likewise need solitude and quiet in order to pour our hearts out to God.
We can aim to have regular quiet times with God. I like the early morning hour before my wife and kids are awake. Though I’m sometimes interrupted by my youngest daughter waking up early (which is fine!), it is usually a quiet, extended time in the Word and prayer. Whatever time you find to be best, and however often it is interrupted, it is good to aim for regular quiet times with the Lord.
We can also plan special prayer retreats with excitement, like we would plan a vacation. The secret place of God’s presence is the most refreshing place to be. To be with Christ is to have rest for our souls, because he is gentle and lowly, always ready to humbly receive us and help us (Matt 11:28-30). Consider the goodness of a wilderness place where you could go for a few hours or even days, to refocus and refresh your heart in prayer.
In order to have these quiet times, we do have to be deliberate to cut out distractions. Maybe we need to leave our phones behind, or hit the “do not disturb” button. Maybe we have to deliberately put away the things we are getting busy with. Jesus was more busy than most of us probably will ever be. People were constantly thronging about him, and pressing in upon him. People came to him with the most urgent and desperate of needs. But even he pressed the mute button and got away from it all to commune with his Father. Let us take his example, and begin to take times away from the noise to be in his presence.
3. Directions for Those Who Can’t Get Alone.
What about when we want to get alone for prayer, but we can’t? Perhaps you’re a mother with lots of kids, and you can’t get away from them when you want to. Perhaps you’re a father getting up early to seek God before you go to work, but then the toddler cries or your boss calls.
Jesus also dealt with interruptions, and we see him respond not with irritation or impatience, but with compassion (see Mark 6:30-34). He was flexible–always ready to receive people who needed him. I’ve been rebuked by this, as I have often been inflexible. Wanting my spiritual habits and routines firmly fixed, I get impatient with those who interrupt them. But I need to be more like Jesus in this way.
When my quiet times or your quiet times are interrupted, we can still go to the quiet place of our hearts, and pray to our Father, and ask him for his help. When we are tempted to be overwhelmed with all the noise and busyness around us, we can find shelter from the storm under God’s wing, and he will keep us in perfect peace (Isa 26:3). When we can’t retreat outwardly, we can still retreat inwardly.
4. Directions for When We Get Alone.
Much like building a fire, our prayer life needs certain preconditions. When you get alone with the Lord in prayer, you should bring certain things with you.
First, take the Bible. The Bible is like wood for the fire of prayer. As you need wood in your wood-burning stove, you need the Bible in your prayers. The Bible, read and meditated upon, gives direction to our prayers. It is the revealed will of God, and so praying according to it helps us pray according to God’s will. The Bible sets our priorities in prayer, showing us what we ought to pray about and for. I find that if I try to go into prayer without much meditation on Scripture that day, my prayers are cold and fizzle out pretty quickly. We need fresh logs on the fire.
Second, take a hymnbook (or however you get songs). Singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, worshipping God, is a wonderful additive to prayer times. It is like diesel-soaked sawdust to throw into the fire, to make it blaze stronger and hotter. Good worship songs warm our hearts, raise our affections, and point us upward to our awesome Triune God. I find singing to be, if not an essential element of my quiet times, an extremely beneficial one.
Third, don’t go without the Holy Spirit. As all fires need air, our prayers need the Breath of God, the Wind of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the one who brings us into fellowship with the Father through the Son (Eph 2:18; 6:18). Zechariah 12:10 calls him the “Spirit of grace and of supplications” (KJV). He is the Spirit of adoption who comes into our hearts, enabling and prompting us to call out, “Abba Father!” And Romans 8:26-27 says that the Spirit “helps us in our weakness,” even the weaknesses of our prayers. Our spirit is willing, but our flesh is weak. So we need the help of God’s Spirit to pray. We can ask him for help understanding his Word, and then for help in going to prayer and staying in prayer. He is our Helper, whom Jesus sent when he ascended. We all have him with us and in us. If we ask for more of the Holy Spirit, our good heavenly Father will surely give him to us (Luke 11:13).
Among John Bunyan’s final words was a recognition of the blessing of the Spirit who helps us to pray. He said, “The Spirit of Prayer…is more precious than treasure of gold and silver.”2 May we know this precious treasure ourselves!
God, your loving Father is ready to hear from you. Christ Jesus, your powerful Mediator, has made access for you by his blood. The Holy Spirit promises to help you in your weakness. May you find much rich fellowship with your Triune God through prayer.