BY PASTOR GLENN PEASE
If we had as many answers to prayer as we have books on prayer the battle would be won. Unfortunately it is easier to write a book on prayer than to pray effectively. It is easier to preach a sermon on prayer than to pray. It is easier to give a lecture on prayer than to pray. It is easier to do just about anything concerning prayer than to actually pray well and wisely.
The reason this is so is because we have not taken Christ as our guide to prayer, and have tried to follow men who claim to be experts, but who have made the matter of such complexity that it is too discouraging, and we lose our motivation. If we went into a library and found a dozen volumes on how to order a hamburger, we would probably figure it is too complicated, and never brother to order one. So it is with prayer. There are books galore, and seminars, and special retreats, and so many people trying to teach us how to pray, that we automatically assume that it is in the same category with learning brain surgery and international law. So we lose hope, and just accept the role of being poor at prayer.
People who are good at saying prayers only confirm our despair. We say, come Lord Jesus be our guest, let this daily food be blest. They can give a lesson on Bible history, and give guidance to government leaders, and a challenge for world missions, all in a prayer of thanks for a hamburger. It makes the rest of us feel like we are not even really thankful for our hamburger, and also feeling like we just don't know how to pray.
The vast majority of Christians would list as one of the weaknesses of their Christian life, their prayer life. We do not spend enough time in prayer. We don't pray for enough people. We don't pray as fervently as we ought, or as persistently as we ought. There is hardly any aspect of prayer that we do as adequately as we ought. Christian guilt feelings about this make them easy targets of manipulation. They can be made to feel they need to go along with some prayer gimmicks to get back into God's favor. Maybe it's an all night prayer meeting, or some kind of prayer chain, or large group prayer service, as if the length of your prayers or the quantity of them is the key to God's reluctant heart.
All of this Jesus put into the category of paganism in Matt. 6, where He said the pagans think they will be heard because of their many words. Jesus taught that God already knows what we need, and so a short and simple prayer is all that is necessary. He never told His disciples to get a big crowd together, but said get alone in your own room and close the door. He didn't give them a manuscript of hundreds of prayers when they asked Him to teach them to pray. He gave them a single prayer of about 50 words as an example.
My point is, the reason that prayer is so hard for Christians is because they have made it hard. The Bible doesn't. Jesus didn't. Christians have so complicated the simplicity of the Bible with pagan ideas, they have put a satisfying life of prayer beyond the reach of the average Christian. One Christian writer said she could visualize the millions of prayers hurtling toward God at mealtime, and so she decided to do her praying between meals when the prayer traffic was not so thick. She also got up early to get her prayer in before the heavy breakfast crowd. Of course, this is silly, but so is every aspect of prayer that implies God is not omniscient. Jesus said in Matt. 6:8, "Your father knows what you need before you ask Him."
If that is the case, then being eloquent is no big deal, for we do not have to persuade God. It is not as if we have to be intellects, and be able to speak with great logic to get through to God. Neither the quantity nor the quality of our prayers are the issue, for God already knows what we seek to communicate. This puts all God's children on the same level. So what if we can go on for a half hour with flowery words of oratory, and another can only say thank you Lord for today, give me guidance for tomorrow?
The Pharisee in the temple was no doubt better at prayer than the publican. If we took a vote among men after hearing them both pray, the Pharisee would win on both length and eloquence, but Jesus said the publican went away justified, not the Pharisee. "God be merciful to me a sinner," was his prayer, and on the cross the thief said, "Remember me when you come into your kingdom." And the father of the demonized boy prayed, "Lord I believe, help thou my unbelief." When you look at the prayers that Jesus answered in his life, you can't help but be impressed with their brevity and simplicity. They are little more than cries for help.
When the disciples were caught in the storm, and feared the ship was going down, they woke Jesus and their prayer was, "Lord, save us! We are going to drown." When Peter was going under his prayer was, "Lord, save me!" All these prayers were answered. Of course, they were emergency situations where eloquence and length are not only irrelevant, but potentially deadly. But what we want to see as we examine the prayer life of Jesus is that even the normal prayer life of the believer is to be simple and not complex. Our text reveals three simple truths about prayer that can make effective praying possible for all of us. First-
I. THE PRIORITY OF PRAYER.
Notice Mark 1:35 says Jesus got up to pray very early in the morning while it was still dark. Prayer was a priority in His day. It was the first thing on His list. Prayer was not reserved for some crisis, or great need out of the ordinary. Almost everybody prays when they come to their Gethsemane. When there is a terrible time ahead, or one faces problems that are overwhelming, then prayer becomes a priority. But for Jesus prayer was a priority when all was going well, and there was no great opposition, or huge obstacles to hurdle.
This text comes early in His ministry when people were delighted, and even His future enemies were not yet sniping at Him. Yet, Jesus made prayer a priority in His life-style. From this we need to see that prayer is not primary a tool for crisis. A hammer can be used to fight off an attacker, or to break through a wall to rescue someone from a fire. But this is not its usual function. It is usually used just to pound nails, to fix things, and to hang pictures. Prayer has its crisis value, but like all tools, prayer has its usual commonplace function as a tool of communication. We need to make prayer habitual and not situational.
Look at your relationships to people, and what you will see is that some of them are based on habitual communication, and some on situational communication. I have people I relate to once a year because we communicate through Christmas cards. There may be a crisis that leads to more communication during the year, but basically this is it-crisis or Christmas. Some of these people were at one time very close friends or relatives. There was a lot of communication, but times change. They moved, or we moved, and new relationships developed, and the old ones got pushed to the back burner. They no longer have a place of priority.
The ones that have priority are those where there is habitual communication. You talk to these people on a regular basis. There does not have to be any crisis or occasion, you just open the lines of communication, and you relate to these people. Now the point is, the degree of intimacy you experience in any relationship is determined by the priority you give to communicating with them. What happens in life is that we lose intimacy with those we love because we let communication slip from a place of priority. Husbands and wives do this all the time. It does not make them cease to love each other. But it does mean they have lost their intimacy, and it can only be restored by renewed communication.
I had a friend many years ago who was a book fanatic just like me. Every time we got together we could go on endlessly about books, authors, and ideas. Talk, talk, talk. We were the best of friends. But he moved away, and then I moved, and we just lost touch with each other for many years. I still have fond memories, and would consider him a friend, but he has no priority in my life at all, for lack of communication has ended all the intimacy we had.
This happens with people, but it also happens with our relationship to God. We drift away from God. We do not necessarily love Him less or trust Him less, but we cease to put communication with Him on the front burner. It is no longer a top priority, and the result is we lose intimacy with God. There's no longer that closeness that we call fellowship.
Every relationship of life faces this same struggle of keeping intimacy alive. In every case the only way to do this is by means of communication. That is why prayer was a priority in the life of Jesus, and why it has to be in the life of every Christian. A growing relationship to God can only take place in a life where intimacy is developed. And intimacy can only be developed by communication. You cannot get close to people who will not talk to you, and God has the same problem. If we do not spend time with God our relationship with Him will cool.
We have had neighbors we only see out in their yards a few times a year as we go walking, but we get into a good conversation and share who we are, and what we are about, and when we go away from these talks, we feel we are closer to these relative strangers than we are to relatives that we never talk too. Communication is the key to every degree of intimacy. If God is going to be a priority relationship in our lives, we need to talk with Him. Forget the idea that prayer is bringing to God a shopping list. You can ask God for all you need in a few minutes, and you can intercede for all the needs you know in a few more minutes.
The reason we often get bored with prayer is because we have such a narrow view of it. Frank Laubach said, "If your prayers are boring to you, quite likely they are boring God too." Get out of your rut where you just list your needs. I can't imagine that Jesus got up before sunrise just to say, "God bless Peter and Andrew, and James and John, and John the Baptist," and on and on through all His disciples. Jesus had a relationship to the Father. It was His most intimate relationship, for their was no one else that could understand Him and His mission. I imagine Jesus sharing with the Father, and telling of His problems, and seeking insights for solutions. I think we often forget that Jesus had to live a human life. He did not use miracle power to make all the bad things go away. He had to endure the limitations of His flesh, and cope with crowds, criticism, quarreling disciples, and a host of the same problems that plague us all. Jesus needed someone to talk to, and to think through strategy with, in order to sense the direction to go.
Thomas a Kempis says of prayer that it is, "Pondering a matter with reference to God." To think, to plan, to question, and wrestle with issues in God's presence, is all part of prayer. You are most intimate with those with whom you talk most. If prayer is not a priority than we have put God in a category like those to whom we write just once in awhile. He may be very important to us, and we acknowledge His love and influence, like we do good old uncle so and so, but we only communicate situationally and not habitually. The result is loss of intimacy.
We need to see this truth. You can love someone greatly, and yet lose intimacy with them. I have relatives and old friends I love dearly, but I have no intimacy with them, because I have little to no communication with them. This can happen with God as well. God never moves away, but we do. We let life change our priorities and let God be pushed to the side lines. We do not change our theology, and we love Him as much as ever, but we lose intimacy. This is a simple but vital issue in prayer. We need to make prayer a priority to maintain intimacy with God, as Jesus did. Secondly, look at-
II. THE PRIVACY OF PRAYER.
Notice, Jesus left the house and went out to a solitary place to pray. I am not aware of a single occasion when Jesus called for a public prayer meeting. He condemned the Pharisees who prayed in public to be seen, and He told His disciples to pray in secret in their closet. By both precept and practice, Jesus made it clear, prayer is primarily a private matter.
Again, we go back to intimacy. You can talk to someone you love in public, but you can never be as intimate as you can in private. When you are alone you can develop a deeper intimacy. This is even true with people you just meet. I counsel every once in awhile with people who are strangers. If we are in the presence of others, the conversation stays general, but when we come apart and are alone, we get to the real issues that are bothering them. Privacy and intimacy go hand in hand.
So it is with our relationship to God. It has to be private to be effective in developing intimacy. Jesus could not pray in public, "Father help me to figure out how to cool off these sons of thunder, James and John, and help me to teach Peter not to be so quick to judge and take foolish actions before he thinks things through." There were all kinds of issues that Jesus had to talk to the Father about in private. It is not that public prayer is not legitimate. It is, but it is not intimate. It is not that aspect of prayer that enables us to get closer to God.
Too often I think Christians worry about their ability to pray in public. I don't think the Bible gives any support to this kind of anxiety about public prayer. In 28 chapters of the book of Acts we do not have a single prayer of any apostle recorded. It is the public record of their deeds and not of their private devotions. We know they were men of prayer, but we do not have great examples of their prayers. Why not? Because prayer is a private matter between them and God. Like their master, they did not do a lot of praying in public, but developed a private prayer life where they talked with, and shared intimately with their heavenly Father. We are told that they prayed, but not what they prayed. So it is with our Lord, and for most of the prayers of His life. They are private, and known only to God.
Don't worry about public prayer, for it is a minor issue compared to the importance of private prayer. This is where you develop intimacy with God. It is in private sharing with God we can unload our burdens, and tell God of the struggles we have with temptation, resentment, hostility, envy, or any other evil that plagues us. We can be one hundred per cent of who we really are, and still be loved in spite of it. A friend is one who knows you, and still loves you. God can be our greatest friend if we enter into the closet, and open ourselves to Him. Total exposure to God leads to the ultimate in intimacy. You can share with God things you can't share with anyone else. In the privacy of prayer we reach the level of infinite intimacy where we are totally known and totally loved. Thirdly, look at-
III. THE PURPOSE OF PRAYER.
Look closely at this text. Peter and the others found Jesus, and told Him, "everyone is looking for you!" The implication is, what are you doing off here praying in secret when the needs of the world are clamoring to be met? People need the Lord, was there song to the Lord. So come on they are saying, let's go meet the needs. But Jesus replies in verse 38, "Let's go somewhere else-to the nearby villages so I can preach there also. That is why I have come."
This response reveals a profound purpose that Jesus had in prayer. There was no end to the needs to be met. There was always more to do than anyone could do. He needed to get away from the crowds, and the constant needs they had, for the purpose of sensing God's guidance.
In a world where nobody can do everything, we need to get alone with God in prayer to sense which things to let go, and which things to go for. Jesus needed this same guidance. Without prayer you just keep responding to the needs that present themselves. Jesus did not do that. He knew when to move on to give new people a chance to respond to His preaching, and feel the power of His healing ministry. The purpose of prayer was to stay in touch with God, and develop an intimacy that enabled Him to know the will of God for His life. Prayer is private, but it has a great public impact, for it enables you to know where God wants you to go to accomplish His purpose. People in villages all over Galilee experienced a public impact because of the private prayer of Jesus.
This clearly implies that Jesus did not just ask God for things. He listened and thought though the point of His being in history, and what was the wisest strategy to follow to fulfill that purpose. The purpose of prayer is to help us get the guidance of God that we need to fulfill His purpose.
We often think prayer is to get God to do our will. Do this for me, and after that do this and this and this. The whole idea of power in prayer which is so prevalent revolves around the idea of getting your will accomplished by the power of God. Prayer power can make you rich, popular, and healthy. All things can be wrought by prayer, and we are urged to get our hands in the grab bag of things available to us if we only pray right.
It is not that there is no truth in this, it is just that it is so perverted that it seems like a primary purpose of prayer is to figure out how to make God your servant. Whereas the prayer life of Jesus teaches us the purpose is to help us become more effective servants of God. There is considerable difference in these two approaches. In the one we follow the Savior, and in the other we follow the self.
Jesus could have done anything and gone anywhere, and He would have touched people, but He did not come just to do His own thing. He came to do the will of the Father, and the Father wanted Him to cover the villages of Galilee. Jesus prayed in order to be sensitive to the leading of His Father. He had to get away from the voices calling Him for help to hear the Father's voice. The bottom line is, prayer is to help us know the will of God. In a world of clamoring voices, how can we do what is right and best? The only way we can even be close is to listen to God. We need to make listening to Him a priority so that we can get our other priorities of life in order.
If Jesus would have gone by the pressure of the events of life as they unfolded, He would have followed Peter and the other disciples to the people who were looking for Him. But Jesus had a more intimate awareness of God's will, and He thus, led Peter and the others to minister to people who were not looking for Him because they did not know He even existed. Because of prayer Jesus heard, not the voices, but the Voice of God that gave Him directions as to the purpose He was to pursue. Prayer helped Jesus stay on the track God laid out for Him, and not get sidetracked by pursuing the good at the expense of the best.
Jesus could have done all sorts of good without prayer, and so can we. We do not need God's guidance to do good. We are moral agents in the world, and can chose to do good in many ways. So the non-praying Christian can still do much good in this world for the kingdom of God, and to meet human need. Prayerlessness does not mean nothing gets done. It means there is a loss of intimacy, and what does not get done is the best. The good gets done, but not the best, because we are not in touch with God's will. We do not know His will intimately enough to choose it. Jesus had an intimacy with the Father that enabled Him to do God's perfect will. He had that intimacy because He was a man of prayer. That is the purpose of prayer, and that is why it is to be a priority, and that is why it is to be private, for it all comes down to intimacy.
The person you talk to most, and the person you talk to most privately, and the person you talk to in order to know their will most completely, is the person with whom you have the greatest intimacy, and that person for Jesus was God. To live the best Christian life that we can we need to be like Jesus in practicing prayer as intimate communication.