At one point or another every Christian struggles with prayer. What is the point of prayer? What are we doing in prayer? Why should I pray? Why do we pray in worship? Why do we pray opening and closing prayers? Prayer is frequently a challenge for many. Looking at Jesus regarding prayer can be very helpful for us in considering our prayer life. But I want to look at prayer in a different way in this lesson because being told that we need to pray is not particularly helpful to me. I know that I need to pray. I believe that we all know that we need to pray. But I need help with that.
It is particularly eye-catching that the Gospel of Mark, while teaching on the amazing authority of Jesus has what may be perceived as an interruption to that point in Mark 1:35. Notice what the scripture says.
And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. (Mark 1:35 ESV)
This passage is even more notable when we see that only Mark records that Jesus is praying at this moment in his ministry (cf. Matthew 4:23-25; Luke 4:42-44). Why is Jesus praying? Why does Jesus need to pray? What does this teach us about prayer?
The Picture of Jesus
Let us begin by considering what Jesus is doing by going off alone to pray. The Gospel of Mark is picturing the very active ministry of Jesus. Jesus calls his disciples, they go to Capernaum and immediately cast out an unclean spirit, which spreads the fame of Jesus throughout the surrounding region of Galilee. They leave the synagogue and go to Simon Peter’s mother-in-law and Jesus heals her. Then the whole city gathers at the door, burning all who were sick or oppressed by demons. Jesus heals many who were sick with various diseases, cast out many demons, and would not even permit the unclean spirits to speak. What a day! Jesus had a very full day in Capernaum, a day that we would surely find to be extremely exhausting. But what does Jesus do? Jesus does not sleep in. Jesus does not take a day off. Jesus does not take a vacation. Jesus does not say that he has worked for today than anyone else in the history of Israel or the world. Jesus wakes up very early in the morning, while it is still dark, so that he can go and pray.
We are immediately presented with the fact that Jesus was not too busy to pray. Rather, Jesus was too busy not to pray. Prayer was critical at this moment for all that was going on in the life of Jesus. Prayer is pictured as the engine that drove the work of Jesus. Prayer is displayed to be central to Jesus’ ministry. This is often the opposite of how we see the use of prayer. We get too busy to pray. Yet in a whirlwind of activity, Jesus creates the time to pray.
This gives the first perspective change regarding prayer. Prayer is not merely a way to get things from God. It is so easy for us to think of prayer this way. We pray when we need something. We leave God alone until we need something. Yet this passage in the life of Jesus shows us that prayer is not merely a way of getting things from God. Prayer is a way to get more of God in our lives. Prayer is the way we draw near to God. Pray is our desire to know God and have him as the center of our lives. I want us to see this idea presented in Isaiah 64.
6 We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
7 There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities.
8 But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. (Isaiah 64:6–8 ESV)
Notice that the picture is the filthiness of sin that plagues the people such that even their righteous deeds are like unclean rags. Now look at verse 7. “There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you.” The statements are parallel to each other. Calling on God’s name is the same as stirring yourself up to take hold of God. Prayer is the way we strive to take hold of God. Prayer is how we bend ourselves to be in his image, molded by his hands. In fact, prayer is a defining mark of God’s people. Listen to what Moses says to Israel and their relationship to God.
For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? (Deuteronomy 4:7 ESV)
Prayer assumes the priority of the inner life with God. Most people base their inner life on outward circumstances. People are depressed because of outward circumstances. People are anxious because of outward circumstances. People are relieved because of outward circumstances. For many, the inner life is completely based on external circumstances, defined by all that happens to them. Their inner peace is based on other people’s valuation of them, their social status, prosperity, and performance. Prayer sets our inner life to be defined by God and our peace comes from that constant connection with our Father in heaven. The goal of prayer is a real, personal connection with God. Prayer is taking hold of a deep relationship with God that we desire to have with him. Thus, prayer becomes central to all we do because we want God with us in everything.
In The Wilderness
Now I want to draw our attention back to Mark 1:35 because Mark gives us another picture. The scripture tells us that Jesus went to a desolate place to pray. The obvious picture is the great value of having time alone with God in prayer, away from life’s distractions. But there is more here. The word translated “desolate place” is the same word used earlier in Mark 1:3-4 regarding John the Baptizer being in the wilderness and in Mark 1:13 when Jesus was in the wilderness for temptation for 40 days. We have seen in our study that the wilderness is a place of testing, as it was for Israel as left Egypt to go to the promised land. The wilderness is also the place of restoration and hope because being in the wilderness meant you were going to the promised land. John was preaching the coming of the kingdom in the wilderness and people are coming to him in the wilderness. Jesus gives hope in the wilderness as he conquers Satan in victory over Satan’s attempts. There is imagery that Mark is using to describe Jesus in the wilderness for prayer. What is the picture?
Remember again the context of Mark in which this is revealed to us. Jesus is having great success. People are bringing people from all over the region of Galilee to him for healing. Jesus is healing the sick and casting out unclean spirits. Jesus is a smash hit in the area and his fame is growing exponentially. Friends, what are the most dangerous times in our lives of faith? Often it is our times of success that we forget God. This was God’s warning to Israel over and over again. Do not forget God when all the prosperity and success comes because that what we are prone to do as humans. Success in life is a dangerous time. Jesus warned about how wealth steals our hearts away from God. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter God’s kingdom. Success is a spiritually dangerous time. Success surrounds Jesus at this moment. So after a day of success where does Jesus go? He arises early in the morning and goes to the wilderness, the place of testing, renewed fellowship, and hope and prays to the Father. God stays at the center in all his success. Life is not going to run without the Lord and taking hold of him. Prayer is the priority because he fully dependent on the Father. He relied on the Father to fulfill the mission through him. It was because Jesus was always fully submissive and totally dependent that he prayed.
The Life of Prayer
So let’s bring these concepts into our prayer lives and consider what that looks like. First, we need to begin with the goal. The goal of prayer is a real, personal connection with God. Prayer is taking hold of God and drawing closer to him. No longer think of prayer as something you do when you need something. God invites us to seek him all the time, not just when we are in need. Prayer is drawing into God. This is why our worship has prayers to begin and end our services. We are coming near to God and building on our relationship with him. Prayer life suffers if all we think about prayer is a solution to problems and crises.
Second, see prayer as a help to your life to keep you from life’s pitfalls and dangers. There are so many pitfalls to faith and prayer is displayed by Jesus as a critical tool to stay with the Lord and look to him. Prayer is not a burden but the rescue ring to help us through this life. A different perspective on prayer can help us draw into in our daily lives more.
So how do we learn to pray like this? I believe one of the best and easiest things we can do is immerse ourselves in the language of the Bible. The scriptures are given for us to know God. Prayer is so that we can take hold of God and be closer to him. These two tools given to us by God can be used together for great results. I have personally found that my prayer life increases dramatically if I just pray about what I am reading in the scriptures. Use the scriptures to jump start your prayer life. Pray about what you have learned about God. Pray about what God has promised to you. Pray about what God has done for you. Pray about what you need in your life as you have learned about God and his will for you. Prayer is so much easier when we are responding to God who is talking to us through his word. Pray responsively to God and it will change everything about your prayer life.