The Priority of Prayer
“Are all the activities that scream for my attention really essential?” asks one pastor. “Am I missing the burning bush while trying to keep the lawn cut?”
Many pastors lament that too many deadlines, meetings, decisions, phone calls, and appointments rob them of their prayer times. Facing a similar dilemma, early church leaders decided, “We will devote ourselves to prayer, and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4 NASB).
What influenced these busy leaders to devote themselves to prayer? I believe it was Christ’s example of communing with God that impacted his followers to become leaders in prayer. Rather than receive more guilt in the area of prayer, pastors can find great inspiration from studying Christ’s prayer life. As we explore the examples of his practice of prayer, it becomes evident that prayer wasn’t simply a religious exercise—it was a lifestyle to him. Several prayer patterns are evident.
Prayer pattern one—the priority of prayer in his life
Luke 6:12 states, “He went off into the mountain to pray, and he continued all night in prayer to God.” In his book, Ordering Your Private World (Thomas Nelson), Gordon MacDonald says prayer was such a priority to Christ that there are more than 20 words in the New Testament to describe his prayer life. This habitual drawing aside to pray is vividly described in Luke 5:16: “…but he withdrew himself in the deserts, and prayed.” In Greek, the main words in this verse are plural. “Not one but many withdrawals, many wildernesses, many prayers,” states James Thomson in his book The Praying Christ (Tyndale).
Action Item: Admit Your Need
Even as I write this article, the Holy Spirit is convicting me of my own recent lack of prayer. There have been times when I withdrew more frequently than of late. My long hours spent in ministry tasks have sadly squeezed out my times of solitude. Christ’s example calls me away from my hectic schedule to “stealing away” and sitting quietly before him.
To make prayer a priority in our lives, we’d do well to humble ourselves and heed the words of William David Spencer and Aida Besancon Spencer from their book The Prayer Life of Jesus (University Press): “Now we can say that we are weak people, and we can say that we depend upon God for all of our sustenance; but the fact is that something deep within us is not willing to recognize it. There is something deep within that vigorously denies our dependence…Praying signals weakness and dependence. But that is the truth about me, and I am healthier for coming to grips with it.”
Prayer Pattern two—His Level of Intimacy with the Father
Clearly there always existed a security in Jesus’ approach to his Father. Jesus knew from where he came (his Father) and where he was going (back to his Father)—John 13:3. MacDonald points out this amusing oxymoron to demonstrate Jesus’ intimacy with his Father: “and it happened while he [Jesus] was praying alone, the disciples were with him” (Luke 9:18). Jesus was praying alone with people all around him! He was intimate with the Father even though in a crowd. Some of my best prayer times have occurred while I’m waiting in long lines surrounded by multitudes. Like Jesus, we can cultivate an awareness of God’s presence everywhere, at all times.
Action Item: Distinguish Prayer from Work
The struggle between prayer and “productive activity” is as old as the conflict between Mary and Martha in Luke 10. Many times prayer is a key work of our ministry. However, we must guard our prayer times from becoming just another spiritual task. I can recall times when I didn’t want to pray because it simply felt like another demand being dumped upon my overcrowded week.
We need daily times of communion with God, not for what he can do for us or our ministry, but for who he is. Try scheduling multiple times throughout the week when you quietly wait in his presence. Background worship music can enhance your ability to focus upon him. Treat all thoughts of the office as intruders. Ironically, God will accomplish more through times of intimate communion than we can through our frantic efforts.
Prayer Pattern three—the Level of Emotions in His Prayers
Hebrews 5:7 notes that Jesus “…offered up prayers and supplications with strong cryings and tears…” His emotions accompanied his prayers, and emotional experiences also drove him to prayer (Mark 7:33; John 11:41; 12:27). In contrast, our emotions often keep us from prayer instead of propelling us into God’s presence.
At Gethsemane we see the agony of Christ’s intense conflict in prayer (Luke 22:39-46). Thompson suggests his struggle wasn’t to abandon the work God had given him. He was asking if the Father’s omniscience could find another way to fulfill his will. This illustrates one of the major battles in prayer—absolute surrender to God and his purposes. Thomson continues to observe, “Let us also remember that Jesus Christ the Son of God died while praying.” His final emotional and spiritual conflict was on the cross where he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).
Even though Jesus shouted loudly in his prayers, he also manifested the contrasting expression of “shedding tears silently.” Spencer identifies the Greek word dakruo—which signifies silent weeping. “When Jesus saw Mary and others with her weeping audibly (klaio) over Lazarus’ death, Jesus in sympathy wept silently (dakruo)” (John 11:31-35). He continues to explain that the Greek work stenazo means “grief expressed by inarticulate sounds.” In Mark 7:33-34 this word is used of Jesus’ prayers. It shows the closeness of Father and Son in that words didn’t have to be articulated for effective prayer.
Action Item: Pour Out Your Soul
A couple of months ago, I began to notice that I couldn’t express my emotions to God. A definite shallowness dominated my prayers. Relief arrived when I dropped everything, slipped away, and cried out in frustration to God for help. As I intensely poured my soul out to the Lord (very loudly, I might add), a renewed sense of his reality invaded my prayers (Psalm 62:8). I’d finally become gut-level honest with my Father. I remembered afresh that honesty is where God and man meet. Jesus’ prayers never portrayed hollow rituals, but heart-to-heart encounters with the Almighty.
Prayer Pattern four—the Prevalence of Rejoicing and Thanksgiving in his Prayers
Jesus not only expressed sorrow, but he displayed a full range of emotions in his prayers, even extreme joy: “I praise you, Father” (Matthew 11:25). “Father, I thank you that you have heard me” (John 11:41). “At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, ‘I praise you, Father’ ” (Luke 10:21).
Statements of joyous confidence seem to be a frequent element throughout Christ’s prayers. Spencer goes on to say there are at least six Greek words to describe Jesus’ expression of thanksgiving to God. In John 11:41, for example, we see that Christ’s thanksgiving became a form of confessing his faith. “Father, I thank [eucharisteo] you that you heard me.” Christ’s attitude of gratefulness and rejoicing seems to be prevalent in his prayer life. Someone has said that the greatest words of faith are “thank you.” These joyful expressions of Christ were certainly rooted in his confidence and faith in God hearing his prayers.
Action Item: Conduct a Thanksgiving Inventory
In addition to consciously sprinkling more thanks and rejoicing throughout your prayers, you might find Dick Eastman’s advice helpful. He encourages people to go through their homes and conduct a thanksgiving inventory. By this he means simply thank God for everything you see. Each piece of furniture or clothing and each picture are transformed into an object of appreciation. After a few minutes of thanksgiving, prayer times become exhilarating! Pastors can cultivate the Apostle Paul’s pattern of giving thanks for the faithful servants in the church (Romans 16).
Prayer Pattern five—the Focus on Others Throughout His Intercession
Certainly Jesus did pray for wisdom and strength at times, but his focus generally wasn’t for his personal relief. Most of John 17—his longest recorded prayer—illustrates Christ’s intercession for others. His prayers for miracles and healing were focused on furthering the kingdom through power encounters and deepening people’s faith in God. Also, his private prayer times of slipping away into the wilderness were probably filled with intercession for his disciples and the “yet to be” followers.
Action Item: Get Your Mind off Yourself
If you’re like me, you have an ongoing struggle with thoughts that are generally self-absorbed. Yet our emotional well-being and joy are directly related to focusing upon others. One of the easiest and best ways to get our minds off ourselves is to choose to pray for the needs of others. What a liberation this will bring to our minds!
Like the Old Testament priest who carried the names of the 12 tribes of Israel on his breast piece (Exodus 28:9-10), pastors can carry their congregations in their hearts through prayer. The best way to pray for the church is to pray the prayers of Scripture. (Ephesians 1:15-23; 3:14-21; and Colossians 1:9-14 are especially useful.)
What does his prayer focus mean for us?
If the only begotten Son of God felt the need to pray, how much more should we? If Jesus completed his mission and ministry through consistent intercession, how much more must we? His model of making prayer a priority goes beyond something to be emulated; prayer is a necessity for Christ followers.
Christ’s intimacy with the Father indicates that prayer is to be more than a religious exercise. Prayer, as seen from Christ’s model, is highly relational. It’s first and foremost the means of knowing God.
While emotions shouldn’t dominate our prayers, his expression of a variety of emotions in prayer teaches us not to fear our emotions when we pray. We should allow prayer to flow from our hearts. Also, Christ’s sense of gratitude is an appropriate example for the Church to follow. The Spencers wrote, “…appreciation is an essential ingredient of communication with God as it is an essential ingredient of communication with humans.”
Christ’s example also teaches us to view our prayers as a vital way of partnering with God to see his purposes fulfilled in the earth. However, the fundamental issue we’re left with after examining Christ’s prayer model is this: God’s will for each of us is to be conformed to his Son. Certainly one critical area of this “conformity” would be our prayer life. May the Father give us the grace to follow his Son’s example!
Mell Winger was the national director of church relations for the Church Prayer Leaders Network and the author of Fight on your Knees.
This article “The Priority of Prayer” written by Mell Winger, was excerpted from: Smart Ministry Newsletter. www.preachingunleased.com web site. October 2010. It may be used for study & research purposes only.