Prayer: Learning From the Master
Nobody knows more about prayer than Jesus. He often prayed during his earthly ministry, and he still to this day intercedes, mediates, and advocates for his saints when they pray (Heb 4:14-16; 7:25; 1 John 2:1).
Also, Jesus is the master teacher. He's the one on whom Christians should have their eyes fixed as they run the race of faith (Heb 12:2). There's a lot about prayer we can learn from Jesus. While most of the time when we think about learning prayer from Jesus we might think about the model prayer (Matt 6:9-13), the model prayer isn't the exhaustive source of Jesus' teaching on prayer. Here are a few lessons we can learn about prayer from the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.
Seek the Opportunity to Pray
Jesus teaches us that there is no such thing as an inconvenient time to pray. Prayer requires no special posture or ritual but can be done whenever it is needed. This is why Paul was able to command Christians to pray without ceasing (1 Thess 5:17). But Jesus teaches us more than the fact that we can pray always, he teaches us that we should carve out time to devote to prayer.
On at least five occasions, it is recorded in the Gospels that Jesus goes off on his own to pray (Mark 1:35; 6:46; Matt 14:23; Luke 5:16; 6:12). Luke 5:16 makes it seem as if it was his practice to regularly go on his own to pray: “But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray.” Sometimes, Jesus needed to get away from the crowds—and even his disciples—and spend time with the Father alone. The same is likely true for us.
In a culture where we are expected to instantly reply to all communication, social network as much as possible, and take every opportunity to increase our social currency, Jesus shows us the importance of being alone. Time alone with God is a formative spiritual discipline that is worth carving into our busy lives.
Hallow God in Prayer
The idea of “hallowing” is foreign to our iconoclastic time, but the idea of revering God properly permeates the Old and New Testaments. The presence of God is too sacred to be lightheartedly traipsed into. Thus, when Jesus taught his disciples to pray, the model petition begins, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name” (Matt 6:9).
When Jesus prayed the high priestly prayer, Jesus addressed God as “Holy Father” and “Righteous Father” (John 17:11, 25). Prayer should come from a heart that recognizes God for who he is and reveres him deeply. That is not to say that we cannot pray with boldness or that we have to maintain some sort of distant rigidity when we pray to God. (After all, he’s given us the Spirit of adoption as sons by whom we cry to God, “Abba! Father!” Rom 8:15). But, the fact that Jesus taught his disciples to begin their prayer by revering God does signify that we should approach God in a way that recognizes his holiness and awesomeness.
Approach God with Humility
Going along with approaching God with reverence is the concept of approaching God with humility. Arrogance refuses to revere God, but humility approaches God recognizing the vast chasm fixed between sinful man and a holy God. A chasm that only Christ can bridge.
Jesus illustrated the importance of humility before God with the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee:
Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted. (Luke 18:10-14 ESV)
The context tells us that Jesus told this parable to those who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” (Luke 18:9). While the parable as a whole teaches us a truth about the importance of humility in general, it is worth noting that Jesus chose the backdrop of prayer to add substance to this parable.
There is perhaps no other context that better demonstrates the humility of one’s heart than prayer. Nothing exposes the heart of man more fully than how he approaches God. True humility naturally spills into how one approaches God. When we approach God with humility, because we are humble, we can go to our house justified.
Many of the great prayers throughout the history of God’s people emphasize the greatness of the Lord and the humility of the petitioner. For one example, take the instance of Daniel’s prayer in Dan 9. Daniel begins his prayer by turning his face to the Lord, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes (Dan 9:3). The posture and the content of the prayer demonstrate Daniel’s reverence and humility. Daniel addresses God as “O Lord, the great and awesome God” (Dan 9:4) but refers to himself and his people as sinners who have done wrong, acted wickedly, and rebelled (Dan 9:5). Daniel’s recognition of the chasm between a holy God and sinful man is highlighted in Dan 9:7 when he proclaims, “to you, O Lord belongs righteousness, but to us open shame.” Daniel demonstrates what Jesus teaches: in prayer, humility and reverence should meet. Prayer is not a time to boast, but a time to beg.
Expect Good Things From Prayer
Why pray if we do not expect God to respond to our petitions? If God is unable to fulfill what we ask him, or unwilling to give us good things, prayer becomes an exercise in futility. Still, while we may believe that God answers prayer, we often are too timid to expect to receive what we have asked of him. It is easy to employ a type of cosmic cynicism as a defense technique to protect our faith. If I never expect to receive what I ask of God, then I will never be let down when my petition goes unfulfilled. If we do not expect God to give us what we ask, then we do not have to wrestle with the doubt that comes when God seemingly withholds that for which we beg.
Jesus teaches us another way. Affronting the cynicism to which we sometimes cling for the sake of our own comfort, Jesus tells his disciples, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened” (Matt 7:7-8; cf. Mark 11:24).
Sometimes we forget that God is a good Father who cares deeply for us and wants to give us good things. I do not mean this in the prosperity gospel, get-rich-quick with God’s help sort of way. Notice Jesus’ point about God giving good things to those who ask:
Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matt 7:9-11)
It can be easy to forget that God wants to give good gifts to his children (cf. Luke 12:32). This realization, however, has a drastic impact on our prayer life. We should not approach God as a cold, distant, and indifferent overlord. We should run to him as a warm, close, loving Father. When we do this, the tone and content of our petitions take a more confident, and even radical turn.
Pray with Boldness and Persistence
Jesus’ teaching about persistence and boldness in prayer likewise exposes how confident and seemingly radical Christians can be when they pray. In Luke's Gospel account, after Jesus gives the model prayer (Luke 11:2-4), he gives a parable about a man waking up his friend at midnight to ask for three loaves of bread (Luke 11:5-8). The point of the parable is that, even though the man is inconvenienced by his friend, he will still give his friend what he asks for because of his friend's impudence (audacity). In the same way, Jesus, tells his followers, "ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you" (Luke 11:9).
Jesus' point is that boldness in prayer pays off. Writer and theologian Tim Keller, probably thinking about this parable of Jesus, summarized it this way:
Sometimes, Christians might think that praying for the same thing over and over again is an example of the "vain repetitions" that Jesus urged his followers to avoid (Matt 6:7). That isn't true. Paul pleaded with the Lord about the same thing until he got an answer (2 Cor 12:8). There is a difference. The Gentiles "heap up empty phrases" because they think that "they will be heard for their many words" (Matt 6:7). Christians persistently pray for the same thing because they know they are heard, not in order to be heard.
What is the Christian's source of boldness and persistence in prayer? Followers of Jesus can pray with boldness and persistence, not because of who they are, but because of what Christ has done for them. Jesus Christ is our great high priest who enables us to draw near to the throne of grace with boldness to receive mercy and find grace to help in times of need (Heb 4:14-16). Jesus is still, as you read this, interceding with God the Father on behalf of his saints (Heb 7:25). This heavenly reality should supercharge our prayer lives.
In All Things, Submit to God’s Will
Even when we seek the time to pray, reverence God in prayer, humbly pray, expect good things, and pray with boldness and persistence, not all our petitions will be answered the way we would choose.
In those times when God's answer to our prayers is not what we would like, Jesus teaches his followers to submit to the will of God. In the garden scene, moments before his betrayal, Jesus prayed while sweat drops like blood fell from his forehead. Pressed like the olives from which the garden of Gethsemane got its name, Jesus begged his Father to let the cup of suffering pass from him (Matt 26:35-42). But, each time, the Faithful Son modified his request by exclaiming, "nevertheless, your will be done."
Paul likewise pled with God for his suffering to cease while plagued by a thorn in the flesh (2 Cor 12:8). The Lord's response was not what Paul had hoped. Instead of taking the pain away, God responds, "my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor 12:9). Paul accepted the Lord's will and learned to not only be content in his weakness but to boast in it (2 Cor 12:9-10).
Some may think that submitting to the will of the Lord should erase our confidence in prayer, not bolster it. After all, what's the point of petitioning God if his will overrides mine? But, in these moments we forget that 1) prayer can impact the will of God (2 Kgs 20:5-6), and 2) God's will is always better than our own. Even if God's answer to our prayer is not what we want, we can rest in the fact that the Father's will is being done.
Jesus truly is the master teacher. This title applies to prayer as well as it does to all the other spiritual disciplines and facets of discipleship. During this time of uncertainty and suffering, Christians should strive to learn from Jesus about prayer, and be steadfast in it.