Now it came to pass in those days that He went out to the mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God. (Luke 6:12-16)
It’s fascinating to watch how some flowers react and respond to the sun. They don’t open unless it’s shining, and their heads will turn automatically in its direction. Plants in general will grow towards the light, and a pot plant that isn’t turned regularly will end up growing in a very definite ‘lightways lean.’ What a wonderful example this is for believers, whose lives are intended to lean always to the light, to respond only to the Son, growing in Him towards the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit within.
Today’s verse highlights a critical aspect of Christ’s ministry and His example to us. It’s worth noting that this is not a ‘one off’ occurrence. There are many instances in the Gospel where Jesus withdrew to a place of solitude, sometimes alone and sometimes with some or all of His disciples. What is exceptional about these moments is that they usually precede something significant, in this case the choosing of the twelve disciples.
Thus, if we look at these instances, a pattern begins to emerge. Significant moments in the life and ministry of Christ are always preceded by moments of what we could call ‘significant prayer.’ This is particularly challenging. How many of us, honestly, can say that we have prayed through the night for each of those major decisions that face us? I’m not saying we don’t pray. We do. But isn’t it true that this is usually snatches of prayer when we have a moment to do so? And isn’t it equally true that it’s usually the asking kind of prayer, the focus on the issue at hand rather than anything else?
Herein lies the challenge. The fact is, devoting an entire night – or day for that matter – to earnest prayer involves far more than simply praying about one specific thing. To understand this, let’s look at an eight hour period – the average ‘working day.’ From a purely practical point of view, is it realistically possible to focus entirely on one single request for a full eight hours? I have no hesitation in saying no, because I realise that we’re not meant to do that.
This is not contradictory to the necessity we’ve identified to devote the time to earnest prayer. Consider for a moment a father and child. If the child simply repeated the same request over and over and over for eight hours, what would the father’s response be? In very simplistic terms, this can be used to clearly illustrate the nature of earnest prayer.
God intends these ‘set apart’ moments to be times of dedicated communion. It is a time to turn our faces to Him alone, to look to His light. It is a time to set aside the distractions of the world and to lay down our emotions, our fears and our anxieties. It is a time to meditate on God and who and what He is, to read the Word in His presence so that He can reveal His will. It is a time for repentance and cleansing. It is a time for an ‘attitude adjustment,’ and emptying of self so that we can make time and space to hear from Him and receive His guiding.
What we will find in these moments, is that God will sometimes lead us to pray for others. This may not necessarily be a distraction. It may well be that prayer for others is part of the solution for ourselves. It may be that other things are required to happen before our prayers can be answered. It may be that praying for others is part of the laying down of self – taking our focus off ourselves into a place of reliance on the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Earnest and devoted prayer is fellowship and communion with God. It’s a place of praise and thanksgiving, of worship and adoration. When we put God in His rightful place in our lives, it has the result of putting ourselves in our rightful place as well. The Bible says ‘when My people who are called by My name will humble themselves and pray.’ This may or may not include fasting, depending on the leading of the Spirit – fasting should always be obedience rather than religious ritual – but the key word is humble. It means, essentially, viewing ourselves in there by grace rather than by presumption. It means honouring God alone as the source of all provision – which includes wisdom, guidance and understanding.
Powerful, life-transforming prayer is dependent on knowing and accepting the will of God. Until we come to this place – knowing and accepting – we cannot reasonably expect our prayers to be answered. This is the fundamental purpose and power of these times of earnest prayer. It’s not so much about the answers we seek – those will come if we first seek God – but about fellowship, communion and right relationship.
In 1 Thessalonians we are reminded to ‘pray without ceasing.’ This is the daily, moment by moment place of ongoing communion with God. It is including Him in all things, acknowledging Him in every moment of our daily lives. But the times of seeking God, when our focus is on Him alone, are the times that build the foundation for the daily living. It may well be that God wants to grow us or teach us something before He can respond to a particular prayer. He may need to prepare us for what is to come. We may need to have our faith expanded or one or other sin dealt with, or even to see and understand the bigger picture.
Essentially, what we see Jesus doing is what we are expected to do. He said that Himself – ‘these things and ever greater things.’ It’s really not optional. If He saw the need to shut Himself away with God, how much greater is our need? It takes practice, and commitment and discipline, though it should never be religious ritual. Seeking God’s face should be a natural desire, one through which the Holy Spirit leads us to these moments of separation. But we must be willing to set everything aside and surrender to it, and allow God to teach and guide us.
I hear so many Christians lament the lack of answers to prayer. Perhaps it is that we seek the answer rather than He who answers. It’s not wrong to desire answers to prayer – if it was, we would not be instructed to ‘ask.’ But it’s the manner of our asking that is perhaps the problem. James says ‘you have not because you ask not, or you ask amiss.’ The question remains: Just how badly do we need the answer? Do we need it badly enough to be willing to do whatever it takes? Or do we expect God to respond to potentially life-altering prayers without being willing to have Him alter our lives in order to receive?
To receive answers to prayer we must be participants not simply recipients. Real, earnest prayer is a matter of ‘us and God’ not us to God. It is only when we make Him the focus of it that prayer becomes the transforming power He intends it to be – irrespective of what the answer may turn out to be.
Father God, teach us to pray according to Your perfect will and purposes in our lives. Help us to see where You are leading, and to respond to the guiding of Your Holy Spirit. Bring us, Lord, to the place where the prayer and the communion with You is the focus, so that we will know Your will and understand the wisdom and answers You provide.