Chapter 1: Finding God
In This Chapter
A Quick Dip2
Lonely place/wilderness/mountain: The Greek word translated in these passages as lonely place in Mark 1 and wilderness in Luke 5 refers to an abandoned, empty, and desolate location. The mountain (Luke 6) is a similar place of natural solitude.
Retired: This Greek word implies an intentional movement away from bustle and busyness and toward a refuge of rest and peace. Furthermore, to retire means to set aside a significant amount of time to spend in this place. Retiring is not a pit stop, a quick commercial break, nor a nod to God. To retire — to go away and then return rested and refreshed — requires more than a few moments out of one’s day.
Pray/prayed: In these texts, the Greek verb translated as pray or prayed is a generic word that gives us no indication of what Jesus prayed during this private time. However, we can glean three important insights from this word: First, this particular Greek word implies a regular, disciplined, habitual act of prayer; it is not a random nor sporadic action. Second, it includes the absolute certainty that one’s prayer is heard. Not one shred of doubt can be found in this term. And finally, praying includes the idea of worship; it involves the act of not only drawing near to God, but of also basking in the intimate warmth of his glorious presence.3
- At what time of day do you regularly pray? Where do you pray? What is normally going on around you while you are praying?
- Do you think that the place you pray has any effect on the quality of your prayer time? Why do you think Jesus sought out lonely places when he prayed?
- Jesus seemed to welcome his personal time of solitary prayer. How does Jesus’ attitude towards private prayer compare with your own?
- How much time do you most often spend in prayer? How much of that prayer time do you spend talking to God? How much time do you spend listening to God?
- What usually happens after you pray?
- If you go into your prayer time with questions, do you customarily come away with answers, or do you often feel, “I still don’t know what to do”? Are you absolutely certain that your prayers are heard, or do you harbor doubts about your prayer’s reception?
Prayer was important to Jesus. Throughout the Gospels, we often find him engaged in prayer. Unfortunately, only a few passages record Jesus’ actual words of prayer. This is because Jesus most often withdrew to pray alone. Yet this private custom has much to teach us about prayer.
A Solitary Place
The first thing that jumps out at me from these four recorded passages of Scripture is Jesus’ search for a solitary place to pray. Like us, Jesus led a very busy life filled with people, demands, decisions, work to be done, and goals to be accomplished. There was hustle and bustle, there was noise and confusion, there was running here and there. Jesus was busy traveling, teaching, debating, settling disputes, healing, preaching, and visiting. Someone always wanted something from Jesus — usually something miraculous.
Jesus did not slip prayer time into his busy schedule. He did not use travel time as prayer time. He did not pray while he was completing another task, like preparing for bed, grabbing a bite to eat, or making a table for someone. Prayer was not a haphazard happening during the day. It was always intentional, and it was never combined with any other activity. Most often when Jesus prayed, he removed himself physically from everything that could interrupt or distract him. He dismissed the crowds and the disciples then sought out empty, lonely places of seclusion and silence. There he turned his attention exclusively to God.
What about you and me? Do we pray “on the run,” or do we withdraw from our families, friends, jobs, and recreational activities? Do we remove ourselves physically to a place where there are no distractions: no phone, no beeper, no TV, no radio, no “Mom!” or “Dad!” or “Hey, you!”? Do we go to an empty, quiet place and turn our attention exclusively to God? If not, how would our prayer lives change by finding such a place?
I took up this challenge for myself and went out to a field behind my house to pray. Sometimes I would find a spot and sit down, but usually I would just wander around the field. It was so quiet out there — quiet enough to hear the voice of God. Then I thought, “I’ll start taking the dogs with me. They can get some exercise while I pray.” So the next morning the dogs went too — chasing mice, wandering off, falling into the creek. Upon returning, I realized that I had not prayed at all. There was a great difference in being truly alone with God. Even the dogs were a distraction.
Where can you find a solitary place in your life? A quiet room in the early morning, a bench outdoors at break time, a wooded park at lunchtime, a porch swing when you get home, a chair beneath a tree in the evening? Isn’t there someplace where you can find enough silence to hear the voice of God?
A Cautionary Aside
Originally I had entitled the previous section “Solitude,” and I wrote that Jesus searched for solitude when he prayed. But that was absolutely incorrect. Jesus did not go out into the wilderness or up on the mountain to be by himself. Jesus was not seeking isolation when he removed himself from the crowds. Jesus did not want to be alone; he wanted to be with God. Jesus was not trying to get away from someone or something; Jesus was trying to get closer to someone. Jesus was seeking a relationship, Jesus was seeking a connection, Jesus was seeking intimacy and communion with God. A relationship — not solitude. That is what prayer is all about.
But be forewarned. When you go to your solitary place, do not fall into the trap of thinking that just because you have been in that isolated place you have been with God. There are times when I have found that, even without the dogs, I have returned from my solitary wanderings in solitude. Unlike Jesus, I did not make that connection, I did not call on God, I did not pray. I had found a solitary place, but I had not found God. Why not? Because although I had removed life’s external distractions when I went to the field alone, I had not removed the internal distractions racing through my mind. Nor had I opened my heart and connected with God’s Spirit. It is like this: I can spend all day in my solitary office tapping on my computer keyboard, but I will not accomplish anything until I first plug my computer into its power source and turn on the machine.
So prayer is about more than finding a solitary place. It is about finding God. It is about plugging into my power source. When I make that connection — when I find that relationship — then I, like Jesus, will not return alone.
Before and After
As I watch Jesus retreat up the mountain or out into the wilderness, I wonder: What happened out there? What did Jesus say? How did God respond? What difference did that moment of prayer make in Jesus’ life? Some clues for solving this mystery can be found by examining what happened before and after each of Jesus’ private prayers. Carefully study Table 1 below, which outlines the events surrounding our four passages of Scripture that describe Jesus’ solitary prayers. Compare Jesus’ activities before and after he prayed. What were some reasons Jesus may have had for turning to God in prayer at these times? What are some things that happened as a result of Jesus’ prayers?
Table 1: Events Surrounding Jesus’ Private Prayers
before Jesus prayed
after Jesus prayed
Jesus heals a crowd then feeds 5000 people. The disciples leave in a boat; Jesus dismisses the crowd and goes up a mountain to pray.
Jesus walks on water to the disciples’ boat. Peter attempts to walk to Jesus but starts to sink when he becomes afraid. Jesus saves Peter.
Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law and all who are sick or possessed. Jesus goes to a lonely place to pray.
Jesus tells his followers that he must go and preach in the next towns because this is why he has come. He preaches and casts out demons throughout Galilee.
Jesus heals a man with leprosy. A multitude gathers to hear Jesus and to be healed. Jesus goes into the wilderness to pray.
Jesus forgives a paralyzed man’s sins. The Pharisees consider this blasphemy; Jesus then heals the man. Jesus calls Levi, a tax collector. The Pharisees murmur against Jesus’ eating and drinking with sinners.
The disciples pluck grain on the Sabbath and the Pharisees rebuke them. Jesus heals a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath and the scribes and Pharisees are “filled with fury.” Jesus prays all night on a mountain.
Jesus chooses the Twelve apostles. Jesus teaches a great multitude and has the power to heal all who are sick, troubled, or possessed.
One of the most important insights I have learned from studying these passages is that when Jesus prays, he seeks and receives guidance from God. Look at what happens when he returns from prayer. In Mark 1, he returns with a new preaching itinerary. In Luke 6, he returns with a list of the chosen Twelve. In Luke 5, he returns with a sharp turn in the direction of his ministry — Jesus begins to challenge the religious leaders and ignites a conflict that will eventually lead to his death. When Jesus goes out to pray at these critical junctures in his ministry, he must say something like this, “Here I am, Father. I have completed what you have asked me to do. Now, what do you want me to do next?” And God obviously tells him exactly what to do because Jesus returns from prayer with a confidence and a sense of purpose that, frankly, leave me quite envious.
I remember the spring of my final year in college. Graduation was approaching, and I had received several job offers in different towns. I did not know which job to choose, so I decided to spend a few days of spring break alone at the beach and pray about my decision. When I returned, I had narrowed my choices down to two of the offers. I finally decided to accept the job nearest my hometown, but I clearly remember praying: “Lord, if this isn’t the right job for me, do something to keep it from going through.” Since then, I have had numerous friends ask me to pray similar prayers for them. I call these trial-and-error prayers. Like me, a friend will be facing a tough decision about a new career, a new home, where to send her children to school, whether or not to go on a mission trip, or some other dilemma. She will make a decision and then ask me to pray for God to intervene if her choice is not in God’s will.
Jesus never prays like this. Jesus does not come out of the wilderness and tell his followers, “I hope this is where we are supposed to go next.” Neither does Jesus come down from the mountain with a selection of fifteen possible apostles and then ask his friends to pray for God to somehow intervene and work the list down to twelve. Jesus never returns with a doubtful decision nor does he use trial-and-error in order to discover God’s will. When Jesus returns from prayer, he does not have possibilities. He has answers. He knows exactly what he is supposed to do. There is no doubt, no further wondering, no turning to others for additional advice or prayer. He knows.
How? How does he know?
He knows because he listens. And he listens until he hears.
If you or I are unsure about a decision over which we have prayed, if we do not feel a sense of confidence and peace about our choice, then we have not prayed long enough. I have come to realize that many times when I pray, I “disconnect” too early. I mean, I would never call up a friend, describe a problem, ask his advice, and then hang up before he answers. I always wait and listen to what he has to say. Yet too often in my prayers, I tell God about the dilemmas in my life and then say “Amen” before God even has a chance to respond. Not Jesus. Even if it takes all night, he will not leave his solitary place until he has heard God’s answer.
If we probe a bit deeper into these passages, we will discover one additional factor which undergirds Jesus’ confidence in his prayers: Jesus obviously knows God’s voice. Sometimes when I think I hear God telling me what to do, I’ll wonder, “Is that God? Or is it the Tempter disguised as God?” In John 10:4, Jesus tells us, “[The Shepherd] goes before [the sheep] and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” If you or I are struggling in our prayer time because we cannot hear God speaking to us or because we are unsure about whether it is really God whom we hear, then maybe we need to ask ourselves this simple question: can you and I readily recognize our Shepherd’s voice? Maybe we can’t. Maybe, in all honesty, we have not been spending enough time with our Shepherd. Or if we have taken some time to be with him, maybe we spent too much of that time talking and not enough of that time listening.
Sometimes, however, we will experience occasions when we have taken the time to earnestly listen for God’s voice, yet in our hearts we still feel unsettled. We feel uneasy about the guidance we are receiving. If you ever feel this way, let me pass on a piece of advice given by numerous writers, pastors, and teachers. One accurate way to discern whether you are hearing the voice of God or the voice of “someone else” is to test what you’ve heard against the written Word of God. If what you believe to be God’s directions contradict what Jesus teaches in Scripture, then those directions did not come from God. God’s Word is Truth, and that Truth — by definition — cannot change. Not even to fit your special circumstances.
This one fact rests in concrete: if you and I truly want to learn to pray like Jesus — if we want to receive God’s guidance, but we cannot clearly discern God’s voice — then the first thing we must do is to resolve this critical issue in our prayer lives. How can we do this? By spending more time listening to God speak to us through his written Word. Just look at Jesus, who commanded an intimate knowledge of Scripture. Recognizing God’s voice was never a problem for him
Let us return to Table 1. At the beginning of these passages, we find Jesus busy performing miracles. Jesus heals many who are sick or possessed: Simon’s mother-in-law, a man with leprosy, a man with a withered hand. In Matthew, miraculous healings are followed by the feeding of the 5000. Performing such feats must have drained Jesus of his energy. At these times, Jesus chooses not to rest but to pray. Jesus then returns from prayer with renewed strength. No, Jesus receives more than just strength in his prayer time; he receives power. He returns with the power to perform even greater miracles than he has already accomplished: miracles like forgiving a man’s sins, walking on water, or casting out demons. For Jesus, prayer is the place to find strength and power, to recharge one’s spiritual batteries, even — why not? — to seize the energy and authority needed to stop a violent storm right in its tracks!
Prayer should be a place where we receive a fresh supply of God’s strength and power as well. What do you do when you become tired and frazzled? When life gets too busy, when there are too many demands, when you feel burned out at work, at home, or even at church? Maybe you go to bed early but are so stressed that you toss and turn all night and wake up feeling more exhausted than you did the night before. Maybe you take a vacation but get so frustrated by delays, minor emergencies, and short tempers that you would have felt more rested if you had stayed at home. Or maybe you feel so overwhelmed that you just decide to quit — your community or church work, your job, or maybe even your marriage. Yet none of these solutions provide what you need: a refreshing fountain of strength, an invigorating surge of power. Maybe Jesus had a better solution.
The next time you feel overwhelmed, go away. Not to rest or to run away, but to pray. Go to your solitary place and pour out your heart, pour out your weariness and fatigue. But don’t stop there. As a wise grandmother often told her grandson, “Don’t pray about your problem, pray through your problem.” Yes, keep praying. Pray all night if you must. Pray until you hear God’s voice. Pray until you feel a spark of peace. Pray until you feel the burden lift. Pray until you feel that connection with God’s Spirit of power — a Spirit that never slumbers, that is always ready to supply your every need. Then your own spirit will be lifted up and you, like Jesus, can return with not just renewed strength, but with all the power you will need to face whatever task God sets before you to do next.
The final insight I have gleaned from these passages points to Jesus’ courage. As we noted earlier, the course which God plots for Jesus is difficult and dangerous. We see this particularly in Luke’s passages. Before Jesus leaves to pray in Luke 5, things are going well for him. His miracles are drawing large crowds; even the religious leaders are coming out to hear him. Then after returning from prayer, Jesus intentionally provokes the religious establishment. He claims to be able to forgive sins; he eats with sinners and tax collectors; he himself even breaks the pharisaical regulation by healing on the Sabbath! Jesus fans the flames and the religious leaders grow hot with fury.
It is not easy to do unpopular things, especially when you have become so popular. And picking fights with powerful people can be downright deadly. When Jesus walks out of the wilderness in Luke 5, he knows that the fun is over and the real work is about to begin. Yet Jesus approaches this new task with great courage. He does not flinch when the Pharisees murmur nor when the scribes become upset. Twice in Luke 9 (vs. 18-27, 29-45) he returns from prayer and calmly predicts his own agonizing death. Yes, in the wilderness, Jesus not only finds the guidance and power he needs to perform God’s work, but he finds the courage he needs as well.
There are so many times when I need courage in my life. Sometimes I need courage to stand up for what is right. Sometimes I need courage to attempt a new challenge or a new task. Sometimes I need courage to admit that I am wrong and to ask for forgiveness. Sometimes I need courage to share my faith with a stranger — or a friend. Sometimes I need courage in the face of illness or hardship. Sometimes I need courage in the face of conflict. What about you?
Guidance, power, and courage — these are the gifts which Jesus received when he went out to pray. What gifts do you need? Right now, at this very moment in your life, are you facing an important decision? Could God’s guidance help you discern the right path to choose? Or are there struggles weighing you down? Are you battling illness or depression? Could you use a dose of God’s power and strength? Are you frightened or insecure? Is there something you feel that God is calling you to do, but you are hesitant to make that commitment? How would your life change if you received God’s gift of courage?
God knows our needs. That is why Jesus invites us to follow him and right now — today — to get up and go out to find our own solitary place, to discover these same gifts that he received every time he went out and prayed. Will you accept the invitation? Will you find a place free from distractions and take the time to open your heart to God? Will you seek a deeper relationship? And will you stay connected long enough to hear your Shepherd’s voice? Even if you can only manage it once a week, take the step. Find a place. Open your heart. Don’t hesitate; start today. Believe me, soon you will wonder how you ever survived without your place, without your time, without your growing relationship with God.
Chapter 1 Footnotes
1 Other private prayers of Jesus can be found in Mark 6:46 (after feeding the multitude), Luke 3:21 (at his baptism), 9:18 (after feeding the multitude), 9:28 (at the transfiguration), and 11:1 (before teaching the Lord’s Prayer).
2 The original Greek/Hebrew/Aramaic words referred to in this section are listed in the Appendix, found in the free PDF download.
3 H. Greeven, TDNT 2:807-808.