This lesson was recorded July 24, 2019, and starts at 31:15 in the video below. It was only after this lesson that I realized I’d need way more time to cover the subject in depth. So now, it serves as an introduction to our new series: “Ancient Words.”
Several years ago, I remember talking with two friends about our greatest spiritual struggles. When my turn came, I didn’t hesitate to answer: I struggle to pray. I found it hard to speak to Someone I couldn’t see, or to speak from the heart, or to even know what to say or when. And until a few years ago, I couldn’t really say I had improved. Maybe you’ve found yourself in the same boat.
So where do we begin? One of the simplest ways I’ve found to think through such questions is the simple and well-worn phrase, What Would Jesus Do? (You may even still have your bracelet!) But I want us to take it one step further, asking a slightly different question: What Did Jesus Do? In other words, if we look to the example of Christ, what lessons can we learn from how he prayed?
In the Gospel of Luke, we find this same approach adopted by the apostles: “Now it came to pass, as He was praying in a certain place, when He ceased, that one of His disciples said to Him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples’” (Lk 11:1 NKJV). And Jesus did; even giving them an early form of what came to be known as the Lord’s Prayer or the Model Prayer (11:2-4). We’ll get to that a little later, but first, let’s focus on some principles of prayer from Jesus’ own prayer life.
When we look at the role of prayer in the life of Jesus, the first thing we notice is that he prayed habitually. When we think of the word “habit,” we usually think of bad things, but habits can be good too (1Co 15:33; Lk 4:16). And one of Jesus’ habits was to pray: “So He Himself often withdrew into the wilderness and prayed” (Lk 5:16). The custom was so strong, that Judas knew exactly where to find Jesus on the night he betrayed him—he knew the Lord would be praying (Lk 22:39; Jn 18:2).
So how often are we talking about? Well, that’s the second thing Christ teaches us. To make something a holy habit and a way of life you have to make it a priority, so Jesus prayed early and often. “Now in the morning, having risen a long while before daylight, He went out and departed to a solitary place; and there He prayed” (Mk 1:35). Before he did anything else that day, before anything else could get in the way, before anyone could find him (and they did; 1:36-37), Jesus set aside time to pray. But this was not the only time; he also “went out to the mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God” (Lk 6:12). Before daylight and all night. For Jesus, prayer wasn’t just something he did, it was something he sought opportunities for each day.
But he didn’t always pray alone. When the opportunity arose, Jesus prayed with others. And, boy, did it make a difference! On one such occasion, after praying, Jesus asks the disciples who he is (Lk 9:18-20). Peter’s answer still amazes: He is “The Christ of God.” Another time, just a week later, the Lord “took Peter, John, and James and went up on the mountain to pray,” and there they witnessed Jesus not only praying, but transformed into all his heavenly glory, talking with Moses and Elijah (9:28-30). For Jesus, times of prayer became opportunities for inviting the disciples into the really good news that he is the Messiah.
We also find that the Lord prayed passionately. In his last moments with his disciples before his arrest, he prays, “Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done” (Lk 22:42). What always strikes me here is not the angel who then comes to strengthen him, nor even his sweat, “like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (22:43-44). It’s actually what Mark tells us: “Again He went away and prayed, and spoke the same words” (Mk 14:39). Read that again: our Lord Jesus Christ—the One who spoke the world into existence, the One who speaks on every page of Scripture, the Word who became flesh—was praying so intensely, so passionately, that in that moment he ran out of words. All he could do was repeat himself. And for the first time… ever, his Father turned his face away.
Which brings us to our final point from Christ’s own example: he not only prayed to God, he prayed with God. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminds his disciples of this point. He says, Don’t get caught up in how long you pray or how many words you use, “For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him” (Mt 6:7-8). Don’t forget who is really working when you pray: your Father. Not just “my Father,” Jesus says, but yours and mine. When we pray, we speak to our Father, Jesus prays with us, and the Spirit comes alongside us to help (Jn 14:12-18). When we pray like Jesus, we use his own words to bring glory to God, and God in turn fulfills our joy (Jn 15:7-8; 16:24). Don’t treat prayer as a duty, or a good work; treat it as an opportunity to commune with our holy and triune God.
So how do we put all that together? How do we start the holy habit of daily prayer? How do we follow in the steps of Jesus? For now focus on this one thing, the same thing Jesus gave to his disciples: learn the Lord’s Prayer (Mt 6:9-13 N/KJV) and use it as an introduction or outline as you pray each day. If you already read Scripture each day, use the Lord’s words to pray through that passage. If you’re not quite there yet, think of other ways to turn your heart from the mundane to the holy, like praying though your newspaper, your bulletin, or even your newsfeed. Make prayer a priority, pray passionately about what concerns you most in the world, and remember with whom you pray: “For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him.”