Giving Prayer Its Proper Place

A loaded ferry was crossing a large body of water when a storm blew up. Rain pelted the upper deck; angry waves swept across the lower deck. Frightened passengers hunkered down in the cabin, fearing for their lives.

One woman asked the captain, “Whatever can we do?”

The captain answered, “We must pray.”

“Good heavens,” the woman replied, “has it come to that?”

There may be a touch of humor in the woman’s response, but to hint that prayer is only for life’s most perilous moments is to cheapen and gravely narrow it.

The Apostle Paul showed by implication how precious prayer should be at all times when he said, “In (God) we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

For Christians, where does prayer fit into the whole scheme of things? When the storms of life break upon us, is prayer our first thought or our last resort?

We look to the life of our Lord Jesus for an answer.

Jesus, recall, was God in human form. We know he limited himself in this way in order to fully experience our humanness. He was as much man as he was God, and as much God as he was man, one ancient creed declares.

At various times, the crowds favored him (John 12:12-19), and at other times they hated him with a vengeance (Luke 23:23). In all this, where did Jesus place the practice of communing with the Father in prayer?

First, we learn from the Gospel accounts that Jesus prayed in a multitude of circumstances, showing us that the Father is approachable at all times.

For example, Jesus prayed in moments of great joy: “At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, ‘I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children …’ “ (Luke 10:21). We follow his example when we have learned to turn our joys into prayers.

Jesus also turned to prayer during vexing days of ministry. One example is his private prayer on a mountainside long into the evening to renew his strength after he had performed a night-time miracle on the Lake of Galilee.

In the gospel of Matthew, 14:23-24, we are told: “After he had dismissed (the crowd) he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray.” We are also told that shortly before dawn, Jesus came down, and  walked across the surface of the lake to his disciples’ boat. For some time between the two events he was in prayer (Matthew 14:23-33).

Earlier, Jesus prayed before selecting from among his large group of followers the twelve he would assign as apostles. The process began on the mountainside (really, a large hill). As we learn in Luke 6:13, “When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles.” These were to be his inner circle of leaders, selected and set apart only after hours of prayer.

And of course he prayed on the brutal cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). And later, “Into my hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46).

For Jesus, prayer was not the last element of facing the joys and stresses of life; it was the first. The range of his prayers was sweeping and for all circumstances. And throughout all our days, whether we are joyful, distressed, or suffering, we must never let ourselves forget that.

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Photo credit: Ben Salter (via flickr.com)

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