United States National Park officials welcome 250 million people to their treasured parks each year. Most visitors are day trippers, coming to look and run. In 1983, the average time spent for all forty-eight national parks was four and one-half hours. For Isle Royale it was four days, perhaps due to remoteness. But, Yosemite or Sequoia, Yellowstone or Glacier National Park in four and one-half hours? To so heatedly race in and out of these stunning temples of granite offers no time to pause, let alone stop and look, listen and smell the delights of the mountains, rivers and high country.
What's even worse is that our conversations with God often fare no better. We rush in and out, with a McDonald's drive through spirituality, often missing God's majesty in our haste to go nowhere.
Now this is in part due to our weak comprehension of the beauty and goodness of God. In a culture driven insatiably by this-worldly infatuation, our knowledge of God is scarce, questionable, and threatens prayer with extinction. This is why when Jesus taught on prayer-since he had to deal with the same problems we face today-he expended considerable energy explaining the good nature of God.
So our prayer times often look more like a pit stop on race day at Daytona than a purposeful and delightful stroll through a beautiful park on a spring afternoon. But we did not learn this from Christ. Not a chance! Our Model was different. He was constantly in prayer and for long periods of time. Such was his devotion to prayer and his relationship with the Father that the writer of Hebrews-probably pulling on early church tradition concerning Christ's earthly ministry, including Gethsemane-was prompted to say that "During his earthly life [Jesus] offered both requests and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death and he was heard because of his reverent submission" (Heb 5:7).
Let's take a brief look at Hebrews 5:7. The stress in this wonderful passage is generally on the humanity of Christ, that he was truly human-like we are, yet without sin-and needed communion with the Father. He prayed constantly and seriously with great concentration, knowledge of God, and sincerity. The term "supplications" is more intense than "requests" and has been associated by some NT scholars with the ancient practice of holding out an olive branch as a sign of appeal.1 Further, the reference to "loud cries and tears" expresses anguish, struggle, and a deep sense of humble submission to the will of God. Rabbinic tradition suggests that "there are three kinds of prayers, each loftier than the preceding: prayer, crying, and tears. Prayer is made in silence: crying with raised voice; but tears overcome all things (`there is no door through which tears do not pass')."2 Finally, though Gethsemane is an excellent example of Hebrews 5:7, the writer says that this kind of prayer characterized the days of Jesus' life. Our Lord prayed seriously and without ceasing; he loved his Father deeply.
So where are we in this regard? Do we pray constantly? Seriously? With great strength? Or, do we pray once in a while, with passing interest and no real conviction? If this is the case, do not turn inward with a "woe is me" attitude. This will accomplish nothing. Instead, begin to ask God to teach you to pray and expect that you can learn much. This is one of the problems in our churches. We really don't believe that prayer is something that has to be learned through practice, trial, and error. If this were not the case-i.e., that prayer did not need to be learned-then Jesus would never have had to teach his disciples to pray and critique wrong-headed prayer (Matthew 6:5-15)? While it is true that even children can pray, and should, it is equally untrue that adults should remain childish in regard to their prayers. There is a difference between that which is simple and that which is simplistic-and nave. The latter is no virtue.
I leave you with one example which illustrates the "ongoingness" of Jesus' prayer life. The story is in John 11. Martha and Mary informed Jesus that their brother, Lazarus-a person whom Jesus loved-was sick. Now Lazarus was in Bethany in Judea and Jesus was probably across the Jordan to the east when the news reached him. But, instead of departing immediately to attend to his friend, he spent two more days where he was (11:1-6). Then he journeyed to be with his friend.
As Jesus came close to the village of Bethany, he met Martha and eventually Mary. He comforted both of them because Lazarus had died and was buried four days earlier. Jesus himself was deeply moved and wept (11:35). He then went to the tomb where they had laid Lazarus and asked that the stone be moved away. After the stone had been taken away, Jesus looked up to heaven and uttered a most amazing prayer. The part that interests me here is:
"Father, I thank you that you have listened to me" (John 11:41).
The point I wish to make is that nowhere in the text does it say that Jesus had been praying. When, therefore, did God listen to him? If it were a general reference to his prayer life in the past, we would expect to see the word "always" inserted here: "Father, I thank you that you have always listened to me."3 But this is not the case. The context suggests, on the other hand, that from the moment he had heard about it, he had been offering prayer for his friend Lazarus, and for all the people involved, namely, his disciples and friends.4 We may logically infer, then, that his prayers regarding this issue were constant and perhaps silent as he traveled from across the Jordan to Bethany. The fact that he knew when Lazarus died (11:11),5 apart it would seem, from any human means, makes this more tenable. Further, his confidence that God wanted to raise Lazarus from the dead was most likely developed through prayer and communion with God (11:14-15, 23, 40). In any case, the point is that he was praying continuously and as such he provides an excellent model for us. Jesus did not succumb to a drive-through mentality; he was in no rush to skate past God's mountains, rivers, and high country.
1 Donald Guthrie, Hebrews, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, ed. Leon Morris, vol. 15 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 129.
2 Leon Morris, "Hebrews," in The Expositor's Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 12 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 49.
3 The fact that it is in the next phrase does not change the thesis advanced here since there it is used with a pluperfect tense verb, i.e., "I knew," whereas the first phrase is in the aorist tense.
4 The whole event is orchestrated to develop the faith of the disciples (11:14-15) as well as Mary and Martha (11:17-37).
5 All he knew up to that point in the text is the report of the illness. There was no mention that Lazarus was dead.