“And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, He departed and went out to a desolate place, and there He prayed” (Mark 1:35).
Several years ago I heard a parable of sorts which has often returned to mind in my subsequent ruminations on the practice of prayer. I can no longer recall the source of the apocryphal anecdote (feel free to identify yourself!), but I thought it well worth sharing with you.
The story is told of two Christian gentlemen who were fond of smoking the occasional evening cigar together (as indeed many sorts of gentlemen are wont to do). On one such occasion, a question arose among the two gentlemen about whether it would be biblically permissible for them to smoke and to pray at the same time. Coming to no firm conclusion on the matter, each of them decided to write a letter to the pastor of their local church for guidance.1 When the gentlemen received their responses from the pastor, they were surprised to find that his verdicts seemed to differ between the two letters; and they then discovered that their original queries to the pastor had not been quite the same. To the gentleman who asked, “Is it lawful for me to pray while I smoke?” the pastor had replied, “Certainly.” Meanwhile, to the other gentleman’s question, “Is it lawful for me to smoke while I pray?” the pastor had replied, “Surely not.”
The pastor, of course, was right: You can pray while smoking, but you can’t smoke while praying.
First of all, we know that there is no time or place or legitimate activity in which we are barred from praying to our Father in Jesus’ name. Of course, there may sometimes be personal factors that hinder our prayers;2 but what external circumstance could ever sever our immediate and intimate access to God’s throne of grace through our eternal Intercessor inside us and our unceasing Advocate at His right hand? In practical terms, this means that we are able (and invited) to converse with God in the midst of our ordinary activities. So yes, feel free to pray while you are driving your car, or washing your dishes, or walking your dog, or smoking a cigar on the veranda in the evening light.
I don’t think many of us really have difficulty with this first idea. It’s the second one that’s the doozy: Your car-driving, dish-washing, dog-walking, cigar-smoking prayers are not enough on their own. We must make time to pray, and just to pray.
In the Gospel of Luke, we are given a clear picture of the role of prayer in Jesus’ early ministry:
“And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And He ate nothing during those days” (Luke 4:1-2). [Hint: When biblical figures fasted, they prayed.]
“But now even more the report about Him went abroad, and great crowds gathered to hear Him and to be healed of their infirmities. But He would withdraw to desolate places and pray” (Luke 5:16).
“In these days He went out to the mountain to pray, and all night He continued in prayer to God. And when day came, He called His disciples and chose from them twelve, whom He named apostles” (Luke 6:12-13).
Jesus did not just pray as He went about His ordinary mundane activities—though I might be surprised if He never did so at all. No, Jesus set aside time—lots of time—for undivided, undistracted, undisturbed prayer. He went out to the desolate places, where nothing and no one would compete for His mental energies or subtract from His focus on the Father. And rather than cutting back on prayer time when His stress or busyness increased, it would appear that He devoted Himself to it all the more in these instances. Such was the practice of our perfect Exemplar. And what does He command His disciples? “When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father Who is in secret” (Matt 6:6).
Of course, Jesus is talking specifically about leaving our human audiences behind. But should we not also leave our knitting needles, our running shoes, and our cigars behind? Can a man love God with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength without ever giving Him his full attention? How often do we use such activities as feeble smokescreens, trying to shield our hearts from being fully exposed before the unmitigated light and heat of this consuming fire?
Make time to pray, and just to pray. Step into the greenhouse of God’s intimate presence, close the door behind you, and get ready to sweat. That’s where faithful Christians are grown.
1 Admittedly, the original tale featured two smoking monks and a cardinal rather than two smoking gentlemen and a pastor; but I suppose that wouldn’t feel very organic, relevant, or incarnational to most readers. I can only hope the illustration is still authentic enough for you guys.
2 Biblical examples of inhibiting personal factors include wrongful requests or motivations (James 4:3), impenitence for sin (Psalm 66:18), unbelief (James 1:6-7), public vanity (Matthew 6:5), empty redundancy (Matthew 6:7), poor treatment of one’s spouse (1 Peter 3:7), etc.