“And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray” (Mark 6:46).
Our blessed Savior recognized that time with God is necessary for time spent with others. Prayer powered the inner and outer life of our Lord Jesus.
St. Paul admonishes the Church to pray without ceasing. The Apostle’s admonition indeed guides us in the necessity of prayer. We learn in the Bible that there is public prayer, liturgical prayer (that is, composed prayers said in worship), extemporaneous prayer, and so forth. But we must also see that Jesus models the priority and the place of prayer in the believer’s life. Our Lord Jesus Christ prioritized solitude in prayer. The passage we have cited above is evidence of this kind of prayer. The Word of God was written for our benefit. So we must pose the question:
What are the benefits to the believer in solitude in prayer?
There are many. Indeed, there are more benefits than can be listed. Moreover, there are more benefits than we can comprehend. However, we may extract from Jesus’ model at least three advantages for solitude in prayer.
1. Solitude in prayer eliminates distraction in spirit.
I once read the musings of a psychologist who had made a lifetime study of the matter of “distractions.“ This psychologist summed up the totality of his research with this simple observation: “There is no such thing as a distraction. There is only the choice of attention.”
Now, the doctor’s assertion might be either a hyperbolic or exaggerated way of stating his observation, but I tend to agree with him. My own pastoral experience is that we choose to turn away from one thing to observe another. Attention is mostly a choice (Of course, there is a name for that: it is “a distraction!” So, there is a bit of circular reasoning with the psychologists saying! But we get the point).
The passage in Mark 6 makes it very clear that Jesus had expended great attention on others. Jesus focused on His disciples, on the crowds of needy human beings. His concentration of mind and energy on these people was deliberate and necessary. But it was also required for Him to go away to a quiet place and to be alone with his Father. Jesus Christ lived a life in which He was always “there.” Remember the rich young ruler and the remarkable description that John Mark gives?
“And Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him . . .” (Mark 10:21a ESV).
The force of this revealing text is that Jesus looked through the rich young ruler. He saw a soul that He brought into being. He could not help but love this one that He created. It is then that Jesus spoke. How very extraordinary. But Jesus always “looked” like that. Whether looking through a human soul or looking up to His Heavenly Father, Jesus was never absent. He was always fully “present.”
Jesus demonstrates to us the essential spiritual virtue of undistracted gaze upon God.
“One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple” (Psalm 27:4 ESV).
We do many things. We give attention to our spouses, our children, our work, and, increasingly, our entertainment. “Madison Avenue” (“Madmen”) and Hollywood, not to mention 24-hour-news-cycle-cable personalities, all compete for our undivided attention. In our world multi-tasking is to an expected part of one’s life. Skipping vacations, much less a mid-morning break for tea or coffee, with light conversation, is de rigueur. How much time are we devoting to a total focus upon God? The truth is we will become spiritually sick if we do not experience solitude with God. Living life at the Mach-1 carries a high price. We who choose (most are deluded) to follow the folly of Icarus, son of the Daedalus, the master craftsman. Daedalus created wings for Icarus to fly and leave Crete. Thus, Icarus’ father warned him to go neither too low nor too high. If Icarus flew too low, the beautiful Mediterranean sea would become a deadly dark enemy as the feathers of the wings would absorb the sea water, plunging him into the fathomless deep. If the son of Daedalus flew too high, the sun would melt the wax ending his flight and his life with the same catastrophic scenario. But the thrill of flight and the new found freedom caused Icarus to disregard the word of his father. Freedom to fly became hubris to fail. Icarus flew too close to the sun, and he plunged into the Sea and drowned.
Hubris is a slow-cooking poison. When ingested it bring a reckless euphoria that supposes you can fly too close to the sun and return for another day. You can’t. The fast-paced, multi-tasking, live-life-in-a-second is a lie that leads to Icarus’ fate.
Jesus’ model of solitude in prayer is like a lone, petite sparrow, still flying her simple route, as the mighty wings of Icarus burn on their way down to destruction.
The one-in-seven principle of the Sabbath remains a dominant and necessary ruling motif for flourishing human life. It is a commandment with physical, spiritual, and even cultural blessings. To violate the fourth Commandment is to bring unnecessary pain into our own lives. God will not be mocked. We will reap what we sow.
So, “go quickly to God in private prayer” the preacher admonishes. But how will you do it? Why will you do it? The answer begins not with scheduling, yet another project to be filled out in your OmniFocus software. The answer starts with love. If you know there is hidden honey awaiting you at the end of the pathway; then you will figure out a way to make the journey. If there are riches promised if you climb a mountain, then you will not need a course on time management. You will prioritize the mountain.
The alluring and exquisite assurance given to us about solitude with God is that you experience a visceral knowledge of God that transforms every area of your life.
“Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth” (Psalm 46:10).
And that, my beloved, is a blessing that you do not want to miss. To know the love of God existentially, not merely intellectually, transforms us, and makes us human in a way that God intended.
2. Solitude in prayer encourages renewal of spirit.
In the passage, Mark 6:46, our savior steals away from the crowds where there have been many acts of supernatural ministry. It is at this point that Jesus seeks solitude. What do we learn from this?
Consider the case of the woman with the issue of blood described in each of the synoptic Gospels. Mark (Peter describing the incident to Mark?) relates the event in a way that reveals another color in the endless prism of colors of the life and Person of Jesus.
“And Jesus, perceiving in himself that power had gone out from him, immediately turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my garments?'”
We deduce that there is vestigial spiritual power in the Person of Jesus. More power existed before the faithful woman reached out and touched the hem of His garment. Is this His divine nature or His human nature? Does Almighty God “feel” the loss of energy? The answer is self-evident. God is God. The Great Being is irreducible. Thus, this is the human nature of Christ on display for our instruction. Ministry costs us. To give to another human being out of a limited reservoir (we must be careful to speak about limits with Jesus, but in His humanity, He possessed the same earthly limits as us). How much more do we need solitude in prayer because of spiritual “leakage?” The daily cares of life not only take a toll on the body and mind, but such day-to-day ordinary concerns of life deplete strength from the spirit. In addition to these common affairs of life, each of us goes through seasons of trial and tribulation. The loss of a loved one may signal this winter season of life. Such a challenging season may be the loss of a job. Good things also require spiritual energy. Preparing for marriage, welcoming a new child, or landing a new position at your work all require spiritual “adrenaline.” And we only have so much. We must replenish the reservoir.
Time alone with God is required for us to bear the burdens and enter the joys. Another way to say this is that we are incomplete, unable to function adequately as human beings without time alone with our Creator. We are spiritual beings and we require a connection to our heavenly Father. Solitude in prayer brings this renewal of spirit. He is our “all in all.”
3. Solitude in prayer ensures that our private devotion fuels our public witness.
The careful reader of the New Testament will discover that Jesus regularly takes time away from public ministry for private devotion. He demonstrates that our private worship shapes our public ministry.
Many preachers can go for quite a while in delivering sermons, counseling, and providing leadership to a parish without having received the anointing of the Holy Spirit in private devotion. And you may also be able to walk on burning embers; for an instant. But eventually, the lack of solitude in prayer will begin to show. It often reveals itself in unbalanced time given to illustrations or stories in the sermon. The “unexamined life” (Augustine) may also show up in a disconnected sermon illustration. Sermon stories that float free in the sanctuary are untethered and dangerous objects. These aimless entities can either crash into the sermon or lead the listener away from God’s Word, doing precisely opposite of what a sermon illustration should do. And there are other ways the hollow preacher will pervert his practice. A pastor with an empty spiritual water tank can move through Biblical assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of the human soul in pastoral counseling with a textbook alacrity. But he is placing himself, and a counselee in a dangerous place. When the anointing of the Holy Spirit—that power that comes from solitude in prayer—is absent, the ability to both see and apply Scriptural remedy is lost. There are some other signs that I can detect. Such observation is not prescient, clairvoyant, or “super spiritual” at all. This insight is available to me not only from years of the practice of a Christian shepherd and an educator but, sadly, the reality of my propensity for waywardness. How did Eugene Peterson put it, “Busy-ness is the bane of the pastoral ministry.” How very true. How very Biblical.
One of the most amazing dynamics in the human experience is that we are often unaware of what other people see in us. There are things that we know about ourselves. There are things that we do not know about ourselves. People also see in us that which we see. They see things we cannot see. And they might even see things that are not there because they look out of the faulty lens of their own experience. This dynamic relational incongruity continues throughout our lives. The discrepancy between the private and the public self and the inability to know ourselves and others is the frequent acerbic source of what some call “communication static.” Left to petrify the incongruity becomes a permanent part of our lives. So much of life is lived, then, with “false faces.” Solitude in prayer eliminates communication static. A life lived “in Christ,” to use Paul’s favorite phrase, is to know the gentle but effective restoration process that reveals the original “portrait.” Time alone with our Creator reveals the unknown places, cultivates the public persona, and brings congruous—harmonious—relationships between self and others.
Time alone with God helps us to know ourselves better. This is not a sinful act of narcissism. Rather, it is a holy introspection. To know ourselves is to pray like King David, “Search me and know me and see if there is any wicked way within me.”
The greatest benefit of solitude with God transcends our spiritual development. To be alone with God is, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “is to love God for God‘s own sake.“ What a remarkable way of stating a purity of love! To come to that place of loving God for God’s own sake is to ascend the spiritual stairs into heaven. Such a relationship towards our Creator approaches the soul-stimulating place of supreme love. And to climb to that new height of spiritual living brings amazingly positive results in living. The rarified air in such a supreme love induces new growth unattainable at lower altitudes. To “love God for God’s own sake” will access the foggy heights of a green Mount Zion to grow new spiritual fruit. Fruit is the product of life. To bear more fruit is to be growing in spiritual vigor. To bear more fruit is to feed the hungry in your midst. To produce more of the blessings of the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit in your life will feed thousands upon thousands. For solitude with God in prayer leaves a legacy of faith that will transcend generations.
Do you not yet desire the salubrious benefits of solitude with God? Then, make your first appointment with God now. For if you taste and see you will return to the secret place of joy unspeakable.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.