A Prayer Life or a Life that Prays?
So how is your prayer life?
Imagine the disciples asking Jesus that question. It would suggest that Jesus had a life apart from prayer. That there was his prayer life and then the rest of his life.
For many of us prayer can seem like a duty. Ken Shigematsu writes:
I don’t know if it’s because I am of Japanese descent or because I am a pastor – or both – but my life has been largely driven by a sense of duty. For many years, my prayer life also felt dutiful. As I prayed through lists of people and specific requests, I would often find myself checking my watch to see if I had clocked my time. Rather than talking with God or listening for his voice, I was essentially talking at God. Those times of prayer often felt burdensome and wearying.
Did Jesus treat prayer as a “spiritual practice?” At one level, he probably chose to organize his life around certain times and kinds of prayer. (It seems that he liked the early morning hours [e.g. Mark 1:35].) On the other hand, asking Jesus about his prayer life is probably like asking him about his breathing life. “How has your breathing been going lately?” “It’s been going great! I try to be really intentional about it. My goal is to never stop breathing!”
What’s making me think about all this is the Holy Week story of Jesus cursing the fig tree (Mark 11:12-25) . In Mark’s gospel it’s sandwiched around the cleansing of the temple, which implies there's a connection between the two events. One connection is prayer.
“Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations!’”
“For this reason I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”
Jesus reminds the Jewish leaders that the temple was supposed to be a house of prayer for all nations. There were several courtyards in the temple, one of which was designated the Court of the Gentiles. (The word Gentiles is the Hebrew word for nations.) The animal-buying and money-changing were happening in the Court of the Gentiles. That made it pretty difficult for foreigners to pray.
Before going to the temple Jesus curses a fig tree because it didn’t have any fruit on it, which is pretty strange because Mark tells us it wasn’t the season for figs. So there is obviously more going on than Jesus being hungry. Later, when Jesus and his disciples walk by the fig tree, the disciples notice that it’s withered, dead. They’re super impressed, but then Jesus points out what they could do if they had the faith. They could tell “this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea’” and it would be done for them.
So what is “this” mountain? I’m pretty sure it’s Jerusalem. Now Jerusalem was on more of a hill than a mountain, but because of its significance, it’s usually referred to as a mountain in the Bible. In other words, Jesus isn’t talking about just any mountain, but this mountain, the mountain Jerusalem sits on. It’s like Jesus is saying, “You think it’s a big deal that I cursed this fig tree and it withered? If you had enough faith you could curse this whole mountain (and its city) and it would be thrown into the sea.” Not that any of us should actually think about doing it. I'm sure the disciples would have winced at the thought. Jesus often uses strange metaphors to make a point.
So what’s his point? I can think of a couple.
Jesus curses the fig tree as a kind of prophetic action to illustrate Jerusalem’s spiritual condition. It’s accursed, withered. It should be bearing fruit by now. It may not technically be the season for figs, but if Messiah Jesus has come, then it’s always the season for bearing fruit. First there was the ministry of John the Baptist. Jesus himself has been planting spiritual seeds for three years. And still no fruit. The only actual fruit is that they’re about to kill him. What that means is that their beautiful temple is just a “robbers' den,” i.e. a place where people rob and hide from God and from themselves. It’s all just leaves. Jerusalem and the entire nation is living under a curse of its own making, a curse that will eventually lead to Jerusalem being overrun and destroyed by its enemies – the natural result of their own actions, their own rebellion against Rome.
What Jesus is about to do is give them a way out – by taking the curse upon himself and allowing Rome to destroy him instead. After his death and resurrection his followers will proclaim the good news that even though the Jewish people have committed the unconscionable and seemingly unforgivable act of being complicit in their Messiah's crucifixion, there's still hope: “Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).
What kind of fruit is Jesus looking for? Apparently, one of the big fruits is our prayer lives. Throughout the Bible mountains are special places for prayer. There is the physical sense that one is closer to God on a mountain. When Jesus talks about telling a mountain to go into the sea, he may be suggesting, “You don’t need a mountain to pray. You don’t even need to go to Jerusalem. You can pray where you are, as you are.” Later the apostle Paul will say that we are God’s temple, a temple of the Holy Spirit. Because we’re in Christ and we pray in Jesus’ name and on behalf of his kingdom, we have privileged access to the triune God 24/7.
Jesus wants his life of prayer to be our life of prayer. We’re his disciples, and that’s one of main things he wants to teach us. And we can expect this life of prayer to not only be immediate but effective: “For this reason I tell you, whatever you pray and ask for, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” (Subject to God’s approval, of course.)
But there are certain conditions for this kind of prayer life, and they again have to do with that mountain. What did Jerusalem represent for Jesus at this point in his journey? It could have been a source of immense anger as well as anxiety. He should have been full of rage at the Jewish leaders for rejecting him and at the people for their fickleness and complicity. He should have been paralyzed by anxiety about what he now knew was to be his fate – execution by crucifixion.
Jesus says, “Have faith in God.” Faith that God is in control; faith that God is listening to our every word, our every prayer; faith that the Father wants to have the same connection with us that he had with his Son when Jesus walked on this earth. Faith that causes our life of prayer to mature from merely being a duty or spiritual discipline or SOS, to being a way of life, a way to live, how we live.
But there's something else that's likely to keep us from praying like Jesus: those little and big hurts that tend to fester. So Jesus says, “Whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven will also forgive your sins.” So much for cursing. The authority we might have directed toward cursing people can now be used to powerfully bless them.
And if we have difficulty letting go of our anxiety and anger, we can pray about that as well.
Or maybe it's the other way around – when we’re living a life of prayer, it’s hard to stay anxious or angry.
So what would we rather have – a prayer life or a life that prays?