The Early Prayer
Francis Bourdillon, 1881
"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
When the Son of God became man — He took upon Him our nature in all its parts, except its sinfulness. As man He had needs to be supplied, bodily weakness to be strengthened, and sorrows under which He stood in need of comfort. When we consider this, we are not surprised to find Him praying. We know that He often prayed. On some occasions the very words He used are told to us. On other occasions, we only know that He prayed. But this is quite certain — that prayer was His constant habit.
Jesus is our example. We are not only to look to Him as our Savior, who by His death made atonement for our sins — but we are also to follow Him in His life as our pattern. We are to strive to be like Him. We ought to love — as He loved, to be kind — as He was kind, and holy — as He was holy. Like Him, we are to forgive those who have injured us, and to go about doing good. And here we have another point in which to follow Him: we ought to take Him as our example in praying.
The vast difference between Him and us, does but make His example in this point the more forcible. For if He prayed, who had no sins to be forgiven — then how should we pray, over whom not a day passes that does not leave behind it some stain of sin which nothing but His precious blood can wash away, and who in our utter weakness, stand in constant need of guidance, grace, and strength!
Let us see, therefore, what our Lord's example here teaches us. We may notice three things about His prayer:
1. It was private prayer;
2. It was morning prayer; and
3. It was prayer in spite of hindrances.
In all these respects, we may learn from His example.
1. This was private prayer.
"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." On most other occasions when He wished to be apart from the multitude, He took some of His disciples as His companions — but here He chose to be quite alone. While they were still sleeping — He went out by Himself to pray.
In the same way, we ought every day to have some time alone with God. Our Lord taught us this when He said, "When you pray, go into your room shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret." He here teaches us the same, by His example. There, with no human eye upon us, we can pray freely and tell to our Father our most secret feelings, and confess to Him our inmost faults and lay before Him every trouble and anxiety.
Nothing can supply the place of private prayer. Public worship and family prayer have each their special uses, but they must not be made an excuse for the neglect of prayer alone with God. Never omit this. Let it be a daily habit. The soul cannot prosper without secret prayer. Growing cold or careless in secret prayer, will surely lead to a general declension in spiritual things.
2. This prayer of our Lord was morning prayer.It was thus that He began the day. Nay, His prayer was before daybreak. "Very early in the morning, while it was still dark." Thus should we begin every day — giving our freshest and earliest thoughts to God, and seeking His help before the difficulties of the day begin. The mercies of the night should not be allowed to fade away from the mind without thanksgiving, or to be lost in the new mercies which every day brings. Thanksgiving and prayer should be the first work of each day.
We know not what a day may bring forth. Every day brings with it its own duties, difficulties, and temptations. Oftentimes most unexpected things arise. The post brings some news by which our mind is filled with anxiety. Someone comes to see us, whose visit changes the whole tone of our feelings. A sudden trial of temper, an unlooked-for temptation to sin — may arise at any moment. It often happens that, when we have risen all bright and cheerful, before an hour has gone by, something has happened which has ruffled our spirit and cast a cloud over our day. It is well to be prepared for all, by prayer. He who has passed the first portion of the day alone with God, comes down to the cares and duties of life like a soldier going into battle with his armor on; while he who begins the day without prayer, is like one defenseless and unarmed.
If we do not secure the first of the day for prayer — then we may find no time for it until the day is gone. Other things will fill the mind; the bustle of the world will be around us; and even if time for prayer is not lacking — we shall have lost the still morning hour, when the thoughts are most fresh and clear. Before the world fills the heart — be with God in secret prayer.
3. It was prayer in spite of hindrances.Have you hindrances? So had our blessed Lord. But He prayed in spite of hindrances. He led a busy life. Not busy, as the lives of many are — in the pursuit of gain or of any selfish object. He was busy in doing good. Just before the text we read, "That evening at sundown they brought to Him all who were sick or oppressed by demons. And the whole city was gathered together at the door. And He healed many who were sick various diseases, and cast out many demons." It was thus that a day of toil was closed.
Nor was this an unusual day with Him. Such was His life — an active, laborious life; a life spent much in public. He was generally surrounded by a crowd, and His disciples were almost always with Him. As far as we can judge, He had little time to Himself. After such a day, He must have wanted rest. Sleep was welcome to our Lord, when weary in body and weary in mind — as welcome as it is to us. He needed rest, but He wanted prayer more. So He did not give many hours to sleep, but long before daybreak, He arose to pray.
How does this shame our sloth! How ready are we to make excuses to ourselves for a hurried morning prayer, or perhaps for no prayer at all! How small a hindrance is allowed to stand in the way!
Not that there are not real hindrances with some. Those of us who live an easy and regular life, have indeed no hindrance that may not easily be overcome. But it is not so with all. The laboring man, the poor mother of a large young family, the servant in a busy household — indeed, all who have to rise early and to work hard, have a real hindrance — yet not a hindrance which may not be overcome. Jesus overcame the hindrances that lay in His way — let His followers set themselves to do the same.
You may lead a busy life — yet you must find time to pray. Your daily work may begin early — yet let your secret prayer be earlier still. If you cannot find a place to be alone before you leave your home — yet let your heart be alone with God. Give Him your first thoughts. Do not fear to kneel down before others. Perhaps as you go to your work, you may find a further time for solitary prayer. The busy mother may secure a few quiet moments before her household work begins. The servant may rise a few minutes earlier to secure the most precious time of all the day. He who has ordered our lot — has placed none of us in such circumstances that we cannot pray. It is His will that we should pray, and He will help us to overcome every hindrance. We may pray — if only we sincerely desire to pray.
Yes, it is the will that is chiefly lacking. It is not strange that it should be so, with those who have never known the worth of prayer, and whose prayers have never been anything better than a heartless form. But it is strange that they who have experienced the comfort and blessing of prayer — should yet be slothful in praying.
Yet so it is. Often have we prayed and received a gracious answer; often have we been comforted, helped, strengthened in answer to prayer — yet still how backward we are to pray! How much we need to be stirred up and quickened in the work!
As you love your Savior and desire His grace and blessing — then follow His example in prayer. If you would have your days peaceful and happy — then begin each day with prayer. If you would meet the temptations and difficulties of each day aright, if you would not sink under its burden of cares, if you would maintain throughout the day a spiritual frame and enjoy holy and happy thoughts — then let prayer be your earliest work. Whatever other times and ways of prayer you may have — pray in private, pray in the morning, and let no hindrance keep you from it!