“And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone.” (Matthew 14:23)
Echoing the Old Testament, the New Testament sets forth the principle that the Word of God and prayer are central (Acts 6:6; 1 Ti 4:5). God’s Word is His means by which He accomplishes His wondrous and powerful acts, and prayer is our means whereby we in faith ask for God’s blessings, speaking back to Him His Word. Preaching from Sunday’s Gospel, likely most pastors—rightly so—will magnify the miraculous and instructive account of Jesus and Peter. Let us not however overlook the importance of Jesus approaching His Father alone in prayer. As demonstrated by the perfect Man, both God’s Word and prayer—though having different functions—are equally valuable in the life of God’s children.
Though God’s children should indeed gather together for prayer, which is an integral part of worship, yet praying alone to God is magnified throughout Scripture. Moses interceded for Israel for forty days in prayer (Deut 9:25). When Saul rebelled, Samuel cried to the Lord all night (1 Sam 15:11). Daniel prayed daily in his closed room, facing Jerusalem (Dan 6:10). The Apostle Peter, apparently as a habit, went to the housetop to pray (Acts 10:9). Praying in solitude is so important, our Lord spoke of it in His Sermon on the Mount: But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you (Mt 6:6). Perhaps more important than this encouragement to pray alone is Jesus’ constant example to do so. As Jesus began His ministry Mark records, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed (1:35). Luke speaks of this habit of Jesus: But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray (5:16). Luke 6:12: In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God. Note Gethsemane where Jesus, preparing to suffer horribly for mankind’s salvation, withdrew from the Apostles to pray (22:41). In each Gethsemane account we find the stupendous struggle of Jesus, and His prayerful submission to the Father’s will. No doubt this perfect man prayed the Psalms in Gethsemane as he faced his excruciating destiny, bearing the sins, sicknesses and sorrows of mankind.
Why pray alone, when even at times no other human realizes you are doing it? As the Spirit brings people to faith through the Word, so Christians will personally employ that faith by coming to God alone in prayer. Praying alone is perhaps the ultimate expression of a Christian’s faith. No faithless person will pray alone to God. When we are alone with God, for what shall we pray? Certainly for anything. However praying to God is something that “improves” as one’s faith matures. Thus both John the Baptist’s followers and our Lord’s Apostles asked that they be taught how to pray (Luke 11:1). In response to their request the Apostles received the foundational prayer—the Lord’s Prayer. As we come to God in solitary prayer, the Lord’s Prayer is certainly foundational; likewise the Psalms are ready-made prayers for God’s people to read, to learn and to pray. Often (Like Moses, Samuel, Daniel and Jesus) we are driven to our knees in prayer when we face the trials of this life. Many of the Psalms are cries of lament to God, and are appropriately prayed on such occasions (e.g. 13, 130, 70). Some wise theologians have said that when we mature in prayer we are consciously echoing God’s Word back to Him. Thus we may mediate on a verse such as, Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path (Ps 119:105). Appropriately we would be moved to pray, “Father, my path today is a dark path. Help me to consider your word that the path of this life and the path to eternal life be made bright through your Son who is the very heart of your Word.” We can similarly pray the Catechism, which is a condensation of the basics of God’s Word. Though even the most mature Christian offers “imperfect” prayers, yet the blood of Jesus and the intercession of the Holy Spirit make them perfect before our Father.