The Word Among Us

January 2021 Issue

The Priority of Prayer

Jesus Wants to Guide Us

The Priority of Prayer: Jesus Wants to Guide Us

What do you think Jesus might say if a talk-show host were to ask him what his top priorities were? Maybe he would answer, “Loving people,” “Reaching out to the poor and maligned,” or “Spreading the good news about the kingdom of heaven.” They are all good answers. But what if he were asked what his number one, most important priority was? He would probably say, “Staying connected to my Father.”

Scripture repeatedly shows Jesus making prayer central to his life. Mark’s Gospel tells us, “Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed” (1:35). Luke tells how, after Jesus healed a man with leprosy, “The report about him spread all the more, and great crowds assembled to listen to him and to be cured of their ailments, but he would withdraw to deserted places to pray” (5:15-16, emphasis added). Jesus prayed before his baptism, before his transfiguration, and even before his arrest and crucifixion (Luke 3:21-22; 9:28-29; Matthew 26:36-45).

All these stories reveal a principle that lay at the foundation of Jesus’ entire life: he made prayer a priority over activity. He didn’t do something first and then pray about whether it was a good idea. No, he sought God’s guidance and then acted out of what he received from his Father. He even submitted good, noble, and miraculous actions like healing the sick and casting out demons to God before taking action.

Staying Connected with God. What is the first thing you do when you wake up each day? Are you among the 80 percent of people who check their phones or computers before they do anything else—even before getting out of bed? Do you find other ways to reconnect with the outside world each morning? Perhaps you turn on the television or read the morning newspaper as soon as you wake up. Then, after a quick (or not so quick) check-in, you jump into your day, feeling ready for whatever will come your way.

This is a common pattern for us, but this is exactly what Jesus didn’t do. Instead of connecting with the world around him, Jesus deliberately “disconnected” himself so that he could connect with his Father.

Many of us love staying active. In a world of constant communication and restlessness, it’s almost expected. We are encouraged to pour ourselves into projects, to put in more than a typical eight-hour day at work, and to fill our weekends with all kinds of activities. We are taught to enjoy that feeling of accomplishment we get when we have been successful. We are taught to keep pushing our limits. Of course, staying active and developing our skills are good things. Jesus probably rejoiced after a day of healing the sick. He probably enjoyed seeing his apostles go out two by two to proclaim the good news. Surely he smiled when someone repented and came back to God. But all of this flowed out of his relationship with his Father—a relationship he treasured above everything else.

“I Do Nothing on My Own.” So how did Jesus make his decisions? How did he decide where to place his energy and what to focus on? He once said, “I cannot do anything on my own. . . . I do not seek my own will but the will of the one who sent me” (John 5:30). Jesus made sure that he stayed completely connected to his Father so that his decisions would always reflect God’s intentions for him.

But for Jesus, “being connected” meant more than it typically means for us. For us, being connected can mean being in a close, loving relationship, as a husband and wife or as close friends are. It means that they know each other very well and are open to hearing advice from each other. It means that they have learned the give-and-take of a healthy relationship and are careful to treat each other with respect and honor.

But for Jesus, being connected meant all this and more. Being connected also meant complete dependence and humble submission to his heavenly Father. Jesus refused to allow his very good daily activities—even his miracles—to become more important than his connection to God.

Seek First the Kingdom. If you were to choose just one Scripture verse that described Jesus’ approach to all that he said and did, it would likely be “Seek first the kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33). Because he had a perfect connection with his Father, everything Jesus said and did flowed from that connection. He only did his Father’s will, and he did it only in the way his Father wanted.

In addition to capturing Jesus’ humility before his Father, this verse presents a challenge to all of us. As St. Paul wrote, we all do want to do the right thing. But sin can still get the best of us, and we end up doing the very thing we don’t want to do (Romans 7:15). We end up putting something other than the kingdom of God at the top of our priority list, and that can lead to all kinds of trouble.

While Paul is speaking mostly about sin, we can also apply this principle of seeking first the kingdom of God to the good activities we all take up during our days. Surely Paul knew the temptation to run headlong into his day without first asking for God’s guidance. Surely he knew the temptation to decide for himself what the best course of action might be. But over time, he learned the value of preferring God’s kingdom—God’s will, God’s guidance, and God’s purpose—over the “kingdom” created by his own self-will. And so can we.

I can definitely relate to this. When I go and do something—even something good—that takes priority over my connection with Jesus, things don’t work out well. I end up getting caught up in my work, sometimes to the point that I forget to have lunch or that I get back to work after dinner instead of spending time with my family or connecting with friends. In short, my life gets out of balance, and it affects my relationships and the people I love.

It’s not that I do anything especially sinful on days like this; it’s that my whole day can go by without my seeking the Lord or his kingdom or his plan. Sure, I think about it here or there. And God is always on my heart, similar to the way my family is always on my heart. But since I never stopped to be with him or with my family, I find myself less peaceful at the end of the day and more apt to be affected by the ups and downs of my day.

Jacob’s Ladder and You. These are some of the points I try to get across whenever I have the opportunity to share my faith. I encourage people to pray every single day. Grace flows much more freely when we pray—primarily because prayer opens us up to receiving God’s bountiful grace, and God is not stingy.

Picture the story of Jacob’s ladder in the Bible (Genesis 28:10-19). In your mind, imagine the angels ascending and descending up and down that ladder, from heaven to us and back. Our prayers ascend to God, and grace flows freely into us in return. And that grace changes us. It affects our activities, both helping us choose which activities to pursue and helping us keep our hearts set on the Lord as we do them. It even protects us when we are in conflicts and things don’t go our way.

I genuinely believe that if there were an increase in both the quantity and quality of our prayer, we would likely see more blessings, more miracles, and more conversions. We would necessarily find ourselves growing closer to Jesus. And as we grow closer to Jesus in our morning prayer, his grace will help us approach the activities of our days—both the good and not so good activities—with more peace.

If everyone reading this magazine right now could commit to spending quality time connecting with Jesus every day, I believe that our time with God would release untold amounts of grace upon this world. So let’s band together and promise to spend time with Jesus each day. Let’s make our prayer, not our activity, our top priority—even if we sometimes have to force ourselves to make time. After all, that is the way Jesus lived—and he accomplished a lot!

This month’s articles are written by our founding publisher, Joe Difato.