Column: Jesus’ Prayer for You
By Drew Williams
Over the last several columns I have been looking at the subject of prayer and in particular, what the early Church Fathers called “prayer of the heart,” which is to follow Jesus’ encouragement to come away from the crowd (Mark 6:31) and draw near to God (James 4:8).
As I wrote last week, solitude is not loneliness but to rest in God’s presence. And silence is not white noise but rather the moment when we stop talking and listen to what God has to say. Before we finish this subject, I want to draw our attention to the remarkable truth that prayer of the heart also provides the context in which we can discern Jesus’ own prayer of the heart—for us.
Jesus frequently prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane (John 18:2). Most famously, Jesus prayed in this garden shortly before His crucifixion. On this night, Jesus prayed three things for us. First, that we be may be kept from sin (John 17:15). Second, that we should be transformed in His image. (“Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.” John 17:17). And third, when Jesus prayed, “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24), He was praying of God’s whole-hearted, continual and unconditional love for each of us and that we should know and be enfolded in such a love. And this threefold prayer, which He made on Earth, is the copy and pattern of His continuing prayer for you in heaven. (Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Romans 8:34)
To know the reality of His prayer for us is completely transformative, not just for our faith but also for our prayer lives. Let me offer you three words of encouragement:
1. Depth: As long as serving Christ means it is all up to us we will always be limited, and ultimately burned out, by our own anxious heart. But when our worries are brought to the heart of God in prayer, we find a new capacity for faith, hope, compassion, strength, mercy, perseverance, and so on that is not our own. The Apostle Paul writes, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7) In this way, Henri Nouwen would encourage us, “Through prayer we can carry in our heart all human pain and sorrow, all conflict and agonies, all torture and war, all hunger, loneliness and misery, not because of some great psychological or emotional capacity—but because our heart becomes one with God’s heart.”
2. Discernment: Nouwen writes, “Prayer of the heart helps us discern which of our activities are primarily for God’s glory and which serve our unconverted ego. Prayer offers a new sensitivity that enables us to separate the chaff from the wheat and thus become much less ambiguous witnesses of Jesus Christ.” Jeremiah records the Lord’s own encouragement, “Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.” (Jeremiah 33:3) In the same way, Paul encourages us, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And He who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (Romans 8:26-27)
3. Discipline: The world, says Nouwen, has a firm grip on us and we need a very strong discipline not to be squeezed to death by it! My experience is that prayer of the heart, that willingness to come away and be still before Him, builds its own Spirit-led momentum. Jesus encourages us, “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:6) As I think about this invitation, I imagine that on the outside side of the door hangs a sign that reads “Enter by your own free will.” Yet, as I make that choice and close the door behind me, I find a second notice written on the inside of the door. This sign simply reads, “By His Grace.” It is my experience that a very real part of the “reward” that Jesus speaks of is a gracious, Spirit-led desire to return again and again to that place of solitude and silence before Him.
When I am weak, and can scarcely pray for myself, to know that Jesus is praying for me overwhelms me and brings me to my knees. But His prayer for us is not just for when we feel to be in the valleys. His prayer is for each and every day of our lives. His daily invitation is that we come away with Him and in the stillness of His presence be strengthened, transformed and equipped by His prayer of the heart over us.
Drew Williams is senior pastor of Trinity Church in Greenwich.