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The prayer secrets of the desert

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The 20th century political anarchist Edward Abbey loved the desert and once observed, “What draws us into the desert is the search for something intimate in the remote.” Abbey was not the only person who discovered intimacy in the solitude of the desert. The same could be said for some of the most influential people of prayer mentioned in Scripture. God originally created man in a garden, but He frequently recreates them in a desert. 

For instance, consider the people God made or remade in the desert. When God wanted a deliverer, He left Moses in the isolated sands of the Midian desert for 40 years before calling him to lead Israel out of Egypt. When God wanted to prepare thousands of suddenly freed slaves to become a nation, He left them wandering in the desert of Sinai for 40 years. When God wanted a forerunner for His Son, He raised John the Baptist in the secrecy of the Judean desert. When God wanted to strengthen His Son against demonic opposition, He led Him into the inhospitable desert of southern Judea. When God wanted to train an Apostle, He led Paul on a mysterious pilgrimage into the Arabian desert for 3 years. In Scripture, the desert is often the matrix of devotion. 

William Barclay, alluding to the reports of Sir George Adam Smith, who wrote extensively on Holy Land geography, described the Judean desert like this, “It is an area of yellow sand, of crumbling limestone, and of scattered shingle. It is an area of contorted strata, where the ridges run in all directions as if they were warped and twisted. The hills are like dust heaps; the limestone is blistered and peeling; rocks are bare and jagged; often the very ground sounds hollow when a foot or a horse’s hoof falls upon it. It glows and shimmers with heat like some vast furnace. It runs right out to the Dead Sea and then there comes a drop of twelve hundred feet, a drop of limestone, flint, and marl, through crags, corries, and precipices down to the Dead Sea.” Barclay’s lyrical account paints a poetic but accurate picture of the Israeli desert’s landscape. At times, the desert south of Jerusalem, blowing down to the lowest point on earth below sea level, reminds a visitor of what a moonscape must resemble. 

So, given God’s penchant for leading His people to the desert, does He want to do something with our prayer lives in our own deserts? The answer is hiding in plain sight in Mark’s gospel. 

The desert prayers of Jesus

In those hard to define dark hours, somewhere along the cusp between the middle of the night and the predawn morning, Jesus rose from a brief night’s sleep in order to pray. Every word counts in Mark’s short, precise description. “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). The word “desolate” is revealing. It is the Greek word erēmos and was used by Mark earlier in chapter 1 when he wrote, “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the (erēmos) wilderness” (v. 12). The “wilderness” of our English translations is the Judean desert described by Barclay above. 

The 40 days of fasting in the desert is essential to the telling of the story of Jesus in the three synoptic gospels. In fact, they all introduce the ministry of Jesus with the desert experience (Mark 1:12; Matthew 4:1; Luke 4:1)Both Matthew and Luke mention the desert fast in chapter 4 only, because they each spend the first 3 chapters of their gospels with long nativity stories, genealogies, and introductions of John the Baptist. The fast is then preceded in both books by a short paragraph about the baptism of Jesus. 

So, in each of the Synoptics, after the baptism, the desert fast serves as the major introduction to the adult ministry of Jesus. In each case the word for “desert” is erēmos, which leads us back to Mark 1:35 where Jesus seeks an “erēmos” for prayer. 

Since Jesus was in Capernaum, a fishing and agricultural community on the coastline of the Sea of Galilee, there was no literal desert. In this case then, erēmos is solitude – not a desert place but a “deserted” place. Mark’s deliberate choice of that word implies that Jesus wanted to closely replicate a condition of the 40 days in the desert. 

The benefits of the desert prayer

Jesus was a man of prayer. In fact, in the absence of a single example of the disciples praying in Mark, Jesus may be the only praying person in the book. That detail makes the significance of Jesus praying and fasting for 40 days in the desert even more profound. It was a defining event in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, and it comes as no surprise He wanted to recapture the benefits of it. 

Samuel Chadwick once said, “The secret of praying is praying in secret.” As important as prayer meetings are, they cannot replace secret prayer. Few places on earth provide solitude like the waterless wasteland of the southern desert of Judea. Except for a random Bedouin, the only signs of life one might see are the scorpions and the poisonous snakes. It wasn’t the serpents, however, but the solitude that Jesus sought. 

His desire for privacy is obvious from Mark’s observation that while He was praying in secret in the dark hours of the early morning away from the house (a place which would’ve been more convenient), He was re-creating His secret space with God. In addition, it is obvious from verse 37 that He wanted to be alone; since, upon finding Jesus, the first thing the excited disciples said was, “Everyone is looking for you” (v. 37).  Jesus knew the people would find Him early, so He wanted to find God even earlier. 

Secret prayer on a daily basis is essential for an effective Christian life – there is no way to sustain long-term victory without it. Remember, in the first teaching on prayer in the New Testament Jesus said, “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” (Matthew 6:6).

Have you discovered your desert? It doesn’t have to be a literal desert. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be outside. But every one of us needs a secret space for prayer. We need a private place where the phones and electronic distractions are turned off and even loved ones allow us the privilege of secret communion with God. 

Jesus calls us to a desert of prayer. Have you found yours?

    About the Author

  • Kie Bowman

    Kie Bowman is senior pastor emeritus of Hyde Park Baptist Church and The Quarries Church in Austin, Texas and the SBC National Director of Prayer.

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