On Time and Prayer
morning and at noon
I will pray, and cry aloud,
And He shall hear my voice. (Ps 55:17)
In this psalm, David wrote that he will pray three times a day: in the evening, in the morning, and at noon. With these words, he expressed his commitment to this daily prayer schedule by which he could pour out his heart, confident that God would hear him. As Christians today, do we have the same commitment to prayer that David had?
Many of us feel that we do not have enough time in our busy lives to pray. We will say a quick prayer in the morning, believing that we have done our Christian duty, all the while thinking about the many tasks on our to-do list for that day. There is always too much to do, and too little time to do it. So when we do find the time to pray, it is often a short, hurried one.
Yet, we know from our own experience that when we do not devote time to speak to God in prayer, our life feels empty. Our day may be fully packed with activities, but when we retire to bed we do not feel satisfied. In fact, prayer is a source of joy and strength, especially when we are at our busiest. Those who have attended students’ theological training courses will know how arduous and packed the course schedules can be. Some students can hardly open their eyes in the morning. And yet, because prayers are significantly longer, the students are spiritually satisfied and rejuvenated at the end of the course. After three weeks of regular daily prayers, from early morning to bedtime, the students feel as though they have touched God.
Even though many of us have experienced the blessings of devoting time to pray, the most common excuse for not praying remains: “I simply don’t have time.” Why is this so? Is prayer not one aspect of our faith that we need to seamlessly integrate into our lives? Let us look at two examples in the Bible to find the answers.
Balancing Prayer and Work Life
At the end of Daniel chapter 5, we read how Darius overthrew the Babylonian king Belshazzar and ushered in the era of the Medo-Persian Empire. This regime change resulted in a complete transformation of Daniel’s working environment (Dan 6:1–5). Despite this, Daniel’s output remained consistent:
Then this Daniel distinguished himself above the governors and satraps, because an excellent spirit was in him; and the king gave thought to setting him over the whole realm. So the governors and satraps sought to find some charge against Daniel concerning the kingdom; but they could find no charge or fault, because he was faithful; nor was there any error or fault found in him. (Dan 6:3–4)
Daniel worked just as faithfully as he had under his old masters, and excelled in his duties. Even though his enemies scrutinized his actions, they could find no fault—his work was impeccable.
It is well known that Daniel prayed three times a day (Dan 6:10). From the time he entered the Babylonian court, throughout his days as chief administrator over the wise men in Babylon, and continuing after he was appointed as one of the three governors of Persia and Medes, he kept the same routine—he gave thanks to God three times a day. The question is: How did Daniel find the time to pray whilst maintaining such a high standard in his work?
Some may argue that since Daniel had an excellent spirit (Dan 6:3), he could discharge his duties perfectly without expending much time or effort. After all, God was with him and had blessed him with knowledge and understanding, even more so than his three friends. If we take this to its logical conclusion, then it is no surprise that Daniel was able to fulfill his responsibilities and pray three times a day. Unlike Daniel, no matter how much we try to produce impeccable work, there will always be room for improvement, which requires time and energy. Since we do not have Daniel’s extraordinary gifts, how can we hope to excel in our work if we must also find time to pray?
In fact, this reasoning is flawed. First, Daniel could not have produced impeccable work based on talent alone. He would have spent time and effort to learn how best to do things and to iron out errors. Daniel was human after all; even Jesus had to spend time in the temple to learn and ask questions.
Second, although Daniel was gifted with knowledge and wisdom, this corresponded with the work he had to do. God had placed him as governor over the kingdom, and so blessed him with the gifts he would need for this position. For us, we may not be a government official, but God will bless us with the gifts we need to fulfill our duties.
Third, and most important, we believe that whether we can pray, and for how long, is dictated by how much time we have. If we have time, then we will pray; if we have no time, then we will not pray. But for Daniel, it was the opposite: his prayer routines took precedence over his work schedule. His prayers took precedence. Conversely, if we allow our time to be defined by our work and not by our prayers, then we will never have enough time to pray.
Why Are You Busy?
We would do well to heed the words of Jesus to Martha:
And Jesus answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part.” (Lk 10:41–42a)
Like Martha, our problem is that we want to achieve many things in life. Martha wanted to be a good host. You cannot fault her for that, because she was receiving guests to listen to the words of Jesus. Unfortunately, this caused her to become worried and flustered.
In our lives, we want many things as well. We want our work life and family life to be perfect, and we want to have time for leisure. Time for prayer is probably the least important to us. The thing is that God has given every one of us a fixed amount of time. But we fear sacrificing this time because, to us, time is life. Time devoted to prayer is time we could have used for other activities.
Jesus told Martha, “[Y]ou are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed” (Lk 10:42a). This is an important way to look at our faith—we may worry over many things, but such worries only distract us from more important matters, such as listening to Jesus’ teachings.
In Daniel’s case, he recognized that the one necessary thing was prayer. It was perhaps easier for him to pray three times a day when he had just arrived in the palace, holding an insignificant position. But to continue this routine when he was appointed chief over all the wise men, and later, a governor over the kingdom, was indeed commendable. Not only would he have had to manage his own time, he also had to manage the work of many others. This is why the Bible says that Daniel had an excellent spirit.
Even when Daniel’s life was on the line for praying to God, he continued to pray constantly three times a day (Dan 6:10). This shows just how committed he was to a life of prayer. In our case, we may never have to choose between preserving our lives and praying to God but we regularly sacrifice prayer time for other, less pressing, reasons. We tell ourselves that we will have time to pray later. But after one task is complete, there will always be other tasks waiting for us. This is why we should look to Daniel and allow prayer to be the priority of our days.
Prayer and Divine Work
Hebrews 5:7 notes that when Jesus was in the flesh, He was a prayerful Man. He “offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His godly fear.” This verse does not emphasize Jesus’ offering of His time, His sleep, or His life upon the cross. Rather, the focus is on His prayers and supplications, and the attitude with which He offered them.
A closer look at the Gospel of Luke reveals that Jesus would not do anything without praying first. He prayed during His baptism, and before He chose His disciples (Lk 3:21; 6:12). He prayed at the transfiguration on the mount and at Gethsemane before His arrest (Lk 9:28; 22:39–46). These were significant moments in His life, but He did not only pray during times such as these.
So He Himself often withdrew into the wilderness and prayed. (Lk 5:16)
We see that the more divine work Jesus did, the more He prayed, even though He had less time. In Mark 1, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath to preach, and there He healed a demon-possessed man. Afterwards, He went to Peter’s house and healed Peter’s mother-in-law. When the Sabbath drew to a close at sunset, many in the city brought the sick to be healed. If we were to have such a long day of hard work, it would be normal for us to want a good night’s sleep and to lie in the next morning. But what about Jesus?
Now in the morning, having risen a long while before daylight, He went out and departed to a solitary place; and there He prayed. (Mk 1:35)
Jesus awoke before dawn so that He could pray. The more divine work He did, the more He prayed. However, it is often the opposite for us—the more time we devote to church work, the less time we put into prayer. We feel that action is in the work, not in prayer; we should be active in our work; prayer is passive and cannot get the work done. This is another fundamental misunderstanding of prayer.
Firstly, prayer is an action, and must always be the prelude to any work we do for God. To work before praying means that you are focused on doing the work yourself. To pray before starting the work means you acknowledge that it is God’s work, which He will guide to completion.
“The Lord God has
The tongue of the learned,
That I should know how to speak
A word in season to him who is weary.
He awakens Me morning by morning,
He awakens My ear
To hear as the learned.” (Isa 50:4)
This is a prophecy about Jesus. It says that God awakens Him morning by morning, and awakens His ear to hear as the learned. When Jesus rose up to pray before daybreak every morning, this is the heart He had—He would awaken His ear to listen to God. This is why He was able to proclaim, “I always do those things that please Him” (Jn 8:29). By spending time in prayer, communing with God, Jesus was able to carry out God’s will. This is why we should always pray before we work for God.
Secondly, although it seems that time spent in prayer is time taken away from our work, the opposite is true—God often adds to our time through prayers. We think that time is wasted in prayer, but it is through prayer God gives us wisdom to be effective in what we do. And through prayer, we are able to prioritize what is important to do in life. We must have the faith that whatever we offer to God, including our time, will surely not return empty.
Thirdly, we often think that work takes precedence over prayer, when in fact, it is prayer that takes precedence over work. Jesus’ servitude was one of sacrifice: He had no resting place, and often went without sleep (Lk 9:58); He would go without food in order to preach the gospel (Jn 4:34). But when He had to choose between unfinished work and time in prayer, prayers took precedence over work.
However, the report went around concerning Him all the more; and great multitudes came together to hear, and to be healed by Him of their infirmities. So He Himself often withdrew into the wilderness and prayed. (Lk 5:15–16)
And when He had sent them away, He departed to the mountain to pray. (Mk 6:46)
These two verses record how the crowds came to hear Him and to be healed by Him. Jesus had much work to do. But instead of continuing in His work, He withdrew to a solitary place to pray!
Today, we often talk about being constantly connected, making ourselves available at all times. If our friends or colleagues contact us, we are expected to reply immediately. But when Jesus was in the flesh, He was not always available. There were occasions when He would dismiss the multitudes so He could spend time alone in prayer. Let us learn from Jesus, to have the discipline and resolve to temporarily set aside our work and spend time to connect with God in prayer.
From the examples of Daniel and Jesus, we learn that we cannot neglect prayer, no matter how busy we are in our careers and in church work. We should let prayer be the priority of our daily schedules. We ought to recognize that we must first pray before we do any work for God, so that the work can be guided by Him. And finally, between unfinished work and time for prayer, prayer must take precedence over work.