How did Jesus pray? Why did he pray? What can we learn from his attitude toward prayer and the importance he gave it? Based on the example of Jesus, how should we pray in modern times of trauma and catastrophe?
Bible Gateway interviewed Janet Holm McHenry (@LookingUpFirst) about her book, The Complete Guide to the Prayers of Jesus: What Jesus Prayed and How It Can Change Your Life Today (Bethany House, 2018).
Why did Jesus pray?
Janet Holm McHenry: While we do not have a direct statement from Jesus recorded in the gospels as to why he prayed, we have his example to examine and to try to emulate. Luke wrote that Jesus often withdrew to lonely places to pray (Luke 5:16) and that he spent nights praying to God (Luke 6:12). We can imply from these texts that he needed to be with his Father. The physical separation must have been difficult. Even an ordinary life is challenging; his was short—with his three years of ministry constantly draining. Even as a young boy when separated from his parents for three days, Jesus told his mother Mary, “Didn’t you know that I had to be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49). That was the thing: Jesus had to be in his Father’s house. He needed to communicate with his Father and to hear from him away from the madding crowd. Prayer allows us to be in our heavenly Father’s house in a figurative way.
How did he pray?
Janet Holm McHenry: Jesus prayed simply. If you look at the prayers of his that we have—only ten actual prayers—you find simple language. It’s not elevated or flowery or formal. He taught we should pray simply and modeled that.
He also prayed privately. He went up the mountainside in Capernaum to pray away from the ears of others. He taught that we should pray not in public so as to receive the praise of men but behind closed doors. Personally, I struggled even with writing about my prayerwalking for my town years ago, because I felt a book would be a neon sign about what I was doing. However, others encouraged me to share my life-changing experience—so I did. And because we do have ten of his prayers recorded, we know that Jesus did pray in front of others.
In terms of the kinds of prayer Jesus prayed, he offered praise (Matthew 6:9) and thanksgiving (John 11:41), and he prayed for others (intercession) and himself (petition, John 17). He asked the Father to forgive others (Matthew 6:12, Luke 23:34) but also echoed a lament from the Psalms (Matthew 27:45-46, Psalm 22:1). Jesus perhaps offered the best possible human prayer when he asked God to take the cup from him, “Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). I call this the dichotomous: two-sided coin prayer. The one side of the prayer expresses the cry of our human heart, while the other asks God that his heart-wish be accomplished through us. These are just some examples—there are many more teachings and practices we can learn from Jesus’ prayer life.
What was Jesus’ example in occasions when his prayer was not answered?
Janet Holm McHenry: Jesus prayed with an attitude of submission. While asking the Father to take the cup from him, he added the caveat, “as you will.” While he prayed, “Why have you forsaken me?”—he later called out, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). From a human perspective, an observer might think his prayers were not answered, because Jesus died on the cross. However, they were answered because the Father’s will was done—Jesus’ death and subsequent resurrection provided a way for others to understand the sacrificial love of God who has pursued a relationship with humankind since the beginning.
This your-will-be-done prayer is no “whatever, God” kind of prayer. It takes courage to ask that God’s will be done. Jesus was no wimp. He stood up to legalistic teaching that was trumping love and kindness. He challenged the status quo that valued exterior appearances over interior integrity. He came for one purpose and prayed toward that end: his walk toward the cross so that humankind could understand that they can be redeemed by faith alone. It was not easy, but he still walked into Jerusalem, to Gethsemane, and to the cross, and he prayed in each of those places.
How did Jesus pray in trouble?
Janet Holm McHenry: We find one of the most interesting and challenging of Jesus’ prayers after he has entered Jerusalem for the last time. As he rode into town on a donkey, a great crowd that had come for the Passover feast greeted him with palm branches and cries of “Hosanna!” (John 12:12-13). While his disciples might have been impressed with this public display, Jesus tried to explain that a greater good would come because of his death and then said his heart was “troubled.” In a tough situation, what do most of us pray? “Save me!” But Jesus said he wouldn’t pray “save me from this hour” but instead prayed, “Father, glorify your name!” Every word and action of Jesus led to this prayer—that the Father would be glorified through his life. He came to earth to point others Godward. Thus, he would not pray “save me,” because “save me” was not part of the plan for his life. This one prayer has significantly changed the way I pray. I simply ask God to be glorified through me—what I say, what I do, and even what I think.
What should we expect when we pray?
Janet Holm McHenry: We should expect that God will show up. Prayer is a demonstration of faith, and God honors steps of faith. In fact, we can thank God in advance for what he will do. Before the resurrection of Lazarus, Jesus prayed, “I thank you that you have heard me” (John 11:41). Before a few loaves and fish were multiplied to feed thousands, Jesus gave thanks (Matthew 15:35-37). Notice this: he prayed for what would be. He taught us to be bold when we pray: “Ask and it will be given to you” (Luke 11:9-13). This is not name-it-and-claim-it theology. It’s simply believing in a God who can do the impossible (Matthew 19:26).
When I was a recent graduate from UC Berkeley with a journalism degree, I applied for a typing job at a large software company in Santa Monica, California. Yes, a simple typing job. I got an interview, but then I got a reprimand from my interviewer. He said, “Don’t ask for any old job you know you can get; ask for the job you want.” I applied this lesson in boldness to prayer—to believe God wants to fulfill my heart’s desire as that heart’s desire aligns with his love and plans for me.
Is prayer alone a sufficient response to massacres, such as active mass killers taking lives?
Janet Holm McHenry: I think we can gain insight into how to respond by looking at Christ’s life—what he did when people were suffering. Prayer is crucial—as we see from his life—but the church also needs to be the hands and feet of Jesus to a hurting world. Jesus said, “By their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:20). He also gave us the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Two supposedly holy men passed the beaten-up, half-dead Samaritan. However, the outcast Samaritan stopped to care for the wounded man and even pay an innkeeper to look after him until the Samaritan could return.
When people are suffering from a tragic loss, they need prayer, yes, but they also have other, tangible needs. Churches and individual Christians can offer transportation and babysitting, make meals, donate to a Go Fund Me account, or sit with someone in a hospital waiting room or in a funeral home. Jesus healed the sick—he didn’t just pray. Similarly, we can help others to heal from trauma by meeting a tangible need. And don’t just say, “Let me know if I can help.” Do something.
When my family has been through struggles, yes, I have appreciated others’ prayers, but I remember the people who brought over a meal or watched my kids or even paid a bill on our behalf. Sometimes we ARE the answer to someone’s prayer.
How do we pray effectively for the victims of destructive events and their families? For those who perpetrated the crimes?
Janet Holm McHenry: I was a public high school educator when the 9/11 attacks occurred. Early that morning before school started, I walked into a teacher friend’s classroom to see the first tower go down and, in horror, the events that followed. I was so grieved and shaken, I was physically ill, but I knew I had to be a rock for the students in my English classrooms that day. As an unofficial safety coordinator for our school, I called local pastors to request them come to the school to meet with any students who asked for counseling. I also set up a safe room in our school library. I gathered together water bottles, snacks, and butcher paper and markers for young people to use to express their grief and questions. One young man asked me, “Mrs. McHenry, is this the beginning of Armageddon?” I said, “I don’t know.” And I prayed aloud with him, which I felt was the best possible response for that young man.
Some of Jesus’ prayers are based on Old Testament verses. When I realized that, I started to use words from Scripture as well when I pray. Sometimes we’re overwhelmed with sorrow and just can’t find the words. The Psalms are a good place to go to for help in expressing our aching hearts to the Father. Here are some examples of how I might pray:
- Lord, take them “ . . . from strength to strength” (Psalm 84:7).
- Father, be their “refuge from the storm—like streams of water in the desert and the shadow of a great rock in a thirsty land” (Psalm 32:2).
- God, in the same way that you provided water and manna in the desert, provide for each and every physical need for these people—food, clothing, medical expenses, transportation, helping hands (Isaiah 43:20).
How do we pray for the perpetrators? Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). While Jesus was hanging on the cross, he asked the Father to forgive those who had nailed him there and who would then divide up his clothes. However, perhaps his prayer actually extended to those who had persecuted him and unjustly convicted him. Now, would I suggest this type of prayer to a grieving victim? No way. But others of us can pray for the perpetrator’s family, which most likely is hurting, shocked, and deeply shamed.
When we experienced an injustice in our family, it took us a long time to get to a place of forgiveness. In 2005 my rancher husband was convicted of six felony animal abuse charges relating to the deaths of an old bull and six calves after a two-day blizzard here in our Sierra Valley. The judge would not permit a significant amount of evidence that clearly showed the animals had been well fed; additionally, he would not allow the chief witness for my husband to testify—a UC Davis veterinary professor who was considered the top beef expert west of the Rockies. Two years later the conviction was overturned in the California Court of Appeals. Particularly because we live in a rural county—one that doesn’t have a single stoplight—we struggled with the issue of forgiveness, because on a regular basis we encountered people tied to the trial—the district attorney, members of the jury, witnesses—and it was tough. But at some point we realized there’s tremendous freedom in forgiveness. Praying “Father, forgive them” is a healthy prayer indeed—but one that I personally would not push someone else to pray, especially immediately after a catastrophe.
What is a proper response to critics of the phrase, “the victims are in my prayers” in the wake of calamities?
Janet Holm McHenry: I think we can respond to those critics, “Yes, you are absolutely right.” As a collective group the church should do more than pray. Not every Christian can respond to every tragedy in a tangible manner, obviously. However, being a Christ follower means that we follow Christ’s example. Jesus didn’t stop at praying for others. He also fed the hungry. He healed the sick. He demonstrated respect for women and children. He didn’t do this all over the world, but he did meet the needs in front of him. Scripture tell us when he was ministering in Capernaum, the whole town brought their sick to him to heal (Luke 4:40).
In fact, through the centuries Christians have seen people in need and have helped them. John Ortberg has written an outstanding book called Who Is This Man?—in which he shows how society has changed because of the followers of Christ. They created libraries, and universities, and hospitals. Thousands of philanthropic organizations exist because of people’s faith in Jesus. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association provides relief after disasters and tragedies all over the world. Christian organizations such as my church have donated funds or headed efforts to end human trafficking.
At the end of each summer, I organize a prayerwalk for the schools in the area of Reno around my church, The Bridge Church. We walk around and pray for the nearby elementary, middle, and high schools as well as the University of Nevada, Reno, and Truckee Meadows Community College. However, my church does a long list of good deeds for the local schools, too—providing supplies, student rewards, manpower, and whatever else is needed. We sponsor blood drives on Sundays, a food pantry, car repair services, and fall and spring festivals for thousands of children in Reno, just to mention a few ministries of outreach.
The point is that the list of good things Christians do is endless . . . and those things are often unnoticed, because most of us believe we should not advertise our good deeds on neon signs. Yes, while we might post on social media “Praying for you,” we are also doing quiet, good things behind the scenes. And we do those things without fanfare or defensive attitudes, because Jesus is our example. He didn’t defend himself. His life proved his love and goodness—and society has been forever changed because of him.
Is the next tragedy to come along proof that God hasn’t heard our prayers?
Janet Holm McHenry: No—it’s proof that humankind needs God. We need the example of Christ, who taught us that the second greatest commandment is “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). None of us is flawless, and some are downright wicked. We all have free will to make choices in this life. Death is the eventuality of life, and sadly, some are lost at the hands of others. However, if each of us chose to live a life that emulates Christ’s, much heartache could be avoided.
What is a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?
Janet Holm McHenry: John 17 is my favorite longer passage of Scripture. It’s Jesus’ chapter-long prayer, divided into three sections: a prayer for himself, a prayer for his disciples, and a prayer for all those who would come to believe. I was struck that he ends by praying that the love the Father has for Christ would be in those who would believe. He prayed for me! I think that’s a great example to us as praying people—certainly, we should pray for others but also live our lives in such a way that others see the Father’s love in us for them.
I have two life verses, too, that keep me going:
- “With man this is impossible, but all things are possible with God” (Matthew 19:26).
- “I can do all things through Christ, who gives me strength (Philippians 4:13).
I feel I can partner with God as I pray for others—and that he will give me the strength I need for all he has asked me to do.
What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and/or the Bible Gateway App and Bible Audio App?
Janet Holm McHenry: I love Bible Gateway. I use it all the time as I am researching and writing. It provides me an instant parallel Bible that I can use to better understand a verse or passage.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Janet Holm McHenry: Two things have dramatically influenced my praying life. The first is prayerwalking, which I started 20 years ago. Shortly after I started walking and praying from a mental list about my family’s and my own needs, I saw what I call a Single Daddy’s Ballet. Before six in the morning, I saw a young man hand his blanketed toddler over to a daycare worker on the sidewalk of my little town. When that bundle said, “Bye, Daddy, I love you,” I realized that God had me walking and praying not so much for my own mental list, but for the needs around me—loggers going into the woods, mill workers driving to the mill, business people, families, school teachers, and more. Wherever we go, there’s a need for prayer if ask God to give us his compassionate eyesight for others.
The other influence has been studying the life of Christ—how he prayed, his prayers themselves, and what he taught about prayer. He’s our Master Teacher—the best example we can follow as we pray, live, and serve others.
Bio: Janet Holm McHenry is the author of more than 20 books—six of those on prayer, including the bestselling Prayerwalk and The Complete Guide to the Prayers of Jesus. Featured on radio and in magazines, including Health and Family Circle, Janet is known for prayerwalking her small town in the Sierra Valley, where she and her husband, Craig, raised four children. She coordinates the prayer ministries at The Bridge Church in Reno, organizes an annual prayerwalk for the schools, and speaks around the country about developing a deeper relationship with her prayer teacher, Jesus.
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