he darkness feels thick.
Stars can still be seen clearly in the sky over Palestine. People are still sleeping. Apart from the occasional bleat of a sheep or goat, silence prevails. A door creaks open, and a man quietly leaves the simple house. If you could see through the darkness, you would recognize the simple garments of a Galilean peasant. He has covered his head and shoulders with a crude woven scarf. It is the coldest part of the night—the moment before dawn. He walks toward the close-by hills.
Some muffled voices from the fishermen working the lake can be heard now and again. The man walks purposefully toward the hills, and soon He is just a moving speck in the darkness. The first sounds of a new morning can be heard in the village: a rooster greeting another day; a mother singing softly to her baby.
The man does not hear these sounds. He has found His quiet place. Perhaps He looks to the sky. His lips are moving—even though no one else is around. In the quietness of another morning, before the business of the day gets hold of Him, Jesus speaks to His heavenly Father. His head may be covered as an expression of humility. He drinks in these moments of solitude and quietness where He can hear the voice of the Father.
Learning From the Master
Scripture does not tell us too much about the devotional life of Jesus. The Gospels contain some scattered references, but there is no single substantial account. Including the references to Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, I counted some 10 references.1 Though we cannot find an explicit theology of a devotional life in the Gospels, we can isolate three common elements that reappear in nearly all contexts. In the hustle-bustle of the twenty-first century it may be worth our while to take a closer look.
First Things First
The early-morning hours were the preferred moment of communion with the heavenly Father. If the God-man needed this quiet time, I sure need it even more. Note when Jesus spent time with the Father, since it has direct repercussions for our lifestyle. Mornings appeared to have been His preference, even though there are references to evening or nightly vigils (John 6:15, 16; possibly also Luke 5:16 and Mark 6:46).
True, Jesus lived in an agricultural society with no electricity and a different life rhythm. When the sun had set, most people went to bed. Oil and candles were costly goods and needed to be preserved for special occasions. When the sun came up again, people began their chores.
Here is a critical element of spiritual renewal: In order to get up early—at the crack of dawn—one needs to go to bed early. This life rhythm is very different from our life rhythms and may also be culturally conditioned. I would guess that in most houses in my neighborhood windows would still be lighted and TV sets and computers still running at 11:00 p.m.
Culture is important, and life rhythms are not easily changed. However, Jesus did not get up early only because that’s what everybody did in the culture of first-century Palestinian Judaism. It’s just the best moment to spend time with the Father, a daily new beginning—before we mess up. Have you noticed in your personal life that when you rush out the door without having spent quiet time with Jesus, somehow the foundation for that day is shaky?
Looking for a Quiet Place
There is another important principle that we can learn from the scattered information about Jesus’ devotional life. Jesus appears to have preferred quiet places. The Greek term used in Mark 1:35 (as well as in other contexts, such as Matt. 14:13; Luke 4:42; and 5:16) appears frequently in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, where it is used to translate words that indicate deserted places, far removed from any civilization—places where nothing and no one can distract, and dependence upon the Lord is everything.2
If Jesus consciously searched for a solitary place where He could depend completely upon His Father, is this significant for us, living 2,000 years later?
Devotion begins with the silence of the quiet place—no ringing phones (we have turned them off), beeping computers, humming radios or TV sets. I remember a wonderful hike in the Fish River Canyon in Namibia I had with some friends many years ago. It is said to be one of the deepest canyons in the world—second only to the Grand Canyon. We hiked it for five days. There were no other people on the trail. No sounds of machines or human activity—just the sounds of nature, and even those were scarce, since this is an extremely dry region. When I crawled out of my sleeping bag before the sun hit the top of the canyon, there was an incredible peace and tranquillity.
Well, you may say, under these circumstances I could also have a wonderful devotional life. But I have children, a job, and lots of pressures. I do not enjoy the luxury of silence. Somehow it seems to be Satan’s strategy to grab all of our quiet moments, our silence, and peace. Background noise prevails. Even in church we have become uncomfortable with silence. If nothing is happening on the platform, let’s turn on some background music. And it just goes on—in our shopping malls, in our cars, in our homes.
Jesus’ example of solitude and quietness shakes my busy and often noisy world right to its foundation. It may not be easy to find this quiet place, but it is one of the key battlegrounds that determine our walk with Jesus.
My mother tells me of my great-grandmother, living in a very small home with a big family of 14 children (plus other family members). How could she find her quiet place? Mornings and evenings she would kneel down next to a chair in the kitchen and put her apron over her head. Everybody knew that Mother was talking to the Creator of the universe, and for a moment, just a moment, there was a quiet place. I imagine Jesus also struggled often with the business of His ministry—He had so much to give. But He chose to spend time in communion with the Father, surrounded by angels, in an atmosphere that reminded Him of home.
Practicing God’s Presence
When Jesus got up early and searched for a quiet place, He did not just stare into space. He spoke with His Father. I get the impression that we often consider our personal devotion another mental or intellectual effort. We struggle to get up early, always fighting against the clock; try to find a quiet spot in our home or elsewhere; and then—we read the Sabbath school study guide or a brief one-pager in a devotional book, nicely prepackaged and predigested. A quick prayer concludes our 10 minutes—and off we rush. Please do not misunderstand me. Studying the study guide is helpful, and devotional volumes can be inspiring and challenging. However, if this is all, if we do not connect to the primary source and if we focus only upon our intellect needing transformation, we might as well stop right there.
Most likely Jesus did not read anything. He lived in a society that knew no books and in which biblical scrolls were costly and mostly reserved for public reading. He knew His Bible by heart, having grown up in a culture that valued memorization. In the dawn, between night and morning, Jesus prayed. Not a litany of issues that required divine intervention—no, Jesus was practicing the presence of God.3 Perhaps He sang a psalm. Perhaps He meditated on a phrase or verse from Scripture. Definitely He spoke with His Father—and listened.
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
Thinking about Jesus’ devotional life has led me to some practical suggestions that have helped to transform my quiet time with the Master.
1. Adapt your lifestyle to your convictions. If you are convicted about Jesus as the best example for spiritual growth, make the necessary changes in your life.
2. Look for quietness. Learn to live with silence and tranquillity. Turn off all the background noise in your life. Think about practicing a weekly “multimedia fast” (computer, TV, radio), perhaps one full day.
3. Remember that worship is not only an intellectual exercise. Meditate upon the Word and speak (and listen) to your God.
4. Do not get discouraged if one morning things have not worked out the way you would have liked. Satan is an expert in discouraging us. God is always in the business of encouraging us. Try again!
5. Live on a balanced spiritual diet. Even though I love fruits, I cannot survive just on them. I need proteins, carbohydrates, minerals, vitamins, etc. Apply the same principle to your spiritual life. Build change into your devotional time.
6. Practice the presence of God, every morning, early during your personal devotions. Practice the presence of God at work, in your car, with your family. Enjoy His presence and recognize the immense privilege. The Creator of the universe is ready to spend time with you.
I love the way Ellen White describes Jesus’ devotional life. It is truly worthy of our imitation. “His [Jesus’] hours of happiness were found when alone with nature and with God. Whenever it was His privilege, He turned aside from the scene of His labor, to go into the fields, to meditate in the green valleys, to hold communion with God on the mountainside or amid the trees of the forest. The early morning often found Him in some secluded place, meditating, searching the Scriptures, or in prayer. From these quiet hours He would return to His home to take up His duties again, and to give an example of patient toil.”4
That’s what I call plugged in—and ready to go.
1See Matt. 14:23; 26:36-44; Mark 1:35; 6:46; 14:32-39; Luke 4:42; 5:16; 9:28, 29; 22:39-46; and John 6:15.
2Following His baptism Jesus is led by the Spirit into such a place in order to face His first important challenge (Matt. 4:1; Mark 1:12, 13; Luke 4:1).
3I am using here consciously the title of a volume that focuses upon spiritual growth. The phrase was popularized in the letters of Brother Lawrence, a humble French monk working in the kitchen of his monastery between 1610 and 1691. See www.practicegodspresence.com.
4Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Boise, Idaho: Pacific Press, 1940), p. 90.
Gerald A. Klingbeil is an associate editor of the Adventist Review magazine who enjoys quiet early mornings with his master. This article was published March 17, 2010.