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Jesus Often Withdrew

Jesus praying

By Dennis Pollock

When you read the gospels, you find a whole lot of action. From the start of His ministry to His death and resurrection our Lord Jesus was constantly on the go, traveling from one city to another, healing large groups of people at a time, preaching to thousands, and confronting the angry, jealous Jewish leaders of His day. He was truly about His Father’s business, and the young teacher and rabbi was a man of action. No ivory tower for Jesus where He could sit around all day long and reflect upon deep cosmic truths! He must be out among the people, presenting God to them and teaching them the ways of their Creator.

But all action and activity can lead to burnout, even among young people, and we might suspect that anyone as busy as Jesus must surely have shown at least some indications of burnout. After all, there were times when the crowds were so huge and so demanding that His own mother came to try to take Him home, fearing the strain would be too much for her sensitive and deeply spiritual Son. He might be in danger of suffering from nervous exhaustion with His incredibly hectic life, the needy crowds, and the constant verbal attacks He suffered from the Pharisees.

It never happened. Jesus remained stable and emotionally healthy until the end of His short life. And we find the reason He never suffered from burnout in these words from the gospel of Luke. After Jesus healed a man with leprosy, the Bible tells us:

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 (Luke 5:15, 16).

Jesus often withdrew! I think this is vitally important for every one of us. To be the best we can be, and the most fruitful we can be, we must follow our Master and learn to withdraw. In this devotional study we will look at the context of His withdrawing, the measure of His withdrawing, and the nature of His withdrawing.

Removing Ourselves

To begin let us consider the meaning of the word withdraw. To withdraw in this context means to draw back or remove yourself from your present situation. It implies you are involved in some type of activity and you determine to cease that activity and involve yourself elsewhere. Often it means moving from a higher level of action and activity to a situation where there is less action, or perhaps no action at all. Even while in His early thirties and beginning a ministry that would last a brief three and a half years, Jesus wisely recognized that He simply could not endure and succeed if His ministry was a constant, non-stop, never-take-a-break effort.

As much as there was for Him to do, as many tens of thousands as there were who wanted some of His time and attention, as many sick people as there were throughout the land of Israel, and as great a need as there was for the Israelites to be taught the ways of God, Jesus knew that He must take frequent breaks and withdraw from the massive crowds that constantly attended Him. And He withdrew and took these breaks without apology. With His incredible healing ministry, He could have held huge “healing services” on consecutive nights for three years straight. As popular as He was, He could have become a far bigger and more popular personality in Israel had He done so, and engaged in a little promotion, as most ministers would have done. But instead He would heal some people and then disappear into the wilderness for a while. Then He would appear in public, do some teaching, perform some miracles, and then disappear again. And sometimes He even told some of the people with the most dramatic healings not to tell anyone about it!

Another thing we learn from this passage is that Jesus often withdrew. This withdrawing was not a one-time occurrence at a critical juncture of His life. Jesus withdrew regularly. This was as much a part of His life and ministry as healing, teaching, and mentoring His disciples. With all the crowds that constantly wanted His attention, He could not give Himself to them 24/7 without frequently taking time to isolate Himself and talk to His Heavenly Father. And since Jesus serves not only as our Lord, Savior, and King, but also our model and High Priest, we must conclude that we need to make these strategic withdrawals or retreats a part of our lives as well.

Prayer on the Run

Sometimes we hear some people say something like, “I don’t make set times for prayer, but I pray all the time. When I am in my car, when I am at the grocery store, when I am in a crowded auditorium, I talk to God.” They may do this, but in reality it is not enough. We can assume that Jesus also talked to God as He walked the roads and spent time with the masses of people that followed Him. And this is a good and necessary thing. But He also withdrew; He deliberately walked away from the crowds, found a remote spot, and spent prolonged time in prayer, with no one else around.

There are two types of Christians who rarely withdraw for such prayer. First are the workaholics. Sometimes much of their work is related to church and the kingdom of God, and this makes it easy to justify never taking spiritual breaks to quietly talk to God. After all, they are busy doing the King’s business. Pastors and ministers who serve full-time in ministry positions are especially guilty of this. The work is too important, the need is too great, the responsibilities are far too grave for them to indulge in extended times of prayer. It might be nice for others who have more leisure time, but they cannot possibly spare their time in prayer of any length. Little short, one-sentence, under-the-breath praises and petitions will have to do. This may sound spiritual, but when we consider that Jesus Christ Himself, who surely was needed if anyone was, and whose work was vitally important if anyone’s was, still made time to get away. Apparently, He considered the time spent in those prayer sessions a worthwhile investment.

The other type of Christians who rarely retreat to the prayer closet are the “playaholics.” They treasure their recreation, their leisure, their parties and TV shows and movies and all sorts of amusements which are not evil in themselves but are notorious time-sappers. They cannot justify themselves that they are busy “doing the Lord’s work” but they will protest that God does not want us to behave like monks, spending all our time and all our days praying, reading, and doing charitable deeds. A little bit is fine, but let’s not get fanatical here! And so they never withdraw; they spend virtually no extended times in prayer; they have no prayer closet or prayer recliner and prayer habits. Like their workaholic cousins they throw up little one-sentence exhortations to heaven here and there, but that is about it.

Physical Withdrawal

In the physical realm, withdrawal is not only important; it is vital. Every time we go to bed we withdraw. When we lay our heads on our pillows, close our eyes, and nod off into the unconscious state, we get no work done. We make no financial deals, we make no income, we are, from a work standpoint, entirely unproductive. It seems like such a waste, lying unconscious on a bed, eyes, closed, mouth sometimes open, and totally unaware of everything. And yet we were made to do just such an activity for around eight hours of each twenty-four-hour day. So for about a third of our lives we are accomplishing exactly nothing. Well, not quite. The truth is we are accomplishing a great deal as we sleep. We are being refreshed, our organs and glands are given rest, and we are being equipped for effective activity in the next day. If we decided that it would be more productive never to sleep, it would not take long at all, about one day, for us to get the revelation that sleep is doing great things for us, and it is entirely necessary for productive living. Assuming that sleep was unproductive was absolute folly. It is one of the most productive activities in which we will ever engage.

Withdrawals to be with our loving God work the same way. Martin Luther is said to have declared: “I am so busy today that I will have to spend three hours in prayer.” It is a good point. Far too often, when we are especially busy, the first thing we will slash from our schedule is our prayer time. We will maintain our meal times, and jealousy guard our TV time, but the prayer time will have to go for today. Surely God understands. Perhaps He does, but you don’t. God is not a luxury like going to the theater or a basketball game. He is our life! Time with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ is never a luxury nor an option. Most people never get so busy that they neglect to eat their three meals a day. No matter what else is going on, they will find time to eat. They may shorten their meal times or get fast food rather than sit down and eat a leisurely meal, but they will eat. And so it is with our spiritual feeding on the Nourisher of our souls, our Lord Jesus.

What – a day without prayer? A day without being refreshed by the Fountain of Living Waters? A day without being nourished by the Bread of Life? A day without the Heavenly Manna? May it never be! When you look at God’s most useful servants throughout church history, we find that they were all hard workers. There is no blessing on laziness and little blessing on lazy Christians. To a man (or to a woman) every last one of the great, fruitful, highly successful ministers throughout history worked incredibly hard and put in long hours for the kingdom of God. But the ones that endured over a lifetime and never burned out were those who learned how to withdraw.

Evan Roberts

The amazing revivalist Evan Roberts was a man who did not learn that lesson when his ministry was at its zenith. Roberts became a catalyst for revival in Wales in the early twentieth century. For a little over a year it seemed that everywhere he went, the Holy Spirit was poured out. Multitudes were saved, Christians were revived and set ablaze, and the churches exploded. Most churches could not hold the crowds that would come to hear him speak, and sometimes he had to climb through a window or walk on the tops of the pews to get to the front.

Roberts was an intense young man and during that time he rarely took a day off. If he was not traveling, he was preaching, and usually more than once a day. Roberts’ greatest weakness was his white-hot intensity. He simply could not bring himself to take seasons of rest and refreshment. He labored for long hours with little sleep until finally his mind and body began to rebel. The young man suffered a nervous breakdown after about a year of preaching and had to withdraw from ministry altogether. In one of the strangest endings to a ministry ever seen in the annals of revival and Christianity, Evan Roberts never really came back. He became a spiritual recluse for much of his life, devoting himself to prayer and the writing of poetry and short articles. The church of Jesus Christ lost one of its greatest assets. Although he gave himself to prayer throughout his life, he had little desire to preach.

Remember the Sabbath Day

When our loving Creator fashioned our world and placed humans in it, He gave them a strict command that out of every seven days, one of those days was to be committed to worship, and work was to cease. Some people have sometimes been too legalistic with the Sabbath (although hardly anyone is today) but the principle is still as valid today as it was when God first announced it on Mount Sinai. We must rest; we must be spiritually refreshed, we must withdraw: daily withdrawals, weekly withdrawals, and sometimes seasonal withdrawals as we seek the Lord for the next step in our lives.

Are you a busy person? Anyone too busy to pray is too busy. Our Savior and our Lord was not so busy that He couldn’t take time out to withdraw. Let us follow His example.



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