t was probably the earliest religious instruction any of us ever received: “Close your eyes and bow your head.”
Somewhere back in cradle roll or kindergarten, the smiling lady in the gingham dress at the front of the Sabbath school room tried to reinforce the lesson Mommy and Daddy were teaching us at home. Shutting your eyes, bowing your head, folding your hands, and sitting very still meant that you were praying, or at least ought to be. And woe unto the 3-year-old who furtively opened an eye to see what other kids were doing.
There were—and are—many good reasons for why we were taught that prayer almost always means closing our eyes. We are so easily distracted—by the ponytail ribbon lying temptingly within reach; by the expensive suit in the pew ahead that makes us feel small and cheap, even at worship; by the pile of unpaid bills slumping across the kitchen table. The world that rushes at us through our eyes seizes, overwhelms us with its sheer immensity and color, pushing gentler thoughts and feelings to the margins. It usually takes concentration—focused effort—to shut out the chief source of our anxiety and stress, something the psalmist knew centuries ago. “I have stilled and quieted my soul,” he wrote, “like a weaned child with its mother” (Ps. 131:2).
On most days, I close my eyes to talk with God because so little of my world seems like a place where He might be.
And yet, the last instruction Jesus gave to His disciples about prayer specifically directed that their eyes should be wide open, at least metaphorically:
“Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. ‘Simon,’ he said to Peter, ‘are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour? Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation’” (Mark 14:37, 38).
It is more than a clever play on words that reminds us why disciples approaching earth’s midnight ought to pray more often with eyes wide open. Whether we physically close our eyes or not in a posture of prayer, the attentiveness to which Jesus calls us as part of our experience of prayer should not be missed.
There may be—and should be—soothing moments among the pines when our hearts are filled with the joyful immensity of God’s presence, when we push aside the urgent, hectic images that often crowd our consciousness of grace. But increasingly, the Lord’s end-time disciples are called to pray among the harried and the hurried, in the midst of bitterness and conflict from which there can be no cool retreat, at times when staying alert and attentive to what is happening around us is the highest thing God asks of us.
Watch and pray—as you see the images of blighted, blasted Lebanon flickering across your television screen like sparks at the end of the world’s final fuse.
Watch and pray—as you trace the pain on 40 million faces living with HIV/AIDS for whom our tidy, healthy Western world must seem like all the heaven they could ever know.
Watch and pray—as you see alliances emerging, often still in shadow, for whom adherence to their truths is much more valuable than choice or vote or freedom.
Watch and pray—as God’s remnant people, those He is still calling out, are pushed and prodded by His Spirit, willy-nilly, onto a world stage where none can miss their final performance.
Watch and pray—until you see that cloud, at first no bigger than a Father’s hand, which holds within it all the shining radiance of His coming Son.
In light of all of these, you could be excused for praying with your eyes wide open. As you watch the madding crowds, rushing off to pleasure, boredom, or destruction, pray for grace you probably do not have to love the hurting, the unlovely, the confused, the skeptical.
What we see while praying is the stuff from which Godlike compassion and caring are shaped, our evidence of Christ’s presence among His people. The disciples who endure, who do not run away in the midnight hour, are just those who have learned to watch and pray.
Bill Knott is an associate editor of the Adventist Review.