Beans, ping-pong balls, and Jesus

esus at prayer in the desert

Christ in the desert / Ivan Kramskoi (1871)

Perhaps you have seen this object lesson: Before starting his sermon, a preacher asked for a volunteer from the congregation. He had a jar of beans and three ping-pong balls, and asked the volunteer to put the ping-pong balls into the jar. He couldn’t do it.

The preacher emptied the beans into a pitcher. The balls easily fit into the jar. Then the preacher asked the volunteer to see how many of the beans he could get into the jar. They all fit with some room to spare.

The ping-pong balls represented time with God. The beans represented all of the day’s activities. We cannot find time for God in the midst of all of the things we plan and all of the unplanned stuff that comes in a day. But if we make time by making it our first priority, everything else fits.

Jesus shows us the same lesson. In Mark 1, he taught in the synagogue, cast a demon out of a man, healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law and then spent the entire evening healing all the sick people who flocked to him and casting out more demons. 

And that might have been just one day’s work. He must have been exhausted by the time the last of the crowd finally went home. The next day promised only prospect of another day of throngs of people seeking healing.

The necessity of prayer

So Jesus left the house while it was still dark and found a private place to pray. When the press of people came clamoring for healing, no one knew where he was.

So Peter and lots of others went hunting for him, as for prey. They all wanted Jesus to do their bidding. They all hunted until they trapped him in his secret place. But he had been at prayer.

The disciples said, “Everyone is looking for you in Capernaum. There’s lots of work to do.” He told the disciples, “Let’s go somewhere else, to the neighboring towns, so I can preach.”

God had not called him to heal. God had called him to proclaim the coming of the kingdom. Healing was only part of that call. And God had not called him to be at the beck and call of people who cared only about their own needs. God had called him to demonstrate his Lordship.

Without spending time in prayer, those distinctions may have not been evident even to Jesus. Someone has observed that we might hear God tell us what to do, and the devil will immediately tell us how to do it.

If Jesus needed to spend time in prayer in order to discern what his priorities were, how can any of us expect to do any better?

Without intimacy with our heavenly Father, we cannot know much about our calling and our purpose.

Without prayer, we will be easily sidetracked and wind up either slogging on without direction or sitting back and waiting for someone else to act when it comes to kingdom work.

We can’t cram the ping-pong balls into a jar of beans, but if we put the balls in first, there is room for all the beans.

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