How do you pray when your soul is overwhelmed with sorrow? Or in the furnace of temptation? We need to know because all of us will experience those things.
Recently we concluded a series on prayer in our homegroups. We started with the Lord’s Prayer as Jesus answers his disciples’ request to teach them to pray. But it was another scene where effectively Jesus taught his disciples to pray that struck me most powerfully. The scene was the Garden of Gethsemane. You may want to look at the account in Mark 14:32ff.
Of course, at one level, what Jesus is doing is utterly unique. It is the night before He will drink the cup of God’s anger at human sin. The salvation of billions is at stake. Only He as the perfectly innocent God-man can do that for us. What Jesus does is in a category all of his own.
And yet we also see a man. A man overwhelmed with sorrow. Perhaps his sorrow emerges not only from the agonies of death that await him but also because he is a man who, it seems, is tempted to pursue his own will rather than that of God. And the narrative reveals that the way he deals with that is intended to be an example for the disciples. It was a night of temptation and agony for Jesus- but it would also be a night of temptation for Peter, James and John as they faced the pressure to desert their Master. Jesus invites them to witness the scene in Gethsemane. “Watch and pray that you may not fall into temptation”- which, of course, is precisely what Jesus did. Jesus’ prayer is intended to be an example to them of how to pray in the midst of sorrow and temptation.
The chief lesson is simply this. What is Jesus’ response when faced with sorrow to the point of death? “Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed…” I want to underline that with regard to temptation in particular. We all face various temptations but many of us will be aware of a particular temptation (and it could be different for each of us) that we experience pretty constantly. Of all the weapons with which to fight it- constant, vigilant prayer will be the most necessary. But how should we pray?
“Abba”. It is not often that the Gospel writers record the original Aramaic word that Jesus spoke but Mark does so here as we get a glimpse into the relationship between Jesus and His Father. Astonishingly, it is the same relationship into which we are invited. Paul also slips into Aramaic when he talks about our prayer life- by the Spirit we cry Abba. Mike Reeves makes the point clear- “Prayer is learning to enjoy what Jesus has always enjoyed.” And that matters in the furnace of sorrow and temptation. In the midst of those experiences it is very easy for God to feel distant. But out of our pain we can stammer Abba and remember that, in reality, we are close to the Father as the Son is. We come to a God who is near.
“Everything is possible for you.” For Jesus the desire was for the cup to be taken away. I don’t know what it might be for you. Perhaps it is a painful temptation. Maybe it is the agony over a loved one who is not converted. Or the need for a job or healing or an end to loneliness. It is appropriate to lift those things to the Lord with the confidence that we come to our Abba, who is also the Ruler of the Universe- the One for whom all things are possible. Perhaps for some of us we fail to pray because we lack the confidence that we come to One who can do something about our trials. But He is- and it is good for us to lift them to Him.
“Yet not what I will but what you will.” I love the balance of this prayer. Jesus expresses confidence in His Father’s power and yet also submission to His will. And that is necessary because, in the end, the right thing is that the Father does not answer the prayer for the cup to be taken away. That becomes a model for believers down the centuries. I think of the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 12. He has an excruciating thorn in the flesh. He prays to the Abba for whom all things are possible “Take it away from me.” And yet, in the end, Paul has to submit to the will of God. He is more humble and effective in serving the Lord and others by relying on the sufficiency of God’s grace with the thorn than without it. For most of us there are things we long for. A spouse? Children? A job? An end to some particular form of suffering? The temptation is to pray and then be consumed with bitterness or apathy should no positive response be forthcoming. Can I urge us to learn from Jesus? By all means pray for those things. But we need to end our request with “Not my will but yours be done” because the reality may be that, from an eternal perspective and in ways that we currently cannot see we and others may be much better off without God granting the request. After all- imagine what state we would be in had the Father answered Jesus’ request for the cup to be removed. The victory over temptation comes as we submit ourselves to Abba’s will.
Perhaps right now you want to go and pray? Bring the sorrow and temptation to Abba. Pray for the source of the pain to be removed- but always with that fundamental submission. He knows best. May His will be done.