God, I come to your word today still foggy from sleep and distracted by the tasks that this day will hold. Yet I know that this time with you is more important that anything else I will do today. Please guard this time I spend reading and engaging with scripture and help me to make it sacred and truly set apart for you. May the words of scripture inform everything I do today. May this passage I am about to read tune my heart to sing your praise in some new way.
Today I’m reading Mark 14:32-42. Join me by reading it through a few times. Make a note of (or highlight) phrases and ideas that stand out or strike you in a fresh way. Remember that the word of God is alive and able to discern the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Hebrews 4:12). Let your thoughts and intentions be subject to God’s word as you read and reflect on this passage.
And they went to a place called Gethsemane. And he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. And he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch.” And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” And he came and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy, and they did not know what to answer him. And he came the third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? It is enough; the hour has come. The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.”
The thing that I kept thinking as I read through this passage today was that Jesus was, indeed, fully human. This is part of the incredible mystery of Christ—that he was both fully human, and fully God. There are so many beautiful passages that amplify his God-ness, his divinity. But this is not one of those passages. This is a passage that emphasizes Christ’s humanity—human fears (I don’t want to die, at least not this way), human prayers (“remove this cup from me”), and human weakness (“yet not what I will, but what you will”).
Yes, Jesus was weak. We don’t often hear that, but this passage makes it clear. He was strong, too—but his strength was not from his human side. In this passage, we see that Jesus drew his strength from the same place we draw our strength: prayer. Jesus was weak, trembling, fearful, and looking for a way out. Because he was a human being. Not sinful—but human. He evidently had a limited capacity in and of himself, which is why he knew that the only way he could get through what was coming was to go to the Father for the strength he lacked.
“Sit here while I pray.”
While I pray.
There are many insights in this passage. The disciples he chose to bring with him—Peter, James, and John, his “inner circle.” The fact that he seems to be asking for a way out of what he knew was coming—the brutality of the cross, and everything that came before it. The way he seems to be totally alone in his anguish, as his closest friends doze nearby, even after he has asked them to “keep awake.”
But the phrase that I have been chewing on this morning is this: “Sit here while I pray.”
I have had a number of friends over the years go through significantly difficult times. Miscarriages, heart-attacks, cancer, adultery, bankruptcy, decades of singleness (and loneliness in marriage), divorce, runaway teenagers, losing their homes to natural disasters, sexual assault in the forms of rape and incest, having a child steal massive amounts of money from them—the list goes on and on. And in all of these cases, as my friends have faced tremendous pain and sorrow, they have reached out to me (and others) for prayer. “Please pray for me…” say text messages and emails and phone calls. And I do. I always, always do.
I believe in the power of praying for one another. I have sent my own fair share of “please pray for me” shout-outs from my own places of pain and anguish. I believe—strongly—in the importance of covering one another in prayer. I believe it is the glue that holds the body of Christ together, that it is a way of loving one another, and, besides that, that it is scriptural.
But it is really interesting to me that in this passage, Jesus is not asking his disciples to pray for him.
Jesus is praying for himself.
I wonder, sometimes, how often we ask others to pray for us when we are not actually praying for ourselves. It is right to ask others to pray for us—there are plenty of examples in scripture where godly people have done just that. But first, we need to follow Christ’s example and pray for ourselves. And this is something that I think is easy to skip.
When we pray for ourselves—when we get alone with God and our pain—we enter in to a very holy place, but also a very vulnerable place. And I think that it is this vulnerability that keeps many people from going there. When we pray for ourselves, as Jesus did, we face the ultimate fear that faces anyone caught between a rock and a hard place: what if God does not come through?
We look at how Jesus prayed and, knowing the outcome of that prayer, we have to acknowledge that sometimes God says, “No.” Jesus asked, point blank, for a way out. The writer of Mark tells us that Jesus “fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him.” Jesus prayed, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me…”
And God did not.
I think this is the greatest hindrance to prayer. What if God says, “No?” Because sometimes he does. Sometimes the friend whose healing we are praying for dies. Sometimes the pregnancy we are praying for ends in yet another miscarriage. Sometimes the marriage we are praying to save ends in divorce.
Sometimes, God says, “No.”
And what then?
“Yet not what I will, but what you will.” This is the biggest hindrance to prayer, I think. And it is the most important. This gets to the question of Lordship and trust and faith in God. It forces the hardest question we face as followers of God: do I trust God more than I trust myself?
When we pray—for anything—we are presenting to God what seems to us to be the best outcome. But when we pray, “Not what I will, but what you will,” we are recognizing before God and every living thing on the earth and under the earth that we trust in God more than we trust in ourselves. And, if we are honest, most of us do not trust in God more than we trust in ourselves. This is why we are so disillusioned when God says, “No.”
No, I will not heal your friend.
No, I will not bring a baby from your womb.
No, I will not save your marriage.
No, I will not deliver you from the brutality of the cross.
And our gut reaction says what our words often do not: “God, I think you are wrong.”
What, then? What are we to make of prayers that are not granted in the way we wish they were?
As Jesus acknowledged, “All things are possible for you.” God can do anything. He can certainly perform miraculous healings of bodies and marriages and bank accounts. He could certainly have snatched Jesus up at that moment, delivering him from the torture and shame of the cross. And in his humanity, at least in that moment, Jesus was, it seems, deeply hopeful that God would. He certainly knew the bigger picture, the eternal good that would be done for all of humanity because of what he was about to endure. But even Christ, who saw more than any other human being ever could, stumbled, for a moment, over the intense desire he had to be delivered from it. This stumbling was not sin. But it was weakness. Frail, human weakness driven by the very human desire to not be in pain or to feel cut off from God.
And in his weakness, he prayed.
And through his prayer—which I believe was much longer than the paraphrase we have in Mark—he presented his request, and then surrendered the outcome to God.
I think it is important to recognize that he did not surrender the outcome neatly or cleanly. The anguish Jesus felt in this passage carried on. It was not as if Jesus prayed this prayer, dusted off his hands, and happily marched forward. “That’s settled. The answer is no. Let’s do this.” I think sometimes that’s how we imagine it went. But scripture says otherwise.
I’m getting ahead of myself a bit here, but I do find it interesting that the only words Mark quotes Jesus as saying from the cross were, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
The answer to Jesus’ prayer for deliverance was, “No.” And even on the cross, it appears that Jesus is still wrestling with this answer. Is he submitted to it? Yes. Perfectly submitted. But is he happy with God’s answer? No. No, he is not happy with God’s answer as he hangs on the cross.
I hope this insight frees you. It frees me. Frees me from the lie that trusting in God’s sovereignty and submitting to God’s outcomes should be easy for a person of true, mature faith. Submitting to the will of God was not easy for Jesus. It did not just come naturally to him.
It came through prayer. Specifically, through going to the garden and praying for himself. Presenting his request to God through prayer, and then drawing strength from God through prayer to face whatever God’s answer would be.
Are you praying for yourself? It is right to ask others to pray for you. But are you praying for yourself? Getting alone with God—even with friends nearby—to press your face to the ground in humility, intimacy, submission, and desperation? As Jesus shows us here, this act is a necessary part of walking with God—and especially of walking through the hardest parts of walking with God. Praying for ourselves positions us in humility before God, submission to God, and hope in God’s sovereign, good, mysterious, sometimes confusing, yet always, always loving plan for our lives.