In the Garden of Gethsemane, from just a stone’s throw away, watch Jesus pray. You see Jesus fallen, his face in the dirt. You hear God crying out to God. You wonder, “What could it be that God, wrapped in flesh, wants so badly that he bleeds?”
First, he wants there to be a way around the cross—and don’t be disturbed. There is nothing about sinless perfection that says he ought to want the experience of crucifixion or ought to want nails through his hands and feet. He will receive within himself the accumulated guilt of this whole human race. He will feel in his soul the Father’s face turning away. The very thought makes him so sad he could die.
“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me.”
Second, he wants his Father’s will to be done—that the people of the world should be redeemed whatever the cost, that though undeserving we should yet know the breathtaking love of his Father, that we should be let in to that love and see with our eyes the glory Christ had before the creation of the world.
The dreadful truth dawns. The answers to both his prayers can’t be yes. His deep yearnings are incompatible. Either he will die horribly or we will—one or the other is certain. Either his need will be met or ours.
Which, dear Lord? You’re going to have to lead us to the bottom of your desire. Which do you crave more?
“Father . . . not my will, but yours be done.”
That’s what you hear from Jesus, from a stone’s throw away.
(Please read Luke 22:39-44.)
There’s a logic we find invincible in our pain. Since there is a God of absolute power loving me perfectly—he can do anything and says he would do anything for me—there’s a simple way to test it. It’s called prayer.
There’s a hurting little girl who prays to feel better. You say, “I know what I’d do if I were God. How does he resist?” How many people have laid out that seemingly obvious test? They sent up a prayer and riding on that prayer was, “Let’s see if it makes sense to believe in him.” How many people walk away from the door of religion concluding there’s no one on the other side because “He didn’t answer me”?
I must interject that it’s only by faith in Christ that any sinner even has a relationship with God. If you pray to a god whose love is bought by good works, for example, I’m not surprised that there was nobody home. That god doesn’t exist. If you are praying in Jesus’ name, relying on the perfect access Christ has granted you to the very Father in heaven, he has certainly heard every prayer, not to mention every inward groan and barely audible sigh. Knowing Jesus means leaving out any thought of making God willing to listen. By faith in Jesus, God’s heart is already entirely yours. He hears you.
And his answer is often yes. He may grant the very thing you requested at the perfect time or give something you will admit was better by far. Let the seasoned believers around you share their stories of answered prayer. You may be astounded, and you may learn a few things about how to pray. “I will not let you go unless you bless me,”116 cried Jacob in the Old Testament. “Lord, you’ll give up before I do,” was the tenacious spirit of his striving with God. Think of Jesus teaching his disciples “that they should always pray and not give up.”117
Indeed, think of Jesus. Think of the cross. If for a time God doesn’t seem to care, know him better than that.
But what about the times when no answer comes? Consider Jesus. So close to the center of the story of our faith is the unanswered prayer of God’s dearly loved Son. Four things are crystal clear:
The Father loved his Son. The Son did not want the horrifying agony of the cross. The Son prayed to the Father until sweat like blood appeared on his forehead. Still the cross. What are we missing? Where does our logic break down when we’re so sure we know what a God of love should do about a heartfelt prayer? Consider three simple truths that might bring an appropriate humility to our questions.
- The answer to all our prayers can’t be yes. What one person prays for may not be compatible with another per- son’s prayers. If two men pray for one woman’s heart, at least one will be disappointed. It’s that kind of world.
Also, I may not be aware of the inconsistencies among my own prayers. There are my prayers to be happy, my prayers to be good, and circumstances in which both can- not take place. “Lord, let me be popular” doesn’t jibe with “Help me speak the truth.” It’s that kind of world too.
So may I mention one prayer that lets us put our hands to the rope the Father has been pulling since time began?
May we have ears to hear a billion believers across time praying in perfect harmony that which the Spirit of Christ has moved us to long for as well: “Our Father who art in heaven . . .”
- We don’t know what should happen. God knows the future and the past. He knows everything—every fact right now and every result tomorrow of every conceivable contingency today. He is the only one who knows. We don’t know the first thing about what is good or bad for us. Take the example of Jesus’ disciples. What do you imagine they might have prayed for before they fell asleep in Gethsemane? That Jesus would snap out of it? (He had frequently spoken about dying and was obviously distressed.) I can imagine them praying that they could have a pleasant night, a nice Passover in Jerusalem, and then a safe journey back to Galilee. Clearly if they could have undone, through their prayers, the events that began to unfold next, they would have . . . and so they would have prayed to be alone and lost, in pain and in the dark forever. If God had said yes to those prayers, that’s where they would have been. They didn’t know what was good or bad for their own circumstances.
Neither do we. A Christian man stood beside the casket of his little boy and said to me, “God took my son when I was still his hero.” He was thinking of the many things fathers and sons go through that he and his son would never know. It was a remarkable moment, but don’t misunderstand. It didn’t mean his heart wasn’t breaking. It didn’t mean he would ever have chosen to be standing beside that casket on such a sunny day. He was forcing himself to admit that he didn’t know where the path would have led on from there, should things have happened differently. All he knew was that he had a son in heaven. He was betting his soul that it made sense to trust in Christ, that he would see his son again and that they would stand side by side one day shouting, “My God has done all things well!”
I don’t know what will happen in the story God has writ- ten for my life. But I do know him through his Son, Jesus. With eyes fully open, I want him to be God, not me. I want his will to be done.
- We’re only dimly aware of what we really want. The soul thirsts for God as a deer pants for water. Though we don’t know it by nature, it is God and only God who could ever match the depth of our thirst for love and meaning. In this way, you can trace any of our desires back to the Source. The prayer behind all our prayers is for the One who fills everything in every way, who loves us even though he knows us. I’ve prayed to be taller, smarter, and better. I’ve prayed for success, for love, for wisdom. What I’ve always really wanted was God.
That’s what makes my sin such a dreadful thing. Sin put the one thing my heart really longed for far beyond my resources and reach. The sin of us all cut us off from Life and Love, and it would have cut us off forever…but we found all we ever really wanted clawing in Gethsemane’s dirt.
There was Jesus saying yes to the prayer behind all our prayers.
He was giving himself away, making a way for us to go home, whatever the cost to himself. If his will includes doing that for me, and it does, then what can I say?
“May his will be done.”
I pray for an easier time of it here… I pray for a life that is worthwhile.
I pray for some circumstance to go the way I want… I plead to my God that I want to know his Son.
I pray to be happy here in this or that way… I pray, “Father, let me see your face in heaven.”
To each of these the Father in heaven must say, “Which is it?” and I remember what I really want. I don’t want to stay standing a stone’s throw away from Jesus.
“Your will be done.”