By Gabe Holton
We are often (and in most cases, wisely) encouraged to constantly be in prayer as Christians. This is the topic I want to explore today along with the myriad questions that often rise from the topic of prayer. Why does God seem to answer some prayers and not others? Does God truly hear our prayers? How should we pray? What is the point of praying? Instead of starting with an exposition on what prayer is, I would like to integrate this discussion into our passage for today.
39 Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. 40 On reaching the place, he said to them, “Pray that you will not fall into temptation.” 41 He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, 42 “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” 43 An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. 44 And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.
45 When he rose from prayer and went back to the disciples, he found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow. 46 “Why are you sleeping?” he asked them. “Get up and pray so that you will not fall into temptation" (NIV)
We should take great encouragement from the way Jesus prays in the garden. Think of the anguish Jesus is facing as he cries the words "take this cup from me." He knows that he will soon be arrested and brutally executed on the cross, and this is not something he takes lightly. We know that there is honest discomfort and fear as he pleads with God to accomplish his will through some other means. After praying for longer, Jesus seemingly composes himself as he tells the disciples to pray more earnestly. It looks like God does not answer Jesus' prayer, as he is still crucified, but is this the final word? It is interesting that after his prayer is not affirmatively answered, still he tells the disciples to continue praying earnestly. I contend that each of Jesus' actions in this story help us see something about God more clearly in this passage. Each piece is a vital step in our communication and relationship with God, and in turn, each piece reveals something about the God we pray to.
"[P]rayer is really about trying to align our own wills with the divine will, rather than trying to sway God." (Paul Feheley)
God cares about what we have to say. This is the first point I want to discuss in regard to this passage. Throughout all four of the gospel accounts, we see Jesus in prayer constantly. Even Jesus, who is God himself, turns to the Father in need and petition. In his final moments, Jesus spends his time in prayer, praying to align his own will with that of the Father's. When Jesus finds that God's will is still for him to die, he reorients his own desires to be in line with the Father. Despite God not answering Jesus' prayer in the way he might desire, he still affirms and believes the importance it has over his life.
At its core, prayer is a relational act. It is our means of communication with God and it is the way we can hear God's voice more clearly. When we lay our praise, our desires, and our requests to God, God hears and cares about what we are saying. When we ask God to do something or to answer something we do not understand, we are affirming that we desire for God to hear us and grow in a deeper relationship with him. It is not about us changing God's mind or his will, but for God to change us and the way we understand him.
I find it to be unhelpful in our discussion of prayer to read into someone's heart too intensely. Sometimes we can be told that our prayer is not answered because we aren't praying hard enough, or that we do not have enough faith. In other cases our pain may be minimized by other well-intentioned Christians who tell us "God has a plan." While this statement is true, it can be an unhelpful way to approach prayer for someone in pain, sometimes leading the Christian to doubt God's power over any given situation. Bad things still happen, people die, and our prayers are not always answered in the way we want them to be. Yet God is still faithful and present to us. What we ought to emphasize is the fact that God cares about what we grieve over and his love is always with us. When we pray, God reminds us of his presence and brings us closer to his will. When we pray, it should be with expectation, but not the expectation that what we desire will be granted, but that we will indeed meet with the presence of God who will meet us.