“Not My Will”
Robert M. Thompson, Pastor
Corinth Reformed Church
150 Sixteenth Avenue NW
Hickory, North Carolina 28601
(© 2011 by Robert M. Thompson. Unless otherwise indicated, Scriptures quoted are from The Holy Bible, New International Version, Copyright 2011 by New York International Bible Society.)
If there is one story in the Bible that makes me want to take off my shoes because I am standing on holy ground, it is Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Mel Gibson’s 2004 film, “The Passion of the Christ,” masterfully portrayed the scene. I thought the rest of the film overplayed the physical suffering of Jesus. It’s not that Jesus didn’t suffer incomparable physical agony. It’s just that the Bible itself is very reserved in the description of that suffering. “They scourged him. “They crucified him.” Enough said. The point of the story is not in the details.
But if Gibson made his film gory to the point of distraction, his depiction of Jesus’ agony in the garden moves me. I find myself stunned that his disciples can be sleeping as Jesus bargains with his Father. His face and hair, dripping with sweat and blood against the backdrop of garden haze under a moonlit sky draw me in. When the androgynous Satan appears to mock him, “Who is your Father?” even though that line is not in the Bible, it only enhances the scene in my own imagination. When a snake slithers out from under Satan’s robe and writhes its way across Jesus’ arm, stretched out on the garden floor, I tremble. And when the distraught Master staggers to his feet with soldiers in the distant background and crushes the serpent’s head with his heel, it is as if I am there with Jesus on holy ground.
Gibson also films this part of his story in the Aramaic that Jesus likely spoke. That fact also enhances the realism as English subtitles translate: “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
I have heard and read teachers of the Bible who say that we should not pray, “If it be your will.” They’re not talking specifically about Jesus, but they are trying to wrestle with what Jesus said to his disciples a few days earlier.
“I tell you the truth,” Jesus said in Matthew 21:21-22, “if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”
James 1:5-7 adds, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does” (emphasis added).
Isn’t the prayer, “If it be your will,” really an expression of unbelief? Are we not giving God an out?
Today I would like to suggest some times when we should pray “if it be your will,” and occasions we should not.
We should pray, “if it be your will,” if we don’t know what God’s will is.
The most common prayer where I hear “if it be your will” added on is a prayer for physical healing. Philip Yancey has a marvelous chapter on that subject in his book on prayer.
Yancey opens the chapter recounting letters he has received in response to his books on suffering, such as Where Is God When It Hurts and Disappointment with God. One letter came from a woman in New Zealand whose 18-month-old had Down Syndrome. As if that were not enough, the little guy suffers from a form of leukemia that prevents production of blood cells in the marrow. As the doctor probes his little body for a vein to give him his ninth blood transfusion, the mother pleads for God’s mercy while her little boy sobs with pain and fear. Indeed, “Where is God when it hurts?”
On the subject of physical healing, Christian opinions range from those who insist any disease or pain can and should be healed if we have enough faith to those whose skepticism discounts any claim of divine intervention. Yancey points out that healing through prayer used to be “the realm of cultism, the domain of Pentecostals and superstitious Catholics” (250), but according to Yancey hundreds of clinical studies have now proven that there is a direct correlation between religious practices such as prayer and physical health. What that correlation is and how it works is still debated. But even scientists have to admit on some level that prayer matters, although they may doubt that prayer works.
What science says, however, is not my domain. The Bible gives us instructions to pray, and examples of prayer, from one end to other in matters of the body – not just the spirit. It is not, however, true that the Bible promises that prayer will always heal.
What we’re praying for is for God to suspend the laws of nature in regards to a particular illness. Yancey reminds us, however, that “Each of us learns to adapt our prayers to natural laws” (255). Nobody plants rice in the Sahara Desert and prays for enough rain. Or if he does, we don’t look on him as a man of great faith – more like great stupidity. Neither do we pray that the tide won’t come in or the sun won’t set.
The laws of nature are God’s laws. But there are inconsistencies and mysteries about certain laws that seem to give enough wiggle room. We don’t pray for Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan (pick your political hero) to come back to life and give some wisdom on running the country. But we do pray for physical protection and healing – even though it doesn’t happen all the time.
I believe we should pray “If it be your will” in matters of physical healing. We don’t know if it is God’s will or not. Physical death is not the worst-case scenario. Actually, being alive has been proven 100% fatal. We will all die, and we won’t know when or how. There’s not a predictable timeline or an equitable path that we follow in our physical health.
Yancey offers a checklist for prayers for physical healing. Am I expecting a miracle as an entitlement? Am I using the “common grace” God has given us in medical knowledge and treatment? Am I wrongly blaming God for choices humans make? Most importantly, am I prepared for God to say no. The Apostle Paul prayed three times for physical healing (2 Corinthians 12), and God said no. He found an unexpected measure of grace as he faced the suffering.
When I pray for physical healing, I often pray, “If it be your will” because I really don’t know. I know God can heal. I want to believe God will heal. I also know he sometimes doesn’t.
Finally, we should pray, “if it be your will,” as an act of submission while wrestling with God.
This is where I come back to that scene of Jesus in the garden. In this case, Jesus knows what is God’s will. It is not just the physical suffering he is about to endure. That, I believe, is the least of his concerns.
Matthew uses intense emotional words to describe his agony. Jesus was “sorrowful and troubled,” Matthew says. The word “troubled” is the Greek ademoneo, uncomfortable, not at home, the opposite of coziness. One Greek dictionary says it’s the strongest of three New Testament words for depression.
Jesus admits to his disciples, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” He pleadingly adds, “Stay here and keep watch with me.”
He knows what God’s will is. He will bear the sin of the whole world and redeem humanity from the grip of the Evil One. He came into the world for this purpose. Still he prays, “If it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.” That’s his version of “If it be your will.” The “cup” is a metaphor for “destined suffering” (R. T. France, Matthew, 292).
Returning to his disciples not once but three times during this soul torture, Jesus finds them asleep. He chides them (“Could you men not watch with me for an hour?), warns them (“Watch and pray so you will not fall into temptation”), and empathizes with them (“The spirit is willing but the body is weak”).
Did he expect them to stay awake? I don’t know. I think the Gospel writers want us focused on Jesus’ own struggle. They want us to see the disciples’ drowsiness as only contributing to his loneliness and gloominess.
What Jesus models for us is that even when we do know God’s will is set, it’s OK to wrestle, to struggle, to hurt, to push back, to grieve, to plead with God and say, “If it be your will, spare me from this.”
We expose our true heart when we then are willing to add, resolutely and deliberately, “Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
Charles Allen uses the familiar acrostic of “ACTS” for prayer, only he adds an extra “S.” Prayer, he says, is Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication, but it is also Submission (Prayer Changes Things). Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned about prayer is that it means yielding to God’s will.
I find it somewhat sad to be coming to the end of this series of sermons on the prayers of Jesus. The depths of prayer have not been plumbed.
Lent begins this Wednesday, however, and I’m not at all sad to think about what we will preach on next, starting Wednesday and continuing on through Easter. It’s the only book of the New Testament longer than a chapter that I’ve never preached through. And it’s so appropriate for Lent. Stay tuned.
The last few weeks I’ve learned a lot about prayer from studying Jesus’ prayers. Maybe it’s just me, but it also seems like I’ve had more opportunities to pray.
Take last Monday. I left the house at 5:30 A.M. for the Triangle area so that I could visit a prisoner in Raleigh, the daughter of one of our church members, pray with Lynn Price who was having cancer surgery at Duke, and pray at the opening of the Monday evening session of the North Carolina State Senate at the invitation of Austin Allran.
Prayer entered the day frequently. I turned off the radio and spent a good bit of time in prayer while driving into the sunrise. There are so many families at Corinth in various crises right now. I prayed for things to work out for my prison visit, since advance efforts to set it up had seemed futile. The person who clears visitors for the inmates was to be in at 8:30 A.M., and I wanted to see her in person to make my case.
Alas, when I got there I was told she wouldn’t be in until 1:00 P.M., and I realized I could have slept a little longer or gone on to the gym. Since actual visiting hours were from 2-4 P.M., I figured I still had a chance. I took a little time for reading before heading over to Duke, and stayed for a couple of hours with Lynn’s family, including a season of prayer before her surgery.
I left Duke Hospital about 1:00 to head back to the prison, and the next intense prayer happened when I couldn’t remember where I parked my car in the Duke parking deck. I pushed my panic button on both sides of all eight floors, occasionally hearing my horn pulsating somewhere among the echoing layers of concrete. It took 20 minutes of searching and praying as my anxiety rose that I would miss the window on the prison visit.
I called the prison on my way over, only to find out that the sergeant who clears visitors would not be in at all that day. I prayed again, one of those “if it be your will” prayers. And amazingly, when I got to the prison I was told immediately, “Captain Dennis” will take care of you. I had a wonderful visit with the young prisoner, and rejoiced in the answer to prayer. She shared with me some of her own answers to prayer, large and small.
On arriving at the State Capitol, I learned that Sen. Allran’s office had something to do with that sudden answer to prayer about the prison visit. They had paved the way through the warden. It’s nice to have connections – up there and down here.
I shared in a legislators’ Bible study with Sen. Allran and 30 of his colleagues, and that included a time of prayer. I was introduced later that evening by the Lieutenant Governor to pray before the Senate opened, and prayed for the men and women of that chamber, “Grant to each of them this night and throughout this session of the General Assembly wisdom that can only come from on high, and a collective capacity to make decisions that will enable the people of this state to live peacefully and quietly in all godliness and dignity (1 Timothy 2:2).”
As I said, it seems there have been more opportunities and more lessons on prayer for these past few weeks.
Mostly, I’ve learned to pray big prayers. We demean prayer when we think of it as only a way to get through the current crisis, like misplacing your car in a parking deck. To be sure, God cares about all we care about, and part of prayer is, indeed, learning to turn whatever’s on my mind into prayer.
He prays for people in their need, and I’m sure those prayers would include those in prison and facing surgery. Crises are the right times to turn to God with intensity.
But I notice how consistently Jesus prays strategically, and teaches us to pray the same way. He prays more like I prayed for the State Senate. He prays in broad, sweeping movements, for the seemingly impossible and unreachable.
Jesus prays for God’s kingdom to come. He prays for his church to live in complete unity. He prays for God’s glory to be revealed. He prays for the whole world to know him.
Prayer is about recognizing my smallness and my neediness. It is about a relationship with the Father that is deepened by my needing him. Sometimes God talks back, but that’s rare. Mostly he wants us to listen to what he’s already said and be sensitive to the still, small voice within. Jesus also wants me to keep praying, never to give up, all the while trusting that the Father will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.
There is so much more to learn about prayer! Keep praying. Amen.