Prayer in the Hard Times (Matthew 26)

May 1st, 2011
Photo © Barkaw| Flickr | Used under Creative Commons license.

I’ve heard it said that there is no such thing as a foxhole atheist, meaning that in one of life’s most difficult places, a military foxhole, for instance, even someone who claims disbelief in God will believe. The same might be said of another of life’s difficult places, the hospital bed. During my time in church ministry and as a hospital pastoral care volunteer, I have spent quite a bit of time in hospitals and have observed that during life’s scariest times, prayer is accepted even by those who otherwise might not believe. As believers, hopefully our prayer lives are more consistent. Our God seeks to be in communication with us in all areas of our lives. In 1 Thessalonians 5:17, Paul calls us to pray continually. Yet, even for believers who spend regular time in prayer, there is something different about those times of urgent, desperate prayer when we face scary situations and uncertainties. This week we conclude our series on great prayers of the Bible by discussing praying during the hard times.

Because prayer is a common response in both believers and nonbelievers in times of difficulty, examples abound in scripture. As Jacob approaches his meeting with Esau, he spends time in prayer, even wrestling with God over his difficulty (Genesis 32). Moses often cries out to God as he faces hardships while leading the people out of Egypt. As a matter of fact, Moses is in almost constant communication with the Lord as he journeys. As Samson stands blinded and tied to the pillars at the feast of the Philistines, he cries out to God. Jonah even prays to God in his misery from inside the giant fish. The list could go on and on.

Perhaps the most powerful example in scripture of praying through difficulty is Jesus’ prayer in the garden just before his arrest. Through Jesus’ example, we can learn some key things about our own prayer in the hard times of life. Jesus’ prayer in the garden is found in each of the Gospels. (The accounts from Matthew 26 and Mark 14 are nearly identical.) Separating himself to pray was nothing new for Jesus. His prayer in Gethsemane, however, is different. He has just celebrated the passover with his disciples. He knows that the time is approaching for his death. The scripture even suggests that Jesus knows that Judas has already betrayed him.

After the dinner, he goes to the garden at Gethsemane to pray, accompanied by the inner circle of Peter, James, and John. As it is late, Jesus asks the disciples to stay awake and pray with him. It is a request they are unable to fulfill, and they fall asleep on three occasions through the evening, no doubt deeply disappointing Jesus. Jesus then cries out to God. In his humanness, he is fearful of what is about to take place, and he earnestly calls to God to allow the cup to pass. With each request, however, Jesus acknowledges that it is God’s will and not his.

For me, of the many painful scenes in the last hours of Jesus’ life, this scene in the garden is one of the most poignant. Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, desperately cries out to his Father God, his Abba, to spare his life, while knowing that this cup that he prays will pass is the very reason he was born. Even as Jesus prays, feeling the conflict of fear and acceptance, his closest friends do not surround him with outstretched hands. Instead they sleep, while one of their own prepares to betray him. The prayer scene ends with Jesus’ arrest. Immediately he knows that the cup will not pass from him, and we know that the ultimate sacrifice is about to be made for humankind.

Although examples of praying through the hard times are prevalent in scripture, there are none as revealing and instructive as Jesus in the garden. Jesus is perfect and truly innocent. He did not cause this painful situation, and yet Jesus has access to God’s perfect plan and its outcome.

Our own difficulties are never so simple. As part of fallen creation, we are not exempt from evil and difficulty in the way that the Son of God could have been. Yet, even through Jesus’ most difficult moment, we can learn much about our own prayers in the difficult times of life. First of all, as Jesus approaches this scary situation, he seeks God. Jesus does not spend more time teaching, doing miracles, or even resting physically for what is ahead. He wholeheartedly seeks God in his time of difficulty. We are called to do the same. Many times, we intend to pray, and even believe in prayer’s power and necessity, but we do not take the time to do it.

Second, Jesus is honest in his prayer. He prays that he will not have to go through what he is about to go through. We are called to do the same. As we call out to God, we should allow ourselves the freedom to speak our minds and our hearts. God knows our thoughts already, but there is comfort and power in speaking the truth as we pray, even if it reveals our own fears and weaknesses.

Finally, Jesus accepts that his will may not be God’s. Even as Jesus pleads for his life, he realizes that it may not be God’s will for that to take place. As we seek God and pray wholeheartedly in mind and heart, we can acknowledge that our design may not be God’s. God’s plan for our difficulty may not be even close to our own, and yet we are called to accept God’s love and mercy in whatever form it comes. In many ways, I think that Jesus’ time in prayer prepares him for what comes next. As we seek God in all situations, we are better prepared to accept God’s will for our lives.

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