Nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus’ faith appear weaker than in the Garden of Gethsemane, the night before he was crucified. It has become so familiar for many of us that Jesus pleads with the Father not to go to the cross, that we miss another astonishing aspect: the Father does not answer Jesus’ petition. It is here, in Christ’s final few hours before death, that we learn an invaluable lesson about prayer and faith.
Finding a peace that surpasses all understanding
Timothy Keller writes, in his wonderful book Prayer, “It is remarkable that in all of his writings Paul’s prayers for his friends contain no appeals for changes in their circumstances. It is certain that they lived in the midst of many dangers and hardships. They faced persecution, death from disease, oppression by powerful forces, and separation from loved ones. Their existence was far less secure than ours is today. Yet in these prayers you see not one petition for a better emperor, for protection from marauding armies, or even for bread for the next meal. Paul does not pray for the goods we usually would have near the top of our lists of requests.”
Prayer is entrusting ourselves in faith to God, not necessarily having our petitions answered but knowing his peace.
The point, as Keller goes on to develop, is not that we should never appeal to our heavenly Father for change or respite during hardship, but that we must take care that our prayers are neither limited to or led by those kinds of requests. As Paul writes in a verse most readers are familiar with, “In every situation, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, tell your requests to God” (Philippians 4:6). Paul then provides the antidote for anxiety, in Philippians 4:7, “The peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” Prayer is entrusting ourselves in faith to God, not necessarily having our petitions answered but knowing his peace. But what does that have to do with Easter?
Jesus’ unanswered prayer
In Gethsemane, Jesus models prayer that is submissive to the Father’s will despite remaining unanswered. As Puritan scholar Mark Jones puts it in Knowing Christ, “He knew his hour had come; but this ‘hour’ would be his most difficult hour, and he would need strength from God to undergo the massive trial that was yet before him.”
When we see Jesus in Gethsemane he is neither valiant nor stoical as he prepares himself for the task at hand. He pleads with the Father. He begs, “Let this cup pass from me.” His soul was deeply pained (Mark 14:34) and he experienced agony as he prayed (Luke 22:44). The disciples had not seen their master looking more pitiable in his earthly ministry. Jesus looks weak. However, his faith is vividly on display as he prays, “Not what I will, but what you will.” Jesus’ faith is not brought into question by unanswered prayer; it is evident through it.
Prayer has emboldened Jesus’ faith despite being denied what he asked for. Prayer was Jesus’ means of entrusting himself to the Father’s will.
In his short prayer, offered up three times, Jesus boldly entreated his heavenly Father yet was ultimately resigned to the Father’s will. I think we are meant to be taken aback that when his enemies approach to arrest him, for Jesus’ resignation has turned to resolve, fortified trust in God the Father. When the band of soldiers call for Jesus, he confidently answers, “I am he” (John 18:5). That shift takes place so quickly that we rarely appreciate what has happened.
Prayer has emboldened Jesus’ faith despite being denied what he asked for. Prayer was Jesus’ means of entrusting himself to the Father’s will. In his prayer, Jesus did not receive from the Father what he requested. Because of his prayer Jesus knew the peace of God and gained confidence to face that terrible cross. Prayer grounded his trust in the Father’s perfect purposes, and however much the Son pleaded those did not change.
Faith is not measured by answered prayers
Reflecting on Jesus’ prayers should cause us to reflect on and even change our own, both how we pray and what we pray for. The content of our prayers should not be entirely shaped by our circumstances. Our faithfulness in prayer should not depend on God giving us what we ask for. Furthermore, faith should not be measured by answered prayers. As Jesus asked in Luke 18, “When the son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Many today would measure faith by the outcomes of prayer, when in Jesus’ life we see that faith is wholehearted trust despite the results. As we read in Philippians 4:6, God invites us to bring all our requests and petitions before him. This is a wonderful privilege. Only while God hears our prayers his answer may be his peace in whatever situation we are facing.