Sometimes I agonize over decisions. I look at both sides of an important issue and find myself being not clear on which direction to turn. I don’t want to make a mistake because some mistakes are desperately costly. I’ve wrestled over job decisions, financial choices, and even over what counsel to give to someone who is hurting.
There is a chance that you have had to wrestle with decisions much more difficult,
- Whether or not to stop life-support on someone you love.
- Whether to bail out a family member who seems to be making the same mistake again and again.
- Whether to confess a horrible transgression.
- What to do with a rebellious and perhaps even abusive child.
- Whether to take a chance on a risky surgery that could save (or end) your life.
- Whether to leave your marriage.
- Maybe even the decision over whether or not you wanted to live (thoughts of suicide).
Regardless of the decision over which you have agonized, we are going to look this morning at an agony that is greater than anything we have or will ever have to face. It is the agony that Jesus faced in the Garden of Gethsemane.
The events we read about took place following the Last Supper of Jesus and His disciples in the upper room. We are told that “they went out as usual” to the Mount of Olives to what is called the Garden of Gethsemane. Gethsemane means “wine press” so it is possible they were given the opportunity to reside in a stone wine press in a garden on the Mount of Olives by a friend of the ministry.
As you compare the gospel accounts you see that each records different details about what happened in this Garden. Some conclude that differences mean the Bible is not reliable. However, having different details is not the same as maintaining contradictory things. If you put these differences together you have a fuller picture of what took place.
Instruction: Prayer is Important
Look first at the instruction of Jesus to the disciples. As we put the facts together it appears that Jesus spoke to the disciples as a large group and then took Pater, James, and John a little further with Him.
40 On reaching the place, he said to them, “Pray that you will not fall into temptation.”
Matthew adds these words of Jesus: “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here and watch with me.”
Jesus gives them (and us) two reasons to pray. First, We should pray for spiritual strength. They were to pray that they would not fall into temptation. Jesus warned them that “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak”.
Each of us thinks we are stronger spiritually than we actually are. We believe (like Peter) that we would never betray or deny the Lord. Yet, we deny Him with sobering regularity.
Satan is a master strategist. Temptation is subtle. If we saw temptation coming we would prepare for it. However, usually by the time we recognize we are being tempted, we are already caught in a snare. Temptation chips away at us a little at a time until we can no longer stand. Prayer gives us the opportunity to ask God to alert us to our weakness and strengthen us in the time of testing.
In the extended quiet times of personal prayer God will reveal things to us that we do not see apart from these quiet times. Prayer, in other words, is vital to our own spiritual strength. It is necessary for our growth and our protection!
Second, Prayer is the way we strengthen others. Prayer has intercessory power. Jesus wanted the disciples to “watch with Him”. It is always easier to face a crisis when you can draw on the strength of others. Jesus told His disciples to pray because He needed them to intercede for Him.
I have heard many of you say as you were going through a time of crisis, “I could feel the prayers being offered on my behalf.” The reason we pray for others in our time of worship, the reason we send out prayer requests, is simple: we believe intercessory prayer makes a difference. I’m not sure how it works; I just know it does work. There have been times when I have sensed your prayers and the resulting supernatural strength even as I preach.
A Positive Illustration: The Prayer of Jesus
Jesus not only exhorted the disciples to pray; He also prayed. This is such a holy account that we tread very carefully and reverently. We are given the privilege of eavesdropping on the prayer of the Lord of Life.
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.
Notice several things from this private, intimate prayer of Jesus as He faced the prospects of His own crucifixion to provide a payment for our sin. Note first His anguish. Matthew (and Mark) tells us that Jesus told Peter, James and John,
“My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” (Matthew 26:38)
Luke adds a unique detail (and this was after the angel had appeared to strengthen Him),
being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.
Notice something here. The text does not say that Jesus actually sweat drops of blood. It says his sweat was like drops of blood. There is a condition called hematridrosis, where extreme anguish results in subcutaneous capillaries dilating and bursting. In such instances blood and sweat are exuded together.
I believe Luke may be speaking metaphorically. Jesus was sweating so profusely that sweat was pouring out of Him like blood would pour out of a wound. It is like when we say a person was “shaking like a leaf” or “panting like a dog”.
Some people are confused by the anguish of Jesus. Didn’t He know that He would be resurrected? Jesus did know the plan. He knew about the resurrection. However, He was also human. Jesus as a human did not want to suffer such a tortuous death. He didn’t want to see His friends in pain and see them scatter. Some would say, the difference is that Jesus knew what was on the other side of death. True, but I believe the anguish of Jesus is even greater than what we experience. Jesus, the One who had always lived in perfect fellowship with the Father, was now going to face the wrath of the Father. Jesus may not have been anguished over death (because it meant a return to glory) but dying as a payment for sin was more horrible than we can (or want) to imagine.
Imagine that you have a great relationship with your parents. Suddenly one day they turn on you. They have your arrested and claim that you have been involved in “elder abuse” or say you are “abusing their grand-children”. It would be devastating, wouldn’t it? To have the parents you love and respect turn on you in such a devastating way would cause great pain.
This illustration gives us an idea of what Jesus had to face but it is still insufficient. Even in the best of relationships we do not have perfect fellowship. Jesus had a perfect relationship with God the Father. They experienced a closeness that we cannot imagine. To face the wrath of the Father (even for the noble purpose of saving us), would be more painful than we realize.
This picture of Jesus in the Garden is a warning to those who would spurn or minimize His invitation to be part of His family. Death is not what we need to fear. Sometimes death can be relief from struggle and pain. What we must fear is the judgment that follows death. To face the wrath of God having spurned God’s offer of mercy and grace will be a terrifying thing.
Some say Hell and Judgment are incompatible with the love of God. This is like saying, pain is incompatible with healing or discipline is incompatible with parenthood. They actually go together! God is holy and loving and because of that He does not compromise with the destructive cancer of sin. It must be dealt with. In Christ, God provides a way for our sin debt to be paid.
Let’s suppose a cure for cancer was found. Your Doctor comes to you and asks to administer the cure. Can you refuse the treatment? You can. If you refuse the treatment can you sue the Doctor for malpractice because you died of cancer? No.
This is what some do with God. Our loving Father provides a way to know forgiveness and new life through Jesus. Christ paid a horrible price to make this cure possible. Now, if you refuse this one who died in your place . . . can you still blame God that you must face the consequences of your sin?
Note second The Honesty of Jesus. Jesus tells the Father the truth: He doesn’t want to face the wrath of God. Jesus as a true human asks if there is another way. He wonders if maybe it could all be delayed until another day. I suspect the Savior was not only concerned about His own suffering; He was also concerned about those who would be left behind . . . His disciples.
Honesty with God is not sin. Jesus was honest about His feelings and then works through those feelings in the presence of the Lord. This is a good principle for us. Before we can find strength in the times of temptation and healing in the times of failure, we must be honest before the Lord. It is best to confess our fear, our frustration, our anger, our tempting thoughts and our impurities. Only as we confess our struggle can we seek God’s strength to overcome those struggles.
Third, note the Submission of Jesus. Jesus has one goal throughout His prayer: He wants to honor the Lord. He wants to be faithful. Jesus says,
“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”(42)
Jesus understood that often what God wants and what we want are two different things.
- We want pain to go away; God may want us to trust Him in the pain.
- We want our desires to be satisfied; God may want us to find contentment in Him.
- We want people who hurt us to be punished; God may want those people to learn about His love through our forgiveness and grace.
- We want material riches; God may want us to be spiritually deep.
- We want to shield our friends and family from disappointment; God may want them to learn what is really valuable in life.
Our perspective and God’s perspective are different. Jesus submitted His earthly desires to the superior wisdom of God.
People can say these words, “Thy will be done” for different reasons.
- You might pray it out of resignation; as one who is crying “uncle”
- You might pray it as a way of escaping your own responsibility in a passive manner (like you are saying, “I don’t want any more to do with this decision; you make it).
- You can pray it in faith and with a willingness to do, go, or submit to whatever the Lord deems best.
The first two responses are not pleasing to God and make a mockery of the words. It is only the last that follows the way of Christ.
Fourth, notice the perseverance of Christ. We are told that Jesus went back and prayed the same prayer three different times. These were not little sentence prayers. Jesus asked the disciples (after his first prayer) “Can’t you watch with me for even one hour?”
Jesus stayed in prayer until His spirit was lined up with the Spirit of God. He went back a few times to make sure He was truly ready for what was ahead. He wanted to be sure that He was on the right path.
There’s a lesson here, isn’t there? If we really want to seek God’s will we must sort through all the issues until we are one with the mind of God. This won’t happen in a quick sentence prayer. It takes time alone with God. Sometimes it takes lots of time.
Finally, notice the answer of God. We are told an angel came and strengthened Him. I’ve never seen an angel but that doesn’t mean they haven’t been there many times to help me do what needed to be done.
God wants to help us. He wants to give us direction and strength. God is not a reluctant lover. He wants to come to our aid. In His wisdom He understands that sometimes we are helped more when we don’t get what we ask for immediately. The person who is always indulged and always gets their way is not strong, they are weak. They do not know how to control their desires. They will never know the satisfaction of working to gain something. They are ill-prepared for tough times. God loves us enough to give us what we need when it is best to give it to us.
A Negative Illustration: The Sleep of the Disciples
There is a contrasting illustration. Frankly, the story of the disciples too often describes my own prayer life.
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.”
The disciples had been told what they should do. I believe the disciples wanted to stand with Jesus. They did not want to let down their Lord. However, they were “wearied by grief”. It had been a long day. They were tired both physically and emotionally.
The disciples did not realize the importance of the battle; and neither do we. We exhaust ourselves with the trivial things of life (playing games, watching television, surfing the Internet, texting on our phone) and then are too tired (and distracted) to take the time to develop intimacy with God!
We must make time for prayer when our minds are sharp and our bodies are rested. A quick prayer as we doze off to sleep or as we drive to work in the morning may make us feel spiritual; but such prayers will never help us enter into the heart of God. They will not give us the clarity to see His will and the strength to do the often difficult things required to follow that will.
Every one of us is going to face big decisions over which we will agonize. No matter how bad the situation, none of us will ever face an agony like that which Jesus faced. We can learn something however about how to prepare for agonizing times from Jesus. I see six steps that will help us in these times.
1. We must first enter into a saving relationship with Christ. We will never know God’s life and God’s power until we embrace the mercy that He extends to us in Christ. We can’t embrace that mercy until we recognize that our only hope is for God to rescue us. Jesus is our only hope for forgiveness and new life. We can’t follow Him superficially (by being “religious”) and hope to know Him intimately or eternally. We must open our hearts and our lives to His rule and His grace.
2. We must accept the fact that even well meaning and righteous people struggle with some of the things that happen in life. We are not bad people because we struggle or hurt. We are not evil because we don’t like the way things are going.
3. We must recognize that we cannot “figure out” anything without His help. Our perspective is skewed. We do not see clearly. We need God’s wisdom.
4. We must view prayer not as a duty to be done but as a relationship with God to be developed. The goal of prayer should not be to get God to “fix our problems”, the goal of our times of prayer must is to know and love the Lord more fully.
5. We must keep at it. Relationships go through stages. At first things can be very awkward and uncomfortable. However, as we work at the relationship we start to walk together and can begin to almost read each other’s minds. We have to develop intimacy with God. There will be struggles. We must learn that God knows what is best and His will is superior to our own. Dwight Moody once said, “The sweetest lesson I have learned in life is to let the Lord choose for me.”
Jesus made an agonizing decision to submit to the Lord’s will to suffer the wrath that we deserved. Because of this we have been presented with big decisions as well: will I trust the One who died for me? Will I submit to His leadership in my life? Will I live my life trusting His wisdom and prayerfully saying, “Not my will, but yours be done”?
It is a huge decision. If you haven’t agonized over it a little, you may not understand the nature of the decision at all.