Monday, 13 March 2017
In Matthew's Gospel we read that Jesus prayed in the Garden three times, on each occasion wrestling with God's will for him, "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup (of suffering) be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will." (Matthew 26:39)
Jesus did not pray this prayer three times, but rather prayed three sessions of prayer, the first about an hour long. Jesus may have prayed the same prayer dozens of times during those three sessions.
What does the fact that he stopped praying after three sessions teach us? Is there a time to pray and a time to stop praying?
How often should we pray?
Pray without ceasing
The apostle Paul teaches us to "pray without ceasing"(I Thess 5:16-18). We are always to pray! As we wake, as we walk, before we eat, when we rest - all day long, in constant communion with our Father in heaven.
Pray without giving up
Jesus told a parable about a persistent widow to teach us to pray and not give up (Luke 18:1). There are loved ones and situations which demand persistent never-ending prayer.
There is a time to stop
But there is a time to give up praying! When we know what God's will is on a matter, to keep on praying is tantamount either to mistrust ("I don't trust the response you have given me") or rebellion, ("I trust the response but don't plan to obey it").
Example: Paul Stopped Praying
The Apostle Paul was given a very painful "thorn in the flesh". We have no idea what it was, but it was a sore "something", "a messenger of Satan to torment" him.
It is not surprising that Paul began praying that the Lord would remove it. But God told him somehow - and not necessarily after the third prayer - that his grace would help him get through the trial, "My grace is sufficient for you", and the Lord told him that "his power was made perfect in weakness." Paul now understood that God had reasons and good purposes for allowing him the painful condition and not removing it. First, he would experience the amazing power of God working in spite of the thorn, and Second, that God himself desires to work through weak vessels, "my power is made perfect in weakness" - because then people would say "You mean God did great things through Paul? Don't believe it! He's such a weakling!" and they would turn their attention to Paul's God, and away from Paul. So deeply did Paul understand this revolutionary way of viewing his "thorn in the flesh" that from then onwards he delighted in insults and troubles!
God may have told him Paul all of this this before he began praying - I suspect he did - but Paul still began "wrestling with God's will", and counting how many times he wrestled with God's will. After three times he decided to stop praying. He knew what God's will was, and - here's the point of wrestling with God's will - he was fully resolved to accept it and "move on".
There is nothing wrong - or sinful - about "wrestling with God's will" - it is mark of our frail humanness to recoil from suffering. There is nothing wrong with moving from "is this God's will?" to "yes this is God's will but I really fear it and don't want the suffering" to "this is God's will and I will accept it."
For Paul and for us, to keep on praying about an issue which God has made plain to us already, to not come to terms with God's will, to refuse to accept it, is mistrust at the least and rebellion at the most.
So, yes, it is even possible for prayer to be sinful: if after knowing God's will we try to change his mind by prayer, that prayer is rebellious and therefore sinful!
When God makes his will plain either by providence or by Scripture, it's time to stop praying and start accepting and obeying.
Sometimes what we need is not prayer but obedience!
Jesus prayed three times
Which brings us to Jesus' three sessions of prayer about God's will for him. Jesus was being asked to suffer the anguish of the cross. Jesus reveals his true humanity by wrestling with God in prayer. As a true man he needs to "come to terms" with the suffering that lies ahead of him. Not once is he unwilling to suffer, but as a human being there is a natural process and time-lag in coming to terms with such great suffering.
But eventually the time comes for moving on to obedience, "Rise, let us go!"
I wonder if Paul, reflecting on Jesus' own wrestling with God's will, used the same pattern in his own life: three sessions of wrestling followed by complete resolve and then obedience.
There is a time to stop praying and to start obeying.