The Spirit is willing, the flesh is weak

Praying at Gethsemane by He Qi - Click for link

My teenage years were haunted by Gethsemane.  For a serious-minded 14 year old, this was the ultimate display of godly devotion.  Here was Christ leading the way in the school of prayer – showing us how to “give it all up for God.”  In desperation He prostrates Himself before the Father, He pours out His soul, He offers everything to God no matter the cost and declares “thy will be done!”

Well then, what’s a good Christian boy to do but follow in His footsteps?  So that’s what I tried.  Night after night, year after year I prayed what I considered to be “Gethsemane prayers.”  “God take me, use me, come into my life, have it all, your will be done!

I expected heaven to open, or perhaps angels to attend me.  At least a funny feeling in my stomach, some sign that I’d been heard.  But I got nothing.  So I prayed again.  This time more fervently.  Still nothing.  So I decided to pull out all the stops.  I went outside at dead of night, the way Jesus did.  I would find the scariest clearing in a forest and fall prostrate before God: “Take me, use me, your will be done!”  And the response from heaven?  Nothing.

After a thousand of such prayers I came to the conclusion that God didn’t want me.  So I didn’t want Him.  I left home to have as good a time as possible without Him.

Yet a few years later the Lord brought me back through this same passage.  You see I had forgotten how Matthew 26 ends:

“40 And Jesus cometh unto the disciples, and findeth them asleep, and saith unto Peter, What, could ye not watch with me one hour? 41 Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak. 42 He went away again the second time, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done. 43 And he came and found them asleep again: for their eyes were heavy. 44 And he left them, and went away again, and prayed the third time, saying the same words. 45 Then cometh he to his disciples, and saith unto them, Sleep on now, and take your rest: behold, the hour is at hand, and the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46 Rise, let us be going: behold, he is at hand that doth betray me.”  (Matthew 26:40-46)

Our Bible study came to Matthew 26 and I expressed how daunted I was by Gethsemane.

“Daunted? Why?” asked the leader.

“Well,” I replied, “I just don’t think I can pray Gethsemane prayers the way Jesus did.  I don’t have that level of commitment.”

“The way Jesus did?  Glen, who do you think you are in this story?”

I didn’t like to say but, well, surely I’m Jesus in the story.  Or I’m meant to be anyway.

The leader corrected me.  “Do you know who you are?  You’re Peter.”

And the penny dropped.  I’m not Jesus!  I’m Peter.  I’m weak, useless, faithless Peter.  I ought to pray with Jesus, but I don’t.  I fail.  And as I fail, Jesus prays for me.

By the Spirit, I belong to Jesus.  By the Spirit I want to follow Christ.  But my flesh is from Adam.  My flesh is weak.  And I’m constantly falling asleep on the watch.

But Jesus prays for me.

That’s the meaning of this story.  It’s the meaning of the Scriptures.  I am not the centre, Christ is.  I am not the Faithful, Obedient One, Christ is.  My hope is not my self-offering to God.  My hope is Christ’s self-offering to God.  And while I sleep and fail and flee and even deny Him – Christ is praying for me.

Christopher Idle put it perfectly:

When you prayed beneath the trees, it was for me, O Lord;
When you cried upon your knees, how could it be, O Lord?
When in blood and sweat and tears, you dismissed your final fears,
When you faced the soldier’s spears, you stood for me, O Lord.

When their triumph looked complete, it was for me, O Lord,
When it seemed like your defeat, they could not see, O Lord!
When you faced the mob alone, you were silent as a stone,
And a tree became your throne; you came for me, O Lord.

When you stumbled up the road, you walked for me, O Lord,
When you took your deadly load, that heavy tree, O Lord;
When they lifted you on high, and they nailed you up to die,
And when darkness filled the sky, it was for me, O Lord.

When you spoke with kingly power it was for me O Lord
in that dread and destined hour you made me free O Lord
Earth and heaven heard you shout, death and hell were put to rout
For the grave could not hold out; you are for me O Lord

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