Recently I have been asking myself the question: how do you pray when the situation is hopeless? When an illness is terminal, or a tragedy just too great to contemplate and you feel hopeless and helpless and desperate – how do you pray?
I am grateful that my friend Jenny pointed me to Jesus’ prayer life in Gethsemane as an example of how to respond in these situations. On this Maundy Thursday, I invite you to come for a walk with me and eavesdrop on how Jesus prayed when he knew he would die.
Jesus was facing death. He had known for a while it was coming, but now it was a matter of hours rather than days. His initial response is not a stoic or blasé, “oh well, this is all part of God’s plan, and death comes to us all eventually…”; he is overwhelmed with sorrow.
Grief seems to come in waves. There are times when you think you are okay, and really this is fine and you can cope – and then there are the times when the news seems to hit you sideways, when you are left clutching your stomach and reeling from the pain.
“My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow” – these are the times when you are so full of emotion you don’t know how to breathe. “…To the point of death” – these are the times when you cannot process the sadness, and you don’t know how on earth you can carry on living.
When we are overwhelmed by the contemplation of our own suffering, when the future looks black, we can know that we have a Saviour who experienced those same feelings. There is no shame in feeling that we just cannot cope. Some things are too big to bear alone.
Jesus wanted his disciples around him while he prayed and processed through the inevitability of his death. Perhaps it was that he wanted them to pray with him or for him (he says to Peter later “watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation”). Perhaps it was that he needed them to watch for attackers so that he could pray undisturbed. Perhaps he just wanted people to witness with him as he prayed – to be watched, to be loved as he contemplated the fact he was going to be separated from his father and endure great pain.
Friends cannot take away the suffering, but they can ease the feeling of isolation. Friends cannot suffer for you but they can be with you. We need good people around us, people who can watch through the whole night, and not fall asleep.
Jesus asked for friends to sit with him, to be with him and keep watch. We can ask for the same.
Jesus’ friends let him down. Sometimes ours will do the same.
Today I am grateful that the first thing Jesus prayed was not ‘I submit to your will’, but a desperate plea:
“Daddy, dear Father – I don’t want to drink this suffering. I can’t do it. Please take it away. I know you can. You’re powerful enough – I have faith that you can do it. You can change any situation. Please, please, please take my suffering away. Please take it away.”
Jesus pleaded with his loving Father that his suffering would be taken from him. We can ask for the same. Sometimes God does the unlikely, the impossible, and our sorrow is turned to unbridled joy. It is always good to ask. Sometimes this is the only thing we can pray: “take it away, make it stop.” Jesus prayed that same prayer.
Jesus’ blood came out as sweat: the scientists tell me that this is a rare condition that only happens under extreme stress. Facing death, either ours or a loved one’s, is hard, agonising work. This kind of prayer is blood-sweatingly hard.
There comes a point – sometimes it takes a long time to get there, and sometimes it happens quickly – when your soul stops wrestling, and you take the impossible, dark, unfaceable situation, and yield it into the hands of your loving God.
“Yet not what I will” – suffering never becomes the thing you desire: death is still always the ‘last enemy’. Suffering is not ever the thing you want but rather the thing you eventually submit to. We submit because we can do no other, and we submit because we know that God is in control, and that He is loving, even if we can’t see how it all fits together.
“…What you will.” We submit as a confused toddler, exhausted from wrestling our loving parent. We yield our will into God’s hands.
This Maundy Thursday I am thinking of the ones who are facing overwhelming suffering, the hopeless situations. May we be those who keep watch and pray with you through the dark night.