What to pray when the situation is hopeless (Jesus in Gethsemane)

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.

  • “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Mk 14:34)

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 blasΓ©, “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.

  • “Sit here while I pray…Stay here and keep watch.” (Mk 14:32, 34)

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.

  • “Abba, Father…Everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me.” (Mk 14: 36a)

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.

  • “And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” (Luke 22:44)

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.

  • “Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mk 14:36b)

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.
This post was in part inspired by this beautiful poem on Gethsemane by J K Rowbory. You can buy a volume of her poetry here (Amazon affiliate link).


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25 Responses to What to pray when the situation is hopeless (Jesus in Gethsemane)

  1. Rebecka 22nd April, 2014 at 7:52 pm #

    I have no words today. I just want to thank you.

    • Tanya 24th April, 2014 at 9:02 am #

      I’m hearing you in your no words. And I’m sending you a massive hug. Lots of love to you. Xx

      • Rebecka 24th April, 2014 at 9:02 pm #

        Thank you, and I’m sending you a big hug back! xx

  2. Miriam 21st April, 2014 at 12:42 pm #

    I find it so comforting to know that when I pray it is not to a distant God who knows nothing of earthly struggle, sorrow and suffering, but to who understands completely. I can go to Him even when I am overwhelmed with sorrow and grief and He gets it. He understands me and my struggles even better than I understand myself.

    I really liked your point about friends. I often think I can do it by myself and that I don’t want to make myself vulnerable so I don’t share my struggles. I’m slowly learning that the prayer & support of friends is so worth making myself vulnerable!

    • Tanya 24th April, 2014 at 9:00 am #

      I completely agree with you about this making God not distant. (That was very bad English, but you know what I mean!)

      And I can definitely relate to the hesitation of sharing struggles because you don’t want to appear vulnerable. But it is a beautiful and strengthening thing when friends meet us in our vulnerability. And I love that Jesus was vulnerable even though his friends didn’t come through for him.

  3. Monica Benton 18th April, 2014 at 3:17 pm #

    This is so true for all losses!! Its so powerful!!! Yes how many times I have thought I was fine and then bam, I realize I’m not. Loss, grief, pain, its all a process, it takes time. Some longer than others. I know my recent grief as been made more bearable with the friends who have stood by me. Thank you for this.

    • Tanya 24th April, 2014 at 8:58 am #

      Yes – so true that this applies to all losses. It’s definitely a process. (I often think of Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief cycle when considering the effects of chronic illness, for example.) I’m so glad to hear this was helpful to you and so glad to hear you have friends standing by you.

  4. Heather 18th April, 2014 at 1:04 pm #

    This was so beautiful and spot on. I love how it basically goes against every cliche we’re told when we’re suffering. It seems too easy to forget that Jesus really did ask to have this cup passed.

    Thank-you for sharing this.

    • Tanya 24th April, 2014 at 8:56 am #

      Thank you so much, Heather. And you’re right – it really does defy all the suffering cliches.

  5. Tricia 18th April, 2014 at 9:54 am #

    Thanks Tanya. It is good to be reminded that no matter how much we suffer – Jesus understands. He’s been in that place and knows the pain.

    • Tanya 24th April, 2014 at 8:54 am #

      Yes! It’s so simple but so world-changing.m

  6. Cathy Fischer 17th April, 2014 at 11:45 pm #

    What a powerful meditation–for today and for days of suffering. I can’t remember reading anything more helpful, ever. Ties right in with your ‘why thorns and gold’ post. I am saving and sending this on to friends. Thank you for sharing your heart–as always.

    • Tanya 24th April, 2014 at 8:54 am #

      Wow! Thank you so much! I’m SO glad it was so helpful to you. It felt like a bit of a revelation to me, too.

  7. Amy Young 17th April, 2014 at 5:45 pm #

    Wow. Hadn’t thought of that prayer in that context. This is a post to ruminate on.

    • Mark Allman 18th April, 2014 at 8:03 pm #

      I agree with Amy here.

      • Tanya 24th April, 2014 at 8:58 am #

        Thanks, Mark πŸ™‚

    • Tanya 24th April, 2014 at 8:53 am #

      Thanks, Amy. Ruminate away. πŸ™‚

  8. Margaret 17th April, 2014 at 3:14 pm #

    I’m reflecting today on how my suffering connects to the Passion. This helped.

    • Tanya 14th June, 2014 at 9:39 am #

      I totally missed this comment, for some reason. But thanks so much for stopping by! I always enjoy seeing your face. πŸ™‚

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