Mark 14:32-38 ESV And they went to a place called Gethsemane. And he said to his disciples, "Sit here while I pray." (33) And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. (34) And he said to them, "My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch." (35) And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. (36) And he said, "Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will." (37) And he came and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, "Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour? (38) Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak."
To this day, my parents have one way of annoying me more than any other thing. No matter how many times I hear it, man, it gets under my skin. I love my parents but when they say “No,” UGH! Really? They said no to polo shirts and Guess jeans. They said no to that party or no to going on that trip. When I asked my parents to go to a concert on a weeknight, their first response was, you guessed: NO! Why? Because my sister had done it and then couldn’t go to school the next day cause she was sick. My best friend, Chris, said, “Ask them to give you a chance. You aren’t your sister!” I did and my parents said “Yes” and you can bet, I was in school the next day too! Still, there is no magic way to get them to say “yes.”
The ancient near eastern cult religions that surrounded the Jews in the Old Testament and the Greek and Roman gods who surrounded the early Christians, had certain beliefs and practices influencing us to this day. Namely, if you do certain rituals correctly, say the name of god/goddesses rightly and do your duty, the gods MUST respond to your request. Sadly, these cultic approaches remain part of our society and influence us still today, even in the church. Some teach and preach there are secrets in the BIble to gain wealth & happiness.
But this isn't what the Bible teaches. In fact, I suspect many of us think Garth Brooks had it right, there are sometimes when we need to thank God for unanswered prayers. But if we look a little more closely, it is not God’s desire to squash all our fun and deny us our wishes. We must examine our motive: “Do we want God or do we want God’s stuff?”
So how does God go about answering prayers? Let’s look at the root of Jesus’ prayer in the Garden: “...not what I will, but what you will.” Jesus seem to be making the point he does not want to die if it is possible to avoid it. If there is another way Father, open the way...BUT don’t do what I want do. Do what your will knows to be best. (some say to pray this way is a cop-out but Jesus did it!) At the root of why God doesn’t answer our prayers OUR WAY is because GOD’s WILL MUST BE FULFILLED.
Looking at the Bible we find at least four possible answers to our prayers:
- Yes (Psalm 118:5; Matthew 6:33-34)
- No (Disobedience: James 4:3; Teaching us: Hebrews 12:5-11)
- Wait (God’s time isn’t ours: Luke 18:7-8: Ecclesiastes 3:11)
- God’s way (Different than our ways: Isaiah 55:8-9)
Jesus taught us how to pray and we looked at this last week from Matthew 6:9-14. What we’ve not yet done though is to consider what is God looking for; just what does God expect? Jesus doesn’t seemed thrilled at the disciples behavior in the Garden. Their most urgent desire is to get some sleep and is totally different than Jesus’ motivations. What motivation ought we to be looking for? Let’s look at James’ writings (James is one of my favorites after all). James writes:
“You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” (James 4:3 ESV). Our motives are rarely pure and James calls this out. Our most base approach to prayer is all about us. But going furtherm James observes:
“The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. (17) Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. (18) Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit. (James 5:16b-18 ESV)” The “righteous person” is one who is acceptable to God and to figure this out, James says look at Elijah. Elijah wasn’t perfect or full of faith - he doubted and was depressed. But he responded to God’s grace by being obedient - Elijah desired to honor God.
Monk and writer, Simon Tugwell shares the secret which is no real secret, “We had thought of God as the dispenser of all the good things we would possibly desire; but in a very real sense, God has nothing to give at all except himself (pg 124.”Prayer: Living With God”).” God wants us to want him, not because he is some needy, codependent deity. Jesus was pointing us to God because there is no person, no entity in all creation who is truly worth our time and energy as God! This has been the single most important revelation (personal understanding) which has changed not just HOW I pray but WHY I pray and WHAT I pray. I am convinced it holds the possibility of changing not just how you pray but how you relate to God.