Sometimes our knees buckle because of the challenges before us. Jesus, though, could stand with confidence before the cross because he knelt in agony at Gethsemane. The victory at Calvary was won in the garden of Gethsemane. If we want to stand with confidence, we must pray through in agony. Prayer is the gymnasium for the soul, but we often treat it more like the hot tub than the treadmill. The agony of Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane (Luke 22:44) is reflected by Epaphras who was “always agonizing on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature” (Col 4:12). Their maturity grew out of his struggles in prayer. Do you struggle in prayer? At Gethsemane, we learn that we must pray with honesty in the face of agony and difficulty (Luke 22:39–36).
First we must pray (Luke 22:39–40). Jesus had habits of prayer; he went as was his custom to the Mount of Olives (22:39), where he prayed. Prayer must be habitual not accidental or sporadic; the apostles apparently learned from their failure in prayer at Gethsemane since the early church was “with one accord…devoting themselves to prayer” (Acts 1:14; cf. 2:42; 3:1). Jesus commands prayer because it is necessary “that you may not enter into temptation” (Luke 22:40). The disciples fail to pray, and they fail Jesus in denying him. Similarly if we desire not to fall, we must pray.
Second we must pray with honesty (Luke 22:41–42). Jesus does not pray what he thinks that he is supposed to pray, but he prays with brutal honesty, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me” (22:41). Some wonder if it is okay for Jesus to pray with such honesty! Yet we look at the prayers of the Psalmist as well, who prayed “break the teeth of the wicked” (Psalm 4:7), “Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (10:1), “Will you forget me forever?” (13:1), and “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (22:1). We may criticize such prayer as theologically incorrect, but such prayer is clearly modeled for us in Scripture. Like any relationship, our relationship with God can be characterized by brutal honesty.
Also, we must pray with honesty in the face of agony (Luke 22:43–44). Such agony is not unique to Jesus; Epaphras “agonized” on the Colossians’ behalf in his prayers (Col 4:12). The strengthening presence of an angel (Luke 22:43) does not preclude the agonizing prayers of Jesus (22:44). More like, the angel’s strengthening enables the agonizing praying of Jesus so that he can pray through this challenge. Sometimes I wish that prayer were easier. I wish that the spiritual life were easier. Yet my seasons of greatest growth have often been preceded by seasons of greatest agony. We should not be surprised by agony, but we can be confident that he strengthens and empowers us through that agony.
Finally, we must pray with honesty in the face of agony and difficulty (Luke 22:45–46). The disciples could not pray but were “sleeping for sorrow” (22:45). The emotional toll of the events leading up to this event have worn them down, and they sleep. Similarly we face draining situations and burdens, and we often consider physical remedies but forget spiritual solutions. Recognizing the spiritual weight of the hour, Jesus does not comfort but rebukes them, asking, “Why are you sleeping?” (22:46). They are not spiritually trained to stand up to the challenge before them. Jesus warns them again, “Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation” (22:46). Sustained prayer demands focused training. Just like a marathon cannot be run without focused preparation, so sustained prayer cannot be accomplished without focused training.
If prayer is so hard, why even pray? Remember that Jesus, “for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising its shame, and is seated at the right hand of God” (Heb 12:2). We pray for joy. When I pray, my burdens become joy. When Jesus prayed, an angel from heaven strengthened him, so that even in his agony he could feel joy. May we be a praying church. As we see prayer’s necessity, let us pray with honesty despite its agony and difficulty. But let us pray with joy as we draw from the riches of his power through prayer.