This post was written by Nancy Guthrie and originally published by Christianity Today in April 2019.
“He fell with his face to the ground and prayed,
‘My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken
from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.’ ”
When we sing the old hymn “I Am Thine, O Lord,” Fanny Crosby provides us with words to express what we want to say to God on our best days:
Let my soul look up with a steadfast hope,
And my will be lost in Thine.
Certainly this is a worthy aspiration—that our desires would be so conformed to the will of God that they would become indistinguishable from his. Yet we often find our desires in conflict with his. When we said “Your will be done” as part of the Lord’s Prayer as we gathered with the saints last Sunday, we meant it … or at least we wanted to mean it. But it was a vague notion at that point. Today we find ourselves a bit offended by what God seems to be requiring of us. His will—which requires self-denial—has come into conflict with our will that is bent on self- preservation. We’ve begun to wonder if it is really possible that our will could ever be lost in his.
It is at this point in the struggle to submit that we find companionship, hope, and help as we peer into the scene that takes place in Gethsemane, a garden on the Mount of Olives given a name that means “oil press.” As we gaze into the darkness of that night, we can see that Jesus is being squeezed like an olive in a press, to the point that his sweat is dripping off of him like drops of blood. We can see that he is sorrowful and troubled. Then we hear him say to the disciples he has brought along with him, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Matt 26:38).
This is the same Jesus we’ve heard command the storm to be still, drive out demons from a man, and make bold claims of being the way, the truth, and the life. We’re used to hearing him speak with strength and conviction. But on this night, we overhear sobs of weakness.
I remember reading that Jesus was “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” about six months after the death of my six-month-old daughter, Hope, who’d been born with a rare metabolic disorder. I wrote two words beside the verse in my Bible that day: Jesus understands. Jesus understands what it is like to experience sorrow so heavy that it feels like it is pressing the life out of you.
We read, “Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me’ ” (Matt 26:39).
What is this cup? Jeremiah 25 speaks of a cup in the hands of God that’s filled with the wine of his wrath against sin. This was the cup that was being handed to Jesus to drink. In eternity past, Christ covenanted with the Father to drink this cup. It’s what he came to Earth to do. Yet here in the Garden there is a very real human struggle going on between obeying the Father and avoiding the cross. Somehow it helps me to know that Jesus wrestled with the Father’s plan for his life and his death even as he sought to submit to it, because I, too, have wrestled with the Father’s plan for my life even as I have sought to submit to it. Maybe you have too.
We tend to think that if we are good enough, if we are godly enough, if we can get enough people praying for whatever it is we are desperate to see God do, then God will be inclined to say “yes” to our prayers—that we’ll be able to bend God’s will toward what we’ve determined to be the best outcome. But clearly goodness and godliness does not obligate God to say “yes” to our prayers. If anyone ever deserved to have his prayers answered in the affirmative, it was Jesus. But the obedient Son’s plea to his loving Father is met with silence—seemingly a tacit “no” from God. The Father said “no” to Jesus so that he could say “yes” to you and me for all eternity. Jesus drank the cup of wrath to the dregs so that you and I can drink from the cup of salvation forever in the greater Garden to come.
Even though Jesus was struggling as he told the Father what he wanted, he was resolute about what he wanted most of all. We see it in verse 39: Jesus said, “Yet not as I will, but as you will.” And, after asking the second time, he says, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done” (v. 42).
Jesus was able to submit what he wanted for the sake of what he wanted more. He had a greater longing that trumped and trampled his desire to avoid enduring the judgment of God; it was to fulfill the purpose and plan of God.
Here is the hope we find in catching this glimpse into Gethsemane. Here we discover that it really is possible to overcome our own wants, to push through them into glad surrender. As we are joined to Jesus by faith, his perspective begins to shape our perspective, his power begins to flow into us and through us. We discover that, by his Spirit, he is actually changing what we want. We begin to enjoy an inner strength and rest—a firm confidence that whatever God asks us to endure is purposeful. We begin to truly believe that the joy of surrendering to his will is going to be worth whatever it may cost. We trust that as our will is lost in his, we will not ultimately lose out.
As we bring our wants and pour them out before our Father, we increasingly find that we can say along with Jesus, empowered by his Spirit, “I want your will to be done, not mine.” And he gives us the grace we need to say it, not through gritted teeth, but with open hands.
Matthew 6:9–13; 26:36–45; Philippians 4:6–7.
What is your attention drawn to as you reflect on Jesus’ struggle in Gethsemane? What does it look like to bring honest desires before God and simultaneously pray for God’s will to be done? How might your own life be more characterized by Jesus’ words, “Not as I will, but as you will”? How is God shaping your will to align with his?
Pray, expressing your desire to fully surrender your will to the Father.
This post was adapted from Suffering & Glory: Meditations for Holy Week & Easter (Lexham Press, 2021).