The Moving Process of Prayer

36 Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
39 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. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

Matthew 26 (NIV)

I once drove a thousand miles to ask a young woman on a date.  Before I even left I knew I was doomed, but I went anyway.[1]  I prayed the entire way, hoping that maybe God would change things for me.  Maybe he’d put in a good word for me; maybe he’d change her mind. I was so nervous and terrified that my prayers took on an urgency I’ve rarely duplicated.  Prayer in those moments felt like the only semblance of control that I had.  I couldn’t control what was about to happen to me, but maybe I could change the course of things by persuading God.  Somehow God seemed much more impressionable to me than the young lady. It’s as if I had hitched God to my car and was towing him along for the journey . . . hoping to get him to make things go my way. Of course, he did not change her mind.  My prayerful drive did not cause her to return my feelings.  She was polite in her rejection—which I appreciated given how far I had come. I left, it seemed, as quickly as I had come with a long prayerful drive home. 

My prayers on the way home took on a completely different tack. Suddenly the impressionability of God seemed like nonsense.  God did not need to change.  I needed to change in a way that would make me weather the storm of rejection and learn from what had happened to me.  I did not need a God who could orchestrate the decisions of a young woman; I needed a God who could disciple me and show me a way through my experience. I needed a teacher not a wizard. I needed God to shepherd me from my place of brokenness to a place of courage and self-understanding.  I needed to go through a process of personal transformation—to be fashioned more and more after the example of Jesus. When I made this mental switch in the way I prayed my life took a dramatic turn.  Rather than trying to use prayer to encourage God to make everything in the world be on my side, prayer became the process by which I got on God’s side in the world. 

Look at Jesus’s prayer in his darkest hour.  Jesus, yes Jesus, goes through a process of personal transformation.[2] Here Jesus is struggling and overwhelmed; unsure if he has what it takes to face the Roman leather, spikes, and beams.  So he prays.  Notice, however, that it is not a prayer for strength.  It is a prayer of submission.  He pleads honestly with the Father, but acknowledges that his greater desire is to be shaped by the Father’s movement rather than fear and doubt.  He processes from anxiety to resolute devotion to the Father’s will.[3] Prayer allows him to fully devote himself to the cross, both its glory and terror. 

Prayer, for me, and in this little section of scripture is a process by which we submit ourselves to the activity, the forward motion of God.  That forward motion moves graciously through anxiety, rejection, sorrow, turmoil, dreams, hopes, and hurts. It helps us find Christ within all kinds of moments and enables us to cling to/enact his character. 

Bottom line: occasionally prayer appears to move God, but always, prayer must move us. 

[1] You might ask why I’d do such a thing.  That would be a good question.  In short, I needed to know that I could be honest with her and I needed to hear her answer with my own ears. 
[2] I know that such a phrase in regard to Jesus raises big theological questions.  Ask them and let’s talk about them. Another note about the passage: Jesus actually prays the same prayer three times . . . this is not an easy, straightforward process.
[3] Using the word, “processes” here is a bit misleading.  I can’t think of any reason to think that Jesus didn’t continue to feel sorrow and trouble after this prayer.  It seems that his resolution to follow the Father may have come alongside his anxiety rather than do away with it. That would, at least, reflect more accurately my own experience.


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