Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane is one of the more interesting passages in Mark’s Gospel for several reasons, not the least of which is that it is a unique insight into his preparation for the cross. For days and even weeks, Jesus taught and led the disciples preparing them for what was coming. Their worlds are about to be turned upside down and Jesus wants them to be as prepared as possible.
But in the prayer in the garden, we catch a glimpse of Jesus preparing himself. He brings three disciples close to where he prays, and then moves deeper into the garden to be alone with his Father. Jesus prays a shocking prayer: he refers to God in the most intimate terms possible at the moment of his greatest crisis by calling him “Abba Father”; he reveals the struggle in his own heart and mind with utter candor by telling God he would like this cup to be removed from him; and, ultimately, he submits to the will of God in a trying and torturous moment.
On the other hand, the disciples were sleeping. Jesus asked them to stay awake, but the Passover meal and four glasses of wine were taking their toll. Jesus set them near him telling them to remain awake and pray with him, and I have no doubt they had every intention of doing so. But instead of vigilant prayer in the middle of the night, they fall asleep. Honestly, I probably would have done the same thing.
Part of what Jesus tells them when he comes to wake them up is a powerful glimpse into the lesson of the prayer in the Garden. When he finds them asleep he says, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing but the flesh is weak” (vs. 37-38).
How have you heard that phrase used: “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak”? How have you used it? It is not uncommon to use this phrase to excuse our behavior. We might have failed at actually doing something of value or help, but at least our hearts were in the right place. After all, our spirits were willing but you can hardly blame me for my flesh being weak.
When we place this phrase back into context, however, it ceases to be an excuse or an explanation, and becomes a correction. Jesus fully expected their flesh to be strong enough to keep up with the intentions or desires of the spirit within them. Our desires, even the best of them, don’t do us much good if they are never acted upon. If I desire with every ounce of my being to be kind, loving, patient and thoughtful toward my spouse but every word or action of mine is short-tempered, cruel and selfish, what good have my desires done anyone? I may intend to follow Christ with my whole life: to stay attentive and steadfast, to tithe and give of myself. But if I do none of those things, what good have my desires done for myself and the kingdom of God?
Don’t misunderstand: our desires need to be in line with God’s desires. That way, when we act on our desires, we act out the will of God.
It is entirely possible to follow the example of Christ in this passage. We can have a flesh—a lifestyle—that is ready to do what we rightly desire to do. Christ wrestled in the garden. He was shockingly honest about how he felt, but his spirit was willing to do what the Father ultimately wanted done. In the garden he surrendered his will, and on the cross his body naturally and inevitably followed.
I need to learn the lesson of surrendering my will to God’s will now, so that when the time comes for my flesh to follow, it is the most natural thing for me to do.