“Do not pray for the fulfillment of your wishes, for they may not accord with the will of God. But pray as you have been taught, saying: Thy will be done in me. Always entreat Him in this way – that His will be done. For He desires what is good and profitable for you, whereas you do not always ask for this.” – Evagrios the Solitary, “On Prayer” no. 31.
Today is Maundy Thursday. This evening we will remember Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples and the agony He experienced afterward in the Garden of Gethsemane. Those of us who desire prayer, who really want to learn how to pray, would do well to meditate on Christ’s experience and example in Gethsemane. As one of my favorite Holy Week hymns says, “Go to dark Gethsemane, ye that feel the tempter’s power, / Your redeemer’s conflict see, watch with Him one bitter hour, /Turn not from His griefs away, learn of Jesus Christ to pray.“
Learn of Jesus Christ to pray. When Jesus’ disciples asked Him to teach them to pray, He responded by giving them the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father . . . Thy will be done . . . and lead us not into temptation. . .” Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane embodies the same principles. “When He arrived at the place, He said to them, ‘Pray that you may not enter into temptation.’ And He withdrew from them about a stone’s throw and He knelt down and began to pray, saying, ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done‘” (Luke 22:40-42 NASB). When we repeat the Lord’s Prayer regularly, we say these words as though they are easy. But Gethsemane displays the difficulty in saying “Thy will be done.” To submit our will fully to God is to experience an agonizing surrender.
Expanding upon this teaching of Jesus, Evagrios the Solitary taught that we should not pray for the fulfillment of our own desires, instead asking that God’s will would be done, trusting that God’s will truly is good. Many of Evagrios’ teachings fit well in the context of Gethsemane: Angels appear to strengthen Jesus in prayer (“On Prayer” no 81; Luke 22:43). Jesus prays and then is promptly attacked by evil (“On Prayer” no. 49; Luke 22:47). But these are merely finer details in the larger portrait of Jesus submitting His will fully to the Father. Jesus desires for this cup of suffering to be removed from Him. He does not desire the cross. Yet He does not pray for the fulfillment of His own wishes, because they may not accord with the will of God. Because the Father desires what is good and profitable for His Son, Jesus surrenders His will to the Father. This submission is a decisive moment. The angel appears in Gethsemane after Jesus has surrendered His will to the Father (Luke 22:43). And after Jesus is strengthened, He sweats blood. Both the sweetness and the pain of the scene increase when Jesus surrenders His will.
Evagrios writes, “Do not be distressed if you do not at once receive from God what you ask. He wishes to give you something better – to make you persevere in your prayer. For what is better than to enjoy the love of God and to be in communion with him?” (“On Prayer” no. 34). Jesus’ own communion with the Father meant submitting to the Father’s will. Though it meant suffering, this obedience was rewarded in communion through His resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of the Father. Jesus desired that this cup of suffering would pass from Him. The Father desired something better. But something better could not come without Christ’s agony and cross.
This leads to perhaps the most important question for those of us who are learning to pray from Christ in the Garden: Do we really trust that God’s will is good? We think we know what is good for us, but Evagrios and Jesus both ask “What is good, except God?” Our will is generally inclined toward what is comfortable, pleasant, easy. But as Jesus and Evagrios show us, the way to everlasting life is not comfortable. Trusting God’s goodness may mean more suffering, or more of what feels like suffering now, so that our joy in the fulfillment of God’s will may be even greater. Our prayers for the Lord’s will to be done may lead us to the cross, but never without the hope of resurrection.
Learn of Jesus Christ to pray. “Always entreat Him in this way – that His will be done. For He desires what is good and profitable for you, whereas you do not always ask for this.” Lord, teach us to pray. Not our will, but Yours be done.