Christians know that we are supposed to be both praying people and imitators of Christ. Do we often think about what Jesus’ prayer life teaches us about ours, though? This post looks at Christ’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, as recorded in Mark 14:22–42, to see what the Son’s prayer there might teach us about our need to pray. The main takeaway is that Christ’s Gethsemane prayer summons believers to bold wrestling with God in prayer combined with humble submission to God’s will.
That twofold application – boldness and submission – can be difficult to balance. Too much boldness implies that God owes an answer to our prayer or even the answer that we want. On the other hand, uncareful submissiveness omits the process of wrestling with God in prayer.
The Christ Who Prayed
To consider the Gethsemane prayer well, we must first think about the person who prayed it, Jesus. So, we begin with the identity of the person praying, namely God’s eternal Son who is eternally equal to the Father.
Christ pointed to his unity and equality with God the Father even in one of his other prayers. In John 17:11, Jesus prayed: “And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.” God the Son who had become incarnate by taking on a human nature was praying in light of his essential unity with God the Father. Christ was aware of his eternal relationship with the Father while he was on earth.
Jesus’ Gethsemane prayer has been important in some of the historical debates about the nature of the Son’s Incarnation. What are the implications of God the Son asking the Father for things that he wished would happen? He asked that the cup, which represented how he would drink the very dregs of God’s curse for the elect, be passed from him. Yet the Father sent the Son for that very task.
Christians believe that the triune God has one singular will common to the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. This does not mean simply that they agree about what they want. My will, for example, may be aligned with someone else’s in agreement. In that sense, we may say that my and the other person’s will are “one.” But the persons in the Godhead don’t have separate willing faculties to agree with one another. The triune God has one will. To put this crassly, if our will is our “wanter,” then Father, Son, and Spirit all have the same exact “wanter” in the divine essence.
Still in Mark 14:2–42, Jesus asked the Father for something that was not God’s eternal will. Although he had come in his incarnate mission to lay down his life for his sheep, he asked that this cup pass from him. That request coming from the incarnate Son tells us that Jesus Christ, as God’s Son in human nature, had that one divine will, but also a human will. He had two wills. He had two “wanters,” one divine, according to his deity, and one human, according to his humanity.
This Christological point pertains to our prayer life because our own Savior, who is eternally God, wrestled with God in prayer over things that were obviously very difficult for him. Certainly, this wrestling – this suffering – accords to his human nature, since he is impassible according to his deity. Still, Christ indeed sympathizes with you when you feel worn out or distraught in prayer because he has been there.
It further pertains to our prayer life because Jesus died to save us from sin’s consequences and effects. One of sin’s effects was the corruption of our wills. Because Jesus took on full humanity, including our will, his death removes sin’s effects on our wills. Because Jesus has a human will, his saving work repairs our wills. Christ works in us to restore our ability to want godly things, even as we pray. Crucially though, the Christ who prayed was God’s eternal Son in human nature.
The Way that Christ Prayed
Just prior to Christ’s Gethsemane prayer, recorded in Mark 14:32–42, Mark records the institution of the Lord’s Supper, beginning at verse 22. This is important because it shows what Christ already knew before he went to pray. In Mark 14:24, Jesus knew that he was going to die: “And he said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.’”
He instituted the Lord’s Supper, pointing to the cup as his blood poured out for others. He knew that he would die to bear the curse of God’s wrath. Mark 14:27–28 confirms that Jesus knew that his death was certain: “And Jesus said to them, ‘You will all fall away, for it is written, “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.”But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.’” He quoted Zechariah 13:7 to show that the Scripture foretold the certainty of his death, that his disciples would abandon him, and that he would rise.
So, Jesus knew that he would die. Yet, he prayed: “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mk. 14:36) Even though the Son – according to his divine will shared with the Father and Spirit – planned his death as the means to forgive sins, he still asked the Father that the burden of this plan pass from him. Jesus wanted – according to his human will – to avoid bearing God’s curse.
To counter an objection, Jesus was not wrong to pray for what he knew was not in God’s eternal plan. Jesus is the only sinless man, so there was nothing possibly sinful about wanting to avoid sin’s curse. The Son enjoyed perfect fellowship with his Father in eternity and the Incarnation but was about to undergo the full force of God’s just wrath for sin that he did not commit. There was nothing wrong with his knowing the dreadful agony of enduring the Father’s curse and wanting—according to his human nature—to avoid it.
In Christ’s prayer, then, we see that he really wrestled with God, and that this was not sinful. In Mark 14:39, he went back to God with the same concern: “And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words.” He did not relent his prayers lightly.
The Way that Christ Teaches Us to Pray
What do we learn from Jesus’ example, then, about how we should pray? First, there is no excuse not to pray. Jesus knew exactly what would happen yet prayed about it. Jesus prayed thoroughly, even though he knew God ordains everything that comes to pass and knew—as God—exactly what God had ordained. So, we who do not have perfect insight into the divine council have absolutely no reason not to pray.
Second, we should pray urgently and earnestly. Luke 22:44 adds another detail about Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane that Mark omitted: “And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.” Jesus was so burdened as he labored in prayer that he sweat blood. So, we too should pursue fervor, earnestness, and diligence in our prayer.
Third, we should be bold but submissive in our prayers. Jesus prayed for exactly what was on his heart. He prayed because he did not relish the thought of enduring God’s wrath, even though he knew that he would bear that curse. He said in Mark 14:36: “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” He affirmed God’s power and rightfully acknowledged the dynamic of this relationship. The incarnate Christ was a servant. Still, Jesus outright stated, “Remove this cup from me.” He did not dilute his request with “I would really like it if” or “If you please.” He made his request with raw intensity because he trusted his Father to receive his prayers. He was bold.
He was also submissive: “Yet not what I will, but what you will.” He did not presume that the Father had to do what he asked, nor did he presume that his boldness had inverted the relationship of who was the servant. His statement of acquiescence indicates that Jesus had resigned himself to God’s will because he knew that it is best.
Sometimes Christians use the phrase “if it be your will” in prayer, not because we are resting in God’s hands after we have thoroughly wrestled with him, but because we are afraid of stating our desires before God in the first place. We use it as a safety net, so that we do not seem to ask too much, or so that we are not disappointed with the answer. We should pray that God’s will be done and submit ourselves to the will of the sovereign God. But we should also make sure that we have truly gotten to grips with God in prayer, wrestled through the issues with our God, and have come to peace with those things as a servant in the Lord’s hands.
This challenge to wrestle with God boldly but submissively in prayer presumes that prayer is a means of grace (Westminster Shorter Catechism, 88). Prayer includes “an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, 98), but as a means of grace is also a way that God grants us peace with whatever does come to pass. As Philippians 4:6–7 says: “Be not anxious but instead in all things by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving make your requests known to God, and [as a result] the peace from God which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (my translation). Peace guards our hearts and minds as a result of praying to God in thanksgiving and supplication. If we want peace despite the turmoil swirling around us, we should pray. God uses prayer for believers as a means to further our sanctification as we wrestle with him toward peaceful submission to his will.
Jesus prayed and received peace to settle himself to carry on gladly in God’s plan. That plan was essential to how peace can guard us in Christ. For Christ, the plan was to go to the cross to bear God’s curse on behalf of all his people. God’s incarnate Son went to the cross because his people are guilty of sin and sin deserves death. Jesus’ Gethsemane prayer shows some of how much that truly cost him as he suffered under God’s just curse, which should have come to us.
He endured that agony, however, for the joy set before him of presenting his people spotless and blameless before God’s throne (Heb. 12:2; Jude 24–25; Eph. 1:4). So, although Christ is an example to imitate including in how we pray, he is certainly no mere example. He is the Savior. He shows us that we should pray boldly and yet submissively in all things so that peace from God will guard us. Still, the Father did not answer that Gethsemane prayer and Christ went to the cross, so that because of Christ’s shed blood, our prayers may now be heard before the throne of grace (Heb. 4:16). Now, having risen from the dead, he ever lives to intercede for his people (Heb. 7:25), so we might know that when we pray in bold submission, God certainly hears our prayers because of Jesus Christ and his work for us.
Harrison Perkins (PhD, Queen’s University Belfast) is a pastor at London City Presbyterian Church, an Online Instructor in Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary, a visiting lecturer in systematic theology at Edinburgh Theological Seminary, and the author of Catholicity and the Covenant of Works: James Ussher and the Reformed Tradition.