Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” Going a little further, 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.” … He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.” … he … prayed the third time, saying the same thing. (verses 38-39, 42, 44)
This is an open door into one of Jesus’ most anguished moments. He tells his disciples he is “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” We need to take this seriously. If such a statement is true of the Son of God himself, it is an incredibly intense moment. Luke describes it as “anguish”, saying that Jesus’ “sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:44). Ouch.
In the midst of turmoil, Jesus prays. We won’t appreciate the prayer itself unless we embrace the emotion. So often I have heard this prayer dragged into a debate about whether or not “if-it-is-Thy-will” is an appropriate way for us to end our own prayers, some counting it as a cop-out that doesn’t take ownership of faith, but rather steps away from that dogged variety that moves mountains. Certainly using the phrase as an escape-clause, tacked on to avoid disappointment, isn’t helpful to vital faith.
But that’s not what’s happening here. When Jesus says, “Yet not as I will, but as you will,” it’s not an add-on, or escape-clause, or even a reluctantly sighed submission. No, it’s the main prayer. It’s the heart of the matter, in the midst of anguish.
Read this way, the first part of the prayer (“if it is possible, may this cup be taken”) is an expression of the true agony of the approaching moment (which, by the way, will be the central event of all human history). It will plunge Jesus into the depths of physical, psychic, spiritual and relational agony. His passionate prayer, uttered so earnestly, expresses the coming pain. But the heart of the petition is “as you will.”
Unflinchingly, all along, Jesus has had his sights on this goal. Just earlier in this chapter he told his disciples, “As you know, the Passover is two days away – and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified” (verse 2). Arrested in the Garden, he tells them: “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?”(verses 53-54). From eternity past, Father and Son have planned this out. The Son would never choose to abort.
A true parallel to this Gethsemane prayer comes in John 12:27. Anticipating the cross, knowing his hour has come, Jesus says: “Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour?’ No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!”
Ponder that statement. Lay it out, side by side, with Jesus’ anguished prayer.
It’s the same sentiment. In the midst of troubled agony, he says, “As you will.”
O Lord Jesus, this is such deep water. So much pain and anguish in the moment and in anticipation. Yet, from all eternity your commitment was always “As you will” and “Father, glorify your name.”
I now find myself “in you.” Work this same divine commitment in my own heart, regardless of the circumstance, regardless of the cost. Let these words ring also in my mind. “As you will.”
Reflect: Look for opportunities today to pray this prayer, from the heart: “As you will.”