Good Friday is a an example of the paradoxes we find throughout Christianity. In what way could the death of God be good? After his last breath, darkness fills the land. In his final hours, he tells us not to weep for him, but for women and children. Reading the descriptions of his crucifixion could never be seen as good. Crown of thorns, mockery, flogging, crowned head beaten with a reed, beatings, and finally nailed to a tree. How could any of this be good?
Recently, I talked with a friend who had told me he was no longer Christian. He had walked away from the faith. It hurt me, as this man had a significant impact on where I am in my faith journey today. Why do people do this? Why do Christians walk away?
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Are our liturgies are not good enough? No. Is it that our preachers do not preach the truth? In part. Is it that our worship band is off key? This may contribute more than bad preachers, but no. What is it that causes such anger towards God that one should say, “not your will, but my will”?
Throughout my life, I have had more non-Christian friends than Christian. In many conversations, their reason for walking away from God or not becoming a Christian was ultimately evil that God permitted in their life. “Where was God when my dad died?” “I did so much for God, and when I needed him he wasn’t there.” Rarely is it merely intellectual objections, and with so much hurt in the world we should not be surprised that intellect becomes a bandage to cover the wounds that have yet to be healed.
Are these people wrong? Isn’t God the reason they hurt so badly? We who have yet to experience such loss or heartache, do we not know that we too will find ourselves crushed in the divine crucible? Will we handle it any different? Will our children?
Why Do We Pray?
This is a question many Christians ask, either implicitly or explicitly. Most of us, including myself, tend to view prayer as an “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) forum. For those not in the know, this is a format celebrities and authors will use on social media where fans can submit their questions to be answered. In the case of God, it’s a GMA (Give Me Anything) where requests are to be fulfilled rather than answered. We can’t fault Christians for believing this when we see passages like, “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” (Jn. 14:14).
But most Christians, like those described above, were in situations where they wanted God to save them from evil. Yet, he did not. Does this invalidate prayer? I thought if they prayed in Jesus’ name, he would give them what they wanted. But Jesus also says:
In the world you [will] have trouble and suffering…
— Jesus Christ, Crucified King, Resurrected Lord
Now, there are several reasons we pray. I haven’t even mentioned the need to pray for loved ones and government leaders, but those too are found in scripture. But another reason I think that we pray is for a better emotional state. This too seems justified by scripture:
Do not be anxious about anything. Instead, in every situation, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, tell your requests to God. And the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Yet, how often do we pray, sometimes for lengthy periods of time, and walk way feeling at peace, only to have the world rush in and crush us again? Anxiety, despair, frustration, pain, suffering, the Devil’s fiery elements are many and effective.
To understand why we pray, we must turn to what Catholics call The First Sorrowful Mystery: The Agony in The Garden.
Our Suffering King
We find ourselves in Gethsemane. Our King has just fallen prostrate on the ground. His disciples are a stone’s throw away. The scriptures tell us “this was his custom”, to go here and pray. He had made it a routine.
But recall that our King has been anointed by the Holy Spirit. He is God in the flesh. The impassable made passable. Why is he afraid? Why is he disturbed in his spirit? Does he not need to read his Bible more? Has he not prayed the right prayer? Does he not remember his words to his own disciples? Is his faith wavering? What will his disciples think of his teaching if their own master, who said to ask for anything in his name, cannot even have his own prayers answered?
Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me. Yet not my will but yours be done.” Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And in his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.
The King gave his servants an eternal example; his prayer is the prayer that all of us will pray one day, lest we fall away and pray its opposite, “not your will, but my will be done.”
The primary reason we pray is not merely for blessing or for peace, despite those often being our motivation. It is to submit to the Father’s will. This is why you ought to kneel when you pray. We are not merely minds, we are humans, a soul-body unity. What you do with the one informs the other. Kneeling in prayer mimics our Lord’s submission in deed so that we may imitate his heart in prayer. We pray because we are duty bound to our Father in Heaven, and the King provided us an example for our own life on earth, a life called to mirror his, even unto death.
At this moment in his prayer, an angel appears to comfort him. But the anguish only gets worse.
His sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground
The Effects of Prayer
During this Lent, I found myself constantly coming back to this scene. I often pray for God “to give me peace” about this or that. But what I knew intellectually, that prayer was to unite my will with God’s will, has become a practice that I will carry with me far beyond Lent.
So what effect does prayer like this have? Based on the example of Christ in the Garden, it seems that God does not necessarily give us comfort in the form of peace or easy living. In fact, he may send an angel to comfort us in our sorrows, but that doesn’t mean he will take the cup, the pain, or bring back the loved one we lost.
This is not to say it never does happen, just that it does not necessarily happen. This is clear from disciples and the early church, Christ, and the modern martyrs we learn about around the world.
This thought was affirmed during my interview with' s, John Kraemer. If you follow John on Twitter, you know that one of his favorite monks is the Blessed Solanus Casey. During our pre-interview discussion, I told him about what I was reflecting on for Lent, and he shared this quote from the blessed monk:
Do not pray for easy lives, pray to be stronger people. Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers, pray for powers equal to your tasks. - Solanus Casey
The effects of prayer then, based on Casey’s quote and Christ’s agony in the Garden, is not to give us what we want or to give us an easier or prosperous life. It is is to give us the power to accomplish the will of the Father on earth, not of ourselves lest we boast, but through his power in us. This most likely will be accomplished through suffering. Those discussed at the beginning of this post, tried to carry their cross on their own. They failed, but God is still waiting for them to come back; I hope they do.
God knows that we can’t carry the cross on our own but Christ is clear that in order to be his follower, we too must carry our cross. But we cannot do it on our own strength. Only through the power of prayer can we fulfill God’s will in our lives, not because he removes the anxiety, despair, or cowardice in our hearts, but because with his power we can press on in spite of them.
What we learn from Christ, is that even the King of the Universe had to suffer. Why should we think we are any different? And as the world’s hate towards Christians continues to grow, our prayers will begin to echo Christ’s more and more. Our jobs, our careers, our livelihoods, our loved ones, all of it is now under threat of a mob that seeks to devour and destroy those that would carry their cross. Should the mob take more power than they already have, we will find ourselves under a similar persecution to that of the early church.
Therefore, let us pray.
Phil. 4:6-7 * New English Standard (NET) will be used for all subsequent citations.
Solanus Casey is right on the money. Down through the years it has come to my attention that American Christianity is a religion of prosperity and we don't much care for the hard things of the sufferings of Jesus or the early church or Christians down through the centuries. We prefer our peace and prosperity, Francis Schaeffer, than taking up our cross. And, of course, any individual of that day who saw someone carrying a cross it was because that individual was headed to be crucified. We don't know what it means to cry out in the dark and have the heavens as brass, Pastor Vic, and God clearly refusing to say anything or offer any assistance. A critical weakness of the modern American church is far too many leaders and pastors who don't know what it is to scream into the night and have God say, no, that's not how we're doing this. We love to read about Jeremiah but fail to connect with his broken heart and we don't have a record of anyone who really believed him and turned to the God of Israel because of his witness. Interesting what we prefer from Scripture. OK - got to stop. Getting carried away. Randy
Excellent article, Daniel. Gethsemane is a very instructive case of prayer; Lewis makes much use of it in Letters to Malcolm. In the earlier part of your essay, I couldn’t help but think of the ghosts in The Great Divorce: most of them were just sulking. A lot of atheism is just a bad case of the sulks. For Jesus, winning a kingdom required a courageous and submissive faith; thy will be done. It takes no less for his disciples, his subjects: “He that overcomes....” “They take it by force.” “Be strong, quit you like men, let all you do be done in love (not a sulky, “I’m not feeling loved”). Staying faithful to his God was not easy for Job, either. Or David. Or the apostles. So, like, duh (how’s that for a scholarly conclusion?). I encourage your readers to consult Oswald Chambers; his was a manly faith - the kind that overcomes and wins the kingdom. Lord, have mercy on us all and gives us the strength and grace and courage we need to stay faithful in this darkening day.