The funny thing about life is that it can be so unpredictable. The monotony and seeming predictability of things can trick us into getting comfortable, so that when that unexpected event arrives, we are completely taken off guard. Have you ever had one of those "I did not see that coming" experiences? More specifically, I'm talking about one of those devastating "I did not see that coming" experiences. You know the kind I am referring to here...a tragic diagnosis; a phone call with unimaginable news; a traumatic accident that changes the course of your life forever.
We will all face these times in our lives. You might have faced one recently, or, unbeknownst to you, one might be right around the corner of your life. As believers, we must decide how we will respond when those times come.
When they do come, we often go before the Holy God, broken. "What do I pray now? What can I ask You? Would You possibly just take it all away?" It is our natural response to the unnatural pains of life. As if the ground has been taken out beneath us, we grasp for any sense of certainty and familiarity we can. We try to stabilize ourselves against the cold and impersonal forces in this life.
Facing the great storms in life, we can choose to shake our fists at God, to doubt our faith, and to look elsewhere for comfort. We can join a long line of people who have determined, "I can't serve a God would allow this to happen." But, I might argue, that might point to a faith that was never really any faith at all.
Or, in whatever uncertain season we face, we can choose to let our faith work itself out. After all, what is faith if it does not endure through "such a time as this"? We can embrace God's promises, tucked away in the pages of Scripture, believing that He is great even in the midst of our suffering and loss.
Someone's prayer in scripture came to my mind recently as I have wrestled through this issue. The night before His death, Jesus withdrew to a garden on the Mount of Olives. In His humanity, Jesus faced all of the turmoil and emotions any of us would face. He agonized in grief over what was to come. And in that garden, on that night, Jesus prayed this:
“Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.”
Father...remove this cup from me! Oh, Jesus, do I understand this prayer. We have no trouble crying out to God with prayers such as this one, beseeching Him to remove us from our pain, to release us from our suffering, and to redeem us from our circumstances. I find it comforting that Jesus said this specific prayer, for we discover there is freedom in being honest before God, beseeching Him for healing, redemption, release, or whatever we might need. This is a prayer made out of human desperation and brokenness. I can pray like this. Really, anyone can pray this prayer, whether they are a follower of Christ or not.
It is the second half of Jesus' prayer, though, that shakes me: Not my will, but Yours, be done. In those times of deep heartache, of uncertainty and pain, can I really pray this? After wrestling with this prayer, I have discovered that genuine faith leads us to this prayer.
I will be honest, as I have searched my heart and considered Christ's humility before God, I have found moments where I've thought this to be the scariest prayer to utter. To honestly say to the Almighty God, "not my will by Yours be done," means that I am releasing all control over my life and those I love (my control, of course, that is really like grasping at water with the hand, but I don't like to remember that). Praying this prayer with conviction means I am saying I will enter the fire, I will walk in the valley, I will face the storm before me if this will bring God the utmost glory.
Again, can I really pray this?
A more appropriate question, to the point, though, is this: do I believe God?
Do I believe God's promise that He hears the cries of His children, that His heart is tender toward the brokenhearted and the crushed in spirit? (Ps. 34:15-18)
Do I believe God's promise that His mercies are new every morning, that His faithfulness is great, and that it is often in my deepest sufferings where I can still discover that the Lord is my portion? (Lam. 3:19-27)
Do I believe God's promise that, while this life may be filled with heartache and grief, loss and suffering, the eternal hope we have in Jesus far outweighs any hope we may have in this life? (Rom. 18:18; 2 Cor. 4:16-18)
Do I believe God's promise that Jesus is One who can sympathize with my weakness, that He understands the suffering I face, and that He goes before the Father as my advocate? (Heb. 4:14-16)
This is what we might call a crisis of faith. We must all ask ourselves this question at one time or another. Do we really believe God? The issue is not whether we attend church or read our Bibles or live good lives. The issue lies in this crux of genuine faith: do we believe God? If so, the scariest prayer becomes the safest and most practical one we could pray: not my will, but Yours, be done!
After all, did not Jesus do this very thing? Facing a suffering so agonizing and great that we could never imagine, He humbled Himself before God and accepted His will. He believed God, and because of Jesus' obedience, the most beautiful, incomprehensible redemption was made available to all of humanity. We are told in Hebrews,
"In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him..." Hebrews 5:7-9 (emphasis mine)
Praying to God, "Not my will but Yours be done," does not mean that the worst will automatically happen. It does not mean that we are destined for the worst suffering at that precise moment. In fact, just as Jesus prayed, we are free to beseech God for healing and freedom in our suffering. We are free to ask God for a removal of this or that hardship, or for restoration of this or that loss. Those kinds of prayer are natural and honest as we go to our heavenly Father.
But praying for God's will to be done does mean that we release control and trust Him, no matter what happens. Praying for His will to prevail above ours means we trust that He sees the picture in full, while we are limited in what we see and know. It means we trust God no matter what we face, knowing that He also is working for our good and His glory.
This is genuine faith, where the scariest prayer becomes the safest and most desperate cry of our hearts.