byFaith | Fall 2008
By Alan Dowd
There’s a melancholy old song by Garth Brooks that includes the refrain, “Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers.”
Followers of Christ know there’s really no such thing. God answers all of our prayers; it’s just that, like a parent who denies a two-year-old’s pleading request for more of this or that, He happens to answer some of our prayers with a “No.” And it’s these negatively answered prayers that often frustrate, confuse and challenge us.
Prayer—communicating and communing with God—has always been a challenge for God’s people. After all, Jacob was given a new name because “he struggled with God,” as so many of us do in prayer, and yet he overcame.[i] In Exodus, we learn that during one of Joshua’s battles, Moses needed Aaron and Hur to hold his hands in the air, for his uplifted, outstretched hands were the symbol of intercessory prayer.[ii]
Yearning simply to feel “the presence of the Lord,” Elijah endured a great and powerful wind, an earthquake and a fire. Only then, only after his heart was exhausted and his spirit stilled, could he sense the Lord in “a gentle whisper.”[iii]
In the Gospels, we learn that the disciples couldn’t even stay awake an hour to pray with Jesus at Gethsemane.
Of course, Jesus already knew humanity’s limitations from an eternity of experience. Perhaps that’s why He let us in on some of the secrets of prayer in what we call The Lord’s Prayer. It reassures us of His sovereignty and holiness, promises us that His kingdom and justice will one day reign on this broken earth, reminds us that we must share His twin gifts of mercy and forgiveness, and gives us a way to resist, if not avoid, temptation—all in 85 words.
But the heartbreaking reality behind The Lord’s Prayer—the prayer Jesus taught us—is that Jesus denied Himself its power, promise and peace.
Before scoffing at this, compare the life He lived for us with the prayer He gave to us.
Our Father who is in heaven…
Perhaps the very first words of this prayer hit those of us who don’t enjoy being away from “home sweet home” a little harder than those who love to travel.
The Son and the Father were always one, so there was no distance between them. As Jesus explained, poignantly, in John’s Gospel, the Father “has not left me alone.”[iv] Yet in some mysterious, inexplicable way, Jesus was separated from heaven, His home.
“I have come down from heaven,” He said during His ministry, underscoring, at the very least, that Jesus was not at home.[v] John adds that Jesus “had come from God and was returning to God.”[vi]
It’s hard to be separated from home, especially when your home is filled with love. Imagine how hard it must be when your home is a place of perfect love, when the world you leave behind is a kingdom of light and beauty and wholeness—and the world you enter is dark and deformed and broken.
That’s something akin to what Christ experienced when He came to earth. Here was the Word that made the universe, the Great I Am, the High King of Heaven, stripping off His heavenly garments, stepping into the box of time, stooping low to be born in a feeding trough, and washing the filthy feet and filthier hearts of mankind. The sacrifice is too great to grasp.
Of course, one reason Jesus made that sacrifice and “came down from heaven” was because He knew that without doing so, He would be separated from something else He loved: you.
Hallowed be Your name…
Today, His name brings peace and comfort to many. But when Jesus walked the earth, His name was not holy to the people He encountered.
Isaiah reminds us that “He was despised and rejected by men…we esteemed him not.”The prophet continues: “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” He was, according to Isaiah, “a man of sorrows…like one from whom men hide their faces.”[vii]
In fact, to the self-styled holy men of Jerusalem, His name was the very opposite of holy. They slurred Jesus as “raving mad,” a “demon-possessed” half-breed, an instrument of the devil.[viii]
His Nazareth neighbors “drove Him out of town” and tried to kill him. Once, when Jesus was about to raise a girl from the dead, Mark reminds us that the onlookers actually “laughed at him.”[ix] John reports that “even his own brothers did not believe in him.”[x]
The men of the Sanhedrin spat in His face. The Roman governor of Judea ordered Him flogged. And the mob chose a murderer named Barabbas over the Son of God.
His name was treated as anything but holy.
Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…
There were times during Christ’s ministry—perhaps long stretches of time—when it appeared that God’s will would not be done through the Son.
Consider the time when Lazarus died. As John reports, when Jesus heard that Lazarus was ill, He said, “This sickness will not end in death.”[xi] But at least initially, Lazarus’ sickness did bring death. As some of the mourners in Bethanyasked, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Lazarus’ sisters echoed that same sentiment, each of them mixing faith with something of a verbal blow by telling Jesus, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”[xii]
Seeing and hearing their pain, Jesus “was deeply moved in spirit and troubled,” John recounts, poignantly adding, “Jesus wept.”
But why? Jesus knew He had power over death. He knew He could and would raise Lazarus from the grave. After all, He had raised other people from death.
So why would the Son of God weep? Some say it was simply because of His humanity. But maybe there was more to it than that.
Perhaps He wept because this wasn’t how He designed it when He breathed life into Adam. Death wasn’t supposed to triumph over life. Death didn’t enter the picture until Adam rejected the Father’s will.
Yet even death could not thwart the Father’s perfect plan of grace and redemption, which is why He pointed the Son to the cross. Unlike Adam, Jesus would follow the Father’s will, no matter how hard or unfair it seemed, no matter where it led. And one day it led to a garden where the Son begged the Father to change His mind and reconsider His will.
“My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” Jesus sighed in that lonely garden. His sorrow was not only caused by fear of the cross and the pain it would bring, but most significantly by separation from God and the emptiness it would bring—an emptiness Jesus had never known.
In Mark’s account, Jesus used the intimate and personal “Abba”—or Daddy—to make his plea. “Abba Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”[xiii]
Like Jacob, Jesus wrestled with heaven all night. But unlike Jacob, there were no words of hope from heaven after the struggle. The cup of God’s wrath would be expressed in this instance not by floods or plagues or fire, but by silence and separation. A passage in Isaiah foreshadowed this centuries earlier: “In a surge of anger, I hid my face from you, for a moment.”[xiv]
Yet Jesus asked again, this time in a slightly different way: “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”[xv]
We humans know this kind of prayer all too well, the kind that is weighed down by desperation and built-in resignation to the inevitable, the kind that seems unanswerable, the kind that is weakened by the “if” word.
Jesus had used the “if” word at other moments in his ministry, but never like this. In fact, Jesus once admonished a man for approaching him in a similar manner.
Mark tells the story of a desperate father who came to Jesus on behalf of his demon-possessed son. Moved by their condition, Jesus asked him how long his son had suffered. “From childhood,” the man answered. “But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”[xvi]
“If you can?” Catching him in doubt, Jesus threw the man’s words back at him to make a point. “Everything is possible for him who believes,” Jesus explained. And the man responded with perhaps the most honest and human words ever uttered to God. “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”[xvii]
Wrapped inside his doubt, inside his request, was a recognition that all of our strength comes from God—even the strength necessary to believe.
“If” had always been Jesus’ way of revealing heaven’s power: “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed…” “If you believe...” “If you have faith and do not doubt…” “If the Son sets you free...”
But at Gethsemane, Jesus used the “if” word in yet another way—to show that real faith, perfect faith, trusts the Father and accepts the Father’s will, no matter the circumstances.
Of course, the Father’s silence and the Son’s obedience, from Gethsemane to Golgotha to the grave, meant that His will—their will—had won out.
However, to Christ’s followers, it looked as if He had failed—at least for three days.
Consider the terror that scattered His disciples that Passover, the tear-soaked despair of those who stood at the foot of the cross, the hopelessness of that long Sabbath Saturday, the confusion of that first Easter morning.
It took a while, but they finally realized what the empty tomb meant: Only the Son’s obedience could open the way for Adam’s children to live again.
Give us this day our daily bread…
This part of the Lord’s Prayer is about provision.
Jesus, it pays to recall, was poor. As Phillip Yancey observes in The Jesus I Never Knew, “Growing up, Jesus’ sensibilities were affected most deeply by the poor, the powerless, the oppressed.” After all, Jesus was born in a manger, among animals. He was raised by a teenage peasant-girl. His parents would wander from Bethlehem to Egypt to Nazareth during His pre-adolescent years, evading a death sentence handed down by Herod.[xviii] In today’s parlance, Jesus was a refugee during His time in Egypt.
Luke reminds us that as a man, Jesus and His ministry relied on the support of a few generous women. Jesus Himself noted that “the son of man has no place to lay his head.”[xix] And we know that Jesus felt hunger from time to time. Indeed, He knew hunger in a way that most of us never will.
To prepare for His ministry and mission, Jesus spent 40 days alone in the desert. As Luke reports, Jesus “ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.”[xx]
In other words, the One who sustained Israel for a generation with manna and quail, who fed countless thousands with a few pieces of bread and fish, who showed Peter where to drop his nets, shared in humanity’s hunger.
And our thirst. “I am thirsty,”[xxi] He gasped on the cross, as the life ran out of His broken body. And imagine how thirsty He must have been. After a sleepless, sweaty night, He was arrested and then dragged from jurisdiction to jurisdiction—Caiaphas and Annas, the Sanhedrin and Herod, Pilate and the mob. Before noon, he had been beaten by a detachment of Roman soldiers. Soon, He was carrying a cross through the dusty alleys and streets of Jerusalem. His throat must have been as dry as the dust that covered His skin.
In a day full of perverse ironies, this one is often overlooked: The One who made the waters of earth, the One who turned stone into water for Moses, the One who uncorked the living waters of the soul, the One who walked on the seas, was thirsty.
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors…
Christ’s final words on the cross—“It is finished”—provide an exclamation point to this segment of The Lord’s Prayer. As others have noted, the Gospel writers used the Greek word tetelestai here to convey the notion that a debt had been paid in full.
Again, the irony and paradox are too much to comprehend. God the Father was eager to forgive the debt of every sinner Jesus encountered, which was everyone He encountered—the prostitutes and the lepers, the tax collectors and teachers of the Law, the rich young ruler and woman at the well, Caiaphas and Pilate, the thieves and soldiers at Golgotha, Peter the proud, Thomas the doubter, Judas the betrayer, you and me.
Yet God the Son would not know that mercy. Even though the sins He bore were not His, He was not forgiven. His sentence was not commuted. There was no lamb to die in His place. In fact, He became the lamb, the sacrifice, the curse, as Paul later explained.[xxii]
And do not lead us into temptation but deliver us from the evil one.
Matthew’s gospel tells us that “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.” Mark’s account says, “At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert.” Luke simply writes, Jesus “was led by the Spirit in the desert, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.”
In other words, our Lord allowed Himself to be led directly and purposely and specifically into temptation—40 days of the very worst that hell could spew. The enemy attacked every weak point of Christ’s humanness—the hungers of the flesh, the desire for power, the impulse to go it alone and turn away from the Father, the deification of self.
And the temptations didn’t end there. “When the devil had finished all this tempting,” Luke chillingly writes, “he left him until an opportune time.”[xxiii]
That opportune time presented itself repeatedly. In fact, the evil one penetrated Jesus’ inner circle. He lurked there in the words and actions of Christ’s disciples. Once, his whispers could be heard in an arrogant argument over who was the greatest. On another occasion, Jesus heard His enemy speak through Peter, who tried to deter and dissuade Him from completing His mission. Christ’s reaction was immediate: “Get behind me, Satan!” he intoned. “You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”[xxiv]
But evil was present in more than just the weak moments and human flaws of Peter, James, John and the others. Throughout His ministry, Jesus knew that Satan had seduced one of the twelve. “One of you is a devil,” Jesus openly declared. According to John, “Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him.”[xxv]
Finally, there was the spiritual battle at Gethsemane, where hell threw everything it had at Jesus. It culminated when “Satan entered Judas,”[xxvi] who traded the Prince of Peace to the prince of this world for a few silver coins, betraying our savior—and his friend—with a kiss.
Thus began, as Jesus put it, “the hour when darkness reigns.”
God Is in the Details
The good news is that Jesus went through all of this for us. The prayers that seemingly went unanswered, for a time, were answered with an emphatic “Yes!” for eternity. As Paul would later explain in his second letter to Corinth, “No matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ.”[xxvii]
That means those who have gone hungry or been tempted or wrestled with what seem to be unanswered prayers can find comfort in the fact that Jesus has walked the same path and yet overcome. Jesus, as the author of Hebrews writes, “had to enter into every detail of human life.”[xxviii]
So He knows what it’s like to feel homesick and lonely and out of place. He knows what it’s like to be hated for no good reason. He knows what it’s like to be tempted to the breaking point. He knows what it’s like when a loved-one is sick or when a child dies. He knows what it’s like when people laugh at you for what you believe. He knows what it’s like when it seems that God has hidden His face. He knows what it’s like when a friend betrays you. He knows what it’s like to be hungry and thirsty and alone.He knows what it’s like to cry out for Daddy—to scream, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—and yet feel like an orphan. He even knows what it’s like to pray desperate prayers and to hear only silence.
But just as important for us, He knows what it’s like to hear the “Well done!” that comes after the silence—and to trust that the Father will answer every prayer according to His perfect plan.
[i] Genesis, 32:22-30
[ii] See Exodus 17.
[iii] See 1 Kings 19.
[iv] John 8:29; John 13:3.
[vi] John 8:29; John 13:3.
[vii] See Isaiah 52:14 and Isaiah 53:2-3.
[viii] John 10:19, John 8:48-50, Mark 3:22
[ix] Luke 8:53; Mark 5:40, Matthew 9:24
[x] John 7:5
[xi] John 11:4.
[xii] See John 11.
[xiii] Mark 14:36.
[xiv] Isaiah 54:8.
[xv] Matthew 26.
[xvi] Mark 9:22.
[xvii] Mark 9:20-23.
[xviii] Matthew 2:1-19.
[xix]Luke 8:2-3; Matthew 8:20.
[xx] Luke 4:20.
[xxi] John 19:28.
[xxii]Galatians 3: 13.
[xxiii] Luke 4:13.
[xxiv] Matthew 16:23.
[xxv] See John 6.
[xxvi] Luke 22:3.
[xxvii] 2 Corinthians 1:20
[xxviii] Hebrews 2:14-17; see also Hebrews 2:10-17, The Message.