My prayer discipline has always been fairly strong, but I have expectations. When those expectations don’t get met, I lose interest. I want answers, outcomes: feelings of His presence, peace, clarity, breakthrough in ministry, changes in the lives and ministries of others. You see, my prayers are quite transactional, even selfish. The pattern causes a problem. When I’m in a dull routine, have limited interactions with people, or face an uncertain future, I find it hard to pray because results seem less likely. Trying to squeeze the same kind of results from my plodding discipline frustrates me. Such situations require a new kind of prayer. The disciples had an opportunity to learn it.
Thursday was a strange day. The Passover meal was simple but good, although Jesus had continued His gloomy predictions about betrayal and death. Now they were in the olive grove and Jesus was more troubled than they had ever seen Him. He had asked them to watch—for what? It was hard to stay awake in the dark with a full stomach.
Jesus came and found them sleeping, and said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour? Keep watching and praying, that you may not come into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Mark 14:37-38)
The disciples faced an unclear future. Jesus seemed different, even distant—less miracles, more serious teaching. Was he reaching His limit? It was hard to get motivated to pray; normal prayers didn’t fit. The only topic Jesus gave them—resisting temptation—made little sense. However, it made sense to Jesus. When the future is veiled behind looming storm clouds, human nature tries to sidestep the threatening clouds—find an easier way. Spirits, otherwise willing to pursue kingdom ways, succumb to the temptations thrown at weak flesh. Frightening crises, a distant-seeming God, even boredom, all tempt us to resort to the self-centered coping mechanisms we learned and practiced over a lifetime. Even an uncertain future can discourage us from praying. Napping is one response.
What if the disciples had prayed as Jesus said? Perhaps Peter would not have drawn his sword and slashed an ear. Perhaps he would have accepted the consequences of owning his friendship with Jesus. Would the disciples have scattered, hidden, and found it so hard to believe Jesus’ resurrection? Who knows what God could have done with temptation-proofed men?
Okay, I know what you are saying. “Jesus’ death was necessary. This was not the disciples’ time.” That’s true. Jesus’ immediate future was a chasm that had to be crossed alone; on the far side was glory, resurrection life. But could it be that the disciples were being offered something analogous? Are we?
There’s another aspect to praying to resist temptation: praying for preparation. Preparation prayers aren’t shopping lists of petitions. They go beyond the definition of prayer as conversation with God. Prayers of preparation in a crisis or for an uncertain future are mostly silent communion with God. We can whisper invitations and a welcoming of God to do what He wants; words of surrender, faith, and adoration; an echo of the prayer of Jesus, “Not My will but Yours”. Prayers of preparation involve an expectant attitude that God is forging something magnificent beyond the gloomy horizon. He’s readying us to receive it—to live an expanded experience of His kingdom. The hope and faith that accompany such prayer inoculate us against unseen temptation.
Such prayer is not payment for the increased presence of God; it is preparation for that presence. Payment without quick results is frustrating; preparation holds exciting promise. Prayers of preparation change the balance of power inside us. The spirit grows stronger relative to the flesh, ready for more spirit life.