It was my freshmen year at ACU and my girlfriend was having a procedure done to see if she had breast cancer. She had found a lump and she was worried. I wanted to be there for her but there was one problem with that. The day of the procedure was the same day as the Bible Department’s freshmen blessing. I had been looking forward to the freshmen blessing since I knew I was coming to ACU. It meant a day – out of classes – hanging out with friends and the professors I had already begun to idolize. So I was faced with a choice: should I be a good boyfriend or should I be a jerk? My solution was to go to a professor and ask what I should do. I had my fingers crossed that he would tell me to go to the freshmen blessing, that way I could blame my being a jerk on him. But he saw right through that: “David, I can’t make that choice for you,” he said. He made me responsible for my own choices. Which was a good decision on his part because I chose to be a jerk.
It is often very tempting to put off taking responsibility for our selves. And we find really sneaky ways of avoiding responsibility. We are especially sneaky when it comes to taking responsibility for our spiritual lives. I’d like you to recall the words of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. He is about to be arrested, tried, and crucified and here is his prayer as he prepares for what is about to come:
“Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. ‘Abba, Father,’ he said, ‘everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.’” (Mark 14:35-36)
Those last two phrases are famous. “Not my will but yours be done.” In them is the full acceptance of responsibility. Jesus decides to want whatever the Father wants. To pray these words, and to mean them, is to pursue the very highest kind of Christian maturity.
Which is why we so very rarely actually pray these words. Don’t get me wrong. We say these words. We pray this prayer. But most of the time we strip the words of their power.
Because we usually pray this prayer in situations we have no control over. I most often hear this prayer prayed when Christians are praying for the sick or for national politics. It’s not bad to pray this prayer in those situations, but it isn’t really designed for that. To pray this prayer for things like cancer or AIDS or poverty or war typically means that we are assuming that God’s will is a mystery. It’s as if we are saying, “God you move in mysterious ways so move mysteriously over in that direction.” But Jesus prays this prayer, not because he doesn’t know God’s will, but because he does know it. And it terrifies him.
When we pray this prayer exclusively for things that we have no control over, what we are really doing is avoiding responsibility. We have re-purposed the most mature Christian prayer for a task it wasn’t meant to fill. And it makes us all feel a lot better. We have successfully domesticated this wild, dangerous prayer.
I am convinced that we are called to pray this prayer when we actually have control, when we actually have a choice to make, when saying ‘no’ to God’s will is a real possibility. We can’t let ourselves off the hook by making God make the decision for us.
Because the prayer of Gethsemane is not a prayer of resignation. It’s a prayer of submission. We aren’t throwing our hands up to God saying, “Do whatever you want, it’s ultimately all your choice anyways.” Instead, this is a prayer of submission. This is the prayer of someone who knows what God is calling them to do but they don’t want to do it. This is a prayer of someone who knows that God’s way is best but has trouble wanting to do things God’s way. This is the prayer of someone who has taken responsibility for their own soul – they acknowledge that they have a decision to make: will they be a Christian or a jerk? And most of the time, if we are honest, we want to be the jerk.
And the truth is, if we really want to pray, “Not my will but yours be done,” we have to stop praying it about cancer and AIDS and poverty and war. And we have to start praying it about our anger and greed and pride and lust.
Because we pray this prayer, not to tell God to do whatever he wants. But to tell God to do whatever he wants with and in us. When it comes to praying “Not my will but yours be done,” I don’t think we can do much better than this prayer written by John Wesley:
I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will.
Put me doing, put me suffering.
Let me be employed for you or laid aside for you,
Exalted for you or brought low for you.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
You are mine and I am yours.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
Let it be ratified in heaven.
Try praying those words everyday. I dare you. They are difficult words. They are dangerous words. And they are words dripping with submission and real Christian maturity.