What Would Jesus Pray
In the Gospel of Matthew, we find two stories from the life of Jesus which provide an instructive contrast between priorities and perspective. The first story is in chapter eight and begins with Jesus and his disciples in a boat, crossing an unnamed body of water. During the journey, a significant storm begins to rage, and water swamps the boat. While the disciples are overcome with fear, Jesus remains asleep, until the disciples wake him up in desperation. In a miraculous display of Jesus’ power over creation, he rebuked the storm by calming the wind and waves. The second story is in chapter twenty-six. At the end of his earthly ministry, Jesus goes to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray knowing that he will soon go to the cross. Jesus is overcome with grief and sorrow, and yet while he prays, his disciples fall asleep. Despite Jesus' repeated insistence concerning the urgency of the moment, the disciples cannot keep themselves awake. What is so different about these two stories? Why in one situation are the disciples so overwhelmed while Jesus sleeps, while the opposite is true in the other? Studying these two stories helps us understand how priorities and perspective have a profound effect on our prayer lives.
The story of the raging storm is easy enough to understand. It is not hard to imagine how frightening it would be to be in a small boat on the open water in a strong storm. But why is Jesus calm and not bothered by the prospect of imminent death? When we read the story in context, it becomes clear that Jesus did not fear the elements because he knew that no storm could harm him until he had accomplished what his Father put him on earth to do. His confidence in the sovereignty of his Father kept him from fearing anything in the world around him. The disciples lacked this confidence, and their natural fear of death overwhelmed them.
In the second story, the opposite elements are at play. Although a band of soldiers is on their way, the disciples did not know this, and there seemed to be nothing to be concerned about in the quiet calm of the evening in the garden; Jesus, however, knew better. It was not the soldiers Jesus was concerned about; he would soon demonstrate that they had no power to take him against his will. He would willingly go to the cross. Jesus' deep sorrow and grief came from the reality that he was soon to face the wrath of his Father. This was something that he knew would be severe. The man who did not blink an eye at mother nature's worst now was sweating blood and pleading to be spared what was to come. Meanwhile, the disciples slept.
The disciples’ attitudes in these two stories paint a picture of how the human heart is oriented. Needs for food, shelter, health, security and other physical provisions dominate the concerns of most people. As a result, physical provisions dominate the prayer lives of most people. Sit in any large group prayer meeting, and the vast majority of prayers you hear will revolve around these issues. Most prayer lives are concerned with health problems, financial problems, travel safety, job provisions, educational and business success. Spiritual concerns come as a distant afterthought.
Jesus' attitude was totally different. It wasn't that Jesus didn't care about physical needs. Indeed many times he is seen eating and drinking with both followers and neighbors, many of his parables concerned these issues, and the majority of his miracles met physical needs. When viewing the life of Jesus it is clear that he put physical needs in their proper perspective. When tempted by Satan in the wilderness, an extremely hungry Jesus was encouraged to turn a stone into bread. His response, pulled from Deuteronomy 8:3, makes his priorities clear, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” For Jesus, spiritual needs trump physical needs. In other words, Jesus feared the wrath of his Father more than hunger, thirst, poverty, disease, or any other danger. This is why Jesus slept through the storm but was in agony in the garden. It is not only the prioritization of spiritual needs over physical needs that allows Jesus to sleep through the storm. It is also his perspective. Jesus has rock-solid faith in the sovereignty of his father, and the fact that apart from his plan, nothing could happen. His trust in the sovereignty of the Father did not keep Jesus from working or planning or caring for others. It did, however, keep him from worrying. Indeed, this was his grounds for preaching against worrying in Matthew 6.
How should these two stories from the life of Jesus this inform our prayer lives? A careful look at the apostles’ prayers in scripture show that they too reflect Jesus' perspective and priorities. Romans 15:5-6, I Corinthians 1:4-9, Ephesians 1:15-23, 3:14-21, Colossians 1:3-14, and II Thessalonians 1:11-12 show that prayer under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit is concerned more with being like Christ than getting over a sinus infection or making a mortgage payment. This is not to say that we shouldn't pray about these things. Indeed, Jesus' model prayer includes “give us this day our daily bread.” God cares about the physical needs of his people, and as a loving father, he desires to hear from his children about all their needs. To pray only, or even mostly, about physical needs is to miss the boat on what is really important. Our brothers and sisters in Christ need sanctification, unity, and holiness more than they need money or health. Our neighbors need salvation more than anything. Our children need their eyes opened to the Gospel more than they need good grades or better behavior. Let Jesus' words immediately following his model prayer be our guide: “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:31-33).