The Most Dramatic Case of Unanswered Prayer

December 21, 2016

by William Edgar

Surely the most dramatic case of unanswered prayer is Jesus’s own experience in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matt. 26:36–46; Mark 14:32–42; Luke 22:39–46). He and his disciples are together on the eve of his betrayal and crucifixion. After the Passover meal they head out to the Mount of Olives, to a slope near the bottom so they could watch and pray. Jesus admonishes his followers, telling them to pray so as not to enter into temptation. The word translated ‘temptation’ is the same one used in the Lord’s Prayer, where we ask, ‘lead us not into temptation’ (Matt. 6:13). It has a double, related meaning: help me avoid temptation and spare me the trial. Both meanings apply here, since the disciples would be tempted to deny Jesus (which Peter in fact did), and the trial of their persecution by his enemies loomed. After his own prayer Jesus came back to find them ‘sleeping for sorrow’ (Luke 22:45). Such a detail makes it clear that only Jesus stays awake and prays, and only his faithfulness could actually save the disciples. Jesus’s own prayer is one of the greatest agony.

Jesus’s own prayer is one of the greatest agony.

Knowing what he is about to face, he asks the Father:  ‘If you are willing, remove this cup from me.’ There is nothing mechanical or deterministic about the Christian message. It centers on the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. But in his humanity Jesus still pleads for the trial to be removed. While crucifixion was one of the worst tortures ever imagined, dying on a cross would be far worse for the Son of God than for an ordinary human. At the climax of his pain he would cry out, ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ The cross meant shame and the abandonment of the Father. The moment was quite literally hellish. So it is no wonder he asks to be spared this distress. Yet his prayer is perfect, because the next phrase is, ‘Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done.’

As we know, the Father did not answer Jesus’s prayer for deliverance. On this side of the event, we know why he would not. And surely Jesus knew at the time, although that did not make his prayer any less real. Our salvation was at stake. Only this kind of love, one that would give up the thing most precious, his only Son, could drive him to refuse to answer him. Of course, after his death the Father raised him from the dead and made him King of kings and Lord of lords. So the prayer was not answered as it was formulated, but a greater answer was given, a deliverance indeed, one that brought him up from the dead and his people along with him! And now, Jesus could never be subject to the grave again, nor subject to such a trial.

Because of this prayer, and God’s way of answering it, our own prayers are assured of the best possible answers. Jesus here prayed for himself. But his earthly life’s purpose was to ensure our salvation. Indeed he prayed for us and continues to do so. He never ceases to intercede for us. He had already prayed his ‘high priestly prayer’ recorded in John 17. In that prayer, before his suffering on the cross, Jesus asked the Father to give him his people for salvation. Now that he is in heaven, seated at the right hand of God, he continues to intercede for his people (Hebrews 7:25). Because of that our own prayers, imperfect though they be, are perfected by Christ’s Spirit, who ‘helps us in our weakness. For we do not know how to pray as we ought’ (Romans 8:26–7). Romans 8 goes on to tell us that ‘all things work together for good’ for God’s people. Notice it does not say ‘all things are good’, but rather ‘all things work together for good.’ In his marvelous providence the Lord takes all things, whether good or evil, and makes them work together for the good (the French translation is ‘concerts’ for the good, reminding us of a symphony in which all the parts work together for the success of the whole).

It is sobering to realize that Jesus’s death was marked by his anguished question to his own Father: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Matt. 27:46, quoting from Psalm 22:1, which goes on to say, ‘I cry by day, but you do not answer.’) There is great mystery here. How could the eternal Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, be forsaken by God? We know that Jesus was receiving upon himself the full extent of God’s anger against sin, though he had not committed any sin. He became sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21). In the end there was victory, however, as Jesus commended his spirit to God, and then, after his rest in the grave, was raised up powerfully to become the great source of life-giving power (Luke 23:46; 2 Pet. 1:3).

Because of this prayer, and God’s way of answering it, our own prayers are assured of the best possible answers.

Jesus’s prayer to be spared from his agony, followed by the greater answer from the Father, means we have a way through all of our own agonies. When we fear that our illness will never be healed, we can be assured that indeed it will. Perhaps the healing will be in this life, perhaps not; but certainly it will be in the life to come. When we are unemployed, we can be sure God will provide for us one way or another. If we are longing for a spouse, we need to know that God does not want us to ‘be alone’ (Gen. 2:18; 1 Cor. 11:9). He will provide in his own way and in his own time. The ultimate provision is of course our death and passage into heaven itself. Our own death may come sooner or later, but it will come at just the right time.

Once again, we are in good company. Two great men of God, Moses and Elijah, both asked God for death. Moses, overwhelmed with the burden of leading a recalcitrant people any further, asks God to lead them himself, and to let him die (Num. 11:15). Elijah, after the dramatic showdown with the prophets of Baal and Asherah at Mount Carmel, is pursued by the evil queen Jezebel; he decides there is no hope for him and he asks for death (1 Kings 19:4). Are these requests legitimate? Though we can sympathize enormously, strictly speaking, they are not. And the Lord does not answer them. For very good reason. It seems dying for them was an escape, rather than in the spirit of the apostle Paul when he says: ‘My desire is to be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.’ (Phil. 1:23–4) In the case of Moses and Elijah both men had a mission to accomplish, and they needed to be alive to do so. ‘The steps of a man are established by the Lord, when he delights in his way’ (Ps. 37:23).

This piece is adapted from William Edgar, Does Christianity Really Work? (Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus Publications, 2016), 128–132. Used with permission of the publisher.

Read More On cross, death, Lord's Prayer, Prayer

William Edgar

Dr. Edgar (DThéol, Université de Genève) is professor of apologetics at WTS.

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