Jesus' Unanswered Prayer?

Did Jesus have unanswered prayer? Did the Son of God, a member of the 3-in-1 Trinity that is God Himself, pray to the Father, and get rejected?

I’m talking about the bit in Matthew 26, verses 36-46, where Jesus knows He’s about to be betrayed, and knows what comes next. So He prays so hard that Luke wrote ‘And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground’ (Luke 22:44 ESVUK).

Now, the Bible is full of God hearing prayers. Check out Hannah’s story in 1 Samuel 1. God comes through, though she had no way of knowing that He would as she cried, broken, to Him. But here’s the kicker: Jesus’ gut-wrenching prayer seems to be declined. The Son of God asks the Father for release from this situation - ‘My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me’ (Matthew 26:39 ESVUK) - and yet, as we know, He faces the cross anyway. The One who promises us that ‘…ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it!’ (John 14:14 NLT), who could (and did) heal pretty much every hurting person He came across, seemed unable to be ‘saved’ from so much hurt, Himself. In fact, He was taunted by that exact challenge as He hung on that brutal cross ‘“He saved others,” they scoffed, “but he can’t save himself! So he is the King of Israel, is he? Let him come down from the cross right now, and we will believe in him!”’ (Matthew 27:42 NLT). 

So what on earth can we take from this?

Jesus prayed more than just ‘take this cup away from me’. The full prayer in Matthew 26:39 goes ‘My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will’ (ESVUK). And when Jesus prays a second time He says ‘My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done’ (v. 42 ESVUK). Jesus didn’t want the cross. I think that’s fairly clear. But. He wanted God’s mission of saving us to succeed. He wanted God’s will to be done, even if that meant a situation He didn’t want to go through, Himself. Jesus’ prayer was answered: He prayed that God’s will would be done, and through His willing (if still very painful) sacrifice, God saved you, Christian. Jesus wanted to take that path, to ‘drink that cup’, that would mean we could be saved, even if it hurt him so, so much.

Was Jesus prayer rejected?

I don’t think so. I think Jesus really did want to avoid that suffering, but I think He really did want God’s will to be done, too. And I don’t even think that the ‘oh, but Your will be done, of course Lord’ was a technicality or a bolt-on, the sort of lip-service add-on we might put onto our own prayers sometimes. I think Jesus really meant it. I think He was praying for two different things at once: to be set free from suffering, and to be used for God’s will even if it meant suffering. And I think that if Jesus could have chosen (in fact I reckon He *did* choose), He would have chosen to submit His will to the Father’s will. I think He chose to pray ‘Your will be done’ knowing that His earlier prayer would have to be denied to answer this bigger one.

Should we pray, then, when we expect suffering? Definitely. I don’t think the model that Jesus sets us is that we should take all pain and difficulty life throws at us, and call it God’s will. The first half of His prayer shows us that we can definitely ask God to help us, heal us, to set us free. And the Bible is full of people with answered prayer, who have been helped out of pretty nasty spots. I think that what Jesus teaches us, in these prayers, is that as well as our prayers for God’s help, we can add a prayer for His plan to win, even on those few occasions when it really will cost us for that to happen. 

That’s a massive challenge. To pray, and really mean ‘Your will be done’, and to do so in a way that doesn’t seem to undo our heartfelt cries for help, will take walking closely with God, spending real time wanting to get closer to Him, and a learned self-sacrifice that all at once knows how greatly He values and loves us, and how desperately He wants to work through us. It might take our whole lives to get to a place where we can mean it even a fraction of the amount that Jesus did. But that’s the challenge for us, I think. To seek a relationship with God like that, where we pray both for our own (really valid) needs, and for His world-saving plan to take first place, even over those needs.

Written by Jim Cronin