Last night I watched an old war film. The captured flyers had spent a year in a prisoner of war camp somewhere in northern Germany. Under the cover of a vaulting horse they had tunneled out of the Stalag and with forged papers they had crossed the country by train to the nearest port. They were holed up in a small hotel while trying to contact Swedish seamen. When they go out they realize that they are being followed. They try to give him the slip, but he is still there. How would you pray in these circumstances?
The authorities are looking for you. You have managed to keep below the radar. Every night you sleep in a different bed and some nights in no bed at all. You have many loyal friends who support you, but only a very few who know where you will lay your head tonight. Although your position seems precarious, in reality you have enormous strength. Your father has ready and prepared thousands of crack troops who could rescue you from danger at a moment’s notice. All it needs is one radio call. This isn’t World War II with a crackly wireless and long and ponderous flights from England; this is instant access with communications loud and clear. This is ‘Beam me up, Scottie’ instant transportation.
You hear a crowd gathering. In the dark you see torches. The light glints on the body armor. There is no doubt about it; they have come to arrest you. One of your ‘loyal’ supporters has blabbed. Here’s the decision: do you make the call?
The problem is this. You have invested three years in this mission. You always knew it might cost you everything. If you pull out now it would mean abandoning not only your friends, but all those you had come to liberate. Not to make the call means torture and certain death; and not a pleasant death either. This is no quick bullet in the back of the head or lethal injection. This is death by torment and humiliation. It will leave your followers shocked and in despair. If you pulled out they might seem better off. They could go about their business much as before. Some of them would go back to fishing – they were quite good at it. Some might farm, some might trade, and others would take clerical jobs. They would certainly be able to make a living, but they would be living under a malign Ruler who had their distress close to his heart. He would certainly know that he had won a victory, and won it without even a fight.
Well, as I am sure you know by now, Jesus never made that call. It was one of those prayers that Jesus never prayed. When Satan desired to sift Peter like wheat, Jesus never prayed that Peter be declared off limits for the Devil. He never prayed that Peter would be so strong as to resist the evil one. He prayed that his faith would not fail. It seemed to fail, as Peter denied his Lord, but the sifting got rid of Peter’s undesirable characteristics: his arrogance, his bombast, his violence, his boasting. The man whose vain bluster claimed that if all deserted, he would stay steadfast; the man whose violent temper struck off the servant’s ear; the man who swore blind that he never knew him, became the writer of the letter that recommends to his followers that they “live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing.” (I Peter 3:8)
It is clear that Jesus was well aware of what was going to happen to Jerusalem in AD 70. In Matthew chapter 24 he makes it plain that disaster was coming. As we now know Jerusalem was sacked and the Temple destroyed in AD 70 by Titus, the Roman general soon to be Emperor. How Jesus felt for Jerusalem! Luke tells us that he wept over the city and what was in store for it (Luke 19:41). Matthew tells us of his anguish, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.” (Matt 23:37) But he never prayed for God to spare the city. He advises the dwellers of the city to flee to the mountains, but the destruction of Jerusalem is a given.
God’s answers to prayers may not be intelligible to us. The atheist scoffs, “If your god were all powerful and all loving as you claim, he would not allow the suffering that we see every night on the ten o’clock news. Either he is all loving but powerless or he is powerful but doesn’t care. Or more likely he is a figment of your imagination.”
What do we say to the child sexually abused by her father? What do we say to the young mother whose breast cancer has spread to her bones? What do we say to the children of missionaries who have been hacked down in one of the world’s trouble spots? What do we say to the mother whose daughter has killed herself? That God could intervene but he tolerates evil? That he recognizes the arbitrariness of suffering but has to put up in it? That he understands wicked and oppressive regimes, but has to stand by and do nothing?
What do we say when they ask for a miracle? Pray that my handicapped baby will walk. Pray that my wife won’t die of her brain tumor. Pray that brutal and abusing husband will love me again as he used to.
I believe in miracles, but they are miracles. They are rare exceptions to God’s laws that mean that up is up and down is down and that water flows from up to down and 2+2=4. Miracles can’t be turned on like a tap. If prayer worked like magic you would not dare put one foot in front of another in case someone, somewhere had prayed that paving stone away. No, God’s answers must be altogether more subtle.
Has God done nothing to alleviate the suffering of the world? He gave us his Word to tell us how to live. He sent us his Son to cancel our sin. He sent us his Spirit to live in our lives. The foulest oppression, He has experienced. The deepest deprivation; He has known. The greatest disappointment, the most murderous torture, the most fearsome abuse, the most harrowing loss; He has shared in them all.
It was not on the cross where Jesus’ sweat was like drops of blood, but in the Garden beforehand. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews tells us, “he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death.” (Heb 5:7)
That prayer was answered, but not in the way that you might expect. On the third day he rose again. He was saved from death but not from the suffering. We cannot imagine what transactions took place in those long hours in the Garden, but we know that they were vital. Was it some sort of negotiation? Was it a matter of Jesus reconciling his mind to that of the Father? Was that even necessary or possible? Was the Father rehearsing with Jesus what the final outcome of his suffering would be, for we are told, “for the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame”. (Heb 12:2)
Jesus continued to pray despite seeing wrongs un-righted. Everyone was looking for him. The previous evening, the whole town had gathered at his door and Jesus had healed many who had various diseases. Instead of starting work on healing the next lot, very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place and prayed. (Mark 1:35)
Jesus hasn’t stopped praying. “He is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.” (Heb 7:25) “Christ Jesus, who died – more than that, who was raised to life – is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.” (Rom 8:34)
Neither should we.