Obedience to the Word of God rightly takes center stage in most discussions of living as a follower of Christ. Nevertheless, I would suggest that Christians as a whole would benefit from a greater emphasis on a second aspect of faithful Christian discipleship—namely, submission to the will of God. Submission to God’s will could be a broad category that would include obedience to His written Word, but I particularly mean the daily walk before the Lord in which we lay our requests, desires, and prayers before Him and then actively submit to His sovereign will as it plays out in our lives.
And as in all areas of Christian discipleship, Jesus gives us the perfect example of what this looks like. In particular, His prayer to His Father in the garden of Gethsemane shows us the way. Jesus’ words on the night He was betrayed are some of His most remembered, as He prays “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39). I want us to examine these words carefully because they give us three important insights into living in submission to the will of God.
The first thing to notice about Jesus’ example is how they express His relationship with His Father. This is a dynamic relationship in which Jesus talks with His Father, makes requests of His Father, and expresses His desires and fears to His Father as He walks through life.
It is significant, I think, that Christ has talked of His coming death throughout the Gospels. He has even said that the whole reason He came was to give His life as a ransom for many. So, given how completely His mission and identity as an incarnate man are tied to His death, it might be surprising that Jesus would pray here, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matt. 26:39). But surely this is nothing less than an honest prayer as the cross looms right ahead. This is an example of Jesus, in His humanity, laying His heart bare before His father in perfect holiness as He stares suffering in the face. That honest dialogue is part of Jesus’ relationship with His Father, and such regular dialogue should be found in us, too, as we navigate the details of our lives in relationship with our heavenly Father.
The second thing to notice about Jesus’ example is how quickly and repeatedly He expresses His willingness to submit to His Father’s will. In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ prayer in the garden, Jesus prays three separate times. And all three times Christ prays, He ends each prayer with the same thought: “Nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will. . . . Your will be done” (Matt. 26:39, 42). And this is not a concession—as if Jesus’ deepest desire is to escape the cross, but He will concede to the Father’s will if it is absolutely necessary. No, “Your will be done” is Jesus’ highest desire, and so His prayer and His request are made, but they are always secondary to and submitted to His highest priority—that God’s will be done.
Here, I believe, is the greatest challenge to our hearts and perhaps the greatest lesson for our prayers. Why are our prayers so often times of anxiety or frustration? Why do we give up praying, doubt that prayer “works,” or even accuse God of not caring about us in the face of our prayers? Isn’t it because we have forgotten the importance of submission to God’s will? Because our deepest desire is still for our will and getting what we ask for, rather than for God’s will, whatever it is?
The nineteenth-century pastor J.C. Ryle challenges us so insightfully. Listen to his words:
Would we know whether we are born again, and growing in grace? Let us see how it is with us in the matter of our wills. Can we bear disappointment? Can we put up patiently with unexpected trials and vexations? Can we see our favorite plans and darling schemes crossed, without murmuring and complaint? Can we sit still and suffer calmly, as well as go up and down and work actively? These are the things that prove whether we have the mind of Christ. It ought never to be forgotten, that warm feelings and joyful frames are not the truest evidences of grace: a mortified will is a far more valuable possession. Even our Lord Himself did not always rejoice; but He could always say, “Thy will be done.”
Those are challenging words, but precious words, that call us to follow the pattern of our Savior and find our greatest desire in submitting our wills to the Lord’s.
Of course, the greatest challenge for us is to submit to God’s will when His will is different from our own. When we pray and lay our requests before Him and His answer to us is no. But the third thing I want us to see from Jesus’ example is how to respond when God’s answer to our prayers is no.
And here I want to pay particular attention to the progression of Jesus’ prayers. In His first prayer, in verse 39, He asks, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” He makes a request and submits that request to the Father’s will. But in His second prayer, in verse 42, His prayer shifts. He asks, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” Do you see how Christ assumes the Father’s negative answer to the first request, accepts it, and prays accordingly, affirming God’s answer and His desire that God’s will be done? And while Matthew doesn’t tell us this detail, Luke adds that God responded by sending an angel to strengthen Christ. And so, in His hour of sorrow, Christ watched and prayed, affirming God’s will as His greatest desire, and God responded by strengthening Him for His trial such that, by the time we come to verse 46, Jesus is equipped by His time in prayer for His calling, saying, “Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand” (Matt. 26:46). There is a heart strengthened and at peace as He carries out His Father’s will.
So here in Matthew 26, Jesus sets the pattern for His people. We present our requests and desires to God in prayer as He has invited us to do (Phil. 4:6). When it appears that His answer is no, we continue to pray, affirming His answer and our desire for His will to be done above all. And in our submission, as we trust and lean on Him, God strengthens us and equips us for whatever He calls us to do.