A few weeks ago, Sue and I watched the new Meryl Street movie that is about the life of a woman named Florence Foster Jenkins. If you’ve seen it then you know it’s a true story about an American socialite and amateur soprano who was known and mocked—for her flamboyant performance costumes and notably poor singing ability. In fact, the historian Stephen Pile ranked her “the world’s worst opera singer.” He also wrote, “No one, before or since, has succeeded in liberating themselves quite so completely from the shackles of musical notation” —which basically means Florence was a BAD singer.
The problem was Florence didn’t KNOW she was bad. In fact, she thought she was an EXCELLENT singer. Believing that—she rented Carnegie Hall and put on a concert so as to share her “great talent” with the world. And when she hit a high note at that event—ALWAYS way off pitch—she did so with supreme confidence.
Mrs. Jenkins’ life and career are a reminder of a painful truth—most incompetent people don’t know they are incompetent. In fact, researcher Dr. David A. Dunning of Cornell University reports that people who are incompetent are more confident of their abilities than competent people. Dunning says this is because the skills required for competence are the same skills necessary to recognize that ability—which makes sense.
Have you ever known a confidently incompetent person? Perhaps there’s someone at work like that? Maybe it’s your husband who was CONFIDENT he could fix a plumping issue. Maybe you’ve heard a confidently incompetent person in the pulpit—hopefully not this one!
Well, if you have met a “Florence Jenkins” type, then you know how frustrating such people can be. They think they are great at singing or telling jokes or preaching or whatever when in reality they are horrible! I bring this up because, believe it or not, there is a parallel to this condition in the spiritual world. You see, many of us—as Christians do not recognize how incompetent we are—how vulnerable we are to failure—when it comes to facing serious tests in life. And we’re not the first Christ followers to suffer from this kind of incompetency. In fact, Jesus’ very first disciples provide a sad example of this principle in their response to the trial our Lord endured on the night before His crucifixion. Take your Bibles and turn to Matthew 26:31-46 and follow along with me as I read about that night. We’re picking up right after Jesus has shared the Passover Meal with His disciples.
31 – Then Jesus told them,“This very night you will all fall away on account of Me,for it is written: “‘I will strike the Shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’
32 – But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.”
33 – Peter replied, “Even if all fall away on account of You, I never will.”
34 – “Truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown Me three times.”
35 – But Peter declared, “Even if I have to die with You, I will never disown You.” And all the other disciples said the same.
36 – Then Jesus went with His disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and He said to them,“Sit here while I go over there and pray.”
37 – He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedeealong with Him, and He began to be sorrowful and troubled.
38 – Then He said to them,“My soul is overwhelmed with sorrowto the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with Me.”
39 – Going a little farther, He fell with His face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from Me. Yet not as I will, but as You will.”
40 – When He returned to His disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with Me for one hour?” He asked Peter.
41 – “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
42 – He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may Your will be done.”
43 – When He came back, He again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy.
44 – So He left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.
45 – When He returned to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour has come, and the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners.
46 – Rise! Let us go! Here comes My betrayer!”
Now, you have to admit—from our perspective these first disciples weren’t just confident—they were arrogant. I mean, they swore up and down that they would NEVER deny Jesus. Peter went so far as to say, “Even if EVERYONE ELSE does—I won’t.” —in other words, “Jesus, I’m more competent than anyone else in the world when it comes to sticking with You through thick and thin!” And we know how that worked out.
But, before we fault Peter and the others—we should examine ourselves. I mean, too many of us make similar pledges—but when the trials of life come our faith crumbles. I’m thinking of things like:
- A sudden job loss.
- A terrible medical diagnosis
- Being confronted with some sort of horrible injustice.
In these kinds of trying times many believers doubt God’s goodness—and turn from following Him.
There was a man in our church in Damascus who was on his way home from work inside the beltway when he saw a stranded motorist with a flat tire. He pulled over to help—and was standing behind the car reaching in the trunk for the spare when a drunk driver hit him from behind. This good Samaritan lost both his legs and became so bitter over that unfairness that he also lost his faith. He never came back to church. Well losing your legs—or your job—getting a scary medical diagnosis—the kinds of trials we typically endure in this fallen world are of course nothing to what Jesus faced on the night of His arrest. I mean, look at the language in verses 37–38: “He began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then He said to them, ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.’”
Now think of that. Can you imagine a sorrow so great that it was LETHAL—a grief pressing so hard from within that it caused Jesus to sweat drops of blood? Can you imagine a distress so deep that it brought the sea-walking, storm-stilling, Satan-defying, death-deadening Son of God to groan under its weight—and to plead for companionship? There will never be a weight even close to being that heavy for you or me to endure!
But, when tough, terrifying times come—or as the old hymn puts it, “trials dark on every hand and we cannot understand”—it is in these times that—as Jesus did that night—we must pray. And we must be COMPETENT pray-ers. We must know how to pray well in the tough times of life. The first disciples obviously didn’t. They just snoozed. Think of it. They thought the test of their faith would come if and when soldiers came to arrest Jesus—but actually, it came BEFORE that—when our Lord invited them to pray. Well—Jesus’ example—His prayer in the garden shows us how to be competent to pray in ways that enable us to face the inevitable unfairness of life. In fact, Jesus’ prayer highlights THREE PRINCIPLES that we must understand when it comes to this kind of prayer.
(1) First. be HONEST.
Look again at Jesus’ words. In the midst of emotional and physical agony, He prays, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from Me.” As I inferred earlier, even ANTICIPATING what was to come nearly killed Jesus so He honestly says, “Father, if there is any other way—let’s go there. I don’t want to do this.”
Let me ask. Have you ever felt that way? Maybe as you faced grief—or deep loneliness—or fear for some reason—but you felt like you just could not endure it. You didn’t want to! What you WANTED to do was bolt—run—get away—get under the covers in the fetal position.
Well, when these times, we must pray like Jesus did. In our prayers, we must tell our Heavenly Father how we honestly feel. We need to draw away from others like our Lord did in the garden—and pour your heart out to God.
Of course, God knows what’s in your heart anyway—but You need to TELL him. You need to honestly, openly bring your fear out of the dark into the light of His love and power and infinite knowledge. I mean, in terrifying times, you NEED your relationship with your Heavenly Father—and you can’t have a REAL relationship without honesty.
I remember when I went to the big Promise Keeper rally on the mall twenty years ago. As one point in the day I had slipped away to use the restroom and when I came back all those hundreds of thousands of men—men from every race on the planet were laying face down on the ground before God—honestly pouring their hearts out to Him. It was an amazing sight! I quickly made my way back to our group and joined them face down on the ground before God.
Listen, as our choir sang a couple weeks back, when the nightmares of life come—when we can’t bear our burdens alone—WE MUST TELL JESUS—We must be honest with Him—for Jesus can help us—Jesus alone.
Here’s the second thing we must do in this kind of prayer.
(2) Be SUBMISSIVE.
Look at Jesus’ words in verse 42, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may Your will be done.” Now—what do you think was in the “cup?” I mean, what was Jesus asking the Father to take away? Well, I don’t think it was His approaching death. Jesus wasn’t afraid of death—or even the pain of death. After all, that was the plan all along and He knew it. No—as Hebrews 12 says, “For the JOY set before Him He endured the cross.” And—I don’t think it was the mocking and the beating and the crown of thorns and the spitting and the insults—all of which He of course knew was coming. Hebrews 12 tells us that Jesus despised—or ignored—the shame but He didn’t fear it.
No—the cup was SIN. Your sin and mine. Jesus saw himself being made sin, and He felt repulsion. After all, He was the spotless, pure Lamb of God, and He had never known sin. Jesus saw Himself about to become the object of God’s wrath—Jesus, Who had a pure and righteous, unified relationship with His Father beyond what we can comprehend—Who had never known a moment of disagreement or conflict in the Trinity. Jesus saw in the cup separation from His Father—and if possible He did not want to face that.
You know many people say, “Where’s the justice of God? Have you read the newspaper lately? If God is just—why doesn’t He DO something?” Well, God DID do something. God put all his anger and hatred and revulsion for all the sins of human history—the sins we’ve experienced, the things we’ve witnessed, every senseless murder—every child used and abused, every act of cruelty and perversion, every lustful, hateful, selfish thought—every awful thing that has ever happened in human history and ever will happen—it was all in that cup. One poet wrote of Jesus Christ: “On Him almighty judgment FELL that would have sunk the world to HELL.” It is no wonder that when Jesus saw that cup—He shrunk back and said, “Father, there has to be another way.”
Of course, you and I struggle to come to a place of submission before God over FAR LESSER things—and Jesus’ example here teaches us that when that kind of thing happens we must be honest in our confessions and then we must pray the prayer that never fails, “God, Thy will be done.”
By the way, I want you to know that the main emphasis of this sentence of Jesus’ prayer is not, “let this cup pass” but rather, “Your will be done.” My point is, those are words of VICTORY, “Your will be done. Not My will, God, but Your will.” And that victory is the essence of submission. We hear this same tone of victory in Job’s statement: “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him,” (Job 13:15) It’s also in the brave words of Shadrach, Meschack, and Abednego: “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it—and He will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if He does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” Did you hear the victory in those words? Listen—submission is not surrender—it’s not losing. It’s winning. We never lose when we submit our will to God!
Wilbur Chapman was an evangelist 100 years ago. One time he was in England, and he visited William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army. William Booth was renowned for his incredible spiritual life and power, and Wilbur Chapman said to him, “I want to know the secret of your spiritual life. What is it?” Chapman said, “Mr. Booth hesitated for a second. I saw tears come into his eyes and run down his cheeks. Then he said, ‘I will tell you the secret. God has had all there was of me. There have been men with greater brains. There have been men with greater opportunities. But from the day I got the poor of London on my heart in a vision of what Jesus Christ could do with the poor of London—I made up my mind that God could have all of William Booth there was. And if there is anything of power in the Salvation Army today, it is because God has had all the adoration of my heart, all the power of my will, and all the influence of my life.’”
So—when trials come, we must pray and in our prayers we must—be honest—be submissive—
(3) And, finally we must be PERSISTENT.
Verse 40 tells us that the first time Jesus went away to pray—He prayed an hour—and Jesus went back to pray two more times. So—in all likelihood He was talking to God for about three hours—probably more. And this tells me that when tough times come—when we are pounded with unfairness—we must persist in our prayers. This is a time to pray without ceasing—a time to keep God on the line so to speak. I mean, true submission doesn’t usually happen immediately. It takes persistent prayer for us to come to that point.
But understand—this repetitive, persistent prayer of Jesus wasn’t the vain repetitious prayer that He warned about in earlier in Matthew’s gospel—the kind of droning prayer I talked about last week. No—vain repetition—praying the same thing over and over—what we’re NOT supposed to do—is different from persisting in the same prayer until it gets from our head to our hearts.
Sometimes we need to say, “God, I know I said this, but I’m saying it again to You. I had it
this morning, but I lost it this afternoon, so here I am tonight praying the same thing again. Lord, I want Your will and not mine. But I don’t just want to SAY it. I want to MEAN it. I want to get it out of my head and into my heart.”
You know, we tend to focus on prayer changing our CIRCUMSTANCES. But I think the coolest thing about prayer is how it changes US. Pastor James Macdonald tells of a young husband and wife in his church that experienced a very difficult thing. They were blessed with twins—a boy named Will and a girl named Kristen. And things were great for the first week after they arrived but then all of a sudden, baby Kristen got viral encephalitis. It was a number of days before the docs realized how serious it was and as a result Kristen suffered brain damage. Of course, this was very hard on that family. It rocked their world. It shook their faith down to ground zero. They went through feelings of anger and wondering how God could do this. They continued to pray, “God, heal her. God, heal her.” The couple shared that over the months as they persisted in this same prayer—Kristen didn’t improve—she didn’t change—but God began to change them.
I want to read you a prayer they wrote about a year into the situation: “Because Kristen may never change, I choose to love and accept her unconditionally. Because Kristen may never change, I choose not to insist that Kristen recover 100 percent. I choose instead to set goals one day at a time. Because Kristen may never change, I choose to commit everything connected to her illness, including her future, to God’s love and care. Because Kristen may never change, I choose to honor God and to trust that God will reveal Himself through her. Because Kristen may never change, I choose to use Kristen to teach our boys [by this time they had a second boy] about unconditional love and tenderness. I choose to ask for God’s direction and strength to deal with her disabilities. I choose not to worry, because God is in control, and He will sustain us.”
Isn’t that a MATURE prayer? Well, you don’t get to that point quickly. I mean, that’s not a prayer you get from your head to your heart in 15 minutes. MacDonald says they had to pray this day after day after day. They had to post it on their mirror at home. They carried it around with their Bibles. And every time their hearts got down and they wrestled with what they wanted and what God wanted, they’d come back to this prayer again.
When we face tough times, we need to learn to pray like this. We need to work through this process of honesty, submission, and persistence in prayer—until we come to that place of genuine, glad surrender before God. We can know victory through prayer. It’s that point when we come to the place where we can say genuinely, from your heart—there is no other way. I’m going to trust God.
Well, Jesus gets up from the time of prayer. The disciples are still sleeping. He says: Come on, guys. Let’s go. And as He gets up to go, the soldiers are coming toward Him. What does Peter do? He pulls out his sword and cuts the dude’s ear off. Jesus is totally surrendered to the Father, because he was praying. Peter is totally in the flesh, because he was snoozing. Jesus heals the guy’s ear, and then he turns to Peter and says these phenomenal words in John 18:11, “The cup which my Father has given to me, shall I not drink it?” Isn’t that amazing!? Four hours ago He was thinking, I don’t want to do this Now He knows there’s no other way. And “for the joy set before Him” He is ready for the cross. He’s ready to drink that horrible cup.
We come now to celebrate the memorial meal that Jesus initiated that night—the meal that symbolizes what He did on the cross. We observe this meal to remember Jesus’ sacrifice—the sacrifice that made it possible for our sins to be removed—so that we COULD pray—have constant pray without ceasing access to God. As we come to this table, I invite all Christians present to partake with us because even if you are not a member of this church….If you are a Christian…if you are His, this is Yours.