We know that in response to his disciples request to teach them to pray, Jesus taught them what became the most familiar prayer of Christians. We can also learn much about how to pray by looking at Jesus as he prayed in Gethsemane.
To describe that episode in Jesus’ life we sometimes use the phrase “the agony in the garden” to express what happened there. It staggers the imagination when we think of what Jesus experienced at that time. He foresaw his suffering and death. He experienced betrayal (Judas was at hand) and abandonment (at the moment of his arrest all the disciples fled). He agonized, to the point of sweating blood, over all the sin and evil he was to expiate.
In Gethsemane Jesus prayed in words of direct supplication, “Remove this chalice from me.” Thus Jesus validated our prayers that are frequently direct requests. Jesus prayed with confidence. “I know that you always hear me.” Jesus prayer was characterized with complete submission. “Not my will but thine be done.” Those qualities should characterize all of our praying.
We are confident God has the power to grant our requests. When our requests are not
answered we must be clear about the fact that the purpose of prayer is not to make God want what we want. Rather, the purpose is to bring us to want what God wants. In this sense our prayer must be free of any taint of selfishness.
Jesus was persevering in prayer, asking three times that the chalice of suffering would pass. It did not. In that we see what must be our response when our prayers seemingly remain unanswered. “Not my will, but thine be done.”
Constancy/perseverance in prayer are signs of continuing trust in God’s providence. They are also signs of hope, relying on God’s goodness and promises. Signs, too, of a true love of God, free of any self-seeking and not dependent on tangible rewards.
Self-seeking can be very subtle. We may legitimately pray for health, security, and peace. It must not be, however, with an unacknowledged condition. “Give me an abundance of those gifts, then I will serve you faithfully.” In true prayer we show our adoration and submission to God which is his due at all times, even in times of distress.
In his praying in Gethsemane, Jesus both teaches us how to pray and the meaning of suffering.