The Prayer For Extreme Circumstances
I have walked through a spot in the valley outside of the city walls of old Jerusalem that some people think is this garden where Jesus prayed. It still features large stone slabs and old olive trees. The slope of the Mount of Olives rises to the east covered with tombs. And the slope to the Holy City, gentler and shorter, rises to the west crisscrossed with roadways.
When you or someone you love faces a life-threatening illness or injury, some things shut down on you emotionally and intellectually and even physically.
Your sleep is disturbed. Your appetite may disappear. You fall out of any exercise regimen you may have practiced previously.
Your routine is disturbed. You may go through the motions of work or school, but nothing seems to be as important as it seemed before the terrible news you received. Life seems to be full of shadows, surreal.
I couldn’t process the news of Graham’s accident. Rachel told me by phone, “Graham has fallen into a bucket of water. He’s not breathing. That’s all I know. I’m going to New Orleans.”
I got on the plane as if in a trance. I went to the tiny restroom, stared at the mirror, and recited Rachel’s words so that I could absorb them and believe them. But still it did not feel real to me.
The reality of Graham’s seemingly terminal condition only broke upon my mind and heart when I got off the elevator on the fourth floor of Ochsner and saw my friends waiting there for me.
The Unique Temptation of Extreme Circumstances:
“Pray that you will not fall into temptation” (v40)
The Temptation of Fear.
- Most of our fears concern future possibilities that may never unfold. The worst nightmares of these disciples will actually be fulfilled in just a few short hours. Jesus will be crucified.
- Yet their worst nightmare is followed by the most amazing victory in all of human history—the resurrection of Jesus.
The Temptation of Despair.
- Nothing is more deadly to the human heart than hopelessness. And they are facing this temptation right now.
- Despair is another name for faithfulness. It is the loss of faith in the face of extreme circumstances.
The Temptation of Overwhelming Sorrow.
- I call this a temptation because we can say no to paralyzing sorrow just like we can say no to other forms of crippling emotion.
- We are not the victims of our emotions. We are the masters of our emotions. And eventually every human who wants to live after extreme loss must get up and get going.
The Power Perspective in Extreme Circumstances:
“Not my will, but Thine be done.” (v42)
Psalm 139 is a mighty statement of the sovereignty of God. It is also a lonely conversation between a man and his God. I want you to imagine now that your doctor has told you that you have 24 hours to live. You are on your deathbed. Close your eyes and hear this prayer as a person who is dying:
God knows it all.
- Psalm 139:1-3: You have searched me, LORD, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.
God is everywhere.
- Psalm 139:7-8: Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
God can do anything.
- Psalm 139:13-18: For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. How precious to me are your thoughts, God. How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand— when I awake, I am still with you.
The family was in a state of denial. They were crying out to God to cure their aged matriarch. But she wasn’t going to come back from this bout with disease, the doctors told them. They refused to accept it, and kept praying for a miracle. The emotional turbulence touched every family member.
I could see that their loved one was slowly expiring. I drew the family together and suggested to them that they present their mother and grandmother to God, releasing her into his care and praying, “Not our will, but yours be done.”
We prayed this prayer in the hallway outside their loved ones hospital room. When we raised our heads and opened the door, we found that this saintly woman, fighting a battle with disease that she could not win, had stayed on this earth only long enough for her loved ones to turn toward accepting her departure from this life—long enough for them to pray, “Not our will, but yours.”
The Power Prescription in Extreme Circumstances:
“Get up and pray.” (v46)
There is a time to lie flat on your face. There is a time to fall asleep as an escape from the sorrow. There is a time to check out of social intercourse and be alone in your pain.
But there is also a time to get up.
King David illustrated this truth when he got up after the servants told him that his infant son was dead. He was in such debilitating grief and sorrow for days, and they were afraid to tell him the child had died. But when he heard this news, he got up, cleaned up and began to go forward with his life.
There is something you can do. You can get up and pray.
- Yes, you can kneel down and pray. You can pray on your face. You can pray when you are crushed by life’s tragedies.
- But you can also pray as you stand up and go about your day, accomplishing the tasks of which our lives consist.
Pray, Jesus said, “so that you will not fall into temptation.”
- Some people connect this temptation with the coming arrest and trial of Jesus and the cowardice of their flight. And that may certainly be part of the temptation to which Jesus refers.
- But another part of that temptation could be the temptation to check out of life, to sleep all the time, to surrender to your sorrow in such a way that you permanently suspend your developing life, relationships, responsibilities, and opportunities.
- If you get up and pray, you will find strength to go on living for the sake of those who love you and your own best future.
We all admire the courage and determination of people who do this. I saw two widows who lived with their husbands more than 60 years—my mother and Andrew’s grandmother. Though both of them grief deeply for the loss of their lifelong love, they also both have risen from the prone position of sorrow to hug on their grandchildren, travel with friends, and move on with life.
- David’s servants were mistaken in believing that David would continue to be crushed by his sorrow. David prayed fervently, fearing the death of the child, as the prophet had foretold. He guessed that the child had died even though the servants would not tell him. Then he rose from his prone position with hope. He took a bath, put on clean clothes, and sat down for a meal. Those who saw him were astonished. “Can I bring him back again?” David told his servants. “I will go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Samuel 12:23).
Patients with terminal conditions may begin to withdraw from the dialogue at the bedside even though they have the intellectual capacity for conversation. As their death nears, they are separating, turning their face toward a place where only God can accompany them.
My father did this as his congestive heart failure drew him lower and lower. He was disappearing on us even though he could breathe and had oxygen. In the last days of his life, after he chose comfort care (palliative care) over curative care, he seemed also to have chosen a progressive disengagement with us. A hospice nurse told us that patients often do that as they prepare to depart this life.