Over the past few weeks of reviewing my spiritual journals, I’ve noticed my thoughts recorded during times of great distress. As much as I shared these stresses with others, I was obviously alone in carrying the main burdens. Even as others offered help or sympathy or their presence with me, the sense of solitude comes out in the writing. Because of this, I’m all the more amazed at Jesus.
And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:40–41)
Had this been me about to experience the wrath of God for the sins of the world (even had it been for only one other sinner), and my closest friends were sleeping instead of watching and praying with me, I doubt that I would have been so gracious. Jesus was thinking more about their need than He was about His own. I might have given them a shake and told them how much I was suffering, how much I needed their support. I might have been annoyed that they slept when their promise was never to betray me. I know that I would have thought more about myself, or my expectations of my friends, than the dangers in their spiritual condition.
Chinese Christian Watchman Need describes that danger. He says of these disciples that their problem was not that their flesh was weak and needed to be stronger, but that it was weak and needed to die. The spirit and the flesh are continually in conflict. Those who follow Jesus Christ know that weak flesh is just as dangerous as strong flesh. It thinks only of itself and what it needs for the moment, but has greater subtlety than “strong” flesh. That is, a Christian with weak flesh can appear spiritual; after all, they were with Jesus and wasn’t that a spiritual place to be? But still they fell asleep.
God makes clear that weak flesh describes that selfish part of us that is actively seeking its own even as the spirit asks for greater things. These men wanted to be with Jesus and never forsake Him, yet they could not because the flesh, even in weakness, was still in control of their actions.
Later, the Apostle Paul wrote about this predicament. From experience, he knew the battle that the disciples fought in Gethsemane, and that I fight in my prayer closet.
But I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (Romans 7:23–25)
The flesh is sinful, even weak flesh. Like the disciples, I want to sleep when I should be most alert. As spiritual battles rage around me, my weak flesh says ho hum instead of yielding to the Spirit who bids me to watch and pray. Instead of prayer, I can easily fall asleep. Paul wrote also that the flesh is not merely weak, but for those who are in Christ Jesus, the flesh is dead. He says that I must reckon this to be true for this is my escape from serving the law of sin.
So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. (Romans 6:11–13)
I’m not condemning the sleepy disciples. Jesus had not yet died and they were not yet filled with His Spirit enabling them to walk in newness of life. Their experience in the garden was just that, an experience. It shows me that human weakness is still powerful; God wants me dead to sin, not having greater strength in my old self, but dead to self and free to yield to the spirit that He has made willing.
He also wants me to know that, like Jesus, I will experience my greatest trials alone, even if my friends are there to watch and pray, or sleep and snore. It is in this dreadful solitude that I become more like Him, bearing whatever burden the Lord places on me and discovering in the process that the only solution is to say, “Thy will be done.”
Lord, You make me aware that weak flesh is still strong enough to overpower a willing spirit. As I have died with You and risen to new life with You, may I remember that I am dead and yet nevertheless, I live and the life I now live is by faith in You. What an amazing solution You offer to Your people — that we might live, and also watch and pray with You.