Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak. (Matthew 26.41)
The Last Word
“The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” surely sits in the Top 10 Jesus quotes. It’s said so widely and often it’s been diluted into a sighing apology that usually means, “I want to say yes, but I’m too tired.” When we revisit the circumstances prompting Christ’s remark, we’re liable to be shocked and ashamed at how casually we toss it around. Jesus says it at a time and place that lends it poignant gravity. But while the situation removes all doubt about its profundity, it also shrouds the statement in ambiguity about whom Jesus is talking to. It initially sounds directed to the disciples. Yet as we read on, it’s quite possible Jesus is speaking to Himself. If we re-read the entire passage, it’s sensible to assume He addresses the disciples’ error and His internal turmoil simultaneously.
Matthew records this as the last word Jesus speaks exclusively to His disciples as a mortal. They’ve left the Last Supper to pray in Gethsemane. Over dinner, Jesus has told them He’ll soon leave them and when they arrive at the garden, He distances Himself to pray secretly. He falls facedown and agonizes with God about His imminent suffering, asking to be spared and then submitting to God’s will. He appears to reach a point of acceptance, because He returns to rejoin the disciples—who are supposed to be praying with Him—and finds them sleeping. He chides Peter for not keeping them awake. Then He says, “Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26.41) Knowing Peter will yield to temptation twice before the night ends, we automatically assume the Lord’s statement is aimed directly at him. But that may not be the whole of it. After Jesus says this, He turns back to pray a second time, repeating His first prayer: “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.” (v42; NIV)
Weakness on Both Sides
The admonition to withstand temptation with vigilance and prayer—overcoming physical fear and frailty that hinder spiritual trust and resolve—bridges the disciples’ carelessness with Jesus’s wariness. It confesses human weakness on both sides. The disciples are exhausted in body and mind. It’s been an unusually grueling week and they’ve spent the past few hours grappling with ominous news. No doubt they have every intention of praying with Jesus. But it’s late, they’re not quite sure how they should pray, and their Master has left them alone. Without Jesus to lead them, fatigue trumps their faith. On the other hand, being privy to the torture awaiting Him, Jesus’s body quakes with dread, urging Him to plead for a stay of execution. His Spirit is willing to see this through, yet His body is weak and reluctant. We find our lesson in the contrast between the disciples’ response to Christ’s warning, what He does, and how He and Peter handle themselves as the evening progresses.
Following His second prayer, Jesus finds the disciples have fallen back to sleep. He doesn’t wake them again, but goes back to pray the same prayer a third time. After that, He rouses them as Judas and his co-conspirators approach. Jesus puts up no resistance to His arrest. He sees His enemies coming and having prayed three times without any indication His fate can be avoided, His Spirit’s willingness to obey takes precedence over His natural impulse to escape. Jesus faces His fears. Failing to discipline His physical compulsions, Peter’s caught off-guard. He attacks Christ’s enemies and, later, cowers in fear of being associated with Jesus. His body’s weakness undermines his spirit’s willingness.
Willing and Willful
Our spirits are willing. Our bodies are willful. One guides us to please our Maker. The other drives us to satisfy our urges. The spirit and body engage in constant conflict, the former leading us to do what’s best in the long run and the latter pressing for instant gratification. It’s like dieting. When an enticing yet fattening treat is placed before us, we’re presented with a choice: eat now and pay later or sacrifice now and profit later. Choosing between our spirits and bodies is no different. Each choice boils down to this question: whose example will we follow, Christ’s or Peter’s?
When we follow Jesus, we’re watchful against reacting angrily and fearfully when confronted. We stay prayerful, continuously in contact with our Father, Who strengthens our resolve. When we follow Peter, we’re taken by surprise. We’re not watching for temptations and praying for strength. We lose emotional and physical control. Our bodies’ willfulness to survive overwhelms our spirits’ willingness to sacrifice. Willfulness is weakness, while willingness exerts true strength. If we desire to defeat temptation, we must watch and pray. Sleep can wait. Self-gratification can be denied. Weakness can be overpowered. It’s in our spirits to will it so.
We follow one of two examples when dealing with temptation: Christ’s or Peter’s.