Watch and Pray

My Dear Shepherds,

And he broke down and wept. (Mark 14:72)

Mark’s Gospel records more than a dozen disheartening discipleship failures, but the most heartbreaking was Peter’s triplicate denial of Jesus. Jesus had said it would be so, but things wouldn’t have had to turn out that way. Jesus had given him this out:

“Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Mark 14:38)

Denial has many scripts and many actors. It doesn’t always look like Peter’s. We all have our own accounts of weak flesh undermining vigilance and prayer.

In the dark hours of that night, Jesus wanted his disciples nearby so they might “watch and pray,” not for him, but for themselves. He was determined not to fail the Father and he didn’t want them to fail either. But Peter didn’t grasp that he was about to be ambushed. “Sifted like wheat,” is how Luke records it. He was ready for a fight as would be evidenced by his bloodied sword in the garden, but he was laid low by the servant girl’s suspicious ID, “You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus.”

I suspect that most of us aren’t too good at the “watch and pray” defense against the weakness of the flesh. Like Peter, we’re overconfident in our willing spirit. Even though Jesus taught us to pray the fundamental request, “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil,” we often give that petition sort shrift.

In the disciples’ case, their weak flesh was evident in their exhaustion. Unalarmed by Jesus’ warning, they didn’t have it in them to stay awake. I suppose that sometimes weariness has been the reason my weak flesh overruled my willing spirit, but more often I think it has been because I was too preoccupied with my do-list, my anxieties, or my desire to put my feet up.

I think perhaps the watch phase might look like this. Each time we pray—but especially when we’re confronting duress or decisions—the watching happens after we close our eyes. We bow before the Lord to reconnoiter the lay of our spiritual landscape. Following the stealthy steps of the Holy Spirit we scout enemy lines, decode enemy lies, and take note of our own unguarded ground. Where have our fears raised giants? Where has our over-confidence or busyness distracted us from danger?

Then, having been the sentinel of our own soul, our watching moves to praying. What if Peter had prayed, “O God, Satan is about to sift me as he tested Job. The Lord Jesus has told me I will deny him. Our Father, lead me not into that temptation, but deliver me from that evil and from the evil one’s sifting. But if I must face it, may I not fail.”

Vigilant praying searches out God’s promises and remembers his victories, especially all that was won for us in Christ. We confess our weaknesses. We take refuge in God alone and breathe in Christ’s resurrection power and life. We echo Jesus, “Not my will but yours be done,” even if our heart breaks to say it.

Peter spoke from hard experience when he wrote,

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith. … And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. (1 Pet. 5:8-11)

Be ye glad!

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