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Jesus’ Dark Night of the Soul

‘Dark night of the soul’ is not an expression that Christians use very often. But it describes an experience that is not uncommon to believers. It is a time when you face a spiritual crisis. Psalm 73 describes the spiritual crisis that Asaph went through when he found himself envying the wicked, and as a result, nearly lost his way. But Asaph is not the only person in the Scripture who experienced a time of spiritual crisis.

The gospels portray Jesus as a man who knows who he is and his purpose in life. A man who is steadfastly following his Father’s plan for his life. No hesitation or question. Unflinching in the face of everything thrown at him.

But the synoptic gospels reveal a moment in Jesus’ life, his dark night of the soul, that seems out of place with that picture. It was in Gethsemane on the night before his crucifixion. Jesus had gone there with his disciples after the Last Supper. He left his disciples and went off by himself to pray. And his prayer revealed his humanity in ways that no other account does, at least for me.

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

The Setting

Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”

Matthew 26:36-38 NIV

As Jesus entered Gethsemane, it seemed like the horror of what was to come began to overtake him. Matthew says that Jesus began to be sorrowful and troubled. And he recorded Jesus telling Peter, James, and John that his soul was overwhelmed to the point of death. Clearly, Jesus was in crisis mode here. What he was facing seemed to be more than he could humanly bear.

All too often, we see Jesus as primarily divine, as the Son of God. Capable of dealing with anything that comes his way. Faster than a speeding bullet and able to leap tall buildings. But Jesus is also completely human. And his humanity is nowhere revealed more clearly than it is here. What he is experiencing is what any of us would if we knew we would be crucified the next morning.

So what did he do? He gathered his closest companions around him, and went to God in prayer. He sought strength in the nearness of Peter, James, and John. But more importantly, he sought the help of his heavenly Father.

The First Prayer

Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

Matthew 26:39-41 NIV

Jesus initially prayed that another way would be found. A way that did not include his death on the cross. No one would want to experience crucifixion on a Roman cross. But was there any other way to secure our redemption? For an hour, Jesus agonized over this decision.

Jesus’ will was to not go to the cross. But he put God’s will ahead of his own. Jesus prayed, “I don’t want to go to the cross. But even more, I want your will to be accomplished in my life.” Faced with the most difficult decision of his life, he opted to follow God’s will. Even though he did not want to.

As for those he had brought to provide support for him. They let him down. It had been a long day, and was well into the night now. So their sleeping was understandable. But it was still a disappointment to Jesus when he most needed them.

The Second and Third Prayer

He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”
When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.

Matthew 26:42-44 NIV

A second time Jesus went off alone to pray. But this time, his prayer had changed. No longer was he looking for another way. He was resigned to the cross. There was no turning back. And he prayed that God’s will would be done.

This is reminiscent of the Lord’s Prayer found in Matthew 6:9-13. Jesus taught us to pray that God’s will be done. And he demonstrated how that is done here. He is not praying that God’s will be done in someone else’s life (although that may not be wrong). Instead, he is personalizing it. May God’s will be done in my life. Even when it is contrary to mine. And even when it will cost me greatly.

Jesus came back to his friends and found them still sleeping. Their eyes were heavy. So he left them and went back to the one who would stay with him; his Father. And he again prayed for God’s will in his life.

A Resolute Spirit

Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour has come, and the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners. Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!”

Matthew 26:45-46 NIV

After Jesus’ time of prayer in the garden, he was ready to face the coming day. He had expressed to the Father his distress and desires. And he had committed himself to carry out the Father’s will; above his own. His dark night of the soul was over. And now he was prepared to march out and meet those who would pass judgment on him and hang him on the cross.

Why did Matthew and the other synoptic gospel writers include this moment in Jesus’ life? On the surface, it would seem to portray him as weak and afraid. But what it actually does is portray him as human. What he experienced that night in the garden is what any of us would experience if we knew the horror of the cross awaited us the next day.

And in his response, he sets us an example. Distress and sorrow are natural. Wanting to avoid suffering is common to all of us. But what do we do when we find ourselves in stressful circumstances? In our own dark night of the soul. Do we run? Or do we bring it to God, express our doubts and fears, and then trust him? Follow Jesus’ example. Commit your ways to God, and he will see you through whatever comes.


The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.

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