The Spirit is Willing, But the Flesh is Weak

Misc. Sermons
Misc. Sermons
The Spirit is Willing, But the Flesh is Weak

Last week Stephen asked us the question: “What do you do when the strong person in your life becomes the weak one?” He gave the example of his grandfather and how he served as an example of strength all of his life, but then he got sick, and seeing him lying in a hospital bed made him reckon with the fact that his grandfather was weak in that moment. I wondered to myself who that was in my life. Who was the strong person in my life that became weak? For me, the example that has repeatedly come to my mind was my father. And dad, if you’re watching this as home, I apologize in advance for not letting you know I was using you as a sermon illustration about weakness, but trust me, it has a good ending. 

All of my life growing up, my father was a strong man. Both in physical might and character. We grew up on a dairy farm and I can remember witnessing my father pick up a belligerent cow and setting it inside the trailer that it did not want to go into. He was strong. Legend has it that when my twin brother and I were younger, we would balance on his back while he did pushups and clapped between each one. I say it’s a legend because I don’t remember this, and apparently the videographic evidence of it has been lost because VHS tapes tend to decay over time, but based on other feats of strength that I saw from my father, I don’t have any reason to doubt it. 

Then something changed with my father. He began to have regular chest pains that, at times, would incapacitate him. After some examinations, it was determined by the doctors that his heart was not in good condition and he had, in fact, had at least one or two heart attacks. My father would go on to have both a triple and a quadruple bypass surgery, and from that moment on, his physical strength diminished. To this day, my father is no longer the physically strong man that I remember and that family lore had made him out to be. But where his physical strength had diminished, his strength of character only grew. 

I can remember a time when I watched as my father writhed in agony on the couch, clutching his chest. I was young and didn’t know what to do. I had considered calling 911 I was so worried about him. But before I could pick up the phone, it rang. And my father got up and answered it. Apparently my grandmother needed help with something and called my father to ask if he could help her. My father got off the couch, put on his boots, and drove away to my grandmother’s house, returning an hour or so later, and then retreated back to the couch, still in pain. We later found out that he had survived the widow maker. My grandmother said she had no clue that anything was wrong with him. 

My dad has continued to display these strengths of character over the years. Never once has he failed to help us whenever we needed it. When Hayley and I first got married, we moved 5 times in 6 years, never less than 8 hours away from home, and dad always made the trip to where we were and drove the moving truck for us, even the 18 hours it took for us to get from Lubbock, Texas to New Lebanon, Ohio. And we never asked him to do it, he just always showed up and did it. He loves and dotes on my daughters like no other grandfather I know, always sending them flowers and gifts on various holidays, and spoiling them rotten every time they go spend the night with them, undoing all the good habits that we’ve tried to instill in them, (but isn’t that what grandparents do?). Lyla and Clara call my father “Sir.” Not “papaw” or “grandpa” or any other conventional name, but “Sir.” It started out as a joke, initially, but it is a name that has come to truly encapsulate my father. He is a strong, strong man, who is worthy to be called Sir. What I hope he knows, and what I hope you see, is that strength is more of an intangible than something that you can put on display. And it’s kind of the point of this sermon, too, so.

Let’s read again our text for this morning. Mark 14:32-42:

And they went to a place called Gethsemane. And he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. And he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch.” And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” And he came and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy, and they did not know what to answer him. And he came the third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? It is enough; the hour has come. The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.”

So last week, Stephen asked us, “What do you do when the strong person in your life becomes the weak one?” And we saw how Jesus was tormented by what was about to come and how the Man who had once been the strong leader had now been reduced to a fearful, trembling, servant begging God for a different fate than what He knew was to come. But the text this week flips that question around and points it toward us. “What do we do when we find out that we are not as strong as we thought, but we are actually weak?” What do you do when you are faced with the realization that you are not capable of living up to your own standard of success and godliness and strength? 

The disciples were faced with that question. After asking them to stay awake and pray for Him, Jesus finds them asleep, and what does Jesus say to them? Verse 37: “He came and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, ‘Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.

You see in the first half of this passage, Mark’s emphasis is on Jesus’ pleading with the father, highlighting His fear, His trembling, His agony—His humanity. But in the second half here, Mark’s emphasis shifts toward the disciples and their weaknesses. Not once in the rest of this passage is Jesus’ pain referenced, only the disciples’ failures are discussed—they don’t obey Jesus and do what He asks of them. It’s their humanity that is put on display. And Jesus tells them that although their spirits are willing, the problem is that their flesh is weak. Just moments earlier, Jesus told the disciples that they would all desert Him, and Peter chimes in with “No, Jesus, I’ll never leave you. If I have to, I’ll die with you!” And the Scripture says that all the other disciples joined in with Peter’s pledge of loyalty. The disciples thought they were strong. But here, when Jesus needed them most, He pled with them to stay awake and pray for Him, when Jesus needed them the most, they couldn’t even manage to stay awake. They weren’t as strong as they thought they were. They were confronted by Jesus with their weakness. “The spirit is willing”, He said, “but your flesh is weak.”

Now, for sake of clarity, understand that “spirit” is talking here not of the Holy Spirit, but of the spirit of man. It’s a term sometimes used synonymously with the “heart” or “will” of a man. And “flesh” is used here as a reference to the disciples bodies and the carnal, unspiritual instincts it has. So when Jesus tells them that their spirit is willing but their flesh is weak, He is saying that He understands that they wantto do what He asks of them, but that their bodies and their natural desires and instincts are taking control and preventing them from doing what they want. What’s interesting here, is that Jesus says that it’s the strong thing about them that is weak. In this moment, the disciples flesh is winning out over their spirit. Their carnal desires are stronger than their spiritual desires, but Jesus doesn’t say, “Your flesh is too strong and your spirit is too weak!” He says, “Your spirit is strong, but your flesh is weak.” How strange, is it not? And here’s the point: our flesh, meaning our natural desires, must be submitted to our spirit, our supernatural desires, or else we are not strong, we are weak. 

Imagine a company whose entry-level employees are able to intimidate and influence the higher-ranking managers to do their will rather than the will of the manager’s superiors. That manager is a weak manager with no backbone or conviction, he’s able to be overpowered and manipulated by those underneath his leadership. We would not look at that and say, “now that’s a strong, healthy company!” We would say that it’s a weak and unhealthy one that is bound for failure because it’s not being led properly. 

The same is true of us. When our fleshly desires are stronger than our spiritual desires, we are incredibly weak, and we are doomed for failure, because we are not following the proper lead.

This is the human condition that we find ourselves in over and over is it not? We find that our spiritual ambitions are much higher than we are capable of carrying out. We truly desire so much more for ourselves than we find ourselves actually engaging in. Our desire to read the Bible and pray and fast is so easily fizzled out by our desire to scroll through Facebook or binge The Office on Netflix or tinker with something in the garage or tend to matters around the house. And after the fact we feel regret because we didn’t do the thing that our hearts truly desired to do. We were weak, we were not strong. This pattern plays itself out over and over and over again.

The apostle Paul understood this and spoke about this cycle in Romans chapter 7. He says,

“For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.  Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 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.”

You see the chaos that we believers live in here, don’t you? I mean, don’t you resonate with this? This is the chaotic spiritual state of every believer. We desire what we cannot attain, and we pursue what we do not want. Welcome to Christianity.

Now, an important note: I’m talking about believers here—those who have truly repented and placed their faith in Christ. Those who have been genuinely converted and made alive by the Spirit of God. That’s who Jesus was speaking to when he made this statement and that’s who I’m primarily addressing as well. Unbelievers, the Scriptures tell us, don’t even have a spirit that is alive. It’s completely dead, and therefore the only desires animating an unbeliever are fleshly desires. They may take the form of seemingly spiritual desires, though. There are many unbelievers in this room right now and who are watching at home who had a desire to come attend or tune in and watch this service, but they are doing so for completely unbiblical reasons and are not doing so out of a godly desire to be obedient to Christ. Maybe to please a spouse, maybe to cater to social pressure, maybe! A desire to try and be a good person. But none of those motivations are spiritual, they are all fleshly. You’re just moving for the sake of motion trying to convince yourself you’re making progress, but you’re not. And I’ll address that more in a moment, but for now, I want it to be clear that I’m NOT talking about a reality that is felt by every single person in this room, I’m speaking about something that is unique only to the truly born-again Christian.

So for the believer, a willing spirit accompanied by weak flesh causes us to experience a tension that we will never live up to everything we aspire to be. How many people here have sufficiently arrived at the spiritual state that they desire to be in? Exactly. And listen to me very carefully: we must understand that that will always be the case for us this side of heaven. The tension that we feel when we understand that we will never truly become as righteous or as spiritual as we desire in this life is something that we must become familiar with.

Now, I chose my wording very carefully, there. The tension is not something that we resign to. The tension is not something that should cause us to throw in the towel when it comes to growing in Christlikeness. It’s not something that we become comfortable with, it’s something the we grow accustomed to and familiar with. We live in it. We acknowledge it. And we embrace it as part of living in a fallen world. The tension is a lived, felt reality that we become familiar with. If we don’t reckon with the fact that our spiritual life will always be one of growth rather than arrival then we set ourselves on a quick road to spiritual burnout. But the tension of this reality we live in is also what makes it beautiful for us: our life this side of heaven will always be one of spiritual growth. There will always be more for us. We will never suck dry the well of godliness and Christlikeness that God has prepared for us, not now and not even in eternity. If you are a believer, then when you understand this truth, you are free from having to feel like you’ve attained anything, all you have to do is receive. 

Now another reason we should become accustomed to this tension rather than acclimated to it is because if we let our guard down and resign ourselves to not growing in grace, then we lose heart and we become lazy when it comes to spiritual matters, and then, according to Jesus, we are susceptible to temptation, which only makes matters worse.

That’s what Jesus says in verse 38: “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Jesus tells the disciples not to sleep, but to watch and to pray. Now, the disciples had a pretty long day leading up to this, they had traveled to Jerusalem where they then went to the upper room and had a large meal, then traveled back outside of the city to the garden late at night so Jesus could pray. That’s a lot of walking and preparing and physical exertion going on. Add to that the emotional toll that the disciples had been through: Jesus had told them He was going to die, Peter said He would die with Him, and Jesus said, “No you won’t, in fact you’re going to deny me three times. You all are going to desert me. In fact, one of you here is going to betray me.” The disciples had a lot going on physically and emotionally, they were tired. So they slept. Well-intentioned believers can easily fail to fulfill their calling by merely giving in to various physical needs or desires. For the disciples, it was the desire for sleep and rest that kept them from prayer and therefore, when the temptation came—that is, when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus—they gave in, they fled. They deserted Jesus.

That’s what happens when you sleep through life rather than doing the hard work of fighting against your flesh. When you are a lazy Christian who doesn’t put their flesh to death and instead chooses to do the easy thing and give in, when you decide to sleep rather than watch and pray, when you decide to eat rather than fast, when you decide to engage in sexual immorality outside of marriage rather than abstain, when you decide to gossip and spread rumors rather than remain silent, when you decide to play video games rather than read your Bible, when you decide to pour all of your energy into your work rather than devote yourself to your family, when you decide to live for the praise of man rather than the approval of God, then when the temptation comes, you will desert Jesus and flee toward sin rather than stand beside Him and fight because you have always done the easy thing and your spiritual muscles have atrophied and made you weak. THAT’S how much power you have whenever you sleep through the Christian life, none. 

When Jesus said that the disciples had weak flesh, He was speaking of their weariness, their tiredness. And that’s the excuse that so many of us make and you know it’s true. You may not verbalize it, but you know it to be true. “I’m too tired to pray. I’m too tired to go to church. I’m too tired to lead my family in devotions. I’m too tired to read my bible. I’m too tired to put any effort toward this. I’ve got too much work to do, I’ve got all these kids to watch, I’ve got so many responsibilities on my plate. I’m too tired to do that.” And if that is your constant excuse then you may be a very productive and busy human being, but you are a very lazy and negligent Christian. And you are a sitting duck for the Devil when he comes to tempt you. You will turn tail and run. Just like the disciples did. You will miss out on the greatest things you can experience in this life if you do not kill your spiritual laziness and bring your flesh into submission to your spirit. 

Paul encourages the weary in Galatians 6:9: “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” You can’t give up. Don’t give up. If you give up, you will not reap the reward. And this is why I said that we must become familiar with and accustomed to the tension of realizing that we will be in this fight for the long-haul, because Paul says that “in due season” we will reap the benefits of killing our sin and doing good. But that season may be so far off as to cause us to grow weary, but Paul says don’t stop. Don’t stop. You’ll miss out on so much. Don’t stop. You have a strength available to you that not even your sin can overcome or quench, if you’ll let it. But the problem is that so often we do let our sin and failure keep us from relying on Him, we do let it keep us from running the race as if we’ve disqualified ourselves. But hear what God says:

“I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” – Hebrews 10:17

We think our problem is that God is keeping track of every mistake we make, but our real problem is that we do. Some of us have stood by defeat for far too long and let it linger over us, bringing on shame and guilt that we carry around chained to our ankles, harvesting every ounce of power and desire we have to live a life of godliness because every step forward we take requires so much strength that we don’t feel we have because we’re dragging so much baggage behind us. Our spirits are willing, but our flesh is weak. We want to do what is right, but we are unable to find the ability to do it. I want you to know that if that’s you, then you need to hear these words: your sleepiness, your fear and trembling, your doubt that you can actually do what God asks of you, you know what Jesus’ heart towards you and all that tension inside of you is? Sympathy. He sympathizes with you. He sympathizes with you because He knows. He knows what that feeling is. He’s felt it, and His heart towards you is one of compassion and kindness, one that wants to lend a helping hand not a heavy one. Let me show you.

First thing that you should notice is precisely what Jesus asked the disciples to do. First in verse 32, he tells all of his disciples to “sit here while I pray.” Just sit. That’s all. Then He asks Peter, James, and John to accompany Him a bit further into the garden, and it’s to those three that He confides in them in verse 34, “My soul is sorrowful, even unto death. Remain here and watch.” He doesn’t ask them to pray, He asks them to keep watch. Remember Judas is gone, and in the upper room Jesus identified Judas as the one who would betray Him, so the disciples and Jesus are probably aware that Jesus is about to be arrested, so He asks them to keep watch for the soldiers that are about to come. This isn’t a selfish request of Jesus, He has the well-being of all of the disciples in mind. He wants them to be aware of the approaching enemy.  And the disciples’ willingness to accompany Jesus to the garden knowing that the enemy is coming is further proof to Jesus that their spirits are willing to do the right thing.

Then Jesus retreats to pray and it says in verse 35 that He fell to the ground begging God to remove the cup of His wrath from Him. And when He returns back to the disciples, look what He says to them in verse 38: “Watch and pray that YOU may not enter into temptation.” Jesus’ advice to them was not for himself, but for them. Even in His anguish and His torment, His heart for the disciples was one of care and compassion. He wanted them to pray for themselves because Jesus knew the temptation that was about to come. His concern was for them. They failed Him, but still His heart was tender towards them. 

Then the statement we’ve been discussing: “The spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak.” He’s speaking to the disciples here and He’s not rebuking them, He’s encouraging them. He’s saying, “Listen, I know you’re tired, I know your flesh is weak in this moment. I know you’ve had a long day and you’re weary and you want nothing more than to just rest. But I also know your spirit, your heart, is willing to do what I ask.” Jesus’ words to the disciples are far from a rebuke, they are an encouragement.

He returns a second time to find them sleeping again, but Mark tells us that no words were exchanged. Then Jesus goes back to pray and returns a third time and says in verse 41: “It is enough. The hour has come.” Now, I don’t usually like to get into the Greek because I’m not a greek scholar or anything, but apparently according to my commentaries, that statement that Jesus makes to them—“it is enough”—is apparently a notoriously difficult statement to translate into English in a way that adequately captures what the original Greek is trying to get at. Essentially, what Jesus is saying is not a rebuke as in ‘Enough of this!” Instead, Jesus is saying, “It has been enough time” as in “the time has come.” So He isn’t rebuking them even here, He’s warning them of what’s to come. “The time has come, wake up, they’re coming.” And verse 43 tells us that immediately as He was telling them this, Judas and the legion of soldiers approached them.

I think we often misread this passage and think that since the disciples failed in their responsibilities then Jesus is rebuking the disciples the entire time, but He’s not, He never does in this passage. He only ever cares for them, despite their constant failures. 

Now why does He do this? It’s because He sympathizes with them. Listen, in this moment, Jesus is undergoing a very real and severe temptation Himself, and all the emotive language used in this passage is meant to indicate that fact. Verse 33 says Jesus was “greatly distressed and troubled.” He told the disciples, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death.” Mark tells us that as He went to God in prayer He did so as He fell to the ground, begging God to deliver Him from the agony that was coming. Luke’s account of this scene tells us that Jesus was so distraught and under such intense pressure that He sweat drops of blood—a medical condition known as hematidrosis where the human body comes under such intense physical and emotional stress that the capillaries in your head literally burst and blood oozes from your pores. Jesus was under intense stress. And Luke’s account also tells us what motivated the disciples to sleep. Luke says that the disciples slept because they were overcome with sorrow. 

So Jesus, experiencing great sorrow, understands the sorrow of the disciples that has exhausted them. And it’s because He’s experiencing their same bout of weakness, but is overcoming it through prayer, that He encourages them to pray, He doesn’t rebuke them. He loves them. And He gives them the remedy for their weakness. “Watch and pray so that you don’t enter into temptation.”

Hebrews 4:15: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” We DON’T have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, meaning that we DO have a High Priest who CAN sympathize with us in our weakness. Just like He did with the disciples, Jesus does for us. He doesn’t look at your flesh prevailing over your spirit in confusion, scratching His head wondering why you can’t get your act together. He understands exactly what you’re going through because He’s experienced that same temptation. He’s fought that same fight. Yet where we have failed over and over, He was successful. And you see that’s the point of all this. 

He asked the disciples to watch and pray for him, but he watched and prayed for them. And that’s still the point today, when we forsake our duty, Christ intercedes for us. When we sleep instead of fight, Christ fights for us. We are supposed to reckon with our weakness and not run away from it. You know, I think the secret to growth in the Christian life is found in knowing just how weak we actually are. Because it’s then that we can acknowledge it to God, and in return we can harness a power not of our own that allows us to do incredible things. That’s what Paul did. He acknowledged his weakness and asked for it to be removed, but God said no because through Paul’s weakness He would make His own power be known. The same is true for us. For the Christian, the most formative confession we can make is that we are weak and in need of a strength other than our own, and it will be granted to us. What a tradeoff. We acknowledge how weak we are to God, and God says, wonderful, now that we’ve got that cleared up, here’s a little bit of My power to keep you going. But also the inverse is true, the most dangerous state a Christian can be in is one of ignorance about just how truly weak we are. 

But our weakness does not scare Jesus away, it’s what He naturally gravitates to. Remember, He’s the physician who came for the sick, the feeble, the weak, not the one’s who are well and have no need of help. And Jesus can say that with a straight face because He himself has been weak, He’s been feeble. He’s been tempted and tried, yet never given into sin. 

Jesus has felt the fullness of your pain, your sin, and your struggle. Remember what we learned last week from 2 Corinthians which tells us that on the cross, Jesus didn’t merely take on sin, He became sin. All of the complete depravity and brokenness of man, He didn’t simply feel it, He became it. 

The Bible explains it this way in 1 Peter: “Surely he bore our sins in His body on the cross.” In his body. Have you ever hurt so bad that it felt like your bones were wasting away? If our Lord partook of all of the fallenness of humanity and in His body he became everything that He was never meant to be, then why wouldn’t He be able to understand what you’re going through? 

Jesus and the Father are united in such an intimate and close way that we consider them both the same exact person. But when Jesus hung on the cross and bore the penalty for your sin, He cried out “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?” In a moment, the identity that Jesus had for eternity past, as being One with the Father, that identity was taken away. He didn’t feel at home in His body, He didn’t feel secure in His identity, He didn’t experience the harmony of rightly balanced, rightly ordered desires. He was broken. He was broken for you. And for me, for us.

But the Scripture says that this brokenness, this disconnect, this disharmony did not last forever. For it was through Jesus’ death on the cross and His resurrection that Jesus exhausted the full power of sin, removed it, and thereby He reconciled all things to Himself. He brought order to the chaos. He brought unity and cohesion. Things that were once out of order and misaligned are now properly balanced and made right. 

Jesus Christ has been exactly where you are, He has felt the fullness of temptation that a willing spirit and weak flesh bring, but now at this moment, He is alive and well on the other side of it. And He is inviting you to come to Him. He is inviting you to leave behind your dysfunction and disorder and join Him in His peace and restoration. And if you’re exhausted, don’t give up, keep going, keep running, He will give you the grace you need to continue firm until the end. 

St. Augustine captures this idea for us perfectly. Speaking to God, he cries out:

“Oh the twisted roads I walked! But look, You’re here, freeing us from our unhappy wandering, setting us firmly on Your track, comforting us and saying, ‘Run the race! I’ll carry you! I’ll carry you clear to the end, and even at the end, I’ll carry you.’”

If you’re tired and exhausted. If your spirit is willing, but your flesh is weak. If you’re tempted to sleep through your Christian life, you should take solace in the fact that you have a Savior who will carry you. And you should let Him. It gives Him no greater joy than to comfort His children and to put His strength and glory on display. And it brings us sinful, weak, feeble human beings whose flesh wins out over our spirit time and time again no greater honor and dignity than to be the vessels through which His strength and love are shown. 

The solution for all of us, no matter what our hurts, habits, or hang-ups, no matter the nature of our struggles, that one choice you have that will lead to your greatest freedom, joy, and flourishing is the choice to leave behind your sin and cleave to Christ. 

“Remain here and stay awake with me
This was Your plea
The burdens of eternity resting on Thee

Heavy eyes closed serene
While Your heart was laden with grief
Alone to bear, swallowed up in sorrow
Their sin You would carry tomorrow

Remain here and stay awake with me
The quest for our salvation around the corner
As they gave into a deep, deep slumber

Facedown weighted by trouble
Your heart undeterred
Though the cup was bitter to drink
Beating and beating, behold, there is the tree

Remain here and stay awake with me
Your life set to do the Father’s will
They, resting quietly and still

Soon to hold Thee
Nails and iniquities
Never can we know
The weight of that sorrow

Remain here and stay awake with me
Lord, here is my plea
You shouted, ‘It is finished’
I can trust in Thee
Though we did not for You
O Lord, pray for me

Grieved and burdened
Sorrow surrounds me
Hold my hand in this Gethsemane
Though none held onto Thee’s
Bare of all earthly comfort
You endured this trouble for me

Remain here and stay awake with me
Your eyes won’t veer off from me
Interceding on my behalf
With the Son, I will last, I will last

You will remain here and stay awake with me

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