That’s not a popular message. The Atlantic recently featured an article by Lori Gottlieb entitled “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy,” in which the author explained that parents are afraid to let their children fail, because they’re afraid it will damage their self-esteem. The result is that their children are unable to adjust to the anxieties and difficulties of life outside of their parents’ umbrellas. After years of working with college students, I know firsthand that this is true. Parents are terrified that their children may fail and even be unhappy sometimes (gasp!).
Jesus, on the other hand, knows his disciples will fail him. Rather than shielding them from the fact, he tells them to their faces that they are weak and pathetic sheep.
Before Jesus was betrayed and crucified, Peter never struggled with self-esteem. He was a self-assured individual, not afraid to assert himself in front of Jesus. So when Jesus warns all the disciples, “You will all fall away,” Peter is not happy. Where is Jesus’ faith in me? he thinks. He announces, “Even though they all fall away, I will not.” Rather than backing down, Jesus gets in Peter’s face. “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” Unfortunately, Peter’s self-esteem bubble still hasn’t been popped, and now the other disciples begin asserting their loyalty as well.
Their failure begins at Gethsemane. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John (his inner circle) deep into the garden. At this point, Mark writes, he “began to be greatly distressed and troubled.” The hour of his death has drawn near, and whatever is about to take place is overwhelming Jesus. He tells his inner circle, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch.” They are to stay alert and keep their eyes open for trouble.
Jesus prays on his own for a while, then returns to his disciples—and they have all fallen asleep. Jesus singles out Peter, telling him, “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.” Twice more he leaves them to pray, and twice more they fall asleep.
As if this weren’t enough, a mob approaches them, led by Judas, one of Jesus’ closest friends. Judas identifies Jesus by greeting him with a kiss—a horrible act of betrayal! Chaos ensues; Jesus is seized and arrested, swords are drawn and swung around wildly. “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me?” Jesus protests. They are treating him like a common criminal.
As soon as his disciples realize that Jesus will not be resisting arrest, Mark records, “they all left and fled” with their tails between their legs. Most shameful of all is the desertion of a young man who would rather run away naked than stay with his Lord during his darkest hour.
The failure of the disciples is total. They begin the evening by boasting of their loyalty, then fall asleep while their Lord suffers and desert him when confronted by a mob. Their boasting only aggravates their shame.
Were it up to our own strength, you and I would abandon Jesus as quickly as his disciples do. “The flesh is weak,” and we are afraid of what other people can do to us. You and I have nothing to boast about.
God is leading us to esteem not ourselves but Jesus. At the centre of these events, we are allowed to listen in on his “loud cries and tears” (Hebrews 5:7). He calls out, “Abba! Father! All things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me!” He pleads with his Father to take away the “cup of the wine of wrath” (Jeremiah 25:15) from which rebels against God are forced to drink. No doubt his words “watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation” are not meant merely for his disciples but himself. He resists temptation and chooses to follow the will of his Father, conceding, “Not what I will, but what you will.”
Each of Jesus’ disciples failed to “deny himself and take up his cross” (Mark 8:34). None of them submitted himself to the will and authority of God. But Jesus has done it perfectly. He is the only man who has.
You may think that you are a loyal and faithful servant of God. But you are much weaker than you think; you are easily tempted away from doing his will. This is why you need Jesus. He sought another way—any other way—to accomplish the mission God gave him. But he never wavered in his commitment to doing what his Father required. If you trust him instead of yourself, his goodness and faithfulness is what God sees when he looks at you. He doesn’t focus on your failures but on the success of his Son, who became a man to represent you and become “the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Hebrews 5:9).
God knew you would fail him when he chose to save you. That’s why he gave you Jesus.