Sleeping for Sorrow
You probably recognize the title phrase, “sleeping for sorrow,” describing the disciples falling asleep while Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane. It’s an odd phrase, isn’t it?
Matthew and Mark record that the disciples fell asleep because “their eyes were heavy”. We know that feeling, right? Just…can’t…stay…awake… Only Luke tells us that the cause of this overpowering tiredness is sorrow, grief. But he doesn’t say grief over what.
Backing up, when Jesus got to the garden, he had asked the disciples to sit while he steps away a short distance to pray. He had taken three of them part of the way with him. Matthew tells us he then began to be “sorrowful”—the same word Luke uses of the disciples—and then he spoke to these three saying he was “exceedingly sorrowful”, the same word again but with a prefix indicating great intensity. Jesus says he has this sorrow “even to death”.
The intensity of his grief is so great that it feels like he will die of it! Matthew and Mark record this level of the Lord’s grieving. Luke doesn’t use the same words, but he records that Jesus has great drops of sweat, like drops of blood—on a cold night. I don’t think we can really even imagine.
What Jesus had to say to them was upsetting!
Jesus asks the three to stay awake while he prays, but as we know they don’t. They are so tired. Why? It’s not all that late yet. From Luke, they are grieving (although not to the extent Jesus is). Why? What is the source of their grief?
I believe the answer is in John, who doesn’t actually record any of the conversation, the praying or the sleeping. We have to back up again, in John this time, prior to Jesus and the disciples heading over to Gethsemane. John alone records, at length, the teaching Jesus provided on this last evening before his death—occupying five chapters (13-17).
What Jesus had to say to them was upsetting! He told them not to be troubled (14:1), but then tells them he will be going away, and he recognizes, “But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts”. (16:6) The same word. This is the source of the sorrow.
The disciples are confused, as is evident in the conversation recorded by John. What Jesus says to them worries them. They don’t understand, really, but they get enough that they’re filled with dread. Jesus’s enemies have been plotting to kill him. Jesus has told the disciples multiple times that he is going to be handed over to them and be killed—which they don’t understand, but it sure sounds bad.
Just a day or two earlier Jesus had foretold the destruction of the Temple. They can feel things coming to a head. They are confused, worried sick, afraid, worn out by all the conflict surrounding their Lord, and unable to do anything about it.
This package of intense emotion is their “sorrow”. I suspect most of us can understand exactly what it feels like to be totally exhausted by intense, surging emotions.
And yet, as real as their sorrow is, it is pale compared to what Jesus is going through. He is “exceedingly sorrowful”, because he isn’t confused about what’s coming—he knows exactly. But in his own extreme emotions, he doesn’t sleep. He prays, and he counsels the disciples to pray.
All of us, I’m sure, have fallen asleep praying. Actually, it seems to me the just-right close of the day, our last conscious thoughts being spent in prayer. Which, if you think about it, is what Jesus did—but his final conscious thought was the next afternoon: “Father, I give my breath into your hands. It is finished.”
As you know, “sleep” is used quite a bit in scripture to mean “death”. But a death from which we will awake! Like those 11 in the garden with Jesus, we may “fall asleep” in the sorrows of this world. But as the voice of the Lord woke the disciples that night, the same voice will waken us—and “sorrow and sighing will flee away.” (Isaiah 35:10)