32 They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” 33 He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. 34 “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them. “Stay here and keep watch.” 35 Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. 36 “Abba , Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” 37 Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Simon,” he said to Peter, “are you asleep? Couldn’t you keep watch for one hour? 38 Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”Mark 14:32-37
We all experience suffering in our life. Unfortunately it is inevitable that we will all find ourselves experiencing situations that we would rather not, situations that bring hurt, or anger, or upset, or frustration, or pain, or any combination of all of these. Those outside the church might see the existence of suffering as evidence for there not being a God. How, they might ask, could a God of love simply sit back whilst there is so much pain, hurt and upset in the world? For a Christian in anguish, it is only natural to wonder why God has led us into this painful scenario. We might wonder if we are being punished by God, and if so why? We may even begin to doubt our faith. Suffering is hard. Suffering can be really hard. Sometimes it can feel as if we are experiencing more hurt than we can possibly bear.
Writing in May of 2021, in a world that has been so significantly shaped by COVID for more than twelve months, I suspect that many of us have experienced suffering in a way that we wish we hadn’t.
What I find remarkable about this passage in Mark’s Gospel is that Jesus, too, experienced the same mental anguish associated with suffering that we all experience from time to time. He went to pray, and, as Mark records, “he began to be deeply distressed and troubled.” Jesus said to his disciples, “my soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.”
I wonder how many of us have experienced such a deep, painful sense of sorrow that our soul, our very person, feels like it is broken? How many of us have been so overwhelmed that just carrying on seems more than we can bear. And here is Jesus, experiencing that same emotion, that same overwhelming burden of grief, of pain, of distress.
It’s not clear precisely what is the cause of Jesus’ anguish. Maybe it’s the prospect of what he knows is coming – his painful death on the cross. Maybe it is the realisation that his death is going to necessitate abandonment by his father, the breaking of that deep, mysterious bond between God the Father and God the Son. Maybe it is the prospect of the overwhelming burden of the sin of all of humanity being piled upon him. Maybe it is just the reality of the human condition, the sense of how broken, how fallen, how sinful, how far from God people are, and yet so many are completely oblivious to their condition.
Whatever the cause is, here is Jesus, the Son of God, overwhelmed by sorrow, experiencing those deep and bleak emotions that we all feel from time to time. Here he is experiencing the emotions that often drive people from God, feeling that God cannot understand the weight of their anguish, since they do not feel his presence.
Yet Jesus can, and does understand our anguish, since he has been there for himself.
What is Jesus’ response to this overwhelming sorrow? He calls out to God with one of the most profound and moving prayers in the Bible: “Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” Jesus knows that God the Father is in control. He understands that God the Father can do anything. And, whilst Christians believe that Jesus is God, we see Jesus here demonstrating his full human-ness too. He sets before God his Father what he wants – take this cup away from me. Stop my suffering, he prays to his Father. How many of us have prayed that very same prayer? Please, Father God, take away my suffering. Stop my pain and anguish. I know you can, Father, so please, I beg you, end my suffering.
When we think that God cannot possibly understand the depth of our pain and anguish, the hurt that we are experiencing, we should remember this moment of anguish that Jesus experienced in the Garden of Gethsemane. God does understand our suffering, because he has been there himself, in the person of Jesus Christ.
What a truly remarkable thought that is.
Jesus follows up this plea to his father with the affirmation, “yet not what I will, but what you will.” He affirms that he desires to bring his will in line with his Father’s will for his life. Whilst he might want his cup of suffering taken away from him, he understands that his Father has a plan, a plan that involves him experiencing despair and sorrow in the Garden of Gethsemane, a plan that involves him experiencing separation from his Father, a plan that involves him suffering a painful death upon the cross.
Jesus knows and understands that there is a purpose to his suffering. The cup that his Father would have him drink is the cup of God’s wrath, God’s anger towards and judgement of all humanity because of our sinful nature. Jesus knows that if he drinks fully from this cup, his actions will save humanity, bring us freedom from sin, and allow us once again to enter into a relationship with God.
Whilst the cost to Jesus is immeasurable, the benefit to humanity is also immeasurable.
And so Jesus accepts his Father’s will for his life, even though it brings him “sorrow to the point of death.”
What can we learn from Jesus’ approach to his suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane?
It’s alright for us to despair. It’s alright for us to feel sorrow, and pain, and anguish. Suffering is not necessarily a consequence of our own wrongdoing, but a consequence of living in a fallen, sinful world.
It’s alright to cry out to God. It’s alright to tell God how we’re feeling. It’s alright for us to beg God to take away our suffering.
But as we cry out to God and ask him to take away our suffering, we must remember that he might not do so. Jesus’ cry out to his father did not stop his death on the cross. Our pleas to God similarly might not end our own suffering.
Our suffering might be part of God’s will, or an enabler of God’s will, and whilst asking God to end our suffering, we, like Jesus, should affirm that ultimately we want to follow God’s will for our lives. And if that will involves suffering, so be it.
This is hard. This is tough and difficult. When we experience sorrow to the point of death, being told that it may well be God’s will for our life is incredibly painful. It can seem unfair and unreasonable.
But if it is part of God’s plan for our lives to suffer, we might find it reassuring to know that there is a purpose to, or despite, our suffering. There is a reason for the pain and anguish that we’re going through.
Jesus’ suffering led to our liberation from sin.
Our personal suffering might refine us, and mould us, and shape us into people that God can better use to bring hope and love to his creation.
Our personal suffering might teach us how to place our trust more in God, to be more faithful to him, to serve him better, to persevere more in our journey of faith with him.
Our personal suffering might enable us to get alongside others experiencing pain and anguish, and to understand them better, to empathise better.
It may well be that our personal suffering has no discernible benefit for us, or anyone else. It might feel that our suffering is utterly pointless. But even if this seems to be the case, we can draw hope from the fact that God can work through our pain and anguish, and that even if we cannot see it or understand it, we are playing a role in the creation of God’s kingdom here on earth.
There is no denying that this is difficult. This is really difficult. Yet I draw great comfort from understanding that Jesus went through exactly what we all go through, that he experienced the full range of human emotions and understands what it feels like to really suffer.
And Jesus’ prayer, “not what I will, but what you will”? What a challenging prayer to pray, but one which can bring us hope just by virtue of the fact that we are trusting that God has a plan for our lives, and that there is nothing better for us to do than asking God to bring this plan to fruition.