Suffering is inevitable. We will all experience its pains. Suffering is impactful. We will all be tempted to allow it to dictate our beliefs about God. Yet, suffering is not final. Suffering is not the end all. And the powerful presence and impact of suffering can be overcome in Christ. One major reason for hope in the face of true and seemingly relentless suffering is the truth that Jesus is our example. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus shows us how we should suffer in two ways.
He Does Not Suppress His Suffering
First, he does not suppress his suffering. The Gospel writers tell us that on the night before Passover, our paschal Lamb enjoyed the Passover meal with his disciples where he instituted the Lord’s Supper and spoke of establishing a new covenant. When he left that place, he led his disciples from Jerusalem to the Mount of Olives. It is here that they enter a garden to pray. John tells us the garden of Gethsemane was a place Jesus and his disciples had gone to pray often. As the men enter the gates of this garden, he calls his inner circle to follow him deeper into the garden to pray. Peter, James, and John follow Jesus where he asks them to wait and watch. Moving just a “stone’s throw” away from the men, Jesus falls to his knees and then to his face to pour out his heart to God. He lays all his struggles before God, and is more open and honest about his agony than any Christian martyr who would ever follow him.
Jesus tells his disciples that he was deeply sorrowful and troubled even to the point of death. Something had a grip on Jesus so tightly that it caused a kind of sorrow or terror that could kill him. Imagine driving down the road, turning a corner and seeing your teenager’s vehicle totally destroyed in a terrible car accident. How would you feel? Sick. The horror that fills your heart is enough to choke you. That is something like what Jesus felt when he said, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (Matt. 26:38).
Jesus takes a radical approach to suffering here. Many worldviews, Buddhism in particular, teach that when you suffer, you simply need to suppress your desires. It teaches we should not become too emotional in our suffering. Instead, the thought is that we can overcome suffering by detaching ourselves from it.
But Jesus does not hide his agony. He fully embraces it. He teaches us that we cannot begin to cope with our own suffering until we fully express our pains before God. It is good to wrestle with God. Jesus was wrestling, even as he was obeying.
He Does Not Surrender to His Suffering
Jesus doesn’t just not suppress his suffering, he also doesn’t surrender to his suffering. As Jesus enters this garden for the last time, he knows what he is about to face. The suffering Jesus is about to face is seemingly insurmountable. He is about to be betrayed by Judas, forsaken by his disciples, scorned and rejected by the world, condemned by Pilate, and tormented by his persecutors. He is about to be spit upon, beaten, whipped, stripped of his clothes, and nailed to a cross. The physical torment Jesus was about to face is heart-wrenching to even think about. And yet, his physical suffering did not account for even half of one drop of the cup he was called to drink.
Within this cup that he asks to be removed is the toxic tonic of God’s rightful wrath. Jesus is about to face the full and unhindered wrath of God against sin and sinners.
Here a few of descriptions of God’s wrath to help you catch a mere glimpse of the cup Jesus was gazing into:
When God saw the idolatry of the people of Israel, he said to Moses, “Let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and may consume them” (Ex. 32:10).
Moses later tells the people of Israel that God’s wrath was provoked against them and he was ready to destroy them (Deut. 9:7-8).
This is what filled the cup Jesus was called to take. He was to be consumed. He was to be destroyed. Jesus knew he was going to die. In fact, he had told his disciples numerous times that he would die. He even knew that he would bear the penalty of sins as he told his disciples that he had come to be a ransom for many. But the prospect of bearing the full wrath of God was enough to send Jesus to his knees. And yet, despite all of this, Jesus refuses to surrender to the suffering in his life. Jesus fully trusts God’s will, even when God answered his prayer with a “No.” Check out the flow of this passage.
Jesus prays, then comes back to his disciples, then returns to pray again, and then again. In his second prayer, Jesus changes the wording a bit. He goes from saying, “Let this cup pass” or “Remove this cup” to “If this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done” (v. 42). This is a picture of Jesus surrendering to God and refusing to surrender to his suffering and agony. This is Jesus leaving his wrestling match with God resolved to obey. Jesus had realized that the answer to his prayer was, “No. I will not remove this cup from you. This is the only way.” So, God does not remove the suffering from Jesus, and he responds, “Your will, not mine.”
We must trust God’s will even when we do not completely understand it. We must trust God’s will even when he doesn’t answer our prayers in the way we would like. Instead of allowing our desires to control us, we must submit to God’s sovereign control and entrust our flawed desires into his hands, asking him to align them with his own.
Jesus is facing the most severe temptation of his life. Satan has called his entire army to point their fiery arrows at the Son of God. In a sermon titled, Christ’s Agony, Jonathan Edwards once said,
“In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus had then a near view of that furnace of wrath, into which he was to be cast; he was brought to the mouth of the furnace that he might look into it, and stand and view its raging flames, and see the glowings of its heat, that he might know where he was going and what he was about to suffer.”
And how does the Son respond? He kneels in humility and stains the ground below him with tears and blood. Jesus struggled greatly with his own will with regard to his mission. But he never submitted to his struggles. He fully submitted to God. Instead of surrendering to his suffering, Jesus surrendered completely to God’s will trusting that his Father would satisfy him when his circumstances were not. What an example we have in Jesus for how to suffer to the glory of God.
Mathew Gilbert (B.A. Boyce College) is Associate Pastor for Children and Preschool at The Church at Trace Crossing in Tupelo, MS. He is a M.Div student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mathew is married to his high school sweetheart, Erica. Mathew and Erica live in Tupelo with their son, Jude. You can follow him on Twitter @mat_gilbert.