Season of Suffering
His final hours were spent in prayer. Yet, the gospel of Luke tells us that there was nothing unusual about him being in prayer. "And he came out and proceeded as was his custom to the Mount of Olives...and when he arrived at the place...he withdrew from them...and knelt down and began to pray" (22:39-41). As was his custom, he would go to pray. We do not often hear the content of these prayer times, but in this case, in these final hours, we see him gripped with passion. Luke tells us that he was in such agony that his sweat "became like drops of blood." Medical science tells us that under extreme conditions of duress, capillaries in the head burst forth drops of blood literally pouring out of the skin like perspiration. Whatever the case, Jesus had never been in this much distress before—even in his wilderness testing—we have no other portrait of such extreme anguish in prayer.
"And being in agony he was praying very fervently," writes Luke. I've often wondered about the nature of these agonized prayers. Was Jesus in agony over the physical torture and death he was about to endure? Was he in agony over the spiritual condition of his disciples, one who would betray him and the others who would all abandon him in his time of need? Certainly, the latter is a real possibility as he exhorts his disciples at least two times to "watch and pray that you might not enter into temptation" (Luke 22:40; 46).
Whatever the reason for his agony, Jesus's humanity was on full display in his prayer. He did not want to walk the path that was unfolding before him, and he pleads with God to provide an alternative path, a "plan B" as it were. Matthew’s gospel reveals more of his struggle. He tells his disciples "I am deeply grieved, to the point of death." Then he prays to his Father, "If it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not as I will, but your will be done" (Matthew 26:38-39). The via dolorosa, theway of suffering, unfolded before him and he would go to his death, despite his anguished prayers for another way.
As I meditate on Jesus's passionate prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, his human agony and suffering on full display, I am reminded how often we long for God to provide another way in the face of our own suffering. Whether of the Christian persuasion or not, there are times we simply cry out for intervention. We do not want to follow Jesus down thevia dolorosa. We seek to follow the victorious entry of the Messiah into Jerusalem to be enthroned and crowned the king. We want that kind of victory borne out in our lives as the absence of difficulty. But as author Kim Reisman has noted, "That is not the Jesus way. God doesn't dispense with death. God resurrects us from it. The truth is that the Jesus way isn't about God taking pain away from God's people; it's about God providing us with strength, courage, and meaning, with abundant life, often in the midst of pain."(1)
I am always thankful then, for this very human portrait of Jesus's own agonizing struggle with his own suffering. For I know he shares my own struggle. And while I often reluctantly say to God, "Not my will but yours be done," I remember that God transforms the evil of suffering and affliction perpetrated against Jesus. God takes the very death of Jesus, and brings about resurrection. In my own prayers during this season that remembers Jesus's own cry for intervention, I bow my head and my heart to the king who reigns not from a throne, but from the cross.
Margaret Manning is a member of the writing and speaking team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Seattle, Washington.
(1) Kimberly Dunnam Reisman, Following At a Distance (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005), 75.