What is one to think? How should one feel? What is a husband to do to help his wife? How should he comfort his children? Will YHWH God The Almighty step in and give us the outcome we ask? Is the outcome we ask best? What is the decree of the Lord? Does my breaking heart and crushed spirit mean His command is faulty or His decree callous? Why it is worse this time? Does the wound just keep getting bigger and deeper every time I must surrender? Will it ever stop hurting? What does it mean if it does stop hurting? …….
The questions never cease. Exhaustion is all that stops the mind and the prayers each night. God’s Word is clear, the edicts unmistakable, the commands unambiguous – no escape hatch, no get out of jail free card, no release valve just painful obedience or soul-killing damning rebellion. What a choice!
Hebrews 4:14-15 tells us that we have a great High Priest who is not unsympathetic to our weakness but has been tempted and tried as we are yet without sin. There are clearly many things about the mind and counsel of God of which I am rightly and completely ignorant but it seems clear that one of the reasons we are given a glimpse into Jesus’ travail in the Garden of Gethsemane is so that we might understand this truth. My human mind is incapable of truly understanding all that was going on that night in that still quiet garden. Cosmic War was raging in the heavenlies and yet on the earth the quiet was so deep that the Apostles slept. The world was going on as it had for 4000 years and alone, in the dark the Son of God wrestled, prayed and wept. Even the strengthening presence of an angel from heaven was not sufficient to assuage His anguish. His agony so deep, the battle so fierce, the cost so high, the pain so deep that even after that angel came He sweat great drops of blood. On His face He cried out to His Father for relief; for a change of plan; for another way! He did this not once but three times! This was not some exercise, not a rote prostration or a perfunctory nod – this is gut wrenching, visceral entreaty. Do not lessen what is happening here in the Garden. Oh yes, Jesus knows the prophesies – He knows He will be raised by His Father, His death is temporary but He knows more fully than any human since Adam exactly what death is. Moreover He will suffer as no-other human ever has, not only will His death be excruciating and humiliating on a human level but His suffering will be un-just. Every other human who has ever suffered in this world stands guilty before a Holy God and any suffering we may encounter truly pales in comparison of what we deserve for our cosmic rebellion but Jesus is Holy, without sin and perfect before God’s law. Further, Jesus the Holy innocent Son of God will suffer the wrath of God’s justice as our sins are laid on Him at the cross so marring Him that His Father will turn His face away – Jesus who has known only complete perfect unity and fellowship with the Father will be cut off and forsaken. We cannot even begin to truly comprehend the horror from which Jesus is pleading relief. Yet the Scriptures allow us to peek into this scene as the Son of God peers into the cup of God’s wrath, a cup filled by the Divine Counsel He Himself participated in and ordained before the foundation of the world, and in peering in agonizes with the Father in prayer.
Why do we get to glimpse this great agony? What are we to learn? One thing I think we are to learn is that it is OK to assail heaven with our desires so long as they do not violate the written Word of God. In the Garden we see Jesus asking His Abba to remove this cup from Him because He knows that all things are possible for His Father (Mark 14:36). This is amazing to me, the God Man, Jesus of Nazareth, fully God and fully man, the one who has clearly taught His disciples that He must suffer and die to fulfill the Scriptures – this one is the one agonizing in the Garden. Jesus knows that it is the desire of the Father to redeem a people for His own possession and moreover He is in full agreement with this divine will and yet when peering into the coming hours and the pain they will bring He boldly requests a plan B if the Father wills. What are we to make of this? I think it is safe to say that it is OK for the children of God to bring their desires to Him and to plead earnestly for them for that is exactly what our elder Brother did in the Garden.
This is not to say this is the end of the discussion. Our Savior also shows us how to rightly plead with our Father. He does so with an open hand – “if it be possible” (Matt 26:39) “if you are willing” (Luke 22:42) “if it were possible” (Mark 14:35). This is an earnest pleading like none of us has known but it is still the pleading of a child to a Father. When we approach our Father in Heaven we should do so with the humility of knowing our frame – that we are but dust (Psalm 103:14) who are we to darken the counsel of the Almighty (Job 38:2)? I am not now nor will I ever be wise enough to know definitively what I need in a situation – I may see what appears to be the best outcome in the moment but I do not know nor understand the Providence of God in the every day moments as He directs all of creation to His glorious desired end. How then could I ever begin to know what is best? This is one of the evidences that He is God and I am not. He knows perfectly and rightly the end of every decision that bring Him the most glory and my highest good. Jesus travail in the Garden shows me that I am free and welcome to plead with my Father for His gifts but I should always do it as a respectful child to their loving Father – with an open hand and humility.
The Garden also shows us that we are pray with hearts in submission to our Father. In every account of this long night Jesus’ prayers all ended with a variation of “nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matt 26:39). Jesus had made it clear through out His ministry that He did not act on His own accord but carried out the will of His Father (John 8:28-29; John 5:30) and this dark night was no different He was still about His Father’s will. You see Jesus’ prayer hinged on the will of the Father – He had made his request known and left it in the hands of His Father to do according to all His holy will. We are finite and at an even greater disadvantage in tracing the paths of God’s Providence so how much greater then should be our submission to His will. If I am praying in humility then it is a natural and necessary outgrowth to pray in submission to His will – even if I don’t understand why He chooses a particular course. How am I, the creature, to know if the pain I fear is necessary to conform me to the image of His Son Jesus? Would not the wisest course be to entrust myself and my desires to the Mighty, Omniscient King of Heaven who WILL do all things rightly?
Finally, the Garden teach us that our earnest, humble, open- handed, submissive pleading will be heard in the heavenlies (Heb 5:7) but may not receive the answer we desire. Jesus’ cries ascended to His Father but it was the Father’s good pleasure to crush Him (Isa 53:10-11) so that by Jesus obedience many would be made righteous (Rom 5:19; Heb 2:9-11). The Father, who sees the end from the beginning (Isa 46:10), had His purpose in the suffering and there was no other way for His Divine Providence to come to pass. Sometimes obedience and God’s will follow a path into and through pain. This pain is by its earthly nature of necessity temporary but can be unfathomably deep. What if my pain is the only way to conform me to Christlikeness? Does this somehow impugn the righteousness of God? Does this prove Him malevolent? No NEVER, the absence of pain does not prove the existence of love or goodness – the cut of the surgeon’s scalpel inflicts pain but by removing malignancy it brings healing. The surgeon is both good and kind to the patient even though he inflicts temporary pain. So it is with our Father in Heaven – if I am to suffer all my days in this mortal coil even then my pain is temporary in comparison to eternity. My pain is real but I have a listening Father who is with me in it and is ready to hear my pleadings so I will cry out to Him who is able to save me (Heb 5:7) and even if He does not answer as I have asked I will worship Him (Job 2:10; Dan 3:17-18; Job 13:15; Prov 14:32; Job 19:25-27; Ps 73:26, 28)
7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. 8 Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. 9 And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, Heb 5:7-9
I was sitting in my window seat winging my way on a work trip, kindle in my hand, earbuds in with old southern gospel playing in my ears when the hijacker appeared. I don’t think anyone else noticed this interloper. He was benign enough. Was this a terrorist? An ideologue? Someone intent on my harm? No, the reason no one else noticed is that the hijacker was a song in my play list. You see, I was minding my own business reading when a song began to play in my ears that would hijack my thoughts for the rest of the day.
Lost in thought as I tried to finish a book I started months ago about the gospel my foot began tapping to an old friend, a song my mother introduced me to and one she requested sung at her funeral – The Uncloudy Day. As I cranked up the familiar melody in my ears and my foot began pounding out the beat to the point I was sure I was disturbing my seatmate on the flight I was transported back 16 years to the church where I grew up. It was not just any day I was transported back to, no I was taken back to the day my brother and I buried our parents. You see the only thing my mother had ever said about her funeral before she died was that she wanted The Uncloudy Day sung at her funeral so that is one of 2 songs we requested be sung that day. However this is not the memory that hijacked my thoughts.
No, the memory that arrested me at 30,000 feet was my memory of watching a man who loved my whole family dearly sing a song from a genre he hated just to serve my brother and I and to honor my parents. In my minds eye I was 20 once again, numb from grief, deeply desiring God to be honored through the Gospel being preached and that He be praised through the testimony of song, sitting on the front row in the meeting house of the saints and knowing as the first notes of this Southern Gospel staple hit the speakers that the only reason Brother D would be singing this song was because of his deep love for his Heavenly Father which poured out and overflowed in his love for me and my brother.
I remember watching his hands shake slightly as he took the mic from the stand and raised it to his lips to sing. I remember him fighting to keep his voice even as he began to sing and watching as his eyes closed so he could focus on the melody and the words so he could get through the song. Was this nervous stage fright in the face of the standing-room-only overflow crowd? No, I had the privilege of watching him praise the Lord through song for over a decade at this point and it would have taken far more than that crowd to have rattled him. No, the shaky hands and those eyes closing were because D loves deeply and for whatever reason he had decided to love my family many years before therefore that love wanted nothing more than to “mourn with those who mourn”.
This choice D had made was not an un-costly decision. More than once one member of our family or another had caused him no small frustration, sometimes pain and more than a little confusion but he loved us anyway. Not only did he love my parents because they served with him in ministry and my brother and I because he served us in ministry, but D was one of our elders. He was charged with watching over our souls, a responsibility he took seriously and discharged with great joy. The only way D knows how to love and serve is with his whole heart. That is why he was one of the first ones to come to comfort my brother and I on that terrible Sunday morning. He did not come with many words but came with a hug that would not let me go as he sat next to me on the couch and cried.
So at 30,000 feet when The Uncloudy Day began to play my heart was overwhelmed and captivated with gratitude to God for D and for the privilege of being so deeply loved by him. Long had he preached to our stubborn hearts that we should strive to be “Jesus with skin on” and in that moment, like thousands before, as he struggled to sing a song he did not even like D demonstrated exactly what that looked like as he brought us into the presence of The Balm of Gilead who alone could bind our wounds and heal our hurts. I love you D!
There are two crosses that have defined my life. The first is the one on which my Savior died to pay for my sins. This rough, wretched, beautiful, cruel, cursed tree is the punishment due me. Instead of requiring the last drop of wrath from this guilty hateful rebel, the very God whose justice I had transgressed in my murderous treason condesended to pour Himself out in satisfaction of His own Law. Here at the place of the skull outside the walls of Jerusalem heaven touched earth for the redemption of sinners like me and in a garden tomb a short distance away my Lord Jesus became the first fruits of the Resurection to give forgiven sinners hope and assurrance of their own future resurection.
The second cross is located along a highway in central Oklahoma. This cross marks another place where heaven briefly touched earth 16 years ago. It is here that my loving heavenly Father called my parents home to heaven. I loved my parents more than I even understood then. They had introduced me to Jesus and pointed me to him in everyway they could. In God’s providence it was their death that helped me begin to understand the hope of heaven that was already my birthright as a child of God. It was not until I began to understand experientially the deep pain of loss that I began to understand the joyful tears of the old men as they talked of heaven and looked forward to being there. When my Mom and Dad became my “deposit”, if you will, and as I was crushed by their loss – heaven became my real hope for the first time in my life. I understood for the first time the necessity and joyful hope of the Resurection – one I was sure of because Jesus was raised to give us sure hope both in this life and the next.
Two crosses – both reminders of a faithful, sovereign, loving God.
I love you Mom and Dad. I miss you and I am thankful you continued to be God’s instruments of training even in death. I am thankful I WILL see you again. Until then may I be found faithful, I hope you are proud.
Unless I am mistaken soon we in the west will face a price if we are going to love and proclaim the Word of God. I pray that we can do so with the courage of our brothers and sisters from China.
As a foster dad of special needs kids this video strikes a cord for me.