When man was created, he was placed in a garden. That garden was perfect in every way, and only one tree was off-limits. Adam and Eve were asked to submit their wills to their Creator by not eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. All was well until their desires were awakened. Then, for the first time, they felt the tension between their will and God’s will. Maybe they’d never considered their choices before. Maybe, just for a moment, they felt pity for themselves because God had denied them the fruit from the one tree. We may never know, but what we do know is this: God wanted something for them, but they wanted something else for themselves. They chose what they wanted and stepped outside of God’s will for the first time. The consequences for their choice were disastrous.
On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus returned to a garden. He was no stranger to the garden of Gethsemane, having frequented it with his disciples. But this time was different. In the Garden of Eden, the will of man had been tempted, and man had chosen independence over surrender. In the Garden of Gethsemane, the will of man would be tempted again, but this time the desire for God’s will would overpower personal desires. Jesus expressed this in prayer with the words:
Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done.
He had progressed in his understanding of, and obedience to, his Father’s will. In the midst of intensely difficult circumstances that would cause even the strongest of men or women to pity themselves, Jesus held such feelings at bay by focusing on the will of God and pursuing it with abandon. Jesus submitted to the will of God because he trusted the character of God. Three aspects of God’s character will increase our confidence to seek his will over our own: his wisdom, his love, and his power.
Living with suffering is hard work. It’s easy to lose your focus. Once your focus is disoriented, it becomes difficult to avoid self-pity. Suffering can come in many forms, not all of them physical. Our mind struggles with harsh and critical statements that seem unjustified. Our emotions vacillate between confusion, anger, and grief when circumstances in our life seem to contradict the hand of a loving God. When the apostle Peter heard of the suffering that Jesus would have to endure, he tried to protect Jesus. He said, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” Jesus’ answer was quick and to the point: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but the things of man.”
Jesus focused on a specific aspect of the character of God—his wisdom. God thinks differently than man thinks. The wisdom of man is short-sighted and pragmatic, but God’s wisdom is eternal and directed purposefully. The ability to focus on the character of God—not the wisdom of man—is a quality that Jesus developed, and he exercised it most fully in the garden of Gethsemane.
As the suffering of the cross drew near, Jesus asked if there might be another way. Mark recounts it this way:
And he said, ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.’
Abba is a family term. It might best be rendered in the language of our day as “Daddy.” When my kids want the quickest access to my heart, this is how they address me. It’s the term that every dad knows—like they’re saying, “Dad, I know you love me.” Jesus is clinging to the character of his Father’s love. He finds resolve for submitting to his Father’s will by reflecting upon his Father’s love. Believing that God is all-wise means that God knows what is best for us; believing that he is all-loving means that he wants what is best for us. With gut-wrenching suffering on the horizon, Jesus didn’t question his Father’s love.
Immediately following Jesus’ affirmation of his Father’s love, he affirms his Father’s power. He says, “all things are possible for you.” This is not the first time Jesus has used those words. He had acknowledged God’s power on other occasions with the very same phrase. But in the Garden of Gethsemane, his belief is tested at the highest level. Does he really believe that the Father has the power to act if he should choose? Yes, he does. This is expressed in his final words from the cross, “Father, into your hands I commit my Spirit.” Having breathed his last, he reveals a complete dependence. Jesus believes his all-powerful Father will bring about his resurrection. Jesus embraces the will of God by focusing on the character of God. He does not question his Father’s wisdom, love, or power. This enables him to surrender his will to his Father’s.
One of my seminary professors who made a profound impact on my life was Dr. Fred Barshaw. Prior to becoming a pastor, Fred served as a public school teacher. Gifted in understanding the learning process, he received the esteemed “Teacher of the Year” award for the state of California. Fred’s strength was his application of the Word to real life situations, and I was drawn to the unique ways he found to communicate. During my final year, Fred began his battle with cancer. I graduated and headed into ministry on the other side of the continent. Several years later, I was developing material for a class I was teaching, when I realized my lay out and presentation looked strikingly familiar. I went to my filing cabinet, pulled out my notes from one of Fred’s classes, placed them next to my own, and immediately recognized the similarity. It almost looked like I had plagiarized. Having not intended to do so, I realized I was teaching just like my teacher. I picked up the phone and called Fred, wanting to communicate my deep sense of gratitude for his investment in my life. Cancer had taken its toll. He was short of breath and spoke with a hoarse whisper. Because he was so weak I expressed my appreciation quickly, then asked how I could pray for him. There was a long pause and then the words: “pray that I would be faithful to the end.” A remarkable request considering the amount of pain and suffering he was enduring. I prayed that way. Within a month Fred Barshaw died, faithful to the end.
Our response to suffering can take one of two roads. Either we can seek to do God’s will by dwelling upon his character, or we can focus on the difficulty of our circumstances. If we choose the latter, self-pity won’t be far behind. Fred Barshaw did what Jesus did. To the very end he sought the will of God, and that’s what we should do too.
Taken from Dead-End Desire: biblical strategies for overcoming self-pity