We’ve been discussing prayer: What makes it effective, how should we pray, and what should we expect from it? The Lord’s Prayer is a communal prayer, and one of its core elements is a plea to be led not into temptation. In Gethsemane, Jesus again put prayer and temptation in such a juxtaposition that it seems likely there is an important message in that. In Gethsemane we also see suffering.
It seems to me clear that the temptation Jesus was asking the disciples (and us) to avoid is not the temptation to sin. If it were, He would have left them asleep and in no position to sin. What he was asking them to avoid was the temptation to fall asleep.
This article nicely expresses my own thoughts on the subject:
The Agony in the Garden – The Place to Stay Awake
March 7, 2004
As Jesus and his disciples enter the Garden of Gethsemane, he tells them: “Stay awake, watch!” The implication is that they’re about to learn something, a lesson is to be taught.
But, as we know, they didn’t stay awake, they fell asleep, not because the hour was late and they were tired after a long day, nor even because of the wine they’d drunk at the supper. They fell asleep, Luke says, “out of sheer sorrow”. They fell asleep because they were disconsolate, disappointed, confused, depressed. And, because of that sleep, they missed the lesson they were supposed to learn from watching Jesus in his prayer. What was that lesson?
Jesus, himself, explains it three days later on the road to Emmaus when, in speaking of his suffering and death, he asks: “Wasn’t it necessary?” What the disciples were supposed to see and grasp in the Garden of Gethsemane was the intrinsic connection between suffering and transformation and the necessity, in that process, of being willing to carry tension, disappointment, and unfairness without giving into despair, bitterness, recrimination, and the urge to give back in kind.
We fall asleep out of sorrow whenever we become so confused and overwhelmed by some kind of disappointment that we begin to act out of hostility rather than love, paranoia rather than trust, despair rather than hope. We fall asleep out of sorrow whenever we sell short what’s highest in us because of the bitterness of the moment.
And this is one of perennial temptations we have in life, to fall asleep out of sorrow. Most times when we give in to weakness or commit sin we do so not out of malice or bad intent, but out of despair. For example: A number of times, I have had friends who gave themselves over to periods of sexual promiscuity even though they knew better. They weren’t so naive nor rationalizing to believe for a minute that what they were doing was either life-giving or morally right. So why did they do it? Flat-out loneliness, inchoate depression, practical despair. They were asleep out of sheer sorrow. Unspoken in their actions were these words: “Given my life, my practical situation, that’s the best I can hope for. I’ll take second- best, even fifth-best, because for me there can be no first-best.” Their action was simply compensatory.
The same often holds true too when we give into bitterness, anger, jealousy, hostility, and the urge to give back in kind. Why are we sometimes so petty? Why are we sometimes less than the gracious, understanding, and forgiving persons we would like to be? Simply put, we’re biting in order not to be bitten. Some deep disappointment has rendered us asleep to what’s highest inside of our own selves and some depression has rendered us powerless to our own goodness.
It’s not easy to stay awake to the lesson Jesus was trying to teach in the Garden of Gethsemane.
*Whenever we feel so weak and overcome by disappointment that we give into actions that we know are not good for us, but seem to be the best we can do given our practical situation, we have fallen asleep out of sorrow, just as the disciples did in the Garden of Gethsemane.
*Whenever the unfairness of life so embitters us that we cannot resist the urge to give back in kind, anger for anger, recrimination for recrimination, pettiness for pettiness, we have fallen asleep out of sorrow, just as the disciples did in the Garden of Gethsemane.
*Whenever the complexity of life so confuses us so that we no longer feel any obligation to take care of anyone beyond ourselves, but only want to protect ourselves, to hide, and to find a secure place of shelter, we have fallen asleep out of sorrow, just as the disciples did in the Garden of Gethsemane.
*Whenever we feel so overwhelmed by the fact that God seems silent, withdrawn, and unwilling to intervene and clean up the world that we can no longer imagine the existence of God, we have fallen asleep out of sorrow, just as the disciples did in the Garden of Gethsemane.
*Whenever we feel like a minority of one, so alone, little, and despairing before the powers of chaos and darkness that we believe that Christ is no longer Lord of this world, we have fallen asleep out of sorrow, just as the disciples did in the Garden of Gethsemane.
What then is the lesson from Gethsemane? Why should the suffering of Jesus be educational? Why did sorrow and suffering drive Jesus to remain alert, while it drove the disciples to sleep, to disconnect? Is the lesson in the prayer or the suffering of Jesus, or both? If suffering has such spiritual value that it can serve as a lesson, is God complicit in causing it?
Jesus asked the disciples:
“So, you men could not keep watch with Me for one hour?” (Matthew 26:40)
“One hour” may be a clue. It not only contrasts with the lengthy prayers of the woeful Pharisees but also, in the Bible, an hour is a symbol of brevity and is all the time needed for a transformation, such as the vineyard workers who worked only the last hour of the day and were transformed from being poor to being as wealthy as those who worked all day, and such as Babylon,…
… the great city, she who was clothed in fine linen and purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls; for in one hour such great wealth has been laid waste! (Revelation 18:16)
The disciples had the same opportunity for transformation in the one hour of prayer in Gethsemane. What was that opportunity? What was the transformational lesson they missed?
Donald: Sleep is avoidance, tantamount almost to denial. It is like living in a gated community, denying entry to outsiders and shutting ourselves off from their lives.
Jay: The transformation we need is from our fallen state of severance from God to the restoration of our relationship with Him, or at least to make some progress towards it. The fact that suffering is a necessary component of divine purpose is what makes it more than just pain and sorrow; divine purpose adds spiritual value to suffering.
Don: After His resurrection, when Jesus appeared incognito before two disciples on the road to Emmaus, He said to them:
“Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things [crucifixion, etc.] and to enter into His glory?” (Luke 24:26)
The Egyptians [see last week’s discussion] likewise had to suffer so that the wonders of God would be known. But like the disciples, we find it hard to connect suffering with God’s glory.
Michael: Suffering is central to Buddhism. They teach compassion not as directed outwardly at the suffering of others but as inwardly directed, because only by acknowledging the suffering in ourselves can we recognize and empathize with the suffering in others.
David: Suffering is linked to joy: In the Beatitudes, sufferers are told to
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great….” (Matthew 5:12)
We don’t know whether the beatified sufferers prayed, but prayer is not mentioned so does not seem relevant. What matters is that through suffering they were blessed with grace and with a reward in heaven. To pray for suffering to be removed in this life is probably futile.
Donald: There are people who seem to suffer all the time at their own hands. They just never do the things that might take them out of suffering, and instead they continually ask others for handouts. What is our responsibility toward people who take no responsibility for themselves? Should we lock them out of our gated community? Pretend they don’t exist? Go to sleep on them?
Don: Does seeing suffering have educational value? Did the suffering of Jesus have educational value for the disciples? Or was it the prayer that had educational value for them? What were they missing?
Donald: If we don’t see the suffering in others, we may not recognize our own condition. We depend on contrasts: Suffering lets us appreciate joy.
Don: Should we seek suffering?
Jay: It is not necessary. God will bring suffering to us. I am not joking: The Bible is replete with examples of God bringing suffering to people, but with a purpose intended not just to educate the sufferer but the beholder as well. Jesus in Gethsemane, the Egyptians, Hezekiah, Daniel, Jonah, Job, Paul, Joseph…. All of these are Bible heroes; all endured extreme discomfort. The closer they got to God, the harder the Devil attacked them; yet the more they suffered, the closer they got to God.
Donald: Should we be spending our Sabbath morning with suffering people instead of among ourselves?
Alice: Suffering is a privilege.
David: No pain, no gain? So do people who happen to be born into the gated community and lead happy and blameless lives there, unaware of the suffering outside the gates, not deserve to go to heaven? Should we feel sorry for them?
Jay: In Gethsemane, there is a call to be watchful regarding suffering. But what does “suffering” mean? We think of physical and emotional pain, but is it there such a thing as spiritual suffering?
Alice: There is persecution over Jesus’ name, and not everyone is privileged to live it. One thing happens to both believers and non-believers according to Solomon, in the Proverbs. Both suffer. The difference is that one gets the benefit of suffering; the other just sleeps though it.
Kiran: Hinduism has a famous story of two rocks in a temple. One is chosen to become a statue of a god, upon which worshipers showered milk and honey, while the other was made into a doorstep. The doorstep rock complained to God about its unjust treatment, and was reminded that the statue rock endured greater and prolonged suffering at the hands of the sculptor. But this kind of suffering entails a reward (milk and honey) while Christian suffering offers no reward.
Donald: I have always thought it a privilege to work with young people—to be able to help them manage their lives and prevent future suffering. Similarly, doctors and nurses often have the satisfaction of taking suffering away from their patients. What about people whose work is irrelevant in helping sufferers?
Kiran: Perhaps Jesus was saying that suffering cannot be turned into a religion.
Guest: There are people who so arrange their nights that if they fall asleep they are instantly re-awakened. There are religions, like Buddhism, Hinduism, and others where suffering is necessary for benefit. Suffering is a privilege, but should we run from it? Absolutely! Our whole Adventist system is based on running away. Our liberty, our organization is based on when the Sabbath is going to become a problem, so that we can run.
Neither Paul nor anyone asks us to seek suffering. It would be unfair. I can’t bear to see my son hurting and would do anything in my power to prevent it. How can I expect anything less from God? God has put “fight or flight” into our DNA, and predisposed us to flight rather than fight.
In Gethsemane, I think Christ had a local lesson for the disciples, reproving them for missing the opportunity to recognize that God was suffering with them—that God is not immune to suffering. We are so familiar with suffering, and generally blame God for it. By sleeping, the disciples lost the once-in-eternity opportunity to watch God suffer. Had they done so, they would have seen that He is not immune to suffering and therefore is not to be blamed for causing it. They would have been better able to preach the message that God is not our enemy.
Jay: In the ideal situation—that is, in heaven, in the garden of Eden—there is no suffering. It does not exist. But it exists for fallen Man and it has to, for us to understand what we have lost and enable us to find out way back to it.
We realize our love for our child all the more when it falls ill. We don’t want it to happen, yet it does have an inherent lesson—a lesson to which prayer can keep us awake and aware. As long as we are awake, even if we feel that God doesn’t care, we may see or experience something that will help us come through it.
Mikiko: In Gethsemane, Jesus was deeply concerned about the reproach that his death as a criminal would bring on his Father’s name. Jehovah heard his Son’s prayers, though, and at one point sent an angel to strengthen him. Even so, Jesus did not stop supplicating his Father, but kept “praying more earnestly.” The emotional stress was enormous. What a weight was on Jesus’ shoulders! His own eternal life and that of believing humans was at stake. In fact, his ‘sweat becomes as drops of blood falling to the ground’ (Luke 22:44).
People sweat blood when blood hemorrhages into the sweat glands. It is extremely painful. God did not want his Creatures to suffer and we caused our own suffering through disobedience. Suffering is no part of God’s plan for us.
Donald: Should physicians talk their patients into seeing the advantages of their pain and suffering?
Jay: Suffering is not the ideal, is not what God wants, and is not to be sought. But it is not to be avoided. There is potential freedom in it. It is a privilege, a blessing, a lesson, a way out.
David: Would a father whose child grows up without a single day of illness or injury we capable of empathizing with his neighbor whose child becomes seriously ill or hurt? If suffering is a privilege and a benefit, then logically non-suffering is a misfortune and a disbenefit.
Chris: What if suffering is a tool that can be used for good or evil? If I do not suffer, how can I relate to my fellow Man who does suffer? At the judgment (Matthew 25), people who did not visit the sick, etc., were surprised at their unfavorable judgment. If they themselves never suffered, how were they expected to relate to those who did? Perhaps this is why suffering is a privilege. It enables us to relate to our fellow Man. If God has suffered from our willful disconnection from Him, how can we relate to Him if we cannot reciprocate—if we experience no suffering ourselves?
Kiran: Jews who suffered from the Holocaust seemed oblivious to the suffering of the Palestinians whose land they took.
Alice: That’s why suffering is not what we think it is. We suffer because we sin and we deserve to. But the suffering that is a privilege is not this kind of suffering.
Jay: In the case of Palestine, are we in danger of wrongly defining the lesson that should have been learned from the Holocaust? Are we capable of assigning cause to the effect of suffering? Equally, are we capable of assigning blessings? The dangers of getting these wrong are real and severe. We do not know God’s ways. In the end, it’s a matter of faith.
Don: Do we even know that we are suffering? “I was suffering because I had no shoes, until I saw a man who had no feet.” Everything in life is relative. People suffer because they drive a Ford Escort and not a Cadillac, but people without a car would say they don’t know what suffering is.
Donald: Who suffers the most—and the least—in this world? A wealthy monarch would seem to suffer the least. Most of us are closer to the monarch than to those who suffer day in, day out. I could put myself in their shoes soon enough, but it would be self-induced. What is my responsibility?
When under trial, let no one say: “I am being tried by God.” For with evil things God cannot be tried, nor does he himself try anyone. (James 1:13; New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures)
God does not give us suffering. It was not part of His purpose for Mankind, but we rebelled and set our own definitions for good and bad, so today many people suffer because Satan is in control, not God.
Michael: It wasn’t just that Jesus suffered at the end of His life. He suffered throughout it. He lived in poverty. He had idiots for friends. Does that make Him more human? I think so. I think suffering is an important aspect of humanity.
Donald: Prosperity preachers would have us believe differently!
Don: We will continue to explore this topic.