“Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him. Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. John 12:30-33
There is a brand of Christianity, and other major religious groups for that matter, that seem to tell us that we should almost enjoy suffering. I know that penitence is Scriptural, and also counting our suffering as something that connects us to Christ Jesus. But what I mean is, there are those who are so attached to the idea that God micro-manages everything, and everything is going “according to plan,” that for bad things to happen God must actually want it to happen, or indeed make it happen. If you know me, you know I’m not down with that. But it’s real. “Everything happens for a reason,” we hear.
Well, we get a deep look at Jesus’ feelings and experience as both God and man, right here. And is it not clear that, even in part, Jesus wishes there was an alternative to what is going to happen to him? I know, he’s faithfully brought himself to this tough place and time, and he acknowledges it’s exactly why he chose to come. But it’s still difficult enough that Jesus, who we hardly ever see flinch, is struggling on the inside. Maybe not the kind of struggle we need fear he was ever going to lose, or give up on. But for all the goodness and rightness of his mission, a part of Jesus still seems to wish there was another option. That tells me that there are things about life on earth that God is not okay with. It was what, the most holy deed of all creation history, that Jesus was about to fulfill; and even that seems to be something he wishes didn’t have to happen. It makes terribly easy sense to some of us — of course it would have been better if death, sin, pain, and evil had never laid hold on the world. Of course God, in Eden, was not messing around when he warned the humans what rebellion would mean. We need to know that for all God’s redeeming power, we should never ever have betrayed paradise; God would have preferred it that way, because it was God who would have to fix it at great personal cost.
Jesus handles the struggle here, and maybe we learn about temptation, too. Sometimes we can wonder, at what point is temptation sinful? Is it wrong to feel certain feelings or just to act on them? Is it wrong to toy with other fantasies or alternatives in our minds, or does it just become wrong when we act on them? Jesus’ example seems to say, his being perfect, that there’s nothing wrong with considering an alternative to the suffering or trials before us. He seems to teach that there’s nothing wrong with the hope that somehow we don’t have to endure evil or suffering or death, again, because those are things that God hates.
HOWEVER. However. While those things are not natural, and God hates them, and we can hope for other than suffering, all that ever matters is what God desires. Even the things that God hates can be turned on their heads to God’s glory, can they not? If that’s the possibility we face, then no alternative will give rest to our souls (no matter how seemingly comfortable) or satisfy our hearts.
I’d say Jesus almost sets too hard an example. When God invites us down a challenging road, some of us are a little too good at diving into coming up with alternative paths to take. Not only that, but we dwell far too long on these other options, and we’re good at justifying them to ourselves, or rationalizing the easier way, or even putting words in God’s mouth so that we can avoid difficulty. At least I do that. I’m quick to say, “Father, save me from this hour!” and then when God doesn’t comply I’m real good at saving my own skin. So how does Jesus do it? For one, I think he reserves making a decision, a commitment, on his own. He is in dialogue with God here, do you see it? He’s praying, he’s laying out his emotions and doubts/reservations to God. He sounds like the Psalmist, totally transparent with his heart. And I get the sense he is also listening. I mean, in the same breath that he mentions being troubled, he is already resolved to do nothing other than the very difficult thing, the thing that will glorify God. I think that comes from submitting our whole selves to God, no reservations at all, in the decision-making.
Too many times, I have a conversation like this without really inviting God to be involved. Why? Because God has already made clear what God has in mind for me. Like God says, “Josh, take that road. It’s not easy. But it’s good. You’ll find life down there, and I will be glorified.” So I sit down in my room in the dark and weigh the options, and dream fantastic dreams of other alternatives. Then I check with God again to see if there are any changes, but God still points to the same challenge. I grumble and settle into my own thoughts again, looking for a more preferable way. After this goes on for awhile, I usually stop asking God what God thinks, because I already know what it is. God’s voice takes a smaller and smaller part of the conversation, until it is just me talking to me. And guess what? I tend to agree with myself. “Josh, you could try this other way. You could even just try it for a little while, and if it really doesn’t work you can come back to the way God was suggesting.” “Good one, Josh, you’re right on.” I shake hands with myself, and so it goes.
I do this all the time, even as a minister, a Christian, and someone who has actually followed God down the difficult path before, on many occasions. I know good and well that it always turns out good. Not necessarily “happy” or profitable or “feel-good” but GOOD. I know, truly from experience, that where God leads is where we are satisfied and alive like nothing and nowhere else on earth. Period. But, STILL, I am very good at choosing an alternative. Because I am so very good at excluding God from the conversation.
Jesus navigated temptation, and the alternatives, by remaining intimately in touch with God’s heart. Through complete and total dialogue. I think no part of his heart, or motives, or feelings was withheld from God. I think no part of the decision-making process was kept to himself alone. And it fueled Jesus to choose the path of suffering, and also to endure it so well. Even though it was greater suffering than anyone of us can fathom, ever.
Today, don’t respond and say, “That’s it? I just have to ‘talk to God’ in order to resist temptation and follow God’s invitation? To make it through terrible suffering, I just have to have ‘dialogue’ with God? Ridiculous.” Don’t say that, because if you’re anything like me then you know how truly gifted you are at excluding God, and how second nature it can be to rely on yourself first and God second, or God not at all. If we have that in common, then a completely open-hearted conversation with God is more rare than any of us care to admit. So, today, consider Jesus’ way, and his methods, and the results. And if you’re ready to stop toying with the many alternatives, and have even an ounce of desire to be in the place God has in mind for you, then stop talking to yourself, shaking your own hand, patting yourself on the back. And speak to God, fully, openly. Even more, listen. Actively and intently. And, ultimately, give God’s voice more credibility and influence than your own.