by Trygve Johnson
One of the most moving scenes in scripture is Jesus praying in Gethsemane. Otto Dix captures this scene in this dramatic sketch above. Jesus is scared. Evil is looming. The lines are as sharp as a razor ready to draw blood.
In this picture, we see Jesus not as a stoic philosopher, or a salvific superhero, or an impassible deity. Rather we see Jesus as a frail human being, frightened, and pleading to God.
Why? Jesus knows what’s ahead and he doesn’t want to go through with it.
Jesus does what any of us would do. When faced with a difficult situation, Jesus prays. But his prayer is so dramatically different from mine. Jesus prays, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” (Matthew 26:39)
This is one of the most important prayers in Scripture. The Son calls out to the Father, and begs him to change his mind. “Take this cup from me…” In other words, “Please, God, I don’t want to die. Please, find another way.”
What is hard for us (and terrifying) is that Jesus does not receive the answer he wants. What happened to, “Ask and it shall be given…who among us if your child asks for bread would give a stone?” Instead, Jesus’ answer is silence.
One of the hardest lessons on the journey with Jesus is how to keep praying when you don’t get the answer you want.
Who among us has not prayed and been met with silence? We want God to act. Now. We want God to keep us safe. Now. We want God to intercede. Now. Yet, even Jesus, God’s own Son, was met, with silence. What is amazing is that Jesus accepts the silence as an answer. Is it possible, Jesus knows God’s silence does not mean divine absence, but may mean that God’s will is simply different from his own?
When silence is the answer to our prayers, how do we keep on praying?Jesus shows us in the rest of his extraordinary prayer. Jesus prays, “…Yet, not what I want but what you want.”
This is the secret to Jesus’ love for God and the world, and it is the prayer that reframes our popular notions of love.
Our cultural norms of love suggest true love is about satisfying immediate desires. In order to be fully human we are encouraged to “follow our heart”, as if the heart is never wrong. As the kids like to say, “YOLO” or “You be you!” If we deny ourselves, whether it is in how we shop, or how we eat, or our sexual practices, or our vocational goals, than somehow we will become less than what we could be. To deny oneself is the new doctrine of sin.
But for Jesus it was just the opposite. For Jesus the greatest sin is to deny God. Jesus does not want to die. Yes, he wants to escape the cross. Indeed, Jesus could have. He could have left town. He could have been quiet, blended in, and lived safely in Galilee. But Jesus knew that God’s purpose was larger than himself. God’s purpose was to reverse the curse that originated in a different garden.
Here, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus reframes the Garden of Eden. In the Garden of Eden, where shalom was shattered, the rock that broke our transparency with God was when humanity said to God, “Not your will, but mine be done.” Jesus in Gethsemane, however, restores humanity by praying the opposite.
This is what Dix’s sketch challenges me to trust. As I journey with Jesus to the cross, I am reminded to pray with Jesus, “Not what I want but what you want.”
I wonder what would happen if we took Jesus’ prayer into our hearts this week? If for our marriages we prayed –“not what I want, but what you want?” If in our business dealings we said, God “not my will, but yours be done?” If as a church body, we prayed, “not what I want, but what you want!” We may not get the answers we want, but we may find ourselves participating in God’s larger work for the world.
In this way, maybe we could see Jesus’ prayer as an invitation? Maybe, God is calling us to pray with Jesus in a way that we can enter into his mysterious love by learning that in denying ourselves, by taking up the cross, we will actually find our true selves again? Maybe it’s worth praying with Jesus? Maybe.
Trygve Johnson is Dean of the chapel at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.