[An excerpt from my upcoming book, Grief, the Desert, and Survival Spirituality, currently seeking a publisher.]
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me…” (Luke 22:42) This is a crazy prayer. It has also become the cornerstone of my faith.
Of course Jesus is the cornerstone of Christianity. We call it “following Jesus.” But in my crisis of faith after Isaac died, when I could not see how God could both love me and let Isaac die, I had an epiphany about this passage. I had spent three years raging and grieving at God, really against God for allowing Isaac to die, and had even decided maybe, if this is how following Jesus went, I would try life not following Jesus. Could it get worse than holding your infant son while he died?
Looking at Jesus’ prayer to God—Trinity now, remember?—I object to anyone who makes the first part of this verse a throwaway to get to the second part: “yet not what I want but what you want.” I’ve heard too many people read this beseeching prayer, this moment of terror and intimacy between Jesus, Spirit, and Father, as if Jesus said “let this cup pass” merely to show that he wanted his Father’s will above his own.
Jesus prayed for God to cancel the crucifixion and resurrection. From this plan—foreseen from before creation, that the pre-existent Trinity already knew when “in the beginning was the Word”—Jesus now asks to be spared. He was sweating drops of blood. He meant it.
It’s the impossibility of the prayer, its ridiculous nature, that saved my life. I mean that seriously. Jesus asked his Father the impossible—knowing it was impossible—because Jesus did not want to be crucified. Jesus didn’t put on a brave face. The intimacy between Jesus and his Father required that Jesus pray his heart, and he did—and then he stood up again, confronted his sleeping disciples, was kissed by his betrayer disciple, and entered “the passion,” his choice to allow himself to be tortured by those who hated him and not fight back, not make it stop with his power or with the angels he could have called on.
“How is that your cornerstone, Mike?”
I prayed an equally absurd prayer. It took me a long time to realize I was praying it. I was holding my breath, refusing to go on with my life, insisting that God give Isaac back. I realized, hearing Jesus’ prayer, that Jesus prayed the same way. Jesus asked for the impossible, knowing it was impossible and the answer was “no.” Isaac was dead for three years. God wasn’t bringing him back. Jesus’ death and resurrection would give us forgiveness for our sins and reconcile us to God in Christ. God wasn’t going to say, “Okay, let the cup pass, we’ll do something else.”
In that moment, I knew that Jesus did understand.
“God is with you,” people told me after our son died.
“God is with you” was cold comfort to me when it was clear God chose not to answer the prayer, “Heal Isaac! Save him!” I kept asking “’With me?’ In what sense? With me and ignoring my prayer to heal my son?”
It didn’t feel like Jesus was with me. I felt abandoned, and I kept telling God that. I started questioning my own life and making self-destructive choices.
Then one day, standing in the bathroom looking at myself in the mirror, it struck me. I would say God showed me. I had been holding my breath, figuratively, demanding that God give Isaac back. I had refused to go forward in my life because I thought that if I showed God I accepted what had happened, how God had let Isaac die, then that would be it, there would be no going back. So I didn’t accept it. I just stayed angry. In that same moment of realization, instead of feeling utterly stupid for taking such an impossible, childish stand, I thought of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying for the cup to pass when he knew with absolute certainty that could not happen. It felt like God had, in that instant, opened my eyes, both to what I had been doing and to how Jesus had prayed a similar prayer. It wasn’t a joyful, ecstatic moment and the pain didn’t magically evaporate, but I saw clearly that Jesus understood.
Jesus was with me when Isaac died, and every day after that. When I was angry at God and trying to stop time and insist that God give Isaac back, Jesus wasn’t rolling his eyes or saying “Get over it” (as some Job-friend types were). When I cursed God and raged—when my only prayers were curses and rage—Jesus didn’t say “Fine. I’m not hanging around if you’re going to use that language.” Jesus didn’t go away. Jesus was with me, weeping with me, and saying, “Yes, I get that prayer. It makes sense to me, even if it doesn’t make sense to them or make rational sense at all. I prayed an absurd prayer, too.” You pray what you have to pray. That’s what an honest relationship with God requires. It’s the only way forward.
So forgive me for momentarily switching the metaphor I’ve only just introduced, but let me put it this way: No one enters the Garden of Gethsemane for no reason. You go to pray there if you’re about to enter the via dolorosa, the way of grief. If you’re going out to pray in that Garden, you are preparing for the worst. And you know the worst can’t be stopped. You are seeking strength to walk a path you won’t survive.
Jesus asked for this cup to pass, then submitted to drinking it. The spirit drove Jesus out into the desert. I’m not saying Jesus was refusing to go and had to be forced; I’m saying Jesus understands praying impossible prayers, life or death prayers, and not having them answered. I’m saying Jesus understood why I had to pray that way, why I had to scream and cry and rage against what could not be undone. I know Jesus is with me even in my most ludicrous prayer, even when I sit in the garden and ask the impossible. I’m saying a God who is Trinity also suffers with us.
PS If you are interested in the book when it comes out, drop me a comment and/or your email so I can let you know. You can be a “Friend of Survival Spirituality!”