To be human is to suffer—to endure difficulty, experience pain and eventually die. This is the case for every single human being.
In our attempts to mitigate this pain and suffering, we read books, watch television series and films, follow sports and politics and go online and on our smart phones. We long to escape from the suffering we currently face in this life, and many spiritual gurus offer such an escape. Life is suffering, they say, so the right response is detachment from the everyday worries of life by emptying the mind. As followers of Jesus, however, we know the day when sufferings cease will not come in this life. Jesus himself encountered great suffering.
Suffering the Jesus way
In his humanity, Jesus encounters much of the daily suffering that all humans experience. But we see his suffering most acutely in his waiting for the coming of the cross in the garden of Gethsemane. In preparing for his sacrificial death, Jesus—the Son of God who is one with the Father and whose whole purpose in coming is to take on the sins of the world—endures such suffering.
He prays, “Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). Despite knowing that his death on the cross is a part of his eternal plan to rescue sinners, Jesus’ suffering was so intense that he asked for it to be taken from him.
This ought to encourage us in our own suffering. When we suffer, it need not signal that God has left us or that he does not care about us. Jesus suffered too, and he identifies with us in our suffering.
In the description of Jesus’ suffering in Mark 14, we see a model for suffering well: Jesus offers prayers of faith in community again and again.
What’s more, as Jesus identifies with us in suffering, we can learn from him how to endure suffering ourselves. In the description of Jesus’ suffering in Mark 14, we see a model for suffering well: Jesus offers prayers of faith in community again and again.
In Gethsemane, Jesus is in great distress. The first thing he does is not do all he can to stop the suffering. We don’t typically do this. The moment we encounter suffering, our inclination is to try to get out of it however we can.
Jesus himself is God and could stop what is coming. But Jesus does not do this. Rather, he falls to the ground and prays to the Father.
Remember, too, the content of his prayer. He asks that the Father take away his suffering. We are allowed to do this too! When we experience suffering, we should come to the Lord in prayer. We can even ask him, in his power and grace, to take our suffering away.
Prayers of faith
Jesus prays what I consider to be the most faithful prayer of all: “Yet not what I will, but what you will” (v. 36). How is this a prayer of faith?
I have heard it said that to qualify our prayers to God in this manner is an example of faithlessness, not faith. I cannot disagree more. There is no more faithful prayer than praying, “Lord, let your will be done.” Let me explain why.
God’s will is good. He has good plans for us, he seeks our flourishing, and he longs for us to experience all his goodness forever. We can trust his will for us. God is also all-powerful. He created all things; he is sovereign over all things. So, we can trust that, if he wills something, he will make it happen. Praying such a prayer is not a faithless qualifier to an otherwise bold request. It is a faithful petition from one who trusts in God’s good will more than his or her own. There is no more faithful prayer.
What’s more, offering prayers of faith like Jesus did reminds us of the heart of Christianity. What’s important is not how much we believe, but in whom we believe. If we have earth-shattering faith in a faulty savior, we are in trouble. If we have faith the size of a mustard seed in Jesus Christ, mountains can be moved. As Timothy Keller writes, “It is not the strength of our faith, but the object of our faith that saves us.”
Jesus asks others to come alongside him in his hour of suffering. He prays in community. Granted, the disciples are not a very big help. Though tasked with simply keeping watch with Jesus, they cannot stay awake. And yet, we see in this passage a recognition that, as human beings, we are not meant to endure suffering, difficulties, challenges or grief alone.
We are called to share one another’s burdens, to pray for one another and to love one another. Our world has become increasingly individualistic, and so much of American culture encourages hobbies, activities and employment in isolation. I am grateful to experience this kind of love we are offered in the body of Christ in my own local church community.
Again and again
In Mark 14, Jesus repeats this process, not once, but twice. He does not stop praying prayers of faith in community. Neither should we.
I believe that this process prepares Jesus for his agony to come. Hebrews 12:2 tells us that “for the joy set before him, he endured the cross.” Such a joy in the midst of utter despair and distress can only be possible in seeing beyond our present circumstances to a hope that is more sure.
This is the difference Christianity makes in enduring our own suffering. We need not suffer in agony. Though we don’t know why God allows suffering, we know that it can’t be because he does not love us.
God experienced the deepest, darkest depths of suffering for us.
We need not suffer in isolation. God himself has come down, becoming flesh and blood and suffering for our sake. God identifies with us even in our worst sufferings so we may identify with him in his glory.
We need not suffer forever, for a glorious future is promised to us, where God will wipe every tear from our eyes and death shall be no more. Neither will there be mourning, crying or pain anymore, for all these things will have passed away.
As we encounter our own suffering, let us look to Christ, who, in providing for us a model for suffering well, suffers and dies so it can be defeated forever.
Tony Petersen is a campus pastor at Mountain View Church in Fresno, California, and adjunct history professor at Fresno State University. He and his wife, Roaxanna, have three daughters.