It’s a strange thing to think about Jesus’ death a few weeks before the holiday commemorating his birth, but we don’t always get to choose our thoughts.
Jesus didn’t want to have to suffer in order to do what he knew he had to do. So he asked God if there was some other way to accomplish the same ends. God told him gently “No”. God told him gently “No” three times before Jesus’ resolve finally kicked in. Thank God it did, because then Jesus was unstoppable.
It’s critically important to understand that JESUS DID NOT WANT TO SUFFER. If he had wanted to suffer, it would have been an indication that he was spiritually unwell. People who are spiritually sound do not want to suffer. They may choose to suffer because they know it’s part and parcel of what has to be done, but they don’t rush up to volunteer to suffer with a big grin on their face, waving their arms in the air and yelling “ooh ooh ooh, pick me, pick me, I want to suffer!”, and then proudly displaying an “I suffered for YOU!” sticker on their shirt.
People who self-flagellate or have themselves crucified are not well souls. God doesn’t ask us to voluntarily suffer or to hurt ourselves as a grand gesture in his name, though sometimes suffering is part of the package deal of doing God’s will. In those cases, the suffering is a means to an end, like it was for Jesus, not an end in itself.
We’ll all be in our own Garden of Gethsemane at some point in our lives. When you find yourself there, don’t beat yourself up because you don’t want to suffer. Don’t think that you’re somehow spiritually inadequate because you want to find a way around the suffering in order to get where you need to go. It’s OK not to want to suffer. It’s OK to ask God if there’s some other way to do what has to be done. It’s OK for your whole being – body and soul – to recoil at the prospect of what lies ahead. It’s OK to ask God not once, not twice, but three times or more if there’s some other way around the suffering. God understands. Maybe there will be a way around it for you, or maybe there won’t.
Jesus did not want to suffer. He chose to suffer, but he didn’t want to do it and he hated every second of it. He did it because it was the only way through, not because he wanted to suffer, and not because he saw suffering as an end in itself, like some form of masochistic self-sacrifice.
There are very few things I find more repulsive and aggravating than when people claim that being a Christian means embracing a life of self-sacrifice, self-effacement, and humility. This could not be farther from the Truth. Being a Christian means we’re to follow Jesus’ example of how to live life, and Jesus lived every day to the full – when he was hungry, he ate; when he was tired, he slept; when he was angry, he let loose; when he had a Word to preach, he did it without restraint; when he wanted a drink, he went to the pub; when he wanted some alone-time, he went up the nearest mountain – this is not a man who lived a life of self-sacrifice, self-effacement, or humility. On the contrary – this was a man who was his own person, who made his own decisions, who did not suffer fools gladly, and who hated suffering, because God made us to hate suffering, not embrace it.
Jesus was a healer: He healed people, he didn’t hurt them. He preached and practiced healing, which is the opposite of suffering.
Which is why Jesus’ agreement to suffer the worst kind of death for the sins of others is so monumental.
God is not asking us to suffer for other people. That was Jesus’ job at the end of his ministry, and it’s over and done. Our job is to treat others as we want to be treated and to pray for them. Suffering is sometimes part of the job, but it’s not the job in and of itself.
When our Garden of Gethsemane moment comes (and come it will for each of us), remember how Jesus dealt with it. Remember how he was up-front with God about not wanting to suffer. Remember how he asked if there was some other way around the suffering, and then remember how he accepted that it was God’s will that he suffer for a brief time, and how rock-solid his resolve became after he accepted it. This is our model. This is how we need to respond when the time comes.
But willingly choosing to suffer for the sake of suffering? That is not what Jesus did and that is not what God requires of us. You do not get spiritual brownie points for willingly choosing to suffer when you don’t have to. In fact, you only get the spiritual booby prize – the same prize that people get when they trumpet their charitable acts for others’ approval or pray standing up in public for all to see. As Jesus said, they have their reward.
When you give charity, do it anonymously so that only God knows; when you pray, do it privately, so that only God hears; and when you suffer, do it silently, so that only God sees.
I hope you have the best Christmas of your life.