I am still working my way through Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance Into Jerusalem to the Resurrection by Pope Benedict XVI, (half-way through it, I can say I highly recommend it) and was captivated by another thought. In this passage he is considering the idea of the two-natures-in-one-person in Jesus, and specifically the relation of the human will to the divine will in the narrative of Jesus’ agony in the garden of Gethsemane. Benedict XVI begins with some questions:
What kind of man has no human will? Is a man without a will really a man? Did God in Jesus really become man, if this man has no will?[1. Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance Into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, p. 160]
In the monothelite controversy, the logic employed by the Monothelites was that if Jesus was only one ‘person,’ (per the definition of Chalcedon that in Jesus the divine nature and human nature are really united without confusion) that would mean that Jesus had only one ‘will,’ since to will is the place, so to speak, where “person” manifests itself. Naturally, this leads us to the questions that Benedict asks- if Jesus had no human will, and if will is where personhood is manifested, would that not make Jesus something other than human? For the church fathers, it was axiomatic that that which is not assumed, is not healed; that is, only if Jesus takes upon the complete reality of what it means to be human can humanity in its totality truly be redeemed.
The great Byzantine theologian Maximus the Confessor (d. 662) formulated an answer to this question by struggling to understand Jesus’ prayer on the Mount of Olives. Maximus is first and foremost a determined opponent of montothelitism: Jesus’ human nature is not amputated through union with the Logos; it remains complete. And the will is part of human nature. This irreducible duality of human and divine willing must not, however, be understood to imply the schizophrenia of dual personality. Nature and person must be seen in the mode of existence proper to each. In other words, in Jesus the “natural will” of the human nature is present, but there is only one “personal will”, which draws the natural will into itself.[2. ibid, p. 160]
The upshot of this is that in Jesus we find the beginning of a new direction for humanity; in Jesus, we concretely see God’s desire for humanity, the way in which we are truly meant to be. The loss of righteousness and grace in the fall has injured our wills- we are weak and fickle and prone to rebellion. Often times, the only relation of our will to God’s will is that of enmity. Our relational posture towards God, the distance of relation that marks us off as creatures was never meant to set up its own empire and build its own walls, yet the reality of our sinfulness is that we take the greatest of gifts and attempt to use it to shut God out, when it was meant all along to let God in. Benedict XVI goes on to say:
And this [the drawing of the ‘natural will into the ‘personal will’ of the Logos] is possible without annihilating the specifically human element, because the human will, as created by God, is ordered to the divine will. In becoming attuned to the divine will, its experiences its fulfillment, not its annihilation. Maximus says in this regard that the human will, by virtue of its creation, tends toward synergy (working together) with the divine will, but that through sin, opposition takes the place of synergy: man, whose will attains fulfillment through becoming attuned to God’s will, now has the sense that his freedom is compromised by God’s will.[3. ibid, p. 160]
Our sinfulness is not only the cause of this opposition, but continually exacerbates the enmity. The irony is that the very thing that sin promises is that which it fails to deliver. We are taken back again to the Garden of Eden, where the promise of sin is that ‘you will be like God.’ The all-important truth that is left out of the promise, however, is that we are already like God, for humanity was created in God’s image, in his likeness. Instead we find the endless and consuming frustration of drawing from an empty well, the more one attempts to draw the deeper and wider the expanse of emptiness becomes. In its promise of freedom, sin truly brings slavery, as every unfulfilled desire longs after what may be attained if only God didn’t get in the way, if only life was fair, if only my family understood me, if only I got what I deserved, until the universe is at the mercy of a ravenous will that closes in on itself more and more, becoming emptier and emptier without any end in sight. In other words, it is nothing less than hell itself.
Our resistance to God’s will is not natural. While we often colloquially speak about having a sin nature, such language is ultimately misleading, for sin is not a nature. It is not anything at all. Our sinfulness is not something that has been added to us, as if it is some ethereal goo that attaches itself to our souls. Rather, our sinfulness is something that has been taken away, it is a loss of union with God, the un-attainment of what we were created to be. We live a hijacked existence of sorts, one we were not meant to have in which our wills set themselves against the one who gave us our wills. The mind-blowing reality of the Incarnation is that Jesus intentionally lowers himself into this hijacked existence, and by taking our nature and our will upon himself, is able to heal the brokenness, and not only heal it, but recreate it. We were spiraling out out control away from God, but in Jesus God sets us in a new direction.
The drama of the Mount of Olives lies in the fact that Jesus draws man’s natural will away from opposition and back toward synergy, and in doing so restores man’s true greatness. In Jesus’ natural human will, the sum total human nature’s resistance to God is, as it were, present within Jesus himself. The obstinacy of us all, the whole of our opposition to God is present, and in his struggle, Jesus elevates our recalcitrant nature to become its real self.[4. ibid, p. 161]
One gets the sense in the narrative of the agony of the garden that this is not merely a temporal incident, an event encapsulated in a single moment. Rather, we find the recapitulation of the first garden, where everything goes wrong. There is again the choice to follow God or to defy God, the choice to unite one’s will with God or to try and make one’s will into a god. Here we discover the beginning of redemption, as God returns to the root of our rebellion, and in Jesus roots it out and transforms it.
There is a paradox of sorts, one present from the beginning. Adam and Eve sensed the limitation of themselves (a death of sorts) in obeying God, in uniting their wills to God. In the stretching to grab hold of life they found only emptiness and death. Such is the logic of sin. Jesus, however, turns things around. By uniting his will to God’s will, it meant death would come. The reality could be no more real or immanent. But in the very act of willingly laying down his life, we find life has been waiting all along. No one more than Jesus was aware of the truth of his own words: Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
Jesus lives out his own words- by turning the human will to God, the opposition of us all is taken up into the will of the Logos and transformed. The logic of sin is turned against itself; death is defeated by death and becomes the pathway to life. Our hijacked existence can be turned around. As we follow Jesus is uniting our wills to God’s will, we find that the horizon of freedom is opened before us: whereas before it was a narrow room that closes in on itself more and more, now it is an ever-expanding vista that grows wider and deeper, because it is grounded in the infinite, because it is located in God, who is boundless.
In becoming like God, we becomes more ourselves.