Sometimes life is hard.
Such an aphorism may fall off our lips with ease, especially when life is anything but hard, yet in the moments when it is are the moments where such a statement begins to show its weight in our lives. In these moments the reality of such a truism is not questioned, but perhaps more so the fairness of it. Why, after all, must life be hard? What possible value is there in suffering? And of course the age-old questions that never seem to have satisfactory answers- why would a God who is so loving allow so much heartache, so much pain, so much destruction in our world? Perhaps such a God is not as powerful as we thought, or, perhaps even worse, not as good as we once thought.
While the theological answers to such questions may be intellectually satisfying on some level, there is always the gnawing reality that, after all, we do not exist on simply an intellectual level, and therefore these questions cannot be treated as mere abstractions, since the painful truths often find themselves in our very bodies, that which is perhaps the most near and dear to us, since we cannot escape from our skin.
In the question of suffering we come face to face with our notions about God and about our wills- while we can intellectually assert that God perhaps wills one thing and we can be ok with that, often the reality is that on a more visceral level we would wish that God would will something else. For some this can lead to abandoning any idea that God is good or can be trusted; for others, a questioning of one’s faith and motives. Can I, after all, want something so bad to happen, and yet truly want whatever God may bring my way?
God’s answer to our suffering, it seems to me, is not in an intellectual response that clears up all the whys and all the reasons and puts to rest any doubts or fears or wonderings; rather, God’s answer to our suffering is, in the end, in the Incarnation.
Throughout the first seven centuries of the Church the theological implications of the Incarnation were the battleground for many a theological controversy. Whether Christ was divine, had two natures or one, was one Person or two- these questions dominated the theological landscape for centuries, with much ink spilled by many sides in hashing out the details. In the safety of retrospect centuries removed, it is easy for us to wonder- perhaps even scoff- at the energy expended in these controversies; indeed, in explaining the various aspects of these theological controversies to others, the ultimate question usually ends up being, “Well, yeah, that’s all good, but what practical value does it have?”
In the course of the last month I have been meditating on the icon of the Agony in the Garden. This scene (among others) in Jesus’ life became a crux around which the Monothelitism controversy fomented. By this time in the church’s theological development it had been established that Jesus had both a human nature and a divine nature united in one Person. However, in the agony in the garden we find a seemingly troubling aspect of Christ- it would appear that the will of Jesus is at odds with the will of the Father. The gospel of Mark describes it this way:
They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them. “Stay here and keep watch.”
Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”
In this story, Jesus knows that his death is approaching. In fact, he knows that his entire purpose on earth has been to come to die. He has already predicted his death on numerous occasions, and in the Gospel of John speaks of how his life is not being taken from him, but rather he is laying it down willingly. If this is the case, what are we to make of this scene in the garden?
The Monothelites argued that this showed that Jesus had only one will- the Divine will of the Logos in union with the human nature, and thus the human will was either entirely non-existent (save, perhaps, for a ‘sensual will’ which cringed from the thought of death) or entirely subjugated by the divine will to the point of having no operation of its own. Thus, there was no difficulty in understanding this passage, as the divine will said to the Father, ‘Thy will be done,’ as opposed to the sensual will of the lower human instinct to avoid death.
However, there was a real problem with this understanding of the human nature of Jesus- namely, human beings, as human beings, have a will. That is part of who we are. Thus, as the orthodox would press against the Monothelites, if Jesus did not truly have a human will, or if the human will was completely subjected out of operation by the divine will, how could Jesus have truly been human, and thus truly been both 100% God and 100% human?
In the end, it was determined that Jesus had two wills- the divine will of the Logos and the human will of the man Jesus. The divine will did not overpower the human will, but the human will submitted itself to the divine will.
This brings us back to the icon. This particular icon is striking in its simplicity, in that we see Christ alone, praying to the Father. In the background we see only darkness, indicative of the despair and pain that life brings to us all at some point. Being human, Christ was not immune to these feelings. One can detect the pain on his face as he contemplates what is to come- not only a brutal death, but to bear the weight of the sins of the whole world upon his shoulders.
He is set alone against a mountain, indicative of a desert. Even though he is praying in a garden, in times of anguish even the most serene of environments may feel isolated and dead, cut off from light and life. Indeed, in the most difficult times of our lives we may feel most alone, even when surrounded by our friends. Jesus’ disciples were not far off, yet they were sleeping- how often do even the condolences and support and prayers of our friends seem incapable of rendering the situation anything other than a feeling of isolation?
We see his hands outstretched, in prayer to the Father. He is on his knees, in one breath begging for his life, in another offering his life anew. In Christ we see no pretension to piety, but simply an open and brutal honesty about what is coming and about what, ultimately, he will choose.
Lastly, there is a halo encircling his head. In this moment of despair, holiness exudes from him, flashing forth in brilliant gold, bringing light to darkness around him. He is not alone, for he is with the Father, and the Father is with him. Even in this deep darkness, there is light. Even when he must face the most excruciating pain, there is hope.
Concerning the agony in the garden, St. Augustine says this:
When Christ says ‘Not what I will, but what Thou wilt’ He shows Himself to have willed something else than did His Father; and this could only have been by His human heart, since He did not transfigure our weakness into His Divine but into His human will.
Again, in Jesus there is no pretension to piety, no trying to hide the feelings of his human will. Rather, as this icon shows us, his holiness is reflected in the very visceral words “Take this cup from me.’ Nobody wants to die, not even the most perfect human being who ever lived. St. Athanasius says this:
When Christ says ‘Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from Me; yet not My will, but Thine be done,’ and again, ‘The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh weak,’ He denotes two wills–the human, which through the weakness of the flesh shrank from the passion–and His Divine will eager for the passion.
In the final analysis, it would appear there is a paradox of sorts in play: Christ was able, in his human will, to truly will something contrary to what the divine will wanted, yet even in the midst of that was able to will what the divine will wanted. St Aquinas sums it up like this:
As was said (2,3), in Christ according to His human nature there is a twofold will, viz. the will of sensuality, which is called will by participation, and the rational will, whether considered after the manner of nature, or after the manner of reason. Now it was said above (13, 3, ad 1; 14, 1, ad 2) that by a certain dispensation the Son of God before His Passion “allowed His flesh to do and suffer what belonged to it.” And in like manner He allowed all the powers of His soul to do what belonged to them. Now it is clear that the will of sensuality naturally shrinks from sensible pains and bodily hurt. In like manner, the will as nature turns from what is against nature and what is evil in itself, as death and the like; yet the will as reason may at time choose these things in relation to an end, as in a mere man the sensuality and the will absolutely considered shrink from burning, which, nevertheless, the will as reason may choose for the sake of health. Now it was the will of God that Christ should undergo pain, suffering, and death, not that these of themselves were willed by God, but for the sake of man’s salvation. Hence it is plain that in His will of sensuality and in His rational will considered as nature, Christ could will what God did not; but in His will as reason He always willed the same as God, which appears from what He says (Matthew 26:39): “Not as I will, but as Thou wilt.” For He willed in His reason that the Divine will should be fulfilled although He said that He willed something else by another will.
Again, such theological speculation is all well and good, but the question almost always comes down to this: how is this practical? What difference does it make in my life?
I have found that this aspect of theology has been particularly meaningful in my life in the last month as I have been meditating on this icon. As some of you already know, At the end of May I got engaged to the most wonderful girl in the world- Megan. She is pretty awesome, and I love her with everything I have. We got engaged in Ireland, and it was a wonderful time of fun and getting to know each other more and just enjoying Ireland.
As some of you also know, a week later everything in my world turned upside down. I was given a preliminary diagnosis of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and for the next month I waited, wondered, got tests done, and finally got the final diagnosis of Large Diffuse B-Cell Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma and have started chemotherapy to hopefully eradicate it.
Naturally, the questions of ‘why’ floated to my head- why now, now that I am engaged and looking forward to a life with my fiance? Why, when I have already gone through this before? Does God even care?
In the midst of these questions I began to meditate upon this icon, and began to struggle with my prayers. Deep down I want to do what God wants, whatever that may be, but I also want to get married, want to have a life with Megan, want to live. What if God wants something different? How do I pray? How do I really be honest?
This icon, this theological nuance of the nature of Christ has given me hope and clarity in my prayers. I do not have to put on a pious front of saying, “O God, I want whatever you want, so just do that and I will happily trail along.’ Rather, I see that Jesus in his human will did not want to die, and even prayed that there could be some other way. Yet, in the end, it wasn’t the desire for what he wanted that mattered, but it was the submission to God- the contrary of the ‘take this cup from me’ was supplied with the ‘Not my will be done, but Thy will be done.’
So, because of this theological nuance, I can pray with all my heart that the chemo will be successful, that God will heal my body and give me years of life to look forward to with Megan. I can do this without guilt and without shame, because I know that God knows what it feels like. Yet, in the end, I can sum up my prayers with ‘Not my will be done, but Thy will be done.’ Our desires can be fleeting, and our emotions can get the better of us, and God knows this. The scripture say that
We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses…
We are not machines, and we are not gods- we are frail humans tossed by the waves and storms of life. While our emotions may lead us to pray ‘take this cup from me’, our hope must be grounded in the ‘thy will be done’, for that is ultimately the only source of stability in this uncertain world.