He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. Luke 22:41-44 NIV
Jesus was in the garden of Gethsemane with his disciples just before he was arrested and crucified. He knew what was coming. And not just the physical torment or the abandonment by his friends, but the one thing that was of higher value than anything else — and something most of us still do not understand — the separation in the relationship he had with his Father. He had never experienced a distance from Papa before, yet now, Abba is asking him to carry sin away from the sinners, to be the lamb sacrifice on which sin falls. Jesus knows light and dark cannot cannot coexist. Sin and righteousness are opposites. Abba is absolutely holy, and not in some nose-in-the-air self-righteous way. He is pure white hot goodness and sin is like wood that burns up as it nears him, consuming it completely or damaging whatever it is attached to. So to become an offering for sin meant one thing: distance from the Father. Separation. Pleasing his father was the singular value that Jesus prized most. It helps me understand how the body produced drops of blood from the stress he was feeling.
The story of the cross and Jesus’ sacrifice is incredible by itself, but this is not what caught my attention. I’ve been considering what causes stress in my own life and as I was reading this I recognized that Jesus experienced stress too. His stress was a result of his values and desire being threatened, and that desire was only good. He wanted something, just like all of us want something.
When the thing we desire is threatened, it results in stress. It is like the warning lights in our car. The light is telling me I shouldn’t drive with one of my doors open. The oil light flashes and tells me low oil pressure is threatening my vehicle. I’m about to give a presentation to a group at work, and I feel it because I want to do well, communicate, succeed, and have others benefit from it. I want to be valued. Yet I know how quickly someone can succeed or fail when speaking publicly. I feel the stress of not having enough money and without enough cash, I may lose my house or car or not have enough food. If I’m afraid for my life, it’s because I still want to live — I have dreams, things to do, places to go, ambitions to fulfill. Yet if I simply give up caring about something I am released from that pressure. When I give up, it allows me to release care, worry, and anxiety. So, if I give up my desire, may I live a stress free life? Of course. But it’s also dead one.
Desire and caring is the natural response of my heart to life. It makes me uniquely human. Uniquely valuable. It defines me. There are those that have given up on their desires and abandoned any hope for the good they want in their life, but what has their surrender purchased? Less stress, yes, but also less life. A part of them has died.
Growing up as a believer, I’m well aware of the struggle between my flesh and my new man in Christ. It’s good to understand that distinction. The act of being baptized and plunged under the water is a symbol of my old man dying. When I come out of the water it is a symbol that the new man is resurrected with Christ. The experience of being born again is truly amazing and as a young man I had passion in pursuing the kingdom. But as with all children, things seemed black and white and in killing off the old man it felt reasonable to dump everything but “spiritual” pursuits. Everything! So what is left? I sincerely love the willingness to sell all to connect with my Father. But he isn’t looking for a slave. He’s looking for me. With all my intrinsic desire, ambition, gifts, and talents he gave me when I was conceived. Being a Christian doesn’t mean my person is dead, just the part that was connected with hurt, sin and damage. Instead of killing me, he has realigned me with the kingdom and kingdom values. Being truly dead to self — willing to hate all those I love, willing to cut off an arm or pull out an eye, and even hating my own life also — is only a gateway to real life.
Then and now I find the relationship with my desire and ambition to be precarious. If I have a dream but believe it can’t be fulfilled, I feel sick… and just like the proverb says: Hope deferred makes the heart sick. (Proverbs 13:12). The tread-wear of life on my soul has a tendency to reduce my child-like curiosity and desire. Kids unashamedly want to go places, to have fun experiences, to buy the latest toy or gadget, and to eat this fun new food. With time, the natural enthusiasm and excitement of simply waking up and tackling a brand new day begins to fade. The trim and flourish start to go missing. There are a lot of reasons why I don’t get everything I want. Sometimes the dream I have is not aligned with the reality of my circumstances and disappointment results. And then there are events in all of our lives that threaten our very life or well-being. The resulting post-traumatic stress has a deep impact that erases whatever childlike curiosity or possibility I held. When fighting for my life, whether it be sickness, adversity, war, or even abusive relationships, finding value in the little pleasures or desires seem inconsequential. Unimportant. At the root is the underlying question: “Am I loved?” If I feel like I have been threatened or nearly cast aside, then what is my worth?
Ah, the heart of the matter.
God, or better, Abba or Papa, makes an unequivocal declaration of my value and worth. He loves me. Deeply. No matter what evidence I find to the contrary. Yet life bears down on me and my adversary shouts “worthless!” in my ear, challenging the very thing my father affirms. My life seems to be a drama where experiences either affirm or deny the worth I have and for which Jesus has paid dearly.
Will I live loved, or unloved? And what will it take to convince me of one or the other? Hope or hopelessness are both knocking at the door daily.
There’s a great article in Psychology today that explores the relationship between hope and depression. I’ve always wondered how someone could ever consider taking their own life. An excerpt says: Hopelessness is both a cause and a symptom of depression, and, in the context of depression, a strong predictor of suicide. This article makes a link between what we believe and our response to that faith — connecting hope, hopelessness, depression, and suicide.
And if these things are true, it is important not to equivocate between hope and hopelessness. The conclusion of both are either life or death. Choosing life means to live fully. And to live fully means that my desires are important. Desire is the fruit of the tree of being loved. It is a tender young shoot growing from a heart that feels value and worth. It is the evidence that my life is more than just being alive, but living abundantly and flourishing. Desire is an indicator. The more that is there, the more the fertilizer of love has seeped into the soil of my heart.
What I want is important. Allowing myself to want, is important. Self denial has a downside. There are many places in the Bible where Jesus says to deny ourselves. To hate mom, dad, sister, brother, and our own life also. But anyone who hears these things knows that those things were spoken only to realign our value system. God must be first in comparison to anything else. There is no question here. But to truly die to ourselves means we must pick up the life he intended us to live and live it fully! Abundantly. It’s not some pseudo-life created by the flesh to prove I am really a believer as evidenced by my excessive self-denial, long prayer times, or any other outward righteousness. It means aligning with my heart and soul to the calling and purpose he placed within me when I was conceived — what he knew about me before the creation of the world. Real self-denial means living an incredible, mind-boggling life!
Those who are loved are like fruitful gardens. Deep wells. Stable. Established. And desiring.
In that garden Jesus chose to give up his desire, so we may have ours. And our Father is at the core of what we want. There are many things that challenge our desires and threaten our lives. And every fight requires the Holy Spirit to help us navigate the complexity and when to give up and when to cling. We truly hold loosely to all he has given us. But at the same time I embrace the the goodness and the incredible life he has offered tenaciously, knowing it is just a foretaste of the kingdom which is coming. Hold on tightly to that!