A few days ago I read a devotional by a fine writer who said that when Jesus sang the Hallel (Psalm 113-118) with his disciples at the Passover meal before going to Gethsemane and the cross, his heart was at rest. The implication was from that point on Jesus walked an untroubled path to the cross.
These Psalms are greatly comforting, built on the unshakable bedrock of God’s power, love, and faithfulness. Surely if I meditated on these often, even memorized them, I would avoid needless anxiety and struggle. If I got them into my soul, I would always be at rest, right?
Well, yes. And no. Because Jesus’ emotional and spiritual journey to the cross did not end with these comforting Psalms. Jesus did not go to the cross without a struggle. Only a few verses later in Matthew’s gospel, we find Jesus in Gethsemane, face on the ground, asking his Father if it might be possible to avoid the excruciating experience ahead of him. To avoid suffering the most hideous torture and death imaginable, and even worse, to momentarily be abandoned by the Father as he took on the sin of the whole world. Matthew tells us that Jesus repeated this prayer three times, in great anguish. Luke tells us Jesus sweated drops of blood.
This doesn’t sound like a heart at rest. It sounds like a heart engaged in a deep, painful struggle, worse than anything I have ever experienced, and yet strangely familiar.
Which is it? Was Jesus’ heart at rest, or was he filled with dread and anxiety? I believe it was both at the same time. The gospel writers, bless them, give us a glimpse into a faith-filled but struggling heart. Jesus knew and believed that at the bottom of all things is the deep, deep love of God, who always has us in his hand. But knowing all that, Jesus still wept, prayed, begged for a different road than the one he was about to travel. At the end he got to his feet, wiped off the bloody sweat, and did what the Father was asking him to do. And no, I’m not discounting the fact that Jesus is God and man at the same time. Both of his natures must have battled with impending doom, in ways we don’t know or understand. But it’s enough for me to know that Jesus, the perfect man, God himself, who had ultimate faith in his Father, was free to struggle.
And so am I, and so are you. We read these Psalms and we know deep down that God is sovereign over all his creation, that he showers us with love and faithfulness (Ps. 115:1) that he is gracious and righteous and full of compassion (Ps. 116:5), that his love endures forever (Ps. 118:1). And yet believing all that, we often feel abandoned, grief stricken, disappointed. Why this, God? Why do I have to hurt so much? Are you there, God? Is there a different way?
Like Jesus, we experience faith and struggle simultaneously. I wish I knew why. It’s exhausting. It’s heart-wrenching. It leaves us in a miserable heap, wondering why we’re not sailing through life with more vibrant faith. It makes us feel guilty.
Jesus struggled and won. We celebrate the win at Easter. But I’m so glad we get to know about the agony that preceded the win. On the cross, in that final, horrible moment when the Father turned his face away from his Son, Jesus cried out in the greatest anguish of all, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Jesus truly is one of us. And he showed us the way to struggle, which is by being absolutely free to ask, question, to have our souls overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. And at the end of it to still trust, even as the pain continues.
So if your Easter joy is tempered this year by any number of kinds of pain and struggle, know this: “For he has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.” That’s from Psalm 22, the same psalm that begins “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” To quote the beginning of the psalm was to have in mind the entire psalm. Even as Jesus experienced and announced his abandonment, he knew that God really was there, that there was literal light at the end of the death tunnel.
Be merciful to yourself, and to your fellow strugglers. And go read the Hallel. It will feed your weary soul. It will give you rest in the struggle.