“Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from me….”
It is the first line in a two-part prayer that has been known throughout history. Bearing the complete and desperate honesty of a Man who was experiencing absolute brokenness, this prayer reveals one who knew of the bitter cup from which He was about to drink. And like many similar prayers that have escaped the lips of others throughout the course of time, this agonizing part of His prayer was answered with silence. God said no.
Of course, there is another part to this prayer that is just as crucial as the first line. Jesus, the one who spoke this prayer over two thousand years ago, did not stop with the admission that in His humanity, He wanted an escape. As He prayed alone in the garden that night, He went on to submit to the will of the One to whom He prayed:
“Nevertheless, not my will, but Yours, be done.”
And so the story goes that Jesus drank from the figurative bitter cup. He suffered in agonizing physical and emotional torment; He bore the sins of this world; and He died on our behalf.
Jesus’ prayer was largely influential and precious to me in the early days of my pregnancy with Alisa, when we were first learning of a possible diagnosis of Down syndrome. In fact, even before ever sharing publicly the difficult news we had received about our growing daughter in the womb, I wrote of this prayer and how it had instructed me on how to pray in unexpected and painful circumstances in life.
When we read Jesus’ agonizing prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, we have the benefit of knowing the rest of the story. We fill in the blanks with the facts and knowledge with which time and scripture have afforded us. But what if we removed all the hindsight and the understanding which we possess now? What if we inserted ourselves into Jesus’ story just hours after He uttered this prayer? What would would we as followers of Jesus have said then?
Just like any tragic or unexpected circumstance in life, it would be easy for us to imagine ourselves, along with His disciples and His family, asking those difficult, soul-searching questions to God as we watched Jesus suffer and die undeservedly. Why is this happening? How can God let this happen? And for today’s purposes in this blog post,
“Where is God right now?”
We can only take this exercise so far, of course, because we do have the benefit of hindsight. We know how the story played out, and we know that the end of Jesus’ suffering did not ultimately result in His permanent death. Jesus faced the reality of pain, suffering, and death in this life, and three days later, He overcame the clutches of the grave. Jesus rose again victoriously.
We also know the answer to the question of where God was: through it all, He was right there. Through it all, God was present and involved. He was also fully and completely capable of intervening and stopping Christ’s suffering at any moment.
But He didn’t.
When I was just beginning to grapple with the possibility that the child growing in my womb might not fit into the original dreams I had for her life, I had to answer this question. As I read Christ’s prayer, His story, and I also considered that God might be allowing a great season of suffering into our lives, I had to settle whether or not I would pray as Jesus did, “Not my will, but Yours, be done.”
In other words, would I trust that God was good, even if it meant that my child would be born with Down syndrome? Even if it meant that I knew He was present and completely capable of ending our suffering, of supernaturally intervening and even altering the makeup of her DNA, but He didn’t?
This is the crux of the issue. We know that God does not always miraculously intervene in our painful circumstances because we all have had enough experience in this fallen world to understand how things work. So we must settle in our hearts whether or not we will trust the goodness of God…even in the valley of the shadow of death (Ps. 23).
As we have already covered in the first post of this series, there are mysteries in life that the human mind will not ever fully comprehend on this side of eternity. There are circumstance and tragedies that you and I will never be able to completely explain:
Why do some children suffer and die?
Why are some born into a life of poverty, out of which they will never escape?
Why will some marriages make it, while others will not?
Why have some spent their lives as model examples of health and fitness, only to be taken from this life by the ravages of an unpreventable disease?
It is for this reason that the follower of Christ must instead answer the greater question of whether or not he or she will unreservedly trust in the goodness of God no matter what may come. If we do not settle this in our hearts, our faith will not be able to endure the ups and downs of life. It is as simple an issue as that: Will I believe and trust in the unchanging and ever-present goodness of God, no matter what may come?
Where was God when…?
God the Father was there when Christ suffered and died, and He didn’t stop it. He was there, and He was also never anything but completely holy and completely good. We know today that it was because of His sovereign goodness that He didn’t intervene, and we continue to reap the great blessing of Christ’s salvation because God did not intervene in His crucifixion and death.
God was also there when Alisa’s earthly life began, and He was there when that 47th chromosome was knit into the very fabric of her DNA. I can tell you that in it all, I know He was and still is completely holy and completely good. I may not have all the answers over why this happened, but I do know that I can trust in the goodness of God even though it did happen.
Of course, one final point we must acknowledge is that the goodness of God doesn’t really depend upon the substance of our belief. You and I can be completely devoted to something or someone and can at the same time also be completely wrong if our faith is in the wrong thing or person. The truth is that God is either good or He is not, and no amount of believing or disbelieving will change that reality. As genuine Christians, we know it to be true that God has always been and always will be good (i.e. Psalm 39, 119:68; Nehemiah 9:20; Mark 10:18; Romans 2:4). This is the truth that we must cling to in the great trials, tragedies, and suffering of this life.
We orient our lives around the One who could have immediately ended Jesus’ suffering, just as He could intervene and bring to an end all of our suffering today. But we know that He doesn’t always intervene. Instead, we still face unexpected and painful trials in this life. Will we continue to follow God because we trust the goodness of God? It is upon this hinge that you and I must turn when we ask the question of where God is in the midst of those tragedies under which we cannot possibly bear up on our own.
God is here, and God is good.
(I must add that while I write in this post of how I once grieved the diagnosis of Down syndrome, I have since seen my views make a complete reversal. Where I once wept, I now rejoice. If you are new to this blog, I encourage you to read of our journey with Alisa as well as my recent posts on her to gain a more complete understanding. Life is about the journey, and this is mine.)