Panic Attack in Gethsemane

Do you remember the first time you saw one of your parents break? Maybe you were sitting next to them when it happened. Maybe you saw it through the crack in the bedroom door that was supposed to be shut as you made your way down the hall. Maybe you didn’t see it at all, but you heard it and never forgot it. When I grew up my father was the stability of my universe. I remember distinctly when that perception broke. I was young— maybe 8 or 9 years old. There was just something so intense in that moment, something that even the deepest part of me can't fully put in to words. 

For many of us, if you’re a disciple of Jesus, He is the stability of our universe. For most of his story we see him entirely composed. He is always in control of the situation, having something deeper and more convicting to say to all who come at him with accusations. But here at a place called Gethsemane, we see him break. He falls to pieces—to put it bluntly Jesus has a panic attack.  

In fact he’s so crushed, so agitated by the weight of what’s about to happen (his crucifixion), that he starts to sweat blood. Luke, a physician, makes note of this in his gospel account. “And being in agony He prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.” (Luke 22:44). This is a condition we now know as hematidrosis, where in the presence of extreme stress and extreme fear blood starts to secrete from intact skin. Jesus was so overwhelmed that Mark’s gospel account shows us he doesn't even use his own words, “my soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Mark 14:32-42). If your Bible has a footnote you'll notice Jesus speaks out of Psalm 42. Take a look:

I say to God my Rock, “why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about grieving, oppressed by the enemy?” My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me, saying to me all day long, “where is your God?” Why, O my soul, are you so overwhelmed with sorrow? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.  (Psalm 42: 9-11)

I recommend reading the psalm in it’s entirety, but in this snippet alone you can see the poetic arch of the poem: a journey of working through confusion and fear. The psalmist is unglued, overwhelmed, afraid for his life,  but he enters this stage of self-talk— "put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him” This psalm shows us that even this “self-talk” doesn’t for one second negate the emotions and feelings the psalmist is feeling at the time. This is exactly where Jesus is mentally and emotionally at Gethsemane, and you’ll see this in the context of his prayers. 

How many times have we prayed a prayer like Psalm 42? How many times have we looked to the heavens and said why, where are you, God?! Whether it’s the heartache from a friendship that’s gone awry, or the confusion from the unexpected passing of a loved one, or even the relentless battle with an addiction that can’t be shaken off. I’ve been there, and I suspect you have too, and if you haven’t you will. We identify with Jesus in all of those moments, and Jesus identifies with us.

The thing is Jesus knew exactly what was coming for him, in fact he foretold it multiple times. He foreknew the mocking, the ridicule, the pain, the deserting, the unspeakable suffering. But he chooses to pray. In Matthew’s account we see Jesus first pray, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” A while later a second time he prays, but this time, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” Jesus knew this day would come. It’s not that he’s not willing; he’s willing. But in his humanity he’s struggling.

At Gethsemane, Jesus gives deeper meaning to his statement, “Take Heart! I have overcome the world”, not merely in the sense that he completes his mission on the cross, but also because he identifies with us in our deepest, darkest, pain. These are the places where we have cried, shaken our fists, and turned our heads away from God, but instead Jesus turns his head toward the Father.

He affirms for us that it’s okay to be honest with God in seasons of suffering. Through Jesus' prayer life we see that’s it’s totally reasonable to go to God and say “I don’t know if I can get through this. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I’m devastated” That is totally okay. Jesus did this in his full humanity, yet without sin. We can imitate in his foot steps, and follow in his place. Praying honestly with God leads to intimacy with God. The question we must ask is How exactly do we pray when we're sick, betrayed, and the fracture of life bears down on us? Jesus shows us. He anchors himself to the will of the father.

Here are some questions we must ask ourselves:

1. Do we pray to get from God, or to get God himself? Jesus prayed out of anguish, but still he turned to the Father. The cup was never removed but he leaned into the Father. 

2. Do we pray for change from God, or for God to change us? Often prayer is not about us changing God’s will, but the process of recognizing God changing our will. 

3. Do we pray to get out of pain, or for God to get us through the pain. Jesus shows us it’s okay to ask God to remove the pain. But we must recognize there are somethings God can only produce in us and through us if we endure.

At the end of his time in Gethsemane his betrayer still came, the cup was still waiting, the day of distress was still ahead. Jesus' prayer connected his will to the father’s will  so that he could endure what was to come.

That night in Gethsemane shows us how Jesus joins us in our own dark nights of the soul. You are with him in those moments. He is no stranger to the fear and pain of the human condition. He knows it to a degree and depth few of us ever will. Will we lean into the Father like he did? Will we be able to say, "not as I will, but as you will"?

Image Source: The Passion of Christ 2004