Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Dark Night of Gethsemane

Guest Blog 
Dr. Brent Van Elswyk, PhD

In the movie, The Return of the King, there is a quiet moment before the terrible battle between Gondor and the devilish hordes of Mordor, when Pippin and Gandalf are standing outside on a balcony in Minas Tirith looking at the violent dark clouds gathering. Pippin says, "A storm is coming." To which Gandalf said, "This is not the weather of this world. This is the devise of Sauren's world. A broil, a fume that he sends ahead of his host." Later Pippin says, "It is so quiet." to which Gandalf replied, "It's the deep breath before the plunge." The fear and tension keep growing in Pippin until he finally says, "I don't want to be in a battle, but waiting on the edge of one I can't escape is even worse." 

For Jesus, the Garden of Gethsemane was a "deep breath before the plunge," the moment when He could clearly see the violent dark clouds of Calvary gathering. In many ways, Gethsemane was harder for Jesus than Calvary. The spiritual battle Jesus came to fight was fought at Calvary, but it was in Gethsemane that He waited terrified on edge of the battle He could not escape. Those Garden hours were the darkest hours, but it was in those dark hours God's grace shined brightest. 

On the way to Gethsemane, Jesus predicted the disciples would all desert Him. He had already predicted Judas' betrayal and then He quoted the prophet, Zechariah, "I will strike the Shepherd and the sheep will be scattered." Peter was offended at the suggestion he would desert the Lord, and quickly asserted, "They, all might desert you, but I never will!" But Jesus knew Peter would not only desert Him, he would deny Him with curses. For Jesus, Gethsemane and Calvary were lonely places. He faced and fought these battles totally alone as friends abandoned Him. 

Gethsemane was an olive grove and its name meant oil press which indicated there was an oil press there. A press had a heavy beam that was lowered onto a sack of olives and weight was increased until the oil of the olives was squeezed out. When Jesus arrived at Gethsemane, He left eight of the disciples at the edge of the garden and took Peter, James, and John further into it. As the four walked in the Garden, Jesus’ spirit filled with angst and He said, "My soul is sorrowful even to death." Like the weight added to press the oil out of the olives, the weight of sorrow for what was to come pressed on Him so heavily it almost killed Him.

In the Garden, Jesus didn't face His death like many human heroes who shook their fists in the face of the evil they faced. Jesus appeared weak, scared, and trembling. Before, Jesus had shown unflinching courage in the face of danger. But this night, Jesus sensed something and was deeply troubled by it. The word troubled means "shocking horror." What Jesus sensed horrified Him, putting Him under such stress that He sweat drops of blood. Here is the Son of God, who with words spoke the universe into place, who walked on angry waves, who calmed fierce storms, who cast out demons, who healed diseases, who brought the dead back to life, so horrified that His capillaries were bursting. He fell to the ground and, crying out to His Father.

This wasn't a normal fear of dying. As Gandalf had said this was not the weather of this world. What Jesus saw in the quiet of the Garden was Hell with its hoards and its unspeakable horrors opening in front of Him. As one person put it, the coming battle was a "boiling cup mixed with all the sin of the world, the full assault of demonic hordes, and the fierce wrath of God." On this night, the fierce wind of hell washed over Jesus and He cried out to His Father. But, this time there was no response. While Jesus had always enjoyed immense intimacy with His Father, in the hour Jesus needed Him the most, there was nothing but silence. Looking for comfort He stumbled back to His disciples and founding them sleeping He cried, "I need you to be with me! Can't you stay awake?" He went back to His Father, praying again and again. And was met with silence each time. 

Could it be that God has already begun to turn His face away from Jesus? It appears Jesus' soul had already begun to experience abandonment by the Father--The Father He had lived to please. Yet, when He needed the Father the most, the Father remained silent. He sought His Father and found Hell instead and for the first time in all eternity Jesus was totally alone.

Have you ever felt totally alone? Maybe a close friend turned deserted you when you needed their support. Maybe a spouse betrayed you. Maybe your parents failed to protect. Maybe your grown children have chosen to not let you see your grandkids. Jesus had the same sense of being desperately alone. Jesus also experienced the pain of rejection. And this rejection was in the closest relationship He had and the reality is that the closer the relationship the more painful the rejection.

In that moment, Jesus experienced desertion, aloneness, rejection, and the equivalence of an eternity in hell for us. For Hell is the complete abandonment by God. The "deep breath before the plunge" for Jesus was in the Garden as Jesus stared into the horror of hell and voluntarily chose to go to hell for us. I've always thought what made Jesus' death so bad was the horrors of the crucifixion with its public humiliation and its pain, but that wasn't what filled Jesus with angst in the Garden. It was the abandonment by God that horrified Him. He looked full into the cup of God's wrath and was overwhelmed to the point it almost killed Him and cried out, "If there be any other way, let this cup pass from me." And Jesus resolved to go to the cross and on the cross all the filth, moral rot of the human race, the immeasurable foul weight of all the sin of human history was poured on the perfect, sinless Jesus. And His Father, with whom He had only known perfect fellowship, abandoned Him, pouring all of His hatred of sin on Him. That is why Jesus staggered in the Garden, crying, "Father remove this cup from me." In His humanity, Jesus desperately wanted the cup to be removed from Him. He wanted to avoid the cross. He wanted to avoid drinking from the cup of suffering. But His prayer—it didn't end with, "Remove this cup." It ended with, "Yet, not what I will, but what you will!"

The hand that increased the weight on Jesus' soul was the loving hand of His Father. That hand was put there to save you and to save me! And what was pressed out of Jesus was pure, undefiled love. Isaiah 51:17 describes God's wrath like a cup full of toxic poison! The wrath was for our rebellion, our selfishness, our immorality, and for our sin. In Gethsemane Jesus decided to step in the way the cup of wrath we deserved, drinking it all so not one drop of God's wrath could touch us. That was why He could declare on the cross, "It is finished!"

The purest essence of the gospel is about substitution. Jesus lived the life we should have lived. He died the death we should have died. He drank the cup we should have drank so there would not be condemnation left for us because by faith we are in Christ Jesus. It isn't just that God felt merciful towards us, but every bit of God's justice and every bit of His condemnation for sin was put on Jesus so there was nothing left to pour on us. Salvation offered by faith is a free gift.

In Gethsemane, we see the love of Jesus fully displayed. When He rose from His prayer and left the Garden, the internal battle done, we never again see Him wavering again. He faced humiliation, illegal trials, mocking, scourging, and crucifixion with unwavering resolve because of His love for us and His obedience to the Father. In the Garden He found the peace, the strength, and the resolve to go to the cross unshaken. Satan may have been destroyed on the cross, but he was defeated in the dark of Gethsemane. The victory was set in stone when Jesus resolved to drink the cup for us.

Without the agony of Jesus in the garden and without the pain He bore on the cross there would be no Resurrection, no freedom from our sin, and there would be no comfort for our own suffering. Perhaps God let Jesus see this horror before the cross so we could see Jesus choosing to go to the cross knowing full well what He would experience so we could see the fullness of His love for us.

Hebrews 12:2 says that for the joy set before Him He endured the cross. What was the joy set before Him? It couldn't be the approval of God, He already had that. It couldn't be the Kingship of the Universe, He already had that. The only thing He gained from the cross was us. He was doing this to save us because He loves us. And we want to hold on to the truth of His love in our dark hours when we suffer and feel utterly alone. We can look to Gethsemane and realize Jesus didn't abandon us when He faced the horror of Hell and He surely won't abandon us in our pain. If we do feel abandoned by God, we're believing a lie. He went through Hell to rescue us and our names are engraved on His palms and Jesus cannot forget those who names are etched on the palms of His hands. When we feel abandoned, we can visit the Garden again and again and preach the gospel to ourselves. The true beauty of Gethsemane is that we are the undeserving recipients of the pure love that was pressed out of the Savior during His dark night in Gethsemane.    
*Based on a sermon given by J. D. Greear 


Thursday, March 17, 2016

Suffering Well--A Savior Acquainted with Suffering

I have the privilege of serving in a ministry which provides help for women who, as children, suffered verbal, physical, emotional, sexual, and/or spiritual abuse. Because of the abuse they endured, many come to us struggling in their relationship with God. This is especially true if the abuse occurred in families who attended church.

Imagine what it would be like for a little girl who suffered frequent beatings and had to sit by her abuser in church with her scars and bruises carefully covered. Imagine what it would be like for a young girl whose view of herself was shredded by harsh words she heard at home and then had to sing songs about the love of God she believed she would never be good enough to possess. Imagine what it is like for a young girl who sits in church with parents who refuse to meet her basic needs causing her to feel invisible and overlooked even by the God to which she prayed who didn't provide either. Imagine what it would be like for a little girl who sits in a pew, knowing she will go home with a parent who will threaten her life again and again while the other parent stands idly by. Imagine what it would be like for a young teen who is forced to sit in church, listening to sermons taught by a pastor who robbed her of her innocence. Imagine what it is like for a little girl to be shamed by parents so legalistic grace was nonexistent in the home.

When we are dealing with women who've suffered greatly, we don't offer meaningless platitudes, because those sayings may make us feel better while rubbing grains of salt into deeply wounded hearts. We also don't shame them for struggling to trust God, because their ability to trust authority figures was broken when parents tainted their view of God through their actions and their inaction, their words and their lack of words. We don't tell them to simply get over it, because to do so would inhibit them from ever developing intimacy with the Savior who so wants to have a deep, meaningful relationship with them.

When we begin working with victims, we often have them draw a picture of where God was when they were being traumatized. Those pictures often reveal how they feel about God, but are too afraid and too ashamed to say it aloud. Some draw God without ears revealing that in their heart of hearts they believe He turned a deaf ear to their cry for help. Some who have taken on the shame that belonged to a perpetrator often draw God without eyes because as much as they wanted Him to rescue them, they didn't want Him to see them in their shame. Some draw God without arms, because He didn't stop the painful events and, as children, they wondered if God was less powerful than those wounding them. We give the ladies many opportunities to express feelings, ask hard questions, share their dark thoughts about God, and the confusing emotions that come with life that doesn't seem to matching what they think the Scriptures say. We don't try to answer their hard questions because we don't really know the answers. Nor do we rush them to trust, because they first have to acknowledge and express their unbelief, their misunderstandings, and their mistrust of God before they can change. We know the enemy has done everything he can to distort the image of God and he has done everything he can to destroy the hearts of children when God was calling them to Himself.

After they've had time to express their pain and their confusion, we begin to talk about Jesus and His life here on earth. Because of their pain and confusion, many never spent time processing what it would have been like to be the Savior who Isaiah called a man of sorrows acquainted with grief. They haven't taken the time to think about Him being a Savior who left glory, taking on the limitations of a human body that experienced human physical hunger and physical pain and who walked among people, experiencing hatred and sin perpetrated against Him. They haven't taken the time to realize that He, like them, was harshly and unfairly criticized for crossing social barriers to minister to Gentiles, to women, to children, to the ill, to the poor, to those broken by sin, and to those captured by demonic spirits. Many haven't thought about Him as being a Savior that was, like them, accused of being crazy. Many have never considered how Jesus might have been emotionally impacted when He, like them, was misunderstood, lied about, mocked, and hated.

Many haven't put much thought into Jesus' time in the Garden, where He withdrew with three of His closest disciples to pray. Many didn't realize He told His friends His sorrow was so deep He felt like He could die, only to have the words fall on ears that didn't seem to comprehend what He was saying to them. They haven't contemplated the anguish He experienced that was so deep He sweat big drops tinged with blood, a feeling they experienced to some degree growing up in a home filled with rage, chaos, terror, and abuse. Many hadn't considered how alone He might have felt when He found His closest friends couldn't even stay awake to pray with Him, much like they felt when they told and no one helped. Many hadn't truly realized He, too, had experienced betrayal as a disciple lead authorities to Him. Nor, had they considered what Jesus might have felt when all of His friends deserted Him and His closest denied Him thrice. Many hadn't reflected on what it would have felt like for Jesus to bear the sin of all of mankind--each and every ugly, hurtful, and hateful sin in His body. 

 Even though many know in their heads Jesus was beaten and crucified, they haven't considered the impact of this truth on their lives. As we meditate together on the Story of Calvary, they begin to understand Jesus gets their pain, because He went through similar pain for them. They begin to realize the love He had drove Him to take on their sin as He bore God's wrath against it. They begin to understand He gets the feeling of being degraded because He was stripped of His clothing and hung on the cross, naked and exposed. They begin to grasp that He understands the pain of being physically wounded through violence and the emotional pain of having others blame them for things for which they weren't responsible. They begin to hold onto the fact that the Lord understands the heart-wrenching grief and the sorrow of being rejected by those who were supposed to love us the most. They begin to accept that He knows what it feels like to have those closest to them turn their backs on them when they were facing horrible pain and great fear. They begin to see He understands their feelings associated with being oppressed and the feelings associated with suffering the pain and consequences of others' sin. They begin to trust when they realize Jesus even understands the feeling of feeling forsaken by the God who could have protected, but didn't, for He cried out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”    

Over the years I, like them, have come to realize Jesus is the ultimate example of what it means to suffer well. He never lost sight of the fact He was loved by His Father even though people hated Him. He stopped believing His life had godly purpose even though others declared it didn't. He always fulfilled His God-given purpose even when others tried to stop Him. He always chose to obey His Father even when it meant He would greatly suffer. He always maintained integrity, even though others around Him lost theirs. He always lived out of His true identity as God's Son even though others claimed He was a son of Satan. He chose to put aside temporary comfort for eternal good and He chose to endure the pain of the cross for the joy set before Him.

I have also come to realize that it was His eternal perspective that allowed His suffering to reveal to us the width, the breadth, the heights, and the depths of God's great love. We are living in perilous times and Christ told us we would suffer if  we followed Him. Because of this we want to remember in our suffering others may be drawn to the Savior. When we keep our eyes on Jesus, our suffering fulfills its purpose and accomplishes sanctifying work as it draws us into a deeper relationship with God who can meet our deepest needs.

Even victims who come face to face with the traumatized Savior can truly grasp that His trauma was the ultimate expression of God's love for them and that kind of love cries out for a response of deep abiding trust which allows wounded souls to find healing and deeply thirsty hearts to be satisfied by the love of God. A Savior who has suffered much understands pain. A Savior who has suffered much is a Savior deeply wounded souls can trust.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Suffering Well--Paul, the Man who Suffered Well

One of the most influential people in the early church was Paul. He was a Jewish man who was devoted to the Jewish faith. As a leader of the Jews, he defended the Jewish faith against Christianity and was responsible for persecuting members of the early church. He approved the execution of Stephen and ravaged churches, dragging both men and women from them and throwing them into prison. When Paul was on his way to Damascus, he could be heard was breathing threats and murder against the believer--so strong was he hatred of believers.

On that journey to Damascus God revealed Himself to Paul and confronted him for persecuting His church. God struck Paul with blindness so he couldn't continue his journey and then sent Ananias to lay hands on Paul so he could receive his sight. Ananias was reluctant to go because Paul had a reputation for harming and murdering believers. But God assured Ananias because He had chosen Paul to become  an instrument to carry the gospel to Gentiles,to kings, and to Israel. He also told him that he was going to show Paul how much he would suffer for His name's sake.

The first way Paul suffered was in facing the truth that he had been responsible for brutally persecuting Christ's church and born responsibility for stoning Stephen. We often think grace is easy, but to fully experience it we must fully acknowledge sin and grieve the harm we have done to others. When Paul fell in love with Jesus, He also came to the realization he harmed the people Jesus loved. Because of the depth of his sin, Paul experienced heights of grace and that grace motivated him to lay aside everything to serve God with His whole life. He suffered well by choosing not to wallow in shame and grief, but to embrace God's grace, drawing joy from doing what God called him to do.

There were many other ways Paul suffered. He would go to one community and share the gospel and be received and invited to stay. He would build relationships and teach those who were saved and then he would prepare to leave and the painful goodbyes caused great grief. Then were other communities he entered only to be rejected and cast out. The call to the missionary life required him to love well even with the possibility of rejection. It required that he love well and not let his heart grow cold with the many goodbyes he faced. He suffered well by choosing to keep his heart open to all people.

Paul's testimony even landed him jail with Silas. They were  arrested, stripped of clothing, beaten with rods and thrown into prison because they shared the gospel. Paul and Silas chose to suffer well by spending their time in prison praying and singing hymns to God. While they were singing, there was a great earthquake which shook the foundations of the prison causing the doors to open and the bonds to fall off. When the jailer woke up and saw the doors open, he was going to kill himself, but Paul intervened and led him and his family to the Lord. The magistrates ordered the city to let Paul and Silas go, and it would have been easy for Paul to just leave, but he chose not to leave. Instead, he asked, as a Roman citizen, to be given a public apology.

Paul also was caught in a horrible two week storm on a ship. The sailors wanted to abandon ship and escape on the life boats, but Paul told them they would survive if they stayed with him because God had told him he would speak to Caesar. Food ran low and they went without food for two weeks. They were cold and hungry when their ship wrecked on Malta. While building a fire, Paul was bitten by an asp, causing many to believe he was a sinful man. But when he didn't die, they changed their minds and he held a healing ministry and out of gratitude they provided their needed supplies for the rest of the journey.

To share the gospel Paul endured affliction, hardship, calamity, beatings, imprisonment, riots, labor, sleeplessness, poverty, hunger, and cold. To share the gospel Paul faced slander, being treated as an impostor, being beaten and left for dead, being stranded in the sea. To share the gospel Paul faced both the humility of having others provide his needs and at other times he worked all day and preached all night because no one funded his mission.

Paul faced a life of service with full knowledge that he would suffer and he suffered well by facing it with patience, kindness, and love. He suffered well by speaking truth in every circumstance no matter the risk. He suffered well by depending on the Holy Spirit to empower him. He suffered well by being obedient to share the gospel whether it was received or not. Paul chose to suffer well by dying to self and living to God. He suffered well by accepting the sorrow that came with being God's instrument of grace. He suffered well by learning to rejoice and keeping his heart open. Paul gave the reason that he suffered well, "But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God."

I think one of the reasons we don't suffer well is that we believe we deserve a life of ease, but we haven't been promised ease. We've been called to be his ambassadors and the greater the darkness the brighter we can shine. No matter where we live and what we experience, we can choose to suffer well by remembering these things:

  • Nothing happens in our lives that hasn't been filtered through His love scarred hands.  
  • God cares more about sanctification and grow than He cares about comfort. 
  • We are called to love like Jesus loves and loving like Him can hurt, but God will comfort us as we lean into Him.
  • God may have us suffer so others will be drawn to Him through our testimonies. 
  • The suffering we endure now is nothing compared to what we will experience in glory.
  • Suffering is never proof that God has deserted us. 
I wonder what impact we would have on our world if we became more like Paul and quit valuing comfort over obedience and the suffering that may come with it. I wonder what impact we would have if we choose to focus on Jesus and stay the course He's plotted for our lives instead of running from discomfort. I wonder what would happen if we ceased being surprised by hardship and embraced the work it does in our lives. I wonder how differently we would approach life if we kept in mind Peter's warning, "Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you." Oh, that we would choose to suffer well by facing trials with faith and allow God to walk us through them. Oh, that we would trust the work that suffering does in our hearts and in the hearts of those we love.


Several years ago I realized that I often sped through my Scripture reading and gave it little thought. Yet, when I had meaningful conversations with friends or family members I replayed them over and over in my head. One day it occurred to me, that if I thought more about what God says in his word that I would not only know more about Him, but I would come to know Him in a personal way. I would know more about His thoughts, His character, His intentions, His passions, and His actions. So, I began to take one verse at a time and think on it and then journal about it. At the time I was served as a volunteer in youth ministry and shared my “Thoughts on God” with those girls. For a while I have been rewriting and posting them on this blog. I have realized when I am in the Word or move through my day focusing on God's presence that I have wonderful opportunities to Meet God in the Everyday. The Everyday can include storms, blessings, hard things, scary things, exciting things...just any where, anyplace, any time. I hope that you will be able to engage with what I write with both your head and your heart. I also hope you will be challenged to love, trust, and know the God of the Scriptures. It is my prayer that as you read you will experience Him at a deeper level and share pieces of your journey in the comments. It is my desire that we form a safe community of believers who pursue the God who loves us radically, eternally, and without reserve. As a precious pastor once told me, "Don't forget, Wendy, God is Good!" I find myself compelled by His Goodness and His Love to share so others can know Him through all the ups and downs of life. Please feel free to dialogue back and to share how each passage impacts you. If if there is a passage you would like me to write on or if you would like to be a guest blogger, please let me know. I am just learning to navigate this blog and appreciate the kind comments you have made in the past...I promise I will even try to respond if you leave a note. If you are blessed please share the blog with friends!