Reflections and Blog

When Complaining Is Righteous

One of the most poignant scenes in the Bible is Jesus’ praying to the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record how Jesus requests in great agony and grief for God, if at all possible, to remove the “cup” from Jesus (Mt 26:39; Mk 14:36; Lk 22:42). The “cup” that Jesus refers to is the cup of God’s wrath against sin, a cup which Jesus would need to drink on the cross in order to redeem all of those who believe in him. Three times Jesus prays for the cancellation of his intercessory death and wrath-bearing sacrifice, even while Jesus also prays that, if there really is no other way, he will submit to the Father’s will.

This scene is often misunderstood to represent a moment of weakness in Jesus’ commitment to God’s salvation plan. The thought is that, though also God, Jesus the human naturally recoiled from an experience of great suffering, even to the point of wanting to abandon his messianic mission to save himself. Some then say that this reluctance toward righteousness makes Jesus more relatable to us; just as we sometimes know the right thing to do but don’t want to do it, so apparently did Jesus. We can take comfort that even Jesus struggled like we do but ultimately pressed on to obey God.

While it is true that Jesus as a perfect high priest is able to sympathize with our human frailty (Heb 4:15), Jesus’ Gethsemane pleading does not at all represent weakness in Jesus’ righteous resolve. After all, because Jesus is God, he “cannot be tempted by evil, and he himself does not tempt anyone” (James 1:13). Certainly no less-than-perfect thought would ever emerge from Jesus’ own heart, and, though Satan and others could present Jesus with temptations to sin (e.g. Mt 4:1-11; 16:23; 27:27-31), there was never a possibility that Jesus would yield even for a moment. To employ an analogy I heard in seminary, each temptation aimed at Jesus was like a rowboat attacking a battleship; there was no real possibility that Jesus would falter.

So then, if the Gethsemane prayers were not an example of Jesus’ struggle toward righteousness, what were they? I would argue: they were expressions of holy love. You see, even though Jesus was 100% committed to obeying the Father’s will and confident in the perfection of the Father’s plan, Jesus also loved the Father and never wanted anything to interrupt their infinitely satisfying Trinitarian communion. The cross, in some way we cannot fully understand, represented an agonizing interruption of divine fellowship, God turning his face away from God as the Father poured out God’s wrath against sin on the Son (Ps 22:1; Mt 27:46; Isa 53:10-11). If the Son really loved the Father, he would express his fervent desire for another way besides the cross; to have no compunction at all about going to the cross would not only suggest that God’s angry judgment against sin is no big deal but also that fellowship with God is no great treasure. Even though Jesus already knew the answer to his agonized prayers, he had to pray them out of his love for God.

There is a principle from this garden scene that also connects with the Sunday sermon on Habakkuk 1 and our “complaining” prayers to God: if we truly love God and want to see his will done and faithfulness upheld, then we will “complain” to him in faith. We know that, in one sense, we Christians are fundamentally those who trust God and are content with whatever he has planned for our lives and world (Phil 4:11-13; Hab 3:17-19). At the same time, though, because we love God, we should also be expressing our desire to God—for the Lord’s own sake—that our world be different. We should long for the earth to be filled with the knowledge of Yahweh (Hab 2:14), for God’s promises to be upheld (Ps 130:5), for the righteous to be vindicated and the wicked judged (Rev 6:9-10), for people to turn from idols and worship the true God (Acts 14:14-17), and for the Lord to return soon (Rom 8:18-25). After all, if we are not bothered by the lack of these things, what are we saying about God?

Let us therefore express our holy complaints to God for his own glory.

Psalm 90:13-14,
Do return, O Yahweh; how long will it be?
And be sorry for Your servants.
O satisfy us in the morning with Your lovingkindness,
That we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.

Questions to Consider:
1. What is the significance of Jesus praying his prayer three times in the garden?
2. Does God ever respond to the holy complaints of his people?
3. Are your complaints to God in prayer self-centered or God-centered?