When Jesus prayed in the garden, "Not my will, but Yours" -- I think it's safe to say that he didn't want to die. He was doing something that he didn't want to do. He was doing something that was not his will -- if there were any other way to do it, he would have taken that other way. He begged for it. What brought him to the point that he was willing to take something he was unwilling to do, and put that into the Father's hands, and say "Not my will, but Yours"?
I look at Jesus struggling with things that are not his will because I'm struggling with some things that are (I think) God's will, but they are not my will. Without going into details, I have been wrestling with how to interact with a few different people who are consistently and reliably hurtful to others. It's not necessarily personal, but that doesn't make it ok. While forgiveness can be a difficult thing, it's more difficult when the other person does not recognize a problem and has no intention of changing. It's not clear to me whether forgiveness alone will really change anything under those circumstances. "My will" might be simply not to interact with these particular people, were that possible. But even if that were possible, that doesn't solve anything, doesn't improve anything, doesn't reconcile anything. So I'm in the uncomfortable place of knowing that "my will" -- what I want to do -- is not going to help. Not only is avoiding the problem not going to help anyone else, it's not even going to help me towards my own goals.
To be clear: I wouldn't compare my struggles to Jesus in the garden. But I do want to figure out how he got to the point of stepping beyond his own will. So right now, thinking of Jesus in the garden, I'm not searching for a recital of the normal pious answers about what his prayer showed; they
may be true but I don't know that they were on his mind that night.
By the end of the night he had stepped into a place where he was willing to be hurt, willing to die. Of course, once he'd been born, death was going to be inevitable; if death didn't come now, then when? If death didn't come for this reason, would it even have a reason? I'll say this: if Jesus hadn't struggled with the idea of his own death, I might well have had trouble relating to him; I'm not sure I'd have connected with him or trusted him on the same level, even with all the amazing teachings. What are they worth if he hadn't walked a mile in our shoes? Someone who hadn't balked at his own death, I would suspect of being not-quite-human. The flesh-and-blood of incarnation would seem a technicality if he had shown indifference to his own death. But if he avoided it right here and now, the stakes are whether his life would accomplish what he wanted. The stakes are whether he would back down out of fear if he were powerless enough and the threat was horrible enough. Anyone who has ever struggled with the price tag of a decision can relate to that -- especially anyone who has ever been the one without power, with ruthless adversaries. It's easy to distrust God because God has no skin in the game, and he
never gets hurt, and his high principles never cost him anything. Omnipotence is a luxury the rest of us don't have, much like living in a heavenly realm untouched by evil. But a human life, living as a mortal in a world of sinners, isn't safe.
Did Jesus find himself hoping, that last night, that it was maybe like Abraham and Isaac, where it only looked like he had to go through with the sacrifice? Maybe there would be a last-minute rescue, and the willingness was what mattered? In the letter to the Hebrews, there is a comment about Abraham that may have been the standard understanding back then, that Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son because he reasoned by faith that God could raise the dead. If Jesus had considered that in the garden, that might be a terrifying variety of comfort to him during the reprise -- or fulfillment -- of that sacrifice.
If the Word of God couldn't go through with it when he's given the same stakes as the rest of us, where would that have left us? What, does evil win just because it's willing to be nastier than the good? Do the evil people keep the power because viciousness is so effective at causing other people to back down? (And that's one of the ways that power turns its holders evil, even if they'd once intended good ...) I think, as far as the usual reasons we consider for Jesus stepping out to meet his death, he did want to face death for us and with us, which in turn meant standing up to the earthly powers which had been corrupted by power. He did want to break the power of death and lead the way through death. He did reject the temptation to choose fear rather than faith, even when the cost was his own life, and so solidified his victory over sin and death. He did want to reconcile the world to God, and he did want to ransom us. So he became "willing, against
his will" to do what was required. But he felt the same flesh-and-blood panic that is the human condition when a healthy person faces a premature death. He had to step out in faith in his Father: that his Father's will is good, full of love and compassion, that his Father could and would raise the dead. That wouldn't make death any less horrible from the flesh-and-blood angle. It wouldn't make the pain less painful. It simply gives the next gift of faith: that confident hope that because of the Father's goodness, death isn't the final end, and the light in the darkness won't come to nothing. It's enough for him to step out as the light in the darkness.