It is one thing to love when you feel love around you, when others understand you and are grateful for your person and gifts; it is quite another when everything around you speaks of misunderstanding, jealousy, coldness, and hatred.
It is one thing to maintain your ideals when they are shared by others, when the gospel works for you, when principle works out in practice; it is quite another when it seems you are alone in some ideal and when the gospel appears to be delivering more death than life.
It is one thing to keep your balance when the rhythms of life support it, when there is a healthy give and take to things, when life is fair; it is quite another when things are unfair, when you are unjustly criticized, when everyone else seems to have lost balance, when, like on Good Friday, it gets dark in the middle of the day.
It is one thing to be gracious when those around you are respectful, warm, and fair; it is quite another when everyone seems bitter, disrespectful, jealous, and cold.
It is one thing to bless others when they want to receive that blessing, when they hang on to your every word, when they want to be in your company; it is quite another when their very glance speaks of loathing and when they avoid you when you come into a room.
It is one thing to forgive others when that forgiveness seems fair, when it isn’t impossible to swallow the hurt, when the wound dealt you is not mortal; it is quite another to forgive someone when it isn’t fair, when the wound dealt you is mortal, when the life being murdered is your own.
It is one thing to give your life over to family, church, community, and God when you feel loved and supported by them, when they seem worth the sacrifice, when you get a good feeling by doing it; it is quite another thing when you do not feel support, when it doesn’t seem worthwhile, and when you feel no other reason for doing it except truth and principle.
These contrasts capture, in essence, what Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross. His passion was a drama of the heart, not an endurance test for his body.
What made Jesus’ sacrifice, his handing himself over, so special?
We have, I think, focused too much on the physical aspects of the crucifixion to the detriment of what was happening more deeply, underneath. Why do I say that? Because none of the gospels emphasize the physical sufferings, nor indeed, in the fears he expresses in conversations before his death, does Jesus. What the gospels and Jesus emphasize is his moral loneliness, the fact that he was alone, betrayed, humiliated, misunderstood, the object of jealousy and crowd hysteria, that he was a stone’s throw away from everyone, that those who loved him were asleep to what was really happening, that he was unanimity-minus-one.
And this moral loneliness, mocked by those outside of it, tempted him against everything he had preached and stood for during his life and ministry. What made his sacrifice so special was not that he died a victim of violence (millions die as victims of violence and their deaths aren’t necessarily special) nor that he refused to use divine power to stop his death (as he himself taught, that would have proved nothing). What made his death so special is that, inside of all the aloneness, darkness, jealousy, misunderstanding, sick crowd hysteria, coldness, and murder, he held out, he gave himself over, without bitterness, without self-pity, holding his ideals intact, gracious, respectful, forgiving, without losing his balance, his meaning, or his message.
That’s the ultimate test and we face it daily in many areas of our lives.
Some years ago, I was participating in a forum debating a book on chastity. The book, written by a woman still in her early twenties, was a very idealistic one and it urged young people to not have sex before marriage, but to keep their virginity as a special gift for their partners in marriage. One of the panellists, a very sincere woman, had this reaction: “I like what this young woman says and when my daughters are in their teens I’ll have them read this book, but what she says makes a lot more sense when you are 20 years old and know what you’re waiting than when your 39 years old and no longer know what you’re waiting for!”
Jesus’ sacrifice was so special because, long after the clock had run out on everything and there seemed no reason left to wait for anything, he still held on, to his ideals, his balance, his gracious, his forgiveness, and his love.
The struggle to do that, to remain faithful, is the real drama inside the death of Jesus and in the end it is a struggle of the heart, not the body.