The Grammar of Pain
Easter this year feels different. So different. I have sewed masks instead of ruffled dresses. I have scheduled a crew of ten people to come to our physical church, instead of asking the entire choir to wake up extra early for a pre-service rehearsal. Our family of four will probably eat leftovers for Easter dinner instead of a big meal with 20 family members because 1) social distancing and 2) there is SO MUCH COOKING in quarantine!?!
My spirit has been buoyed by all the churches stepping out of the box and bringing light through social media and the internet like never before. There is so much beautiful content out there now to center our hearts back on Jesus. But there is also such a strong undercurrent of mourning that I can’t shake.
This is not how it’s supposed to be. This can’t be right.
How do we help a hurting world when we can’t touch them? How do we give to the needy when our jobs have shut down? How do we say goodbye to family members when they’re in isolation? How do we comfort the anxious and depressed and fearful when we can’t gather together? How do we stay strong when we have no control over our resources, our security, or our future? Our churches and our ministries are working harder than ever to push through the hindrances and bring hope. And I know God can and is using the smallest mustard seed faith and the shakiest live stream to absolutely change the world.
But this is hard. This is not how it’s supposed to be. It doesn’t make sense.
I think that Jesus felt some of these in the garden. As He walked along the path the night before His crucifixion, He said, “my soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death.” (Matthew 26:38). He prayed to God, “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.” (26:39)
When I have read that verse before, I’ve never really paused at that colon. “… let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will ….” I’ve read the sentence as a complete thought, barely lingering on the fact that Jesus asked to avoid the coming pain. I knew that He ultimately chose surrender and sacrifice and agony. He was always going to choose it. His love was and is and forever will be greater. From the first moment sin entered the world, He knew He would be the spotless Lamb. Asking to be spared was just an odd phrase that didn’t really fit in with my picture of Jesus.
But He did. He said it. He asked to be spared. With the weight of the world, the salvation of humanity, and the promise of heaven weighing greatly on His shoulders, He asked for reprieve. He asked for it to end before it even came. He asked to avoid the pain.
He was intimately connected with pain. He was born in a rush of pain. He knew the extent of the pain to come. He was able to better connect with humanity in their greatest moments of pain. He asked His followers to partake of the pain. He never promised prosperity. He promised pain.
So why was He asking to avoid it?
“… let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will ….” I’ve got to admit, I don’t really use colons that often. I’m more a fan of run-on, incomplete, stream of thought sentences. So I looked them up, and according to grammarbook.com, “a colon means ‘that is to say’ or ‘here’s what I mean.’ [It is] used between independent clauses when the second sentence explains, illustrates, paraphrases, or expands on the first sentence.”
Jesus asking to let the cup pass from Him is Jesus asking to avoid the pain. But He acknowledges that the will of the Father could explain, illustrate, or expand on that pain. His will could paraphrase the pain – extract meaning from it that might not be readily visible. Jesus was showing His humanity in the most relatable way of all, yet that wasn’t the end of His sentence.
Jesus was showing us how to deal with our heavy hearts, our “sorrowful souls.” We can feel the weight of mourning. The weight of despair. We can want to avoid the rocky terrain that He has laid out for us. We can ask Him to let the cup pass from us. To help us avoid the pain. We can fall on our faces with the heaviness of it all. But that’s not where we stop. That’s not the end of our story.
Our pain has a purpose. Our pain has a meaning. Our pain has either been designed by God or allowed by God to prepare us for what comes after that colon.
Pain : purpose.
The colon uniting the two thoughts is the turning point.
It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t feel right. Jesus did nothing wrong. Why should He have to die for my sins? The pain is too great. This isn’t how it should be. We can’t gather in our churches. We’ve lost our jobs. We don’t have the resources to provide for our families. We have no control, fear is fighting to take over, and our security is being threatened.
In this grammar situation, it is first the pain then the thing that clarifies it – His will. God’s will for our lives encompasses the pain, it explains the pain, it translates the pain, it defines the person. It’s not the other way around. His will isn’t affected by the pain. His plan isn’t hindered by our grief and sorrow or by fiery darts or wounds. Our pain doesn’t clarify anything. Our deepest trial isn’t the end of our sentence. It’s merely the first half of a colon sentence. His will is the end. His purpose is the defining factor.
Lord, I can’t bear this sorrow, but what I mean is, I am willing to follow your plan. Lord, this hurts too much, but in other words, I trust You. Lord, let me avoid this pain, but what I mean is, Your ways are higher. Lord, help my unbelief, but that is to say, I believe You.
Jesus isn’t afraid of our heavy hearts. He can handle our grief and confusion. He has intimately felt that yearning for reprieve. But He has made a way to turn our mourning into dancing. He can take our filthy, stinky ashes and replace them with radiant crowns of beauty. He can wrap up that sorrow and transform it into joy. He can turn the bitter waters in our cup to sweet wine. We just have to follow the grammar of pain that he laid out. Place a colon at the end, not a period.