Not My Will, But Yours Be Done: Another View

by Jimmy Akin

in Apologetics, Bible, Bible History

jesus-prays-garden-meltonRecently, Gretchen Passantino-Coburn posted an interesting piece on whether Jesus was trying to avoid the Cross when he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane.

The piece very correctly points out that Jesus knew it was his Father’s will for him to die on the Cross and that he lived his life in complete submission to the Father’s will (thus also setting an example for us).

As a result, there was never any conflict between his will and the Father’s, properly speaking.

What are we to make, then, of his prayer, “Not my will by yours be done”?

The article makes a striking proposal:

[W]e argue below that it was not death on the cross that Christ was longing to avoid, but death in the Garden before the cross; and that Christ’s will was not different than the Father’s will, but in harmony with the Fathers’ will. We argue below that Christ, in danger of expiring in the Garden, cried out to the Father for the necessary power either to remain alive through his Garden experience, or, if he expired in the Garden, to be revived by the Father so that he would be alive for his coming crucifixion.

I have a different understanding of this passage, and Gretchen has very graciously invited me to do a follow-up piece for purposes of discussion.


The First Question

The first question we need to address is whether Jesus was about to expire in the garden of Gethsemane. According to the article,

Jesus was in danger of dying in the Garden. Luke says, “And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:44). Matthew and Mark affirm, “he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me” (Matt. 26:37-38, cf. Mark 14:33-34).

[Theologian J. Oliver] Buswell notes that profuse perspiration is a medical sign of life-threatening shock, when the body is so traumatized that it cannot control basic life sustaining functions and instead “shuts down” preparatory to death.

What should we make of this argument?


“I Could Die”

The statement that he is sorrowful “to the point of death” is generally understood as hyperbole (exaggeration to make a point). This is a common mode of expression in the Bible and one that Jesus uses in the Gospels.

We even have similar sayings in English where the possibility of death is raised without it being meant literally (e.g., “I’m so embarrassed I could die”).

The possibility (probability) of hyperbole is so significant in this case that Jesus’ statement about being sorrowful “to the point of death” can’t be relied upon as proof he was literally about to die in the garden.

The argument for the claim thus depends critically on Jesus’ sweat becoming like blood and this being an indication of imminent death.


Is the Text Original?

The statement that his sweat became like blood is found only in Luke 22:44. It is not in Matthew, Mark, or John.

However, there are significant reasons to question whether this material was originally in the text of Luke. Most modern Bibles will carry a footnote on verses 43 and 44, like this one from the New American Bible:

These verses, though very ancient, were probably not part of the original text of Luke. They are absent from the oldest papyrus manuscripts of Luke and from manuscripts of wide geographical distribution.

It is risky to make a dramatic interpretive claim (Jesus was about to die in the garden barring divine intervention) concerning an event found in all three of the Synoptics if the key detail is found only in one Gospel and there is strong reason to think it was not in the original.


Is Bloody Sweat a Sign of Imminent Death?

If we assume that the statement was in the original, there is still a problem, because Buswell appears to have been mistaken about the nature of this phenomenon.

While rare, bloody sweat is a known medical condition. Referred to as hematidrosis (Greek, “blood-sweat”), it is caused when the capillaries rupture into the sweat glands.

When it does occur, hematidrosis frequently is the result of anxiety, and it has been successfully treated with beta-blockers such as propranolol, which are used (among other things) to treat anxiety.

However, it does not appear that hematidrosis is “a medical sign of life-threatening shock, when the body is so traumatized that it cannot control basic life sustaining functions and instead ‘shuts down’ preparatory to death.”

The condition is not on that order of magnitude. While often produced by anxiety, the condition is a dermatological one that involves the capillaries leaking into the sweat glands, not a sign of overall systemic shutdown.

I did a quick review of online medical literature and turned up many cases where hematidrosis was not a sign of impending death. (See, for example, here, where patients are noted to have had repeated instances of hematidrosis.)

Buswell, writing in the early 1960s, may have had less access to medical information about hematidrosis. In fact, the condition is rare enough that it had not been studied as much then as it has been now. As a result, it could be understandable for Buswell to draw inaccurate conclusions.


A Clearer Indication? An Explanation?

It also strikes me that, if the Evangelists meant us to understand that Jesus was about to die on the spot, in contravention of God’s plan for him to die on the Cross, they would have signaled this to the readers in a clearer way.

They also likely would have provided some explanation for why this last-minute crisis was occurring.

For example, was it a final attempt by Satan to foil God’s plan?

If so, how do we explain the Gospels’ insistence that it was Satan who prompted Judas to betray Jesus? Furthermore, Jesus himself describes his arrest (not the agony in the garden) as “the hour of darkness” (Luke 22:53), suggesting that Satan was behind it.

But if it wasn’t the devil that tried to bring about Jesus’ death in the garden, what did? It wasn’t the Father’s plan for him to die there, and so it wouldn’t have been the Father.

That would leave us with either an accident that seems to threaten God’s Providence or Jesus simply having a panic attack so severe that it threatened his life.

Personally, I’d be inclined to resist either of those suggestions.


An Alternative Theory

As an alternative theory of the event, I would propose that Jesus knew in advance that he would die on the Cross and that he was resolute toward this goal. However, it is one thing when death is remote and another when it is staring one in the face.

Thus Christ was able to deal serenely with the prospect of Lazarus’s death—and even remark on how it would bring glory to God—when he was still in Galilee (John 11:1-4), but he nevertheless wept when he was standing at Lazarus’s tomb (John 11:35-36).

This response is rooted in the death aversion that is part of human nature. Being in proximity to death causes aversive feelings in humans (fear, sorrow, revulsion), and that’s a good thing. It is part of God’s plan, and it leads us to try to preserve life.

By virtue of his human nature, Jesus had death aversion also, and—as with the rest of us—it manifested with particular intensity when the hour of his death drew close.

Nevertheless, he was resolute to go through with the climax of his mission.


“Not My Will But Yours Be Done”

Jesus statement “Not my will but yours be done” does not indicate an actual opposition of wills. Indeed, it indicates the opposite—that he is completely submissive to the Father’s will.

The paradoxical nature of this statement is to be understood along the lines of similar paradoxical statements that Jesus’ makes—e.g., “He who saves his life will lose it,” “The first will be last.”

These statements rely on ambiguity of language for their solution (i.e., they rely on the fact that terms like “saving” and “losing” and “first” and “last” can be taken in different senses).

In this case, the term that is subject to ambiguity is “will.” This can indicate a determination, decision, or choice—or it can indicate a wish, preference, desire, or similar emotional rather than volitional state.

One can even recognize that one’s wish is not going to be fulfilled, but still give voice to it as a way of expressing one’s feelings.

That ambiguity seems to be in play here. By making his statement, Jesus is expressing his fundamental submission to the Father’s will while giving voice to the fact that he is experiencing death aversion. His statement could be paraphrased, less paradoxically, as “Not what I might wish, but may what you determine be done.”


Feelings vs. Resolve

This does not imply that Jesus’ will is not united to the Father’s. Indeed, he indicates that it is united to the Father’s.

Rather, it implies that Jesus is feeling something different than what he wills. What he wills is to do what the Father has determined, but he is experiencing the feelings of aversion that are normal for human beings in the presence of their own, imminent demise.

His giving voice to those feelings allows him to achieve an emotional release—just as when he wept or when he cried out in anguish—but his will is still in submission to the Father’s.

This incident thus highlights the dynamics of Jesus’ experience as a man. We also find ourselves in situations, particularly when we are suffering or preparing to die, where we need to say what we’re feeling as part of dealing with our emotions—even though we are resolved in our wills to a particular course of action.

By way of conclusion, I’d like to thank Gretchen and Bob Passantino for defending the fact that Jesus was always resolved to do the Father’s will, and I’d like to thank Gretchen for her gracious invitation to do this post.

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Perry Robinson June 12, 2014 at 1:51 pm

Jimmy, You appear to interpret Jesus’ expression as that of emotions or desires. If either, are natural human desires or emotions relative to death opposed to the divine will per se?

And do you know of anywhere in Christian history where this text and issue was tackled principally?

Irksome1 June 12, 2014 at 5:04 pm

Christ wasn’t a fallen man. His passions and His will weren’t subject to the effects of Original Sin. Therefore, they could only have both been harmoniously united and under His immediate control. Of this concept goes back at least as far as Augustine.

Jimmy Akin June 12, 2014 at 5:05 pm

Perry: Natural human desires/emotions regarding death are not opposed to the divine will. God meant us to be death averse. It’s part of what motivates us to stay alive.

I’m afraid that I don’t have a recommendation for where to look for a historical treatment of this, though I imagine Aquinas may address it somewhere.

I also have some forthcoming blog posts where I deal with the same subject from a different angle.

Jimmy Akin June 12, 2014 at 5:07 pm

Irksome: Unfallen humans would also be death averse. Otherwise “in the day you shall eat of it, you shall die” would have no motivating power.

Paul Marrack June 14, 2014 at 9:03 am

Remember that Jesus had two wills: a human will and a divine will.

The Masked Chicken June 14, 2014 at 10:52 am

It might help in the discussion to examine Luke 22:24 in the original language. The RSV translation is:

“Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.”

The Greek reads:

22:42 λέγων πάτερ εἰ βούλει παρένεγκε τοῦτο τὸ ποτήριον ἀπ’ ἐμοῦ πλὴν μὴ τὸ θέλημά μου ἀλλὰ τὸ σὸν γινέσθω

In transliteration:

22:24 Legon, Pater ei boulei pareneke touto to poterion ap emou plen me to thelema mou alla to son ginestho

There are two words used for willing or wills: boulei and thelema. Jesus says, “Father, if thou art willing (boulei), remove this cup from me; nevertheless, not my will (thelema), but thine, be done.

Now, boulei is the second person, singular, of boulomai (the middle voice of a primary verb). It has the sense of an intention or deliberation. In Classical Greek, it has the sense of a deliberate choosing or plan. Thus, it is a deliberative choice. It is a strong word, more given to a rational act than an emotion, desire or sentiment (although, it is, less frequently, used that way – most uses in the New Testament are in reference to a rational deliberation, however).

The noun, thelema, by contrast, has its root from, thelo, which means, more generally, a desire or wish. It can be strengthened to be a form of willing, but it is more in line with a best wish.

Thus, in Luke 22:24, there are two different things meant by will. Jesus had a natural right to desire that the cup be removed from him and in doing so, he gives us permission to express that hope, as well, since avoiding suffering, certeris paribus, is a good. However, Jesus acknowledges that there may be a higher good in God’s plan and that he would rather have that good than the limited good that can be seen by human sight. There is no contradiction, here, between the human and Divine Nature. Both the human nature and the Divine Nature have a right to consider the good, somewhat independently, since they each see things according to their nature. Both natures seek the good, but the Divine Nature is better informed and so, the best human nature can do is to present its conclusions to God as its limited sight allows it to see them and then ask God to see if it might coincide with the His Divine will. It is, often, mistakenly thought that the Divine will is a razor’s edge of this and nothing else. It is, on the contrary, possible, in certain cases, that goods are equal, so a choice of either one is possible. That is why asking the question, “What would Jesus do,” is not a very good way to choose what ice cream to buy. He might like chocolate, whereas I might like cherry. Is it his will, then, that I buy chocolate? Of course, not! One can, equally, imagine asking God what to have for dinner and being told that you may do as you please. Some actions of God’s will are single and simple, but some may allow of varieties among lower actions.

In this case, however, while avoiding suffering is a good, there is a higher good to be obtained by the suffering. Jesus, in this example, is speaking as our human representative, seeking the Divine will or plan that will bring about the highest good, realizing that the desires of human nature might not always accomplish that end. Indeed, the human and the Divine will of Jesus are never in contradiction, but that does not imply that they cannot ask questions of each other. That is what is going on, here. The perichoretic union of the Divine and human nature does not imply only one will. That is the heresy of Monothelitism. The Third Ecumenical Council of Constantinople (681 A. D.), refuted that:

“And we proclaim equally two natural volitions or wills in him and two natural principles of action which undergo no division, no change, no partition, no confusion, in accordance with the teaching of the holy fathers. And the two natural wills not in opposition, as the impious heretics said, far from it, but his human will following, and not resisting or struggling, rather in fact subject to his divine and all powerful will. For the will of the flesh had to be moved, and yet to be subjected to the divine will, according to the most wise Athanasius. For just as his flesh is said to be and is flesh of the Word of God, so too the natural will of his flesh is said to and does belong to the Word of God, just as he says himself: I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of the Father who sent me, calling his own will that of his flesh, since his flesh too became his own. For in the same way that his all holy and blameless animate flesh was not destroyed in being made divine but remained in its own limit and category, so his human will as well was not destroyed by being made divine, but rather was preserved, according to the theologian Gregory, who says: “For his willing, when he is considered as saviour, is not in opposition to God, being made divine in its entirety.” And we hold there to be two natural principles of action in the same Jesus Christ our lord and true God, which undergo no division, no change, no partition, no confusion, that is, a divine principle of action and a human principle of action, according to the godly-speaking Leo, who says most clearly: “For each form does in a communion with the other that activity which it possesses as its own, the Word working that which is the Word’s and the body accomplishing the things that are the body’s”. For of course we will not grant the existence of only a single natural principle of action of both God and creature, lest we raise what is made to the level of divine being, or indeed reduce what is most specifically proper to the divine nature to a level befitting creatures for we acknowledge that the miracles and the sufferings are of one and the same according to one or the other of the two natures out of which he is and in which he has his being, as the admirable Cyril said. Therefore, protecting on all sides the “no confusion” and “no division”, we announce the whole in these brief words: Believing our lord Jesus Christ, even after his incarnation, to be one of the holy Trinity and our true God, we say that he has two natures [naturas] shining forth in his one subsistence[subsistentia] in which he demonstrated the miracles and the sufferings throughout his entire providential dwelling here, not in appearance but in truth, the difference of the natures being made known in the same one subsistence in that each nature wills and performs the things that are proper to it in a communion with the other; then in accord with this reasoning we hold that two natural wills and principles of action meet in correspondence for the salvation of the human race.”[emphasis, mine]

Thus, Jimmy is correct, that at no time was there any contradiction between the will of the Father and the Son, but that does not mean that they did not have separate considerations.

As for the idea that Jesus was trying not to die in the Garden, let us dispose of that notion, forthwith, because Jesus foretold that he would be lifted up, several times (John 3:14, John 8:28, and John 12:34) and this was a forecast of the Divine will, a boulomai. It would been, literally, impossible, after that pronouncement, for Jesus to die anywhere else, but on the Cross. Had he even thought he might die in the Garden, that would be a doubt against the Divine will and something that Jesus could not entertain. It would be like Jesus doubting that he could walk on water, the way that Peter did.

This is not to say, however, that Jesus had to die at that particular moment. It is always in the human prerogative to ask if there might be another way, another time. There was not. Everything was fulfilled at that hour and the end had to come.

I could go into how this connects to the Seder meal, the fourth cup and the requirements, therein (there is a temporal insistence to the actions of the Seder, such that they form a unified action and if one looks very closely at the Last Supper narrative, one can see what Jesus does), but Scott Hahn has already written a book on that and my going into it would make this comment impossibly long.

The Chicken

P. S. I really miss the comments on this blog. It used to be a lively forum. The NCR people are much more diverse but, at least in the most recent blog post, not particularly respectful.

Perry Robinson June 14, 2014 at 4:52 pm


To be clear, it your view then that the divine will moves the human will of Christ to conformity and that Christ is expressing a human desire out of conformity with the divine will?

Second, when can we expect these other blog posts on this topic?

Viterbo Fangirl June 16, 2014 at 1:25 pm

If I might offer a complementary viewpoint! Jesus being fully human has always functioned as example to us “poor, suffering children of Eve” of how to behave as children of God… to show us what we are capable of achieving. (Hebrews 4:15, and all that!) As someone who has suffered severe depression and anxiety in life, I have always found the Agony in the Garden to be one of the most comforting stories in the entire bible; a sort of “He knows what it’s like, he knows how I feel” situation. And in showing us such a gripping account of Jesus’ humanity- terribly prostrate, but subordinate to the Father’s will- the bible not only assures the afflicted that those feelings are not evil in and of themselves, but that even in the darkest of times, we can and must remain connected to the will of God. I am always delighted that the Gospels depict Jesus in so many situations, emotional states, etc. God in His infinite wisdom has always made sure that we can find Him if we are looking!

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