This is the week we remember what it was like for Jesus to count down the remaining six days of his life--triumphant parade, turning over tables, nightly walks to Bethany, final words with friends, banquets, betrayal, arrest, flogging, mocking, rejection, exquisite pain and finally, death. So much drama and richness of life in six days. And yet it was basically a death march. And more than anyone who has ever approached certain death, Jesus knew exactly how horrific it would be. What stands out to me as I focus on his story again this year: how Jesus endured. There are two ways to endure hard things.
One way is to endure as mere passive resignation. In the early years of my battle with rheumatoid arthritis I felt the fizz of delight for God and life fade into a warm, flat glass of duty. I couldn’t imagine what it would take to get the sparkle back, so I settled for living small amidst the shattered dreams of the life I had hoped to live. I used to pray what I now call “Saint Lael’s prayer of resignation: Lord I know I should be happy with my lot. If this is what you want for me, then give me the grace to settle for it. Amen.”
In this kind of endurance we can hold on intellectually to the precepts and principles of God’s Word. In my daily struggle with joint pain and mobility limitations I knew that nothing penetrated God’s protective hedge around my life, except by his permission. I knew that he would work all the pain into something good. I knew, I knew, I knew all the things I had written in my Bible study notebooks about suffering, I believed this truth in my head but somehow it didn’t reach my heart.
Actually Jesus finds this same kind of endurance at the church of Ephesus…and commends it, to a certain extent. Revelation 2:2-5 “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. 3 I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name's sake, and you have not grown weary.” They knew so much they could even identify and reject false teachers. But with all their head knowledge they had lost their heart connection to Jesus. In vs. 4 Jesus calls out their lukewarm hearts: “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.”
In this kind of endurance there is simply a commitment to keep going. Stand fast. But it is not motivated by a deep love for Jesus or others. It is a commitment of the head and the will. And it does not translate into living with the joy that Jesus intends for us.
When I look at Jesus I discover a better way to endure--not just an endurance lived from the head and the will, but an endurance lived from the heart. The author of Hebrews encourages us, “(Hebrews 12:1-2)…let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfector of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” Jesus did not merely endure in darkness. Every bloody step of pain, every minute hanging on the cross, he lifted up his eyes to see the love of the Father and Holy Spirit and how profoundly joyful it would be to ransom our hearts, make everything new and right and restore us to deep relationship with the Trinity.
When we endure in duty as a firm commitment of the will, but our hearts are drained of joy and tender affection, not even our patient endurance honors Jesus as it should. It's like, as John Piper has pointed out, giving our loved one "dutiful roses" on our anniversary. "Dutiful roses," Piper explains, "are a contradiction in terms. If I am not moved by a spontaneous affection for [my wife] as a person, the roses do not honor her. In fact they belittle her. They are a very thin covering for the fact that she does not have the worth or beauty in my eyes to kindle affection. Truth without emotion produces dead orthodoxy...." Like the Ephesians, Jesus invites us to so much more.
When we must endure hard things we lift up our eyes to see the beautiful endurance of Jesus. We see the Lamb of God, who came expressly to seek and save the lost, agonizing in Gethsemene, right before his arrest. He wanted out, he appealed to his Abba for a last minute plan B (Abba, Father, you can do all things. Remove this cup from me. Mark 14:36) Jesus was really human. The prospect of betrayal and crucifixion tormented him.
Jesus was also fully God. The prospect of becoming sin--of becoming all our lust and pride and critical spirits and the utter depravity that would torture children--the prospect of taking on our hell and being abandoned by the Father brought him to the brink of his own strength. In his mercy on his Son and on us, God didn't offer a Plan B. But he did send an angel to strengthen his Son. Maybe he reminded Jesus of the Father's love and the joy set before him. Motivated by that love and that joy Jesus was able to resolve, "Yet not what I will, but what you will" Mark 14:36.
We can endure out of a weak, even a fearful resignation or a dutiful commitment of the will. What is at stake for us is not just "enduring" but the person we are becoming, and the outcome is far more critical than we realize. The kind of person I am becoming right now determines how much of God and Life I can enjoy and my eternal capacity to serve and reign with the King. Fighting for such high stakes is risky.
When, like Jesus, I have lifted my focus to the love of God and the joy set before me, when I have turned my imagination to the true scope of the battle for redemption we are engaged in and spend my creative energy on being strategic, then the voices in my heart complaining about being stuck in duty and resignation have given up and gone home. They couldn’t compete with all the joy.
If I’m “stalking joy,” as Flannery O’Connor puts it, then I'm taking risks to win the battle for my heart and the hearts of others.
Enduring is no longer passive resignation. It is an active pursuit of joy. It is holding onto God through pain and loss, experiencing a sweet sorrow while I wait on him and a soaring joy when he does the impossible redemptive thing with impossible people.