A Lesson on Divine Grief

A Lesson on Divine Grief May 24, 2017

This guest post was written by DeWayne R. Stallworth.

Detail from “Manuscript Leaf with the Agony in the Garden and Betrayal of Christ, from a Royal Psalter” via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, licensed under CC0 1.0

He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. When he reached the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground. When he got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief, and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.”
Luke 22:39-46

The text presents Jesus as a vulnerable man. To be sure, Jesus displayed great power through many miraculous acts. He had given sight to the blind, fed the destitute, and even walked on water; however, on the eve of his engagement with the cross, Jesus kneels and prays: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but your will be done (v42).” Additionally, “In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground (v44).”

The reader then discovers that while Jesus is dealing with his own anguish, the disciples have fallen asleep due to the amount of grief they are experiencing. In essence, Jesus wanted to feel attached to human sources of intimacy and connectedness; being God, Jesus knew that the disciples were unable to understand what he was experiencing. However, being human, Jesus needed that human association as a means of providing comfort and a sense of connectedness.

The trauma of the cross forced Jesus to display humanistic tendencies. For instance, Jesus’ expectation was that the disciples would simply stay awake while he prayed to the Father. Jesus’ experience with the Father and the lack of human support promoted a condition known as hematidrosis. Luke, a physician, is the only gospel writer with the proper terminology to articulate such a traumatic event in the life of Jesus. A high level of anxiety likely prompted Jesus to experience a psycho-bio response–he began to sweat blood.

Although Jesus takes the disciples to task for falling to sleep, the reader must understand how grief and sadness affects human physiology. Considering the constant theological instruction from Jesus during his final days and the movement into hostile engagement, it’s possible the disciples had fallen into a state of depression. When one is dealing with depression, the lack of sleep (or constant sleeping) is an indication that the mind is grappling with an overwhelming degree of psychic stimuli.

Luke, however, presents a more sympathetic Jesus toward the end of the text. Matthew, Mark, and John certainly highlight the back-and-forth didactic between Jesus and his disciples. Jesus goes to them for comfort, but they are emotionally unavailable. He goes to the Father, but God is unwilling to compromise his divinely processed plan regarding human and divine relations.

Jesus follows this back-and-forth progression until he understands that the disciples are unable to consider his anguish, especially when they are attempting to deal with their own human frailties. God the Father has not presented an alternative means of salvation; therefore, Jesus concludes that God’s way is the preferred way. He humbly acquiesces to the Will of God.

There is nothing abnormal about wanting human sympathy. Jesus’ response in Luke provides an example for Christians to follow. Having theological and spiritual awareness does not make one immune to trauma and grief, and there will be times when even our most intimate friends won’t understand what we are going through. In such an instance, rather than labeling them as unsympathetic, we should attempt to understand that trauma is subjective, and that it takes time to understand.


DeWayne R. Stallworth, Ph.D., MA.About DeWayne R. Stallworth
DeWayne R. Stallworth, Ph.D., MA. teaches religion and counseling at American Baptist College, Nashville, TN.

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