The time God said “it’s not possible”

This is a baffling thing for Jesus to pray:

Matt. 26:39 Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

Jesus is hours away from being betrayed by a close friend, arrested and executed. Seeing clearly what is ahead he prays to his Father, begging for his life – asking three times that he not be made to “drink the cup” of his suffering. In the Hebrew thought-world “drinking the cup” represents an experience of intense suffering, often as the result of God’s justice. (For example, in Isaiah 51:17 Jerusalem drinks the cup of judgment for their disloyalty.)

That God’s own Son should fear this kind of punishment is weird enough. But even more unsettling are these four words: if it is possible. 

What on earth is going on? Back in Matthew 19 Jesus himself declared as a matter of course that “all things are possible for God”. And it’s not like he is just being polite (saying “if it is possible” when he actually means “sorry to bother you but if you don’t mind terribly much…”). Because the second time he asks, he sounds like he’s expecting an answer in the negative:

Matt. 26:42 [Jesus] went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”

We don’t hear exactly what Jesus says the third time he asks, nor do we hear God’s response. But it’s not hard to work out the answer – Jesus returns to his disciples resigned to his future:

Matt. 26:45 … “Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour has come, and the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners. 46 Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!”

God hears Jesus’ prayers (Hebrews 5:7). It’s just that the answer is “no”.

Though all things are possible for God, it is not possible for this cup to pass.

Let’s just take a minute to process this.

We see here in Jesus’ agonised prayers a personal experience of a terrible paradox that many others have felt. The grumpy Scottish philosopher David Hume puts it like this:

“Why is there any misery at all in the world? Not by chance, surely. From some cause, then. It is from the intention of the deity? But he is perfectly benevolent. Is it contrary to his intention? But he is almighty. Nothing can shake the solidity of this reasoning, so short, so clear, so decisive.” David Hume (Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion)

If God is good and powerful, in other words, whence all this pain? If all things are possible, then why must we suffer at all?

The Australian philosopher J. L. Mackie goes further. He concludes from this paradox that the idea of a God who is both good and powerful is internally inconsistent.

Now, the American analytic philosopher Alvin Plantinga has shown that this argument moves too quickly. You can read his patient engagement with Mackie and Hume in God, Freedom and Evil (1974). Pain does not disprove God; there might be all sorts of good reasons for an all powerful all loving God to allow pain – reasons which we shouldn’t necessarily expect to be immediately clear to us.

Yet the paradox does, I think, rightly carry emotional weight: it raises the question of what God is doing – why this world is the one he has chosen to actualise. In other words, it challenges us to trust him. It challenges us to say, with Jesus, “your will be done”.

Why God says “no” to Jesus

All things are possible for God. Jesus has not forgotten that. And yet it is not possible for this cup to pass from him and for him to complete his mission: suffering is part of the plan that he and his Father have agreed must to be completed.

What is this plan? It’s to do with you and me, as it happens.

The Bible documents a long sorry history of humanity’s rejection of God. This is no small thing: God is not some vain ruler who needs his subjects’ love and approval; he is the ground of all being, because of whom everything exists. He is the reason there is something rather than nothing.

To dispute his rule is to protest at existence itself.

God is not some big kid in the cosmic playground – a bully to be bravely defied. To ignore him, to want nothing to do with him, to declare bravely that we have no use for him, would be comic if it weren’t also so tragic. Macbeth might as well decide he doesn’t need Shakespeare any more.

We know, don’t we, that the natural result of disrespect is a damaged relationship. And when that relationship is with the source of all life, the consequence is death. Unless the relationship is repaired, humanity cannot go on. We cannot use God for his stuff then reject him – we cannot take all the life he gives us all the while being ungrateful. He cares, he loves too passionately for that.

The relationship is broken. And so we arrive at an existential impasse: humanity is too stubborn to return to God. Yet God will not give up on them. And it is at this point, 700 years before he was actually born, that we are first introduced to the Christ.

Isa 53:5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

This finally explains why Jesus is so agonised in that garden. It is not just the threat of physical pain which has him so terrified. It is not even the threat of death. It is the knowledge that soon all the evil which has separated humanity from God will be placed on him – that he will bear the iniquity of us all. This is his life’s mission, and it troubles him to the point of death.

It is not possible for Jesus to be this Christ, and yet avoid the suffering which awaits him. Jesus knows this, because he was in on it from the start. When he says “not my will but your will be done” these are not empty words. Jesus knows what the Lord’s will is, for…

10 … it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
… the LORD makes his life an offering for sin,

All things are possible for God. He will restore this Christ, even raising him from the dead. Yet it is not possible for the cup to pass from him. He cannot reach this glory and avoid this suffering. He cannot avoid pain and be the Christ who with the Father works to reconcile fallen humanity to God. He must go through suffering, and only then on to glory.