Life isn’t easy. Following the gospel plan makes it much better than it otherwise would be, but we still go through hard times. A couple of weeks ago I was struck by a line from a hymn, highlighted below, and I spent some time pondering on what it meant.
“He answers privately, reaches my reachingfrom “Where Can I Turn for Peace?” by Emma Lou Thayne (1924-2014), emphasis added
In my Gethsemane, Savior and friend”
Each of us will have experiences that feel like our own personal Gethsemane. Understanding what happened there for Jesus will help us make it through these hardest tests of our lives. I want to highlight three major elements that constitute a Gethsemane-like experience.
The Garden of Gethsemane was a familiar place to Jesus, “for [he] ofttimes resorted thither with his disciples” (John 18:2). On the night before the crucifixion he chose that place to begin his Atonement.
He brought his closest friends with him, those who had sworn that very night that they would defend him with their lives (Matthew 26:35). Apparently Jesus hoped that their presence would support him, but he was disappointed when they fell asleep instead of staying awake to pray with him (Luke 22:39-41,45-46). Jesus had to suffer alone.
How much did he suffer? Luke describes it this way:
“And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44).
The medical term for sweating blood is hematidrosis. This is an exceptionally rare condition, with only a few dozen case reports in the medical literature. Many of these reports involve people with severe emotional stress, such as the fear of death in soldiers going into battle. Not much is known about the physiology of hematidrosis, but it is assumed that capillaries around sweat glands rupture into the gland during intense activation of the sympathetic nervous system as part of the fight-or-flight response.
Jesus was certainly under severe emotional stress. He described unimaginable physical and spiritual pain during this experience, more than any of us could endure:
“15 Therefore I command you to repent—repent, lest I smite you by the rod of my mouth, and by my wrath, and by my anger, and your sufferings be sore—how sore you know not, how exquisite you know not, yea, how hard to bear you know not.
“16 For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent;
“17 But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I;
“18 Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink—
Suffering is the first ingredient of our own Gethsemane experiences. This suffering could be for any of a hundred reasons: sorrow for sin, health challenges (I see a lot of people in this particular Gethsemane), grief for a loss, concern for a loved one, financial hardships, emotional health crisis, severe temptation, and whatever else you can think of. Jesus felt and suffered all of these things (Mosiah 3:7, Alma 7:12).
But Gethsemane is not just about suffering. It is also about fidelity, which is the second ingredient. Jesus had a mission from God, and he was tenacious in his resolve to accomplish it. Approaching his breaking point, lying flat on his face, he prayed, “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matthew 26:39).
We turn our own anguish into holy ground when we hold firmly to the iron rod and stay on the covenant path despite whatever is trying to pull us away. Anyone can stay on the covenant path while the going is easy. The true test is whether we will keep going when we panic at its steepness.
The third and final element is the assurance that we will not be alone. At the climax of Jesus’s agony in Gethsemane, his Father sent help:
“And there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him” (Luke 22:43).
Heavenly help comes when we are faithful to our covenants. Jesus refused to give up on what he knew was right and what he had promised to do. When we have that same commitment we can expect that same help.
When we face the hardest trials of our lives with determined obedience, we can be assured that God will help us. We will “find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). The recipe for a Gethsemane experience can be stated as follows:
- 1 bitter cup, running over, of intense personal suffering. Include the dregs.
- As much as you can muster of determined obedience.
- Take suffering out of the frying pan and into the fire.
- Apply obedience until it holds tenaciously to your covenants.
- Patiently repeat step 2 until enabling grace appears. This might take a while, but will surely happen if you persist.
Preparation time: as long as it takes. Makes 1 serving, but the one who partakes will never hunger again.
Elder Merrill J. Bateman of the Presidency of the Seventy shared an insight into what the Lord experienced in Gethsemane:
“For many years I thought of the Savior’s experience in the garden and on the cross as places where a large mass of sin was heaped upon Him. Through the words of Alma, Abinadi, Isaiah, and other prophets, however, my view has changed. Instead of an impersonal mass of sin, there was a long line of people, as Jesus felt ‘our infirmities’ (Hebrews 4:15), ‘[bore] our griefs, … carried our sorrows … [and] was bruised for our iniquities’ (Isaiah 53:4–5).
“The Atonement was an intimate, personal experience in which Jesus came to know how to help each of us” (October 2005 General Conference)
I am still standing in that long line of people. Jesus can help me because my Gethsemane is a part of His.
Alan B. Sanderson, MD is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is a practicing neurologist.