A few months ago, Jim F. wrote a post considering both references to fear and perfect love in LDS scripture (the First Epistle of John and an Epistle of Mormon). Jim argued that each injunction invokes two different scenarios: one which pertains to the Final Judgement and our relationship with God and the other refers to our relationship with other people. Jesus’ anxiety in Gethsemane, prior to the trial/temptation (gr. Peirasmos), is related to John’s and Mormon’s insight and I want to explore this briefly.
Approaching these questions is difficult because each of the gospel authors describes Jesus differently. The authors of Mark/Matt present Jesus as ‘distressed’ and ‘agitated’ and He throws himself upon the ground. The Lucan Jesus prayer but, in contrast, He is in more control of his feelings; He kneels rather than falls or throws himself to the ground. In our version of the text, an Angel visits Jesus and strengthens Him and the Lucan agony, according to Brown, is intentionally different from the Marcan account. Instead of extreme pain it probably refers to the coming peirasmos, the time is approaching quickly and Jesus is readying himself in preparation for the contest between Himself and Satan. Finally, the author of John does not see any need for Jesus to pray or struggle because His perfect unity with the Father makes this unnecessary. In the Gospel of John the missing Gethsemane episode is one of the conspicuous absences, especially for Mormons. In this view Jesus does not fear the peirasmos and presumably nor should His followers.
Brown’s discussion of the peirasmos indicates that Jesus’ anxiety precedes the eschatological trial to be faced by him and his followers, and Jesus’ anxiety (in Mark/Matt) regarding the upcoming suffering can be characterised as a form of fear. This fear or anxiety does not seem to emerge from insecurity regarding one’s status with God but it is more possible that Christ’s fear does pertain to ‘what man can do’ and therefore invoking Mormon’s scenario.
Is it possible that Jesus experienced his fear because of an imperfect love? This type of reading of Christ’s intention is outside the Mormon mainstream; for Christ is the embodiment of perfect love. Thus, for the purposes of this post I will propose that Jesus’ fear may be centred upon something other than what ‘man can do’.
According to the authors of the synoptic gospels, Jesus includes the disciples within the group to whom the peirasmos applies. They are enjoined to be watchful unto prayer in order that they are not overtaken by the coming trial. Their lack of prayerful preparation is both interesting and troubling. Their abandonment of Jesus suggests that they have failed the trial and yet one wonders whether, if they had been faithful, what their fate would have been. It might be that (at least in Mark/Matt) Jesus’ prophecy that the disciples should follow Him in His suffering might referred to that night rather than to an unspecified future experience (or set of experiences)? In which case Jesus counsel to prayerfully prepare (as He does) indicates that they should emulate him in his fear of this oncoming trial.
Implied in this message is a call to fear (or to be anxious concerning) the peirasmos. If the peirasmos is the great eschatological trial we might read this event as a test of whether we are willing to give up all for God. To fear the peirasmos is, in part, to appreciate the depth of what is being asked of us. In Mark, Peter confronts this call and falls short and demonstrates for all of us the difficulty of discipleship.
Perfect love it seems casts out certain types of fear but heightens others. Fear is not, according to the accounts of Mark/Matt, an ungodly attribute but rather such fear should sensitise us to the very real call to suffer. Christ invites his disciples to suffer with him but they are unwilling or unable to adequately appreciate this call. This fear should not be centred upon the act itself (what man can do) but something akin to Paul’s concern. Though we should not fear God’s judgment if we are abiding in His love, Christ also makes it clear that we can fall from grace or turn from that love. Jesus commands his disciples to pray in order that they will not reject that love even if they sense that they are abandoned. In fact, the peirasmos seems to be the very real feeling in which we feel abandoned by God (and others). Perhaps possessing God’s perfect love removes fear of the final judgement but it should not remove our fear of falling short of the peirasmos.
- The peirasmos, in a biblical context, often refers to tests which assesses whether we will be faithful to God (cf. ‘we will prove them herewith’). However, some scholars argue that this general meaning should not apply to this situation. According to Raymond Brown, there are a number of times in the NT when peirasmos refers to ‘the great eschatological trial or struggle involving divine judgment’ (p. 159). However it seems difficult to separate out the eschatological meaning from the sense of everyday Christian tribulation which becomes common in the various other New Testament documents.
- Obviously this meditation will be upon those synoptic gospels which avoid John’s high Christology and which draw attention, in various ways, to Jesus’ struggle with the approaching trial. Moreover, because Luke also seems to minimise any kind of mental suffering I have focussed upon the Marcan account.
- Mark and Matthew clearly present two different accounts but they are similar enough for my purposes here.