Feeings, emotions. We all have them. They so often drive our decisions. That’s fine when our feelings are aligned with the truth: when we know what is right and we feel it is right, then it’s easier to do it. But it’s not always the case that our feelings cooperate. Sometimes our feelings make us want to do what we know is wrong. What to do about it?
When our feelings are not strong, we can often notice when they are leading us wrong, and we can self-correct. But what do we do when they are overpowering? This conflict between what we strongly feel and what we know is right is a common theme of love songs: consider Barbara Mandrell singing “How can it be wrong (when it feels so right), Elvis Presley crooning “Cause baby, if it feels so right, how can it be wrong?”, or to pick a more recent example, Hurray for the Riff Raff singing “Now I know it’s wrong, but it feels right”. Choosing wrong is perhaps good material for a hurtin’ love song, full of longing and regret, but it can be pretty bad advice for making decisions, especially when we and everyone around us need to live with the consequences.
Jesus’ advice is different: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” [Matthew 16:24] If we consider that “taking up your cross” meant to undergo torture and execution, this is clearly a very different answer than the love songs’ advice. Jesus tells us that we are to say No to the feeling and Yes to the difficult thing. We might reply, “Well, that’s all very well and good for you to say something like this when you’re the Son of God, curing sick people and turning water into wine: you don’t need to deal with strong human feelings like the rest of us.” But if we said this, we would be very much mistaken.
The gospels describe how Jesus, the night before his execution, went to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. Knowing what was about to happen to him, he suffered strong emotions of grief, distress and agitation about his pending crucifixion. Matthew’s gospel reports how Jesus spoke to his friends “I am deeply grieved, even to death: remain here and stay awake with me.” [Matthew 26:38] Luke’s gospel describes his distress during his prayer as follows: “In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.” [Luke 22:44] The sweating of blood is a rare medical condition called hematidrosis, where sufferers sweat blood from their skin when severely agitated. WebMD describes hematidrosis as follows: “Sometimes it seems to be caused by extreme distress or fear, such as facing death, torture, or severe ongoing abuse.”
Clearly Jesus suffered strong emotions about taking up his cross, about suffering and dying. He described it as his “cup” that he was to drink, a reference to the writings of the old testament prophets, who often used as a metaphor for suffering the drinking of a “cup of horror and desolation” [Ezekiel 23:33]. But Jesus did not give in to the emotion and put aside the cup. He prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done”. [Luke 22:42] When the time came for his arrest, Jesus had clearly made his choice, telling Peter, who was ready to resist with violence, “Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” [John 18:11] And so Jesus went on to suffering and crucifixion, without resistance.
We know how this turned out. Jesus’ choice to say No to his emotions and Yes to his cross did lead to the suffering and death he feared, but it led also to his resurrection, and eternal life not only for himself, but for everyone who believes in him. So it will turn out for us, if we follow him, doing what we know is right even when our feelings tell us not to. It is not easy, but with God’s help it is possible: we can look to Jesus to show us how to overcome our feelings and do what is right.