“Not My Will But Yours Be Done”

Understanding the Agony in the Garden

“Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done.”

And to strengthen him an angel from heaven appeared to him.

He was in such agony and he prayed so fervently that his sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground.

(Luke 22:42–44)

Why does there seem to be opposition between the human will of Christ and the divine will of His Father? I hope in this little article to move toward a deeper understanding of the distinction and unity of the wills of Christ and the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane. Fr. Dominic Legge offers us two criteria for understanding Christ’s prayers. First, we must hold the two natures of Christ — human and divine — because he prays as human. Second, we must hold the distinction between the one who prays and the one who is prayed to, because this sheds light on Christ’s divinity and his special relation to His Father.1 This will be our framework. Within that framework, first, in order to more deeply understand Christ’s humanity, we will consider important Conciliar groundwork, the principles given to us by the first Ecumenical Councils, then move to explore the harmonious whole of Christ, which is a humanity joined to His divinity. Second, we will distinguish between God’s will and Christ’s human will, and we will see that through His humanity Christ reveals and discloses His divinity to us.

The Two Natures of Christ

In his book The Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterton likens the Creed to a key. A key because it unlocks the meaning of the Scriptures for us. And God alone gives this key: “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures” (Luke 22:45). Through His inspired Ecumenical Councils, which pronounce the living tradition that Christ first gave to the apostles when he opened their minds to understand Him, God continues to give us the keys for understanding the Scriptures. The early Christological Councils in particular are the keys with which our minds might be opened to understand Him in the Gospels.2

The first Ecumenical Councils give us to know that Christ is true God and has equality with the Father (The First Council of Nicaea, 325 AD). Christ, then, as God, has a divine mind and will which do not replace or destroy His real human mind, soul, or will (Constantinople I, 381), yet he still remains to be only one Person, the Person of the Eternal Word (Ephesus, 431) who joins a humanity to Himself and is thus one Person in two natures, fully human and fully divine (Chalcedon I, 451).

Only with these Conciliar keys in hand can we unlock the Scriptures to understand Christ’s human prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. These Conciliar, Creedal, Christological, dogmatic “keys” forged over many centuries by many holy men cooperating with the Holy Spirit precisely communicate truths to us about Christ and serve as controlling principles for reading Scripture properly. A key is useless if it is the wrong shape, even if it is just a little misshapen. Our Creedal key which controls our reading of Scripture must be an exact replica of the Church’s — no more, no less. Otherwise, we cannot unlock the Christ of the Scriptures.

As thoughtfully forged by the living Church inspired by God, there is much conceptual content concentrated in the Creed. The Creedal keys have an extremely high conceptual mass, as it were. They might seem heavy, so to speak — perhaps difficult at first to wield. But it also means that they exert a serious gravity upon all other theological thinking. Theology orbits around the mystery of the Word made flesh, the Incarnate Lord. Christ is and must always be the gravitational center of theological reflection, the luminous sun that maintains healthy systems in orbit and sustains life, while hollow and insubstantial systems will always disintegrate and suffer orbital decay, falling away from His light. For “the light shines in the darkness, but the darkness did not comprehend it” (John 1:5).

In this vein, let us now consider a few mistakes. In an attempt to preserve the integrity of both humanity and divinity in Christ, Nestorius held the heretical position that Christ was actually two persons, a human person and a divine Person, co-existing in one body (condemned by Ephesus). In an opposite yet equally heretical position attempting to preserve the unity of the one Person of Christ, Apollinaris held that a Divine will and a human will could not harmoniously co-exist in Christ because they would war against each other, going so far as to deny that Christ has a human soul (condemned by Constantinople I). These are mistakes, but they are important mistakes for our purposes because understanding Christ’s prayer — “not my will, but yours be done” — hinges on whether we see Christ to be one Person or two, and whether he really has both a divine will and a human mind, soul, and will.

We must instead read this passage with the Conciliar key from Constantinople I that Christ has a Divine mind and will and that these do not replace or destroy His real human mind, soul, or will. In our Incarnate Lord there is a distinction between His two natures, such that he has all of the properties of both, yet there is no separation because He exists as an integral and harmonious whole in two natures.

Moreover, Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane does not compromise his harmony with the Father.3 As a man, he does suffer a spontaneous movement away from pain. This shows forth his real humanity, as anyone would have a spontaneous reaction away from certain and torturous death. He can genuinely feel the “passions,” as theologians say, of fear and sorrow, but he does not allow them to overwhelm his decision making or injure his relationship with the Father. Rather, Christ’s rational human will perfectly harnesses these passions, including the spontaneous desire to flee, as when he says “take this cup away from me.” St. Thomas Aquinas offers the following interpretation of Christ’s prayer in the garden: by “my will,” Christ means the normal human sensitivity away pain, by “your will,” Christ of course means the Father’s will, and the very act of setting aside his passions to freely conform Himself to the Father’s will is an act of His rational human will. His prayer is a prayer of the human rational will of Christ.4

His fear and sorrow, then, are actually shown to be fully humanized by his human prayer. Humanized because they are harnessed by what is most distinctively human in the animal kingdom — the mind, soul, and will. His passions, then, do not distance Christ from the Father, because He remains conformed to the Father’s will in His human intention, and legitimate human passions do not injure His relationship with the father, but rather show forth both His real humanity and His perfect moral integrity, such that He is not overwhelmed in the face of the most painful death that anyone will ever suffer. Understanding the prayer in this way preserves the two natures and the two wills in Christ, and the unity of his natures and wills in His Person. The man Jesus Christ, by an act of his human mind, conforms his humanity totally to the divine will that he indeed knows perfectly as divine, despite his legitimately protesting passions.

This teaches us two very important things about being human in relation to God. First, natural human desires are not equivalent with willing something against God. It is not somehow sinful that Christ has a sensitive distaste for a torturous death. Second, Christ gives us an example of how we ought to subject our own passions to our rational wills, which ought to ultimately be informed by God’s will.5 Passions like fear, anxiety, and sorrow are legitimate so long as they are moderated and do not compromise our conformity to Christ or hinder us along His Way. Don’t we see just how important the Christological Councils are? Without them, we might be confused as Apollinaris was, and not see that Christ has a real human freedom. Without the Creedal key, one serious consequence here is that if Christ does not have a real human freedom, then he cannot teach us anything about what it means to be human; we learn nothing from Him about what a fully human person looks like and acts like.6

After all, Christ as God understands that human prayers do not somehow change the all-knowing, Providential God’s mind. Rather, God in his desire for relationship with us gives us to share and participate in willing His own perfect and loving will. He makes known His loving will to us by inspiring us to ask for His will, gently making it known to us (so gently, in fact, that we might think it’s our own idea!) that we might be conformed to His will not as being forced, but rather as a free conformity of those made in his image. Christ’s prayer in the Garden shows forth both Christ’s human humility and perfection. Humility because He admits His human condition, yet perfection because He totally conforms His humanity to God, making a free, human act of complete conformity to His Father. This teaches us how we, too, might be perfect. Trust in God in the face of human frailty, and complete conformity to the Divine will. This, I think, is what Paul teaches us in Romans 8:28–32:

We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called

according to his purpose.

For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his

Son, so that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.

And those he predestined he also called; and those he called he also justified;

and those he justified he also glorified.

What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who can be against us?

He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how will he not

also give us everything else along with him?

The Relationship of Christ and the Father

Now we turn to the distinction between the one who prays and the one who is prayed to, because this sheds light on Christ’s divinity and his special relation to His Father. The man Jesus Christ conforms Himself to the will of His Father. We know that this is a distinctively human act because the eternal Son, the second Person of the Trinity, considered in His divinity alone, need not conform Himself to God. He is God. Yet when he assumes a human nature, He does need to conform Himself as man to God. And because it is the Second Person who is made incarnate, we can expect that when the man Jesus Christ conforms Himself to God, His conformity somehow expresses His own divine Personhood as the second Person in particular.7 nature and express something of his [divine] filial nature through distinctly human acts” (Wallace, 321).] Christ’s humanity reveals His Personal divinity.

The Son exists according to His own distinct Personhood as the eternally begotten Son. His filial nature is distinct from the Father’s paternal nature, which is eternally begetting the Son. Understanding this is important because in Fr. Dominic Legge’s words, “a divine mission [like the Incarnation] includes and discloses the eternal procession on which it is founded.”8 This is to say that the Incarnation includes and discloses, expresses and manifests, the second Person’s eternal begottenness. Because God is perfect and consistent and does not deceive, then we know that Christ’s human actions must be consistent with and express truths about His divinity. Christ’s human obedience and prayer to the Father, then, are expressions that manifest his divine nature. Christ’s human actions in time, like His prayer in the Garden to His Father, draw His humanity into His divinity, showing forth through His human life truths about his eternal existence in the Godhead.

His human prayer in the Garden reveals the divine Son’s eternal recognition that He is entirely from the Father. The second Person of the Trinity receives His being eternally from the Father, existing eternally as the Son begotten by the Father, the Word spoken by the Father. And the only begotten Son’s eternal response to the Father is to wholly and entirely return Himself in love back to the Father. The prayer in the Garden teaches us this. In His prayer of giving Himself to His Father whole and entire, God the Son draws His humanity into His Divinity. This human act of submission and love and gift of self of Jesus Christ to the Father bespeaks an eternal one, an eternal relationship which consists in the Father eternally begetting the Son and the Son eternally giving Himself back to the Father.9 And from this eternal relation of love, Love Himself — the Holy Spirit — breaks forth eternally.

Fr. Robert Sokolowski’s words sum up well our reflection here:

There are no choices within [the constitution of] the Holy Trinity, no determinations of something that could have been otherwise. The choice of the mission of the Son, however, did not occur through divine necessity; it did not have to happen. It was a determination that need not have occurred. When it did occur as an action, it opened the possibility of a response, of a reaction by another will: the obedient choice of the man Jesus. In becoming obedient to death, even to death on a cross, Jesus allowed an exchange to take place between God’s choice and a created counterchoice.

And the eternal Son was the person who made this human choice. It was not just a creature that did so, even though he did it as a creature . . . The splendor of our Redemption lies not simply in our liberation from sin, but primarily in the admirable exchange of choices between the creature and God. The Son as eternal could not have done this, because his will as eternal is not different from that of the Father.10

Conclusion

How do we understand Christ’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane? First of all, with the keys of understanding that Christ has two distinct natures without separation, we can understand it as a real human prayer that is consistent, not contrary, with His own divine will that He shares with the Father. It also teaches us about how to be fully human and conform ourselves to God. Second, Christ’s prayer reveals to us Christ’s eternal gift of self to the Father, that God is in fact Love in three Persons — the Father eternally begetting the Son, the Son being eternally begotten by the Father and giving Himself back to the Father, and the Holy Spirit eternally bursting forth from this love. In His prayer in the Garden, Christ anticipates His Cross which is the ultimate exterior sacrifice that expresses the interior prayer of Christ, the interior filial and total submission and gift of self to the Father.11

  1. Fr. Dominic Legge offered these criteria in his conference presentation “Christ’s Prayer to the Father (and Ours)” on February 12, 2022 at Ave Maria University’s academic conference “St. Thomas Aquinas as Spiritual Teacher: Theology in a Culture of Grace.”
  2. In the twentieth century, some theologians asserted that the early Christological Councils are not to be seen as permanently resolving questions about Christ by which the Church “acquired a set of principles by which to discern the parameters of orthodox Christology.” This view must be resisted, because in fact, the Church does teach that we have acquired, in the Ecumenical Councils, “a set of principles by which to discern the parameters of orthodox Christology.” For example, “the Council of Ephesus does identify the hypostatic union as a basic first principle of Christological reflection concerning the God-man,” and likewise “Chalcedon was the proper qualification of this fundamental principle: that within the person of the incarnate Son there exists the distinction without separation of the two natures” (Thomas Joseph White, The Incarnate Lord: A Thomistic Study in Christology (CUA Press, 2017), 153–154).
  3. Much of this article is indebted to Joel Matthew Wallace’s dissertation, “Inspiravit ei voluntatem patiendi pro nobis, infundende ei caritatem”: Charity, the Source of Christ’s Action according to Thomas Aquinas (Siena: Cantagalli, 2013). Here, 332–336.
  4. Wallace, 333.
  5. I report the same in my article “Grace Presupposes Nature: The Structure of the Summa and an Illustration by the Virtue of Patience in Light of Christ,” in European Journal for the Study of Thomas Aquinas 39 (November 2021): 61–78, at 76–77.
  6. Having both a human and a divine will, one might ask whether Christ was really, truly “free.” The question itself misunderstands freedom. Instead of restricting His freedom, His unity with the divine will makes Him most supremely free; He can act well in every situation without hindrance, impediment, or to use the Pauline language, division of will or intention. Not only does He have free will theoretically, but precisely as man, Christ really made decisions. He deliberated among various goods, and most freely chose those means which were in conformity with God’s will and so suited to His mission.

    The Second Vatican Council teaches that “genuine freedom is an outstanding manifestation of the divine image in man. For God willed to leave man ‘in the power of his own counsel’” (Gaudium et Spes 17). Likewise, John Paul II says in a homily in Baltimore to Americans that “freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.” Since freedom is a manifestation of our being created in the image of God, then this freedom is only completed in freely conforming ourselves more and more in His image. Freedom is only fully realized in complete conformity to God, which again tells how Christ is most free since He is most capable of conforming Himself to God by His free human acts.

    In Veritatis Splendor, a landmark achievement for moral theology, John Paul II explains that freedom and God’s law are not opposed, but rather that “human freedom finds its authentic and complete fulfillment precisely in the acceptance of that law. God, who alone is good, knows perfectly what is good for man, and by virtue of his very love proposes this good to man in the commandments.” John Paul II continues:

    “God’s law does not reduce, much less do away with human freedom; rather, it protects and promotes that freedom. In contrast, however, some present-day cultural tendencies have given rise to several currents of thought in ethics which centre upon an alleged conflict between freedom and law. These doctrines would grant to individuals or social groups the right to determine what is good or evil. Human freedom would thus be able to ‘create values’ and would enjoy a primacy over truth, to the point that truth itself would be considered a creation of freedom. Freedom would thus lay claim to a moral autonomy which would actually amount to an absolute sovereignty.” (Veritatis Splendor 35).

  7. Christ’s human acts “are proper to his created [human
  8. Dominic Legge, The Trinitarian Christology of St. Thomas Aquinas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 212. For especially clear examples, consider Christ’s words, “You know me and also know where I am from,” and “I came from the Father” (John 7:28 and 16:28). Christ means not only that God the Father sent Him into the world, but also that He is eternally from the Father, too. The mission of the Incarnation reveals His eternal way of being from the Father.
  9. This is not to suggest that the eternal Son exists as the human Christ in the Godhead who eternally makes a human act of love. The eternal Son becomes Incarnate in time, and His created Incarnate Life expresses and manifests His uncreated generation and relation to the Father.
  10. Robert Sokolowski, Eucharistic Presence: A Study in the Theology of Disclosure (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1994), 75.
  11. This, too, is indebted to Fr. Dominic Legge’s presentation, “Christ’s Prayer to the Father (and Ours).” cf. Hebrews 7.
Tyler Pellegrin About Tyler Pellegrin

Tyler Pellegrin is currently a doctoral student of Systematic Theology at Ave Maria University in Southwest Florida, where he lives happily with his family. His research interests include Christology, infused virtue and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and the history and interpretation of Vatican II.

Comments

  1. Avatar ANDRÉ HARKIN says:

    Just a word of gratitude: starting into the readings for HOLY WEEK I had feelings of pity for the Jews.
    From our standpoint, with all the knowledge garnered from the early councils it is much easier to believe in the content of this article. It comes home to me that for the ordinary Christian, even without the knowledge and teaching of the early councils the gift of Faith is an essential element. It is of course a further problem to know if the Jewish leadership had this gift of faith. It is much easier for us to believe in the results of this article but for the ortdinary, Christian just like theJEW the gift of faith is paramount.
    Many thanks for an enlightening article. It came for me just at the right moment.
    André Harkin, from Brasil.

  2. May 6th, 2022: Reading Homiletic and Pastoral Review is such a nourishment for my soul – my mind for you speak truth while offering hope and encouragement to cling to in a world that seems to be growing darker. I am a consecrated virgin living in the world and you help me to stay strong in the midst of so much confusion and suffering. Thank you. I hope and pray that I will soon find Homiletic and Pastoral Review in my inbox…that would be a great blessing to me. May the Lord bless you and may the Holy Spirit continue to inspire and encourage you, Florence Sundberg, ocv

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