Feature Article

The Day I Spoiled Gethsemane

How visiting a holy site showed me the distance I still needed to travel

John VandenOever January 11, 2022

I stood outside the iron fence, gazing in on the garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem. It was there, amidst these tangled olive trees that Jesus fell on His face and prayed. His mission lay before Him, the last, most difficult thing He would do—being obedient to the point of death; our curse on Himself, for our rescue.

Illustration by Adam Cruft

We were in Israel on a work trip for In Touch. I was leading a team consisting of a freelance photographer and a younger member of my staff, reporting on Christ’s work among both Israelis and Palestinians. Part of our charge on these trips is to photograph places associated with the area and to provide updates. Though it was very early back home in the States, Gethsemane would make a great Sunday morning livestream on social media for our In Touch partners.

So I reached my arm between the bars of the fence, recording the scene with my iPhone. Though the garden had been quaintly boxed within an iron fence, I imagined it before modern development as a larger, wilder wood where Jesus could slip away to be alone. I tried to reckon with the weight of this scene, with what it meant for me and all of Christendom, as I slowly panned my phone to the right.

At that moment, my staff member slinked her arm through the next set of bars, her open hand helpfully ready to take my phone and carry on the filming. Focused as I was on this holy moment, her help felt like an intrusion. My inner man surged with aggravation. This was my moment. I didn’t want her help, and so I shrugged her off, furrowing my brow and waving her away, even as dozens of little heart emojis flitted up my screen in appreciation for the video. 

It was there, amidst these tangled olive trees that Jesus fell on His face and prayed. His mission lay before Him, the last, most difficult thing He would do.

But why was I frustrated? What right did I have to shun her support and take ownership of a moment meant as a remembrance of Christ’s humility and sacrifice?

***

Though this proud, self-seeking, ungodly moment happened a few years ago, I’m still quite capable of behaving like that. It doesn’t matter how sacred the setting or work may be—sin dwells within me. Paul the apostle put it this way: “For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want” (Rom. 7:19).

This episode, and Paul’s resignation about our nature, makes me wonder, How then can we bring glory to God? And more to the point, If I’m so quick to sin, how can I bring Him glory? 

In his book How to Reach Your Full Potential for God, Dr. Stanley writes, “Your ultimate purpose is to bring [God] glory by the way you live. [His] plan is for you to experience great joy and fulfillment despite any hardship, trial, or difficulty that you encounter along life’s path. He is calling you to persevere in pursuing His purpose for you and to grow in your faith and in your character every day and through every act of obedience.”

What right did I have to take ownership of a moment meant as a remembrance of Christ’s humility and sacrifice?

Like everything else, it comes down to daily choices. Though we are seriously affected by the world, our flesh, and the devil, we know that belonging to Christ gives us the power and freedom to overcome. As Paul says in the verses that follow, “You have no obligation to do what your sinful nature urges you to do” (Rom. 8:12 NLT). In this walk of faith, we’re going to fail, fall, flub, and flout, but the good news in Christ is that we’re no longer condemned and we’ve been given power in the Spirit to please God (Rom. 8:1-11). 

 

***

 

It took only seconds for my experience at Gethsemane to be soiled by my pride. And my uncharitable, self-focused reaction had clearly bruised my friend. I could have told myself that I was the boss and it was my idea to take the video, but praise God for the Spirit working within me. We left the garden and walked in silence down the Mount of Olives. Our photographer took a seat on a stone wall while my colleague sat on a bench, physically present, yet far off in every way.

We bring glory to God not by being perfect but by inviting the God of glory to rescue us.

I wanted to bring glory to God. This young woman was not only a teammate but a friend, and more importantly, an image-bearer of God. Failing to see her in these three ways and refusing to welcome her help while we were on mission together began to unsettle me. Especially considering where we were and the work we were doing. In that moment I thought about the kindness of God, who saved us and poured out His love on us so richly through Jesus. And I remembered that we bring glory to God not by being perfect but by inviting the God of glory to rescue us. As I surrendered my personal path to glory—or work competence, or whatever I was being territorial about—and presented my brokenness to Him, He would break away the rough pieces and mold me to His likeness. God’s character is unified in every act of His beautiful, majestic, powerful will. And marred as we are, He invites us to share in this glory.

 

***

 

Moments before Christ entered the garden of Gethsemane to prepare for His death, He lifted His eyes to heaven and said in the presence of the disciples, “The glory which You have given Me I also have given to them, so that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and You loved them, just as You loved Me” (John 17:22-23).

We will find our greatest joy and contentment not in securing for ourselves the best experiences, the most pleasure, or the accolades we so frequently seek, but in becoming less. When we decrease, Christ increases. And as we strip away ourselves and approach Him as little children, we get a taste of this oneness Jesus prayed for. A oneness that draws us together and reflects the oneness of God Himself.

I confessed to my friend that in leading our team, I had taken all the best assignments. It was exciting to be in Israel for the first time, and all three of us were hungry to see the Scriptures come alive there. But my hands and heart were clutching these things, and I wasn’t living with the joyous freedom and unity Jesus had bought for us. So I let her take the next task and watched as the pain lifted from her face. In its place came the flush of joyful excitement—a joy that filled my heart, too.

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