In the figure of Jesus weeping, whether at the tomb of his friend or in the garden before his execution, we meet a puzzling paradox: the all-powerful God—who with a thought can change the circumstances that have crushed him—mourning those very circumstances.
We know he didn’t have to go through any of this: “I am the resurrection and the life,” he tells Martha, moments before raising her brother. “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” he asks Peter, who thinks the Lord of Hosts needs a bodyguard. What kind of pointless display were these tears of his? Was God putting on a charade?
That’s Gnostic nonsense. And if we miss this, we miss the point of these accounts—maybe of the incarnation.
One less-explored dimension of grief is the sense of powerlessness and creaturely ignominy that overwhelms you. Swept along by circumstances you can’t anticipate or change, you watch with dismay as you are changed, broken, and remade. At times it feels like a game with no way to win—like “Snakes and Foxes” in Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time megaseries: a diversion for naïve children who haven’t yet realized they have no power to alter the outcome. The only way to win, realizes a character at a key moment, is to cheat.
But Jesus didn’t play the game of human life like that. He didn’t have cheat codes. Someone will ask, “But what about his miracles?” Another will say, “He was God! It was easy for him.” The Gospels answer both objections convincingly.
First, Jesus performed miracles not according to his whims or needs, but according to the instructions of his Father (John 5:19). They all had a revelatory purpose—and, except perhaps for his miraculous escape from the mob on the cliff, none of them served to take him out of a tight spot. Even that miracle only preserved him for a worse death later.
Moreover, these miracles, as C. S. Lewis argues, weren’t so much intrusions into nature as abbreviations of it—the God who has always turned water into wine through sunlight and fermentation took nature off like a glove and did it directly. The God who will raise the dead at the end of time did so in a limited way for one friend. All served to illustrate and ratify his redemptive purposes, not to give him a hall pass on the hardest parts of being human.
Second, that Jesus is God incarnate probably made his task as a human harder, not easier. As Lewis points out elsewhere, Jesus is the only person who’s ever endured every temptation to its end and triumphed. He alone knows temptation’s true and terrible strength, because he refused to surrender at any point. By comparison, we have all lived sheltered lives, frequently giving in to sin after 10-minute skirmishes.
What Humanity Really Means
In winning the game of human life without cheating, Jesus revealed a great deal about what strength and humanity really mean. When I think of strength, I often picture stoicism, refusal to experience emotion, and a stiff upper lip. When God the Son became a man like me and met the troubles I meet, he manfully cried about it even when he planned to heal those troubles moments later (John 11:35). He didn’t retreat from the raw nerves of his humanity to the sanctum of divinity. He took up our pain and infirmities and felt their full weight as no one else ever has (Matt. 8:17). Have you ever sweat blood?
Jesus didn’t retreat from the raw nerves of his humanity to the sanctum of divinity. He took up our pain and infirmities and felt their full weight as no one else ever has.
Even more surprising than his tears is his laughter (contrary to some suggestions, I do believe Jesus laughed. Some of his sayings and parables are quite funny). This is another point at which his divinity probably made humanity harder for him. Imagine knowing you’re headed for a fate like the one that awaited Christ in Jerusalem, and still you attend dinner parties, drink with friends, and play with children. Imagine doing this often enough to warrant accusations of impious excess (Matt. 9:14) and of being a glutton and a drunkard (Luke 7:34).
Most of all, think of his unanswered prayers. No man ever asked as fervently for anything as Christ petitioned his Father to remove the cup from him in Gethsemane. Yet his request was denied, and he drank death to its dregs. Remember the power at his disposal and the ease with which he could have extracted himself from this deepest of human horrors.
Jesus in the darkness of the garden is the furthest thing from a victim of circumstance imaginable. He didn’t have to stay for the soldiers, the lash, the nails, the cross. Yet he did, “for the joy that was set before him” (Heb. 12:2). That joy was a new human race purchased from the old, a world redeemed from the first man’s failure, and a name above every name (Phil. 2:9).
He Did the Work
Jesus won the human game as a human, without cheat codes, because only as a human could he save us humans and rescind our curse.
Luke Stamps describes it this way:
As the true human, the last Adam, he lived out obedience to God through our common humanity as our representative and substitute: through his life, death, and resurrection, he merits salvation for all who are united to him by faith. As a human, he also serves as our example, providing a model for true human obedience.
When the Maker of heaven and earth became a member of our species, he wasn’t conferring on himself some honorary degree. He did the work, and it was harder than we can imagine.
Christ’s fully human life, death, and resurrection is first and foremost a gospel that saves us. But it’s also a gospel that reminds us: we don’t have to be God to be holy. We can be human—and intensely so.
We know because the man who is God wept—and despite it all, probably laughed.