Christ chose to let himself be in Satan’s power and in the power of the Romans. Its important that he chose, because it made him a willing victim. Its also important that he did not directly choose the garden agony or the cross. These were the choices of his tormentors. If he had chosen them himself, he would have been willing but not a victim.
Christ came for the meek and lowly, a category which includes every human soul. No matter how rich, or how successful, each of us has experienced the dark night of the soul. Each of us still has in our core the frightened child that we were.
Many of us–I hope one day all–have experienced the comfort of Christ bearing our meekness and lowliness with us. Many of us also have experienced in suffering a certain sacredness, as if God had made misery holy by taking it into himself. There is a brotherhood, a holy intimacy, of suffering, in which Christ participates with us. It sounds mystical, but it is so. I know it from my own experience.
It matters that Christ was a willing victim, for if he were truly as helpless as we, that he suffered along with us would be no comfort and offer no redemption. He must have chosen to let himself be victimized. The problem is that if Christ chose his suffering, he really wasn’t a companion in our weakness. He knows the pain, perhaps, but not the hopelessness. He was only slumming. And if what Christ’s example valorizes is chosen suffering, then it becomes “Christ-like” to deliberately harm oneself, as indeed some Catholic extremists think it is. But Christ came to redeem misery, not to add to the misery of the world.
My opening paragraph offers one way of squaring the circle: Christ freely chose helplessness, knowing that it would entail his misery, but he did not choose the evils that would be done to him in his helpless state. He merely suffered them.
We tend to think that Christ could have quit at any time during the supreme suffering of his atonement. We might even say that he had to be able to quit for his sacrifice to be voluntary. But how could he have suffered as we do, since we cannot quit at any time?
One of the odd wrinkles in Mormonism its in insistence that Christ suffered twice, first in the garden and then on the cross. This insistence has no meaning at first glance, and even appears to be a kind of historical accident or inexplicable trivia. But it opens up possibilities that help answer how Christ could have voluntarily experienced helplessness.
The truly voluntary act is one that is taken with full knowledge of the choices. I believe that full knowledge is impossible without full prior experience. No one can know what they have not experienced. Or, at least, total knowledge of an experience–not just a description, but knowing exactly and fully how it feels, how it is– is identical to the experience itself. Christ couldn’t have known what was coming in the garden, so his atonement suffereing there could not have been the result of a truly free, because truly informed, choice. To that extent, he was just as much battered in the dark as we are.
The Spirit often guides us to take steps into the dark, not knowing what is to come. Christ’s own ignorance gives that meaning. In any case, as I argue it was with the Savior in the garden, full advanced information is impossible. You can’t fully know how something will turn out until you’ve experienced it. Having the experience described is not the same. How many things I’ve dreaded have gone exactly as I thought but not been dreadful? How many things i’ve hoped for have gone exactly as I hoped but not been wonderful? If I had had the temple ceremony described to me down to the last detail before I took out my endowments, I still would never have predicted my own reaction to my own endowment–which was this ritual was so mundane, every-day, bog standard Mormon. And if I had had every detail explained in advance, perhaps I would not have had that reaction, which has been spiritually sustaining to me.
But if Christ suffered in the garden ignorantly, and to that extent involuntarily, his acceptance of the crucifixion could be considered fully voluntary, because he now knew what he was in for. The doctrine of two different atonement episodes, odd as it seems at first, suddenly springs to life.
Gethsemane and the cross offer a second possible resolution of how Christ could be the paradoxical willing victim. The Father abandoned the Son on the cross, whereas an angel strengthened him in the garden. Why, and what does it mean? One possibility is that in the garden Christ retained his ability to say no, to draw on the rescuing angels and turn away the cup. So at every moment he had to choose to suffer in an immense and continual voluntas. But that on the cross the divine power he had always had withdrew with his Father. He was helpless then, and suffered without choosing. He knew the abandonment that we know.
Again we see that the peculiar doctine of the double atonement gives us a Christ who can give us anything we might need from, both heroic self-sacrifice and helpless suffering.
I see another possibility in the garden and the cross. Like most Mormons, I believe that much of our suffering is meant to help us, like Hugh B. Brown’s currant bush or like the refiner’s fire. Unlike most Mormons, I believe that part of the mortal condition is suffering that has no purpose. Some knives aren’t surgical. I believe that purposeless suffering is a necessary consequence of a world where we have free will and can have an affect on other people.
Even suffering with some ultimate purpose is still suffering. I think of Joseph Smith, seven-years old, with the knife at his leg. He still needed his father with him, because the purposefulness of the steel cutting at his flesh in no way abated the hurt. We similarly need our Christ with us when we hurt and can find redemptive companionship in his fellow suffering.
But just as its hard to see how he can share our experience ofsuffering helplessly if he never suffered helplessly, how can Christ be a companion with us in purposeless suffering if he never suffered without apparent purpose? His atonement suffering was the most purposeful that any suffering has ever been. Here is where the apparent pointlessness of having a second atonement episode comes in. Perhaps in a paradox the pointlessness is the point. In the atonement Christ embraced not only the suffering and misery and helplessness of mortality, but the pointless brutality too. Great is the Lamb.
Christ only did, they say, what he saw his Father saw. Does this mean that in some incomprehensible way that God the Father also suffered? Perhaps. Consider this. As we are free, some of us will choose to finally reject God. The weeping God of Mormonism will suffer because of that rejection. He will be helpless to avoid it. He cannot strip us of our will. And there will be no point in it. Those who reject God do not thereby make themselves or him any better than before.
We have two divine companions in our lowly state.