Do you wrestle?
I had the privilege this weekend to sit in on two presentations led by Christian blogger and author Rachel Held Evans. At an afternoon session with the Arizona Foundation for Contemporary Theology she shared about the “evolving faith” of GenXers and Millenials, and what older Christians might do to minister with and to them. Then, at an evening session at Tempe First United Methodist Church she shared about her recent project, a “year of biblical womanhood.” (And, okay, I’ll be honest that that particular focus did not initially interest me, but I found her insights and her willingness to share about her faith refreshing and inspiring, so I attended after all…)
All of which is preface to share that Rachel’s comments, especially drawing from comments to this post, about the spiritual struggle of young adults resonated with me for a variety of reasons. In fact, when I arrived early for the evening presentation (I had nowhere else to go*), I shared with her that one of my favorite invite cards at our church read: You’ve got questions… on the front, with …so do we on the back.
Maybe it’s because I’m a part of Generation X myself, but I’ve not been bothered with the need to have answers to everything. Just like Mr. Henslowe repeatedly reminds us in Shakespeare in Love, when it comes to competing theological assertions I’m okay with the idea that “it’s a mystery.” Even John Wesley, the founder of my particular religious** tribe, basically instructed those who want to engage Scripture, when they come across a part they find particularly troublesome or difficult to understand, not to be overly anxious about it; but to return to it at some later date to then re-consider if it made more sense to them.
So struggling with faith, Scripture, doubt, etc. is not a foreign concept to me, and is something I readily embrace, even as one called to reach, preach, and teach.
So I’ve been reflecting the last two days that perhaps a good guiding image for what it means to seek a relationship with God comes from Genesis 32:24-31, where Jacob wrestles all night with a stranger (presumably God). The story includes the fact that Jacob is transformed as a result of his willingness to wrestle with God (e.g. his name is changed) and is blessed by God.
I have often said, “Faith is not the same as belief.” Belief indicates giving intellectual assent to some doctrine or teaching. Faith is about relationship; faith is about trust. And faith is very much about wrestling. After all, if God is so radically different and removed from human experience as to be considered “holy,” then our understandings of God must be challenged and transformed from time to time lest we re-make God in our own image. And so my childhood understandings of God and my relationship with Christ have undergone great change through the years; but my underlying faith has generally been blessed as a result of wrestling with God, with concepts about God, with Scripture, etc.
So it is okay to wrestle when it comes to faith. Looking at Jacob/Israel’s example, we could say it is to be encouraged, as transformation and blessing can result. And it is also, I would dare say, far more normative than bedrock assurance.
Between his penultimate and final hospital stays this past year, my father had about a two month period first in a rehab / care center and then in his apartment. During the time, I overheard him talking with a chaplain once – and I later had a conversation with another pastor whom he had visited with for some time. At the end of his life, he was experiencing a struggle in faith. He had been asked by the more-evangelistic chaplain if he was “assured” what was going to happen if or when he died. With both the chaplain and my Methodist colleague, my father opened up and talked about his struggle. Raised in the church all his life, of late he had been wrestling with the question of what was going to happen; and whether he was heaven-bound, or not.
I, too, have visited with many individuals who, nearing the end of their lives, suddenly started asking questions about whether God would accept them or not. It often times makes me sad to hear such questions, not because I think it belies a lack of faith – indeed, I would argue quite the opposite! – but because it suggests that certain tenets of belief may have outweighed the person’s faith/relationship with God; because in their own times of difficulty, rather than the lavish welcoming father the prodigal son encountered they envisioned God as a remote judge validating their decisions…
I know I don’t get all things right. (Some days I could argue I get very little right!) But I do trust and love God, even though at times I debate the very existence of God. I understand that God’s love for me is not fully dependent on whether I’m right, even as I struggle with what Scripture or tradition indicate is appropriate or not. And, at a level deep within, I firmly trust that God loves all the world, even as I, like others, have to wrestle with why there is pain and suffering and abuse…
I believe wrestling with God is normal, and positive. Perhaps it is in the striving with God and others that the purity of heart I long for might arise. Perhaps it is in wrestling with tough questions where I might encounter greater understandings of God’s unlimited mercy and love.
During one of her presentations Rachel referenced a quote that I also find in my notes from The Academy for Spiritual Formation; a quote from author Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letter’s to a Young Poet that seems an appropriate place to end:
Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
*This isn’t actually true. I took 30 minutes to walk from Tempe First up Mill Avenue, which I haven’t walked since 1995. Nostalgia kicked in big time – the Mill is just so radically changed from the days I was regularly visiting it…
**I intend to share more on my and others’ wrestling with the word “religion” in a future post…