Wrestling with God

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You don’t say “Thanks” to a slave, do you, for doing what was commanded? The case is the same with you. When you have done everything that has been commanded you, say, “We are useless slaves! We have done what we were supposed to do!”

Luke 17: 9-10

One of the great conflicts in the gospel stories is that between the religious practice of the scribes and pharisees and the call of Jesus to discipleship with him. As we age, however, we discover that this is not so much an external conflict among different types of persons but rather an internal conflict within each of us.

In a famous line in The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky has one of his characters declare: “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.” As children we are trained and formed in the belief that it is because of God that we are to be and to do good. If we do good, we shall be rewarded; if we don’t, we shall be punished. To reverse the teaching of Jesus, in the gospel of John, we are not friends but slaves (John 15:15). The slave or servant acts on the basis of self-interest. The master’s will is done either because to fail to do so would lead to punishment, or, at best, to do so leads to profit and reward.

Many of the scribes and pharisees, at least as portrayed in our gospels, never develop a relationship with God beyond that of the child. They look for status and recognition as a result of their religious observance, of their fidelity to the law. Their relationship with God is not one of love and trust but rather a “contractual” one. This is what Jesus counters in his teaching today. The slave may obey his or her master, but as long as she or he remains a slave they will never love the master. And, in time, it is most likely that the fear of punishment will be replaced by a resentment that God has not kept God’s side of the bargain.

In our own spiritual lives, we must all come to the awareness that is at the center of the spiritual experience of Paul, a former Pharisee: we are saved by faith in the love and mercy of God, not by our obedience to the law. We look to be rewarded for our “goodness” because we cannot believe that it is ourselves, as we are, that God loves. The disciple of Jesus is not his slave but his friend.

A friend is one who loves us, not despite are weaknesses and failings but, at least in part, because of them. A true friend does not love us for what we do for them but rather for who we are. The friend sees in us a worth that even we do not know, a value and a deep goodness that far transcends our sinfulness and failures. The bond of friendship is not dependence on our fidelity to a contract, for eventually we shall always fail that, but rather a mercy and forgiveness when we fail because our friend recognizes in us a value and potential for love that is far beyond our weak ability to live it out.

Beyond anything we can do, our deepest and greatest need is to know that we are loved. We all know at some level, however, that to be loved requires that we abandon our autonomy and control over our own life. Spiritually speaking it can be easier to be a slave. By keeping our relationship with God dependent on our activity, we maintain a certain illusion of control and independence over our lives. We should not be angry and resentful, then, when the other party in our relationship refuses to dance to our tune (Luke 7:32). God may not “come through” on our terms because God is a friend, not a slave-master. God does not seek control over us, and we are not to seek control over God.

A gift of the diminishment of aging is that we are able to do less and less, and one of its most marvelous surprises is the discovery that we are not loved for what we do. For many of us, we have had to wait until our strength and overweening will power has abated to begin to learn this lesson. It is possible, however, to begin to learn it earlier in life through devotion to prayer, not prayer as another activity to please or pacify the God of our imagination, but a simple practice of submitting to reality by sitting still and doing nothing. In this way we begin to discover the one whom we are beyond our actions and beyond our willfulness, the one whom God loves as we are, as God created us.

In his memoir, Report to Greco, Nikos Kazantzakis shares a personal story. As a young man, he spent a summer in a monastery during which he had a series of conversions with an old monk. One day he asked the old monk: “Do you still wrestle with the devil, Father Makarios?” The monk answered, “Not any longer, my child. I have grown old now, and he has grown old with me. He doesn’t have the strength. . . I wrestle with God.” 

There’s a lot contained in that remark, “I wrestle with God.” Among other things, it suggests that the struggles in later life can be very different from what we battle earlier on. In the normal pattern of things, we spend the first half of our lives struggling with sensuality, greed, and sexuality; we spend the last half of our lives struggling with forgiveness and anger. That anger is often, however unconsciously, focused on God. In the end our real struggle is with God.

But wrestling with God has another aspect. It invites us to a certain kind of prayer. Prayer isn’t meant to be a simple acquiescence to God’s will. It’s meant to be an acquiescence, yes, but a mature acquiescence, come to at the end of a long struggle.

Ronald Rolheiser, OMI, Prayer: Our Deepest Longing, p. 59

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