Years ago, I taught a course at Georgetown University called “The Problem of God.” A requirement for first year students, the course was a “problem” to many of them: it challenged their faith as they reflected on why bad things happen to good people, the relationship of Christianity and other religions, the quest for the truth, the nature of religious authority, and the destiny of humankind. On occasion, the course led to a crisis of faith as old ways of thinking collapsed under the pressure of intellectual questioning.
In the spirit of a challenging college course, Jesus’ parable of the persistent widow and the story of Jacob’s wrestling with a nocturnal spirit were intended to raise as many questions as answers for their first listeners.
Jacob goes to a lonely place and wrestles all night with an unknown challenger. Neither of the two combatants gives up, nor does either of them win. At daybreak, Jacob’s opponent must leave, perhaps to keep his identity secret, and in usual fashion – Jacob who knew the “art of the deal” – asks for a blessing. The stranger blesses him and Jacob goes forth, now with a limp, but with the certainty that he has seen God face to face and survived the encounter.
Have you ever wrestled with God? Have issues of faith, ethics, and vocation ever kept you up at night? Have you ever asked, “God, where are you? Or, why did this happen to me or a loved one? Have you ever lost something you held dear, most especially your youthful certainties about the way the world is, and wondered if you’ll ever recover again?”
In reflecting on the Psalms, biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann describes three movements in the Psalms. The first is orientation – God’s in heaven and everything’s right with the world. “Oh, what a beautiful morning, O what a beautiful day, I’ve got a beautiful feeling everything’s going my way,” Curly proclaims in Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma.”
The second movement is disorientation – I think of Paul Simon’s lyrics, “We think we’re gliding down the highway, when in fact, we’re slip sliding away.” Everything we hold dear collapses, our familiar life plan disappears, and we don’t know the way forward. As Dante confesses, “In the middle of the journey of our life….. I found myself within a dark woods where the straight way was lost.” A child is diagnosed with a life threatening illness, a marriage collapses, a spouse dies unexpectedly, we have an unexpected panic attack, we lose our job and the place in community, we are accused of a moral failure, or we fall into deep depression. Everything we’ve hoped for is in doubt.
Then, if we are blessed, we experience a new orientation, and we might with the gospel hymn, proclaim “Over and over, over and over, my soul looks back and wonders how I got over.” We experience a healing even though grief and memories of trauma will always remain.
In these moments of dislocation every question, we have to entertain every doubt and emotion, and trust that God is with us, despite God’s apparent absence and our own doubts about whether or not we’re going to make it.
When life comes back together, it may be better than before, you may have greater wisdom and courage, you may treasure the simple pleasures of life, and experience God more fully, but you will always walk with a limp. You will go forward but with the wisdom born of life’s insecurity, and our need for a power and love greater than our own, and our utter dependence on a grace that comes when we least expect it.
In Jesus’ parable, a woman cries out to a judge, seeking justice and protection from a predator. We don’t know his actions. But, she is at risk. Her whole life is under threat, and she calls out to the legal sytem to help her. The judge who can act on her behalf is utterly disengaged. He could care less about the widow, but day after day, she comes to him, and finally wears him down.
Jesus asserts that even an amoral, apathetic judge can choose to do the right thing, and he proclaims that God is not that judge. God loves us and will give us what we need and when we need it. God cares, but the answers to our prayers occur in God’s good time, in the way that best addresses our needs and the needs of those around us.
There are times I get bored with my prayer life. I pray about the same things over and over again, and appear to receive no answer or magical or miraculous solution. We pray about a friend who is dying, hoping against hope she will receive a miracle; we pray about an addictive behavior and find ourselves backsliding despite our good intentions; we pray for strength and discover how weak we are. Our prayers make a difference, but are we able to persist when day after day we seek relief and nothing seems to change?
Jesus isn’t blaming or shaming those who lose heart in their spiritual lives. He recognizes the challenges we face and how weak our will and faith are at times. Jesus won’t judge or punish us for lack of faith. Indeed questions and doubts may be a sign of how seriously we take our faith and how important God is to us.
Jesus, like Jacob, tells us that sometimes the solution isn’t easy and the answers don’t come immediately. We may always walk with a limp, but as we keep on praying, we discover that there is someone walking beside us, holding us up when we can’t go forward on our own. We discover that faith isn’t about intellectual problem solving or even having the right theology or our difficulties solved. Faith is about relationship, about wrestling with someone who loves you, about asking questions and knowing they are welcomed, about reaching out and hearing a still small voice in the darkest night.
On a dark night, Jacob received a blessing and in her turmoil, a widow finally received support. Keep asking, keep challenging, keep praying, and in the midst of the journey – in that dark night when the way is uncertain – you will find just enough light for one step at a time until you find your way home.