I’m from a family of conflict avoiders. When relationship rupture occurs, we avoid each other until we can’t anymore and then pretend nothing happened. It’s felt like this has been the only way to be in relationship with my extended family members.
Recently I’ve realized this is a pattern I’ve carried into my relationship with God. When I’m struggling in my relationship with him, I repress or ignore the problems. Or I allow myself to ask questions but presuppose all of the answers. I don’t want to let myself land in a place of no faith.
Now I feel like I’m being forced to choose: I can continue with what hasn’t been working for me but seems more spiritual (“just have faith!”), or I can dynamite everything stable in my life to break the pattern.
Forgive me for not being excited about the latter option. It reminds me of what Thomas Merton says of the contemplative experience: it “awakens a tragic anguish and opens many questions in the depths of the heart like wounds that cannot stop bleeding.”
I’ve read your first book and know that you did the hard work of trudging through your evangelical past with all of the accompanying questions, doubts, and hurts. I guess I’m looking for encouragement from someone who’s been there.
Why is it worth it to do the work?
There is a story in the Bible about a man named Jacob who wrestles with an angel.
At least we, most of the time, assume it was an angel. Scripture doesn’t specify, only that “Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of day,” and that when he limps away at last, he names the place Peniel: “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is delivered.” (Genesis 32:30).
It sounds from your note that you, too, come from that complicated faith background called evangelicalism; or sometimes, depending on the severity of belief, fundamentalism.
If that’s true, then you probably know about that biblical trickster Jacob – son of Isaac, brother of Esau, who sucker-punched his big brother out of his birthright and conned his way into the blessing of his father.
Jacob knew how to work the system and got worked over himself a time or two. (Remember that time he worked for seven years to marry Rachel and was tricked into marrying her older, less attractive sister Leah instead?) Jacob returned the favor by conning his father-in-law out of most of his livestock, becoming wealthy before he turned back to his homeland to claim his inheritance, his blessing.
I never could relate all that much to Jacob and his sneaky, willful ways. I’m much more like you, dear Lynn – someone who avoids conflict and stuffs feelings. I too am a desperate people pleaser, prone to martyring my feelings and desires to make others happy.
And yet, there’s something about this lonely, staggering night at the Jabbok River that resonates with me.
After all, this is so much how my faith struggle went.
I never set out to wrestle with God. What I was trying to do was storm off and leave it all behind me. After all, I had done everything “right.” I had been the evangelical poster-child: the Bible study and prayer group leader, the worship-band-singer, that teen-missionary, on-fire-for-God all the way to my toe tips. And still, it hadn’t been enough.
It hadn’t been enough to keep me afloat. No matter how faithfully I showed up to Caribou Coffee in the mornings to read my Bible, to journal, to pray, God never seemed to show up. No matter how many ministries I joined, I couldn’t seem to plug into whatever grace was meant to surge through church communities and into my own heart.
Depression grew bigger inside of me, a creeping shadow that blunted out any glimmer of God, and no matter how much I begged for Light, it never came.
And I was over it.
I was drinking extraordinarily large margaritas at the Don Pablo’s bar after work and raging to anyone would listen to me about the crappy Church People. My fury was sharp and steely. A weapon. A tool. It was the handsaw I was using to cut myself away from whatever was linking me to the faith landscape of my youth. I wanted to untether myself from it all and drift away on some ice floe. Alone. Free.
I wasn’t looking to wrestle God. I only wanted to fulfill my childhood dream of becoming a writer – a creative nonfiction writer, to be specific.
I was taking classes in the MFA program at Hamline University, showing up tequila-soaked and sweary for class. And then, my professor – a tall, stylish agnostic – looked at me over her cat-eye glasses and said, “You’re going to have to write about your evangelical past,” she said. “Clearly, this is your work,” she said.
It felt in those days like an angel had jumped out at me by some lonely riverside. It felt like violence, like fury. In the story, Jacob wrestles and rages and rails against God until the breaking of day. I did too. I didn’t seek out the fight…but I had an essay due for class. I didn’t want to deal with any of it…but I grew up “on fire for Jesus,” and I had to write a memoir. I could no more avoid the violence of it than Jacob could avoid the fists of the God-man who assaulted him at the river.
When I think about those grad school days, I remember exhaustion. It was emotionally charged, shattering work. It was pounding fists and pounding tequila and raging against the holy, trying to push, push, push it away until all at once, it wasn’t. It was hanging on for dear life.
When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day has broken.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go until you bless me.’”
I know it’s counterintuitive, but I will tell you the greatest truth I learned in the raging, Lynn: it’s not wrestling with God that will “land you in the place of no faith.” It’s the not wrestling.
I think it’s possible to pretend at faith for so long that whatever was once alive inside of you crumbles and drifts away like dust. It’s possible to shove the questions and the doubts down, down, down until they become malignant, a tumor.
I know. There are a thousand reasons to avoid a confrontation with the Holy – not the least of which is the exhaustion of it, the “wounds that cannot stop bleeding.” But also, to avoid that confrontation is to miss out on the transformation – that moment when the fighting becomes a desperate clinging. Maybe the truest moment of your life.
Before Jacob returns home, moves back toward the promise and the hope and the redemption, he has to pass through here – this place at the Jabbok River, this place of raging.
And to get to the truer, more generous landscape of faith that awaits us, we too have to pass through here.
Lynn – it sounds to me like you are already there. You are at the riverside, and the angel has jumped into your life with this violent invitation to rage and wrestle. I know you’re afraid. When confronted with a stressful situation, you, like me, are not prone so much to mobilizing – to the standard Flight or Flight response. We tend to “Freeze” instead, all that unused frantic energy becoming locked up in our nervous systems while we stay as still as possible and wait for the danger to pass.
I know it goes against your nature to fight, to engage in this violent kind of questioning. But I also know that you are safe in this wrestling. You are wrestling God, wrestling the angel, wrestling Love itself. You will not be destroyed.
So fight. Wrestle. Rage. Blow the whole thing up. This is not how you lose faith. This is how you claim it.
The touch of God throws everything out of whack in the most painful, beautiful way, like the touch of the angel at the end of the wrestling match by the river. It changes everything.
May you, Lynn, have the courage to engage where you usually don’t, to fight where you typically freeze. To confront the ways you have been disappointed and hurt and frustrated by God and by the church and by a version of faith that has so often gotten it wrong.
You can walk away from this moment – it’s true. But I hope you will fight. I hope that you find yourself loved and broken by a God who is big enough to handle your rage and your questions.
I hope that when the night is over, you find yourself limping away from the river, toward your new, old home. I hope that you find yourself with a new name, one that is truer than any name you’ve ever had.
I hope that it changes everything.
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