Often Lent is portrayed as that time of wrestling with the devil. After all the season itself began with the story of Jesus himself being sent into the wilderness where he would struggle with the devil. We learn early on that like Jesus in the wilderness, our lives are marked by times when we face the evil enticements of the devil. We are urged to resist and choose God. Lent, we learn from our youth, is a time when we can take account of the ways that we are challenged by Old Scratch and lean on God for strength to resist his tantalizing temptations.
Of course, it is good for us to give care and attention to how we struggle with the dark and sinister forces of this world. There is no doubt, that fighting our Common Enemy is a noble Lenten discipline. As we have just passed week four of this season, you may be tiring of your daily reflections of how to keep back the darkness. Is it possible that Lent might be calling us to enter into a deeper and broader conversation than the singular focus on our struggle with our own Archfiend? What if we took some time in Lent to struggle not just with the forces of darkness but to ask honest and difficult questions about how we experience God or how we struggle to know what God is doing or where God is?
I am reading a book entitled Losing your Faith, Finding Your Soul by David Robert Anderson.
The author offers an honest reflection about how life with its many seasons impacted his own ministry and his own practice of faith. He writes about the joy of knowing that God is so abundantly present and feeling immersed in the Spirit. He also is quite candid about how difficult it was for him at times to ascend the pulpit when he struggled with God and how God was present/or not in his life. This book is not for those who see doubt as an affront to a life of faith. Anderson is quite comfortable expressing his own crises of faith and is not only unapologetic for those times in his life, he articulates well how those dry moments on his journey became useful and instructive in his ministry. Perhaps one of the more powerful stories that he writes about was about Nikos Kazantzakis.
Nikos Kazantzakis was the Greek philosopher who wrote Zorba the Greek. Anderson retells a story found in Kazantzakis’ memoir Report to Greco. The writer took a trip, in his youth, up Mount Athos to seek counsel from Father Makarios who was known for his deep wisdom.
Young Kazantzakis asks the monk,
“Do you still wrestle with the devil?”
“Not any longer my child,” says the monk. “I have grown old, and he has grown old with me. He doesn’t have the strength.”
Nikos assumes that to mean the battle is over, and that the monk now lives in ease. Not so, replies Father Makarios. Now He explains,
“I wrestle with God
“With God!” exclaims the young man. “And you hope to win?”
“I hope to lose, my child.”
I love this story. One of the many reasons I like this story is the notion that Old Scratch eventually tires of struggling with the faithful — but God never tires of the struggle. God has been with us from the start and has promised to never abandon us. That is not to suggest that there have not been plenty of times when we have abandoned God. Good News: God is good with that! The wisdom of the old monk is rooted in a self-awareness that we often wrestle with God. In that battle of wills it the monk’s hope that he lose that struggle.
Life has a way of burdening us with many challenges. We can for a time live life as if all matters of faith are black and white. But eventually, inevitably, we all face loss, disappointment, judgement, unspeakable pain, the list goes on. Faith somehow seems easier when all things are well. But what do we do when it all turns to a pile of steaming crap? Anderson posits that its in those moments that we become ready for the gift of divine life. “Only people who have faltered, lost a step, suffered and died a little are ready for the divine life that cannot be earned or grasped but can only be received as a gift.”
When we come to those moments it is important to remember the wise words of the monk. We are going to wrestle with God and God will wrestle with us. It is in that time that we hope to lose. The willingness to struggle is in itself a step toward God. We can make it a matter of prayer. I think it is a prayer that we might all embrace. On this journey we would do well to access the honesty to admit that we do wrestle with God and embrace a faithfulness to pray that we will lose that struggle. Greater people than me have identified that struggle. Consider C.S Lewis who wrote about his willingness to engage God in the difficult questions in A Grief Observed:
“When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of ‘No answer.’ It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though He shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, ‘Peace, child; you don’t understand.”
I am so thankful that God is content to wrestle with me. As a result I am more than content to wrestle with God. I am taking time this Lenten season to spend time battling with the questions that are difficult to answer. Mystery is a great gift of God’s giving. It can be vexing when we want the answers with a sense of urgency and immediacy. Perhaps having the patience to be suspended for a time in that vexation and wrestling with God, will birth in a faithful response to the world around us; a response where God is made real for another who hears of our God who loves us enough to engage us, wrestle with us, and encourage us to ask the difficult questions.