The Problem of Invisible Resistance

The Problem of Invisible Resistance

A few years ago, I started cycling.

And by cycling, I don’t mean the I-need-to-commute kind of cycling I’d done at school and doing college ministry, but the Now-I-will-wear-lycra-pants-and-shoes-that-clip-in type of cycling. To say that the learning curve was steep was putting it mildly. I still blush a little when I think of how many times I came to a stop and, having forgotten to unclip my shoes from my fancy pedals, realized too late I had no free feet to put down and so just keeled over onto the sidewalk. (It’s okay if you laugh. We all did.)

I remember taking my first longer ride out into the country: a 25 mile round trip, with a half-way stop at a cute coffee shop which was welcoming to smelly lycra-clad cyclists. The first two or three miles was gorgeous: an encouraging warm sun just rising, the breeze in my hair, the regular breathing that felt like life in my lungs. But a few miles in, I was suffering. I couldn’t figure out why: the terrain was flat, and I’d gone so much further than that on the stationary bikes in the gym before. Could I really be this unfit? Had my hours of training until now been so ineffective?

I nursed my disappointment quietly over my coffee while my riding pals chattered on, not sure whether I had the stamina to make it back. I gathered up my shards of courage and mounted my bike, prepared to make my excuses about why I couldn’t keep up with the others on the long ride home… but a few miles in was stunned to find that the trip home was going so much better than the way out had gone.

Really? Why? Why had it been so hard, and now it was going more smoothly? If anything, I’d expected the second half to be harder as the sun was higher and I was that much more tired.

I muttered to the much-more-experienced cyclist next to me: “the way home is going a little easier than I expected.” She laughed: “yup. that’s the difference a tail wind will make.”

A wind? I couldn’t feel it. I hadn’t felt it on the way there, and I couldn’t feel it on the way back… all I was aware of was the feel of the breeze as I biked… but as it turned out cycling directly into a 5mph headwind and then cycling back aided by a 5mph makes a huge difference to how much work it takes to bike. In fact, the difference isn’t even linear: it’s an exponential function (here’s a graph if you have a geeky itch that needs scratching). It requires DOUBLE the amount of power to bike at 20mph as it does at 15mph, just with regular wind resistance caused by the fact that we’re moving through air. If you have a 5mph wind against you at 15mph… well, you do the math.

As it turned out, the struggle was that much worse not because I was failing my training in ways I hadn’t even accounted for, but because I was meeting with real, albeit invisible, resistance.

I was chatting with a friend recently who has been feeling deeply discouraged in some areas of her life where she wishes she were just doing better/being stronger. She sounded exhausted, and was filled with self-reproach that the struggle she was going through was just further evidence of spiritual failure: “If I weren’t so evil, this wouldn’t be so hard to overcome,” she lamented.

But as she described her journey, I became more and more convinced that there was something spiritual going on, too. Christian theologians have long described the enemies of the soul as consisting of the world, the flesh and the devil. My friend was accounting for the world and the flesh in her struggle (and those are real), but it had not crossed her mind that there might be more at work there than she was giving it credit for.

The western church, for all its love of CS Lewis, does not have nearly a robust awareness of the spiritual realities of a dark and evil opponent in the life of faith as our older brother in the faith did. The Screwtape Letters are worth revisiting regularly not only for their written genius, but for the stark reminder that there are evil, personal powers at work to distract and discourage us. “We are not unaware of his schemes,” wrote the Apostle Paul. Sadly, that can often not be said of us.

The image of me, discouraged and beating myself up for my weakness on that first long bike ride, came to mind as I talked with her. Just like I sometimes do not take the invisible-but-real resistance of the wind into account when biking, so too we do not take the invisible-but-real resistance of the enemy into account, as he blows straight into our faces to slow us down and impede our progress.

And exhausted, we collapse and say to ourselves the words the Accuser (that’s what His name means, anyway) hurls at us: failure. weak. evil. quitter. laughable. why do you even bother?

But it helps to know that there is an enemy. It helps to know that the resistance we are feeling is real, and not imagined, and that the fight we are fighting is not just because our faith-muscles are weak but also because we are wrestling against a skilled opponent. Satan is the invisible headwind on our course, and he delights to remain unnamed and unnoticed so that we will lose heart.

But we will not lose heart. Forgetting what is behind, we press on; fueled by faith and reaching forward—ever onward and upward—to complete the race. We learn, as skilled cyclists do, how to keep your head down and cycle close behind others: for these things do a lot to decrease that relentless invisible resistance.

And so, together, we will go the distance. For we are not unaware of his schemes.

When What I Desire Is The End of Suffering

teachustowantMy friend Jen Pollock Michel has written a beautiful book called Teach Us To Want: On Longing, Ambition and the Life of Faith. It is exquisitely written, theologically profound, and I am savoring each page. Jen asked a few writers to share their thoughts on desire and what we really, really want. I was honored to guest post over at her blog last month: this here is the more detailed version.

The prayers of my youth were filled with desire. Prayers for a boyfriend, for college scholarships, for permission to go on the sleepover at the popular kids’ house. I wanted those things with a guilty, drenched need, and did not know where else to turn than to the God who gave good gifts. Those were the good gifts, as far as I could understand them.

The prayers of my adulthood still carry echoes of the prayers of my youth. In truth: I still pray about men, opportunities and friendships. However, I find that the life of being a mom and friend in a sin-soaked world are leading me to pray a host of different prayers of desire: “Please, I want it to be better. Please, let it not hurt anymore.”

We have weathered a good number of storms over the years, but I remember clearly the first tsunami of pain which made me pray that prayer most fervently. Our family was devastated by violent crime and we had no answers, no balm.

Instead we had questions, the most oppressive of which was this: “why would a good God let this happen?” We wanted so badly for things to be well with our loved ones, we desired good things from the one who “gives people the desires of their heart” (Psalm 37:4), and wasn’t he supposed to be the one who knew how to give his children good things? If we asked for a fish, would he give us a snake? If we asked for an egg, would he give us a scorpion? (Luke 11:11-12)

And yet there we were: snake-bitten by crime, scorpion-stung by violence.

I would not say that, having endured that trial, that I solved the ‘problem of evil’. That particular suffering challenged my faith significantly, but even in the absence of finding intellectually satisfying answers to my heartbroken questions, I still found myself drawing closer to God rather than pulling away from him.

Unglamorous as this may sound, I believe the main reason I stuck with Jesus was that I didn’t have any better alternatives. Again and again I was drawn back to John 6, where the disciples challenge Jesus with his teaching saying “this is hard to accept!” Jesus’ challenged them in reply: “will you leave me also?” Peter’s reply rang in my ears for weeks: “to whom else shall we go? We know and have believed that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:60-69)

In the wake of our trauma, I considered my options: I could deny there was a God (not really an option.) I could opt for a different religion: Islam (but Allah seemed so capricious.) Hinduism (but I really wasn’t persuaded, and the pictures gave me the creeps.) It was looking into Buddhism, though, which finally pointed me back to Christianity.

The four noble truths of Buddhism teach this:

All is suffering (dukkha), and

 Suffering is caused by desire.

 If one can eliminate desire, one can eliminate suffering.

 Finally, the Noble Eight-fold Path can eliminate desire.

My soul rebelled. The notion that the suffering we were experiencing was caused by a (wrongful) desire to not have things hurt seemed unconscionably inhuman. Far from helping me find peace, Buddhism made me angry: it was simply NOT TRUE that we were suffering because we had a wrongful desire not to suffer.

I needed someone to say that the suffering was wrong.

I needed to know that longing for wholeness was good.

I needed someone to say that ‘good’ was, in fact, good; and that ‘evil’ was truly ‘evil’.

I needed to know that my desire for things to be right was not a denial of my truest spiritual self, but in fact a deep expression of my truest spiritual self.

In Jesus, I found someone who did just that. He wept over death. He “set his face” towards the things he wanted to accomplish. He grieved over the bad, and gave his own life “for the joy set before him”. My soul needed to know that both grief and hope were appropriate and full expressions of the human experience.  In Jesus, I found someone who acknowledged and affirmed that both my desires for joy and relationship and my desires for pain and suffering to end were good things. And more than that, they were things he desired for us too.

The timeline in which those desires would be met still needed some negotiation.

But the desires themselves were good and God-given, even in the valley of shadows.

The prayers of my adulthood are filled with such prayers.

 

Help, I’m asking the question I’m not supposed to ask.

20131129-104201.jpg“Dear Bronwyn,
I’ve been in the church long enough to know I’m not supposed to be asking this question. I feel a HUGE amount of guilt about it, but I have to ask: “Why?” Life is ridiculously hard sometimes. Why doesn’t God save us and bring us home to him? Why doesn’t he just get us out of here? He can do it. He is able. He already knows the end of the story (who will come to him or not) – so why doesn’t he just make it happen? I know I shouldn’t be asking this question, but my soul is crying out for an answer, and every pastor I hear speak on this seems to be giving a cop out answer. I’m not asking why bad things happen – I know we live in a fallen world. I am asking why we have to live here in the first place when it’s so awful. My non-believing friends ask me this question and I think “hmm, good point” and give them the cookie cutter answer I know I’m supposed to say. But I’m sad, and confused. Maybe I’m just weak.
– Signed, Judge Me or Judge Me Not.”

Dear JMoJMN,

I cannot judge you, and I cannot answer your question either. Why God allows suffering at all, and why He allows it to continue, are questions which fall into the “I don’t know” category. With tears and sadness, I’m sorry to say I don’t know either, and say that cop out answers make me angry too. We cannot explain the purposes and mysteries of God, and while He has given us some clues as to why suffering sometimes happens (due to sin, discipline, disobedience, or even because he has some glorious purpose to work out, like when he let Lazarus die so he could raise him again) – the fact is He almost never tells us which of those reasons (if any) applies to our particular situation.

I don’t know why He allows it, and I don’t know why He hasn’t come yet – but as with so many things in my faith, I find myself faced with a choice when I feel like despairing. I have to choose to cling to the little I do know, or to walk into the great and painful void of things I don’t know.

When I’m hurting and praying for things to resolve, these are some of the verses I cling to:

“The Lord is near to the broken hearted” (Psalm 34:18)

“But as for me, I will trust in you.” (Psalm 55:23b)

“Your promises have been thoroughly tested, therefore your servant loves them.” (Psalm 119:142)

“Jesus wept.” (John 11:35)

“and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4)

But I hear you: in the midst of clinging to those promises, sometimes my heart breaks that the pain still continues for now. However, I don’t believe you are a “bad Christian” for asking these questions. Indeed, the first century believers repeatedly prayed “Maranatha! COME Lord Jesus, (1 Corinthians 16:22)” a prayer for speedy deliverance if ever there was one. To beg God to make it end quickly, and to despair over the brokenness of the world is not a sign of being a bad or faithless Christian – it seems to me to be a deeply biblical response.

But it’s hard. It’s oh-so-hard. I find myself coming back to two stories in the gospels again and again when I find myself bewildered by the lack of answers. The first is in John 6, when Jesus had been doing some hard teaching. His disciples challenged him: “This is a difficult statement; who can understand it?” (verse 61). In response to his answer, “many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore.” (v66). John tells us that Jesus then asked the twelve: “You do not want to go away also do you?” Simon Peter answered him: “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have believed and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:67-69)

The second account is in Mark, where Jesus comes down from the Mountain to find the disciples floundering after failing to heal a boy possessed by an evil spirit. The father of the boy asked Jesus for help, saying “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us!” Jesus replies, “IF you can? All things are possible to him who believes.” And immediately, the boy’s father cried out “I do believe! Help me in my unbelief!” (Mark 9:22-24)

I come back to these passages often. I find myself bewildered and hurting and wondering if I can accept the answers I’m hearing, or if God can do anything about it and have pity and help us. My words are the disciples’ words, the boy’s father’s words. And I hear Jesus’ gentle answer to me: “IF I can do anything? Are you also going to walk away because this is hard?”

In those moments, I have to reply with those first believers: “I do believe, but HELP me in my unbelief. And besides which, where else shall I go? You have the words of eternal life.” I cannot even begin to tell you how often I’ve come back to these two stories. I don’t know the answers, but I know enough to know I have no better option than to lean into him when I’m hurting.

It’s okay to not know. We are called to be witnesses to what we know, not what we don’t. Over the years, one of my favorite hymns has become the Celtic classic “I cannot tell” (to the wondrous Londonberry tune – lyrics and music video below), which makes this point most beautifully: there are so many things we don’t know and understand. So many things that hurt and confuse and overwhelm us, mysteries beyond us. There are things we “cannot tell”. But then there are the things we do know, and it is those we cling to and sing of and in which we place our hope.

I’m praying for you, friend. Armed with an “I don’t know” for the mysteries, we cling to that which we know. We DO believe, may He help us in our unbelief, and comfort us as we wait.

I cannot tell why He whom angels worship,
Should set His love upon the sons of men,
Or why, as Shepherd, He should seek the wanderers,
To bring them back, they know not how or when.
But this I know, that He was born of Mary
When Bethlehem’s manger was His only home,
And that He lived at Nazareth and labored,
And so the Savior, Savior of the world is come.

I cannot tell how silently He suffered,
As with His peace He graced this place of tears,
Or how His heart upon the cross was broken,
The crown of pain to three and thirty years.
But this I know, He heals the brokenhearted,
And stays our sin, and calms our lurking fear,
And lifts the burden from the heavy laden,
For yet the Savior, Savior of the world is here.

I cannot tell how He will win the nations,
How He will claim His earthly heritage,
How satisfy the needs and aspirations
Of East and West, of sinner and of sage.
But this I know, all flesh shall see His glory,
And He shall reap the harvest He has sown,
And some glad day His sun shall shine in splendor
When He the Savior, Savior of the world is known.

I cannot tell how all the lands shall worship,
When, at His bidding, every storm is stilled,
Or who can say how great the jubilation
When all the hearts of men with love are filled.
But this I know, the skies will thrill with rapture,
And myriad, myriad human voices sing,
And earth to Heaven, and Heaven to earth, will answer:
At last the Savior, Savior of the world is King!

Photo credit: scripturelady.com

Big, Brave, Badass Prayers

Please forgive my rude title.  Desperate people need desperate words, and my dictionary says “badass” means 1) tough or aggressive, or 2) formidable, excellent.

I mean it in the first sense, with all the brokenness and bewilderment that I can summon alongside it.

Because this prayer thing? I’m lost.  I’m bewildered and broken, and I’m finding that sometimes that calls for big, brave prayers. Badass prayers, even. Prayers that Psalmists prayed: laments, petitions, cries for deliverance.

It is one thing to pray for pain and brokenness when I am alone. And it is another thing to pray for pain and brokenness when I am in the company of other believers: I have learned the Christian etiquette of praying “thy will be done”. We cover all our bases: praying that things will get better, but then adding “but if they don’t, then please comfort us in our disappointment”.

However, it is another thing altogether to have found myself praying for pain and brokenness this past week in the company of beloved ones who don’t call themselves Christians and who don’t know the “cover all your bases” (by which we mean, cover all God’s bases for Him) type of prayers. To pray about situations with God-sized problems and which need God-sized answers in the hearing of someone who is not sure if God is even listening calls for a kind of faith muscle I’m not accustomed to flexing.  As Rachel Marie Stone insightfully pointed out, maybe it calls for the prayers of the Psalms and other Biblical figures, rather than the prayers of our protestant practice.

Something deep shifted in me, and I found myself praying big, brave prayers for specific relief in specific ways. I asked for huge relief, without adding the fineprint of  “but if you don’t do it…” clauses. And as my words came out loud, these words were whispered in my soul:

woman-praying-silhoutteOh God – SHOW UP here! DO SOMETHING!
Your name and reputation depends on it!
Please, show up, and show you are real and you care.
Stoke my faith, and light theirs into being.
Please, O Lord, Show Up!

I am simultaneously terrified and emboldened. I feel a little of the Psalmists’ pulse: a cry for deliverance, a cry for vindication, an appeal to God’s honor. I’m still praying make it count .  And I’m clinging to Jesus for an Amen.