Relationship with God, 2: Step One—Wrestling (5/8/05)
Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
Last week we started a series that is intended to explain my doctoral thesis. I began by explaining a problem I faced early in seminary with regard to preaching. Many of my fellow students, and even some of the professors, felt that there was only one reason to preach: to save souls. I would never denigrate the idea of salvation. I view salvation as a spiritual healing—a spiritual rebirth—that sometimes happens very quickly and sometimes happens over a period of many years.
But when my friends at seminary used the term salvation, they were talking about convincing people to make a specific confession of faith in Jesus Christ, which in turn earns a person the right to go to heaven when he or she dies. I just don’t think like that. I don’t think that claiming to believe the right things about Jesus is the point of the Christian faith. I don’t believe God intends to send us all to hell, but changes his mind if we start thinking about Jesus in the right way. And that is the primary purpose of most preachers: convincing people to think about Jesus the right way, thus saving their souls.
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As we discussed at length last week, my purpose in preaching is to point people toward a relationship with God. I think that once a person is in a relationship with God, everything else about life and morality and the state of our immortal souls falls into place. God isn’t some puppet we can manipulate into doing what we want by thinking the right way about religion. God is in control of eternity, which is very good news. It is hard enough to go through this short life we are granted on earth without making a lot of blunders along the way. None of us needs to be placed in charge of eternity. It is in God’s hands, where it belongs.
As I started working on my doctoral thesis, I came to believe there is a process a person goes through to be in a relationship with God, and I call that process wrestling, surrender and congruence. The most difficult part of the doctoral project was finding a way to test that thesis. How could I measure relationship with God? How could I tell if my preaching was actually strengthening people’s relationship with God?
I don’t want to bog down over process, but I’ll provide a brief overview of how I attempted to measure your attitudes—the congregation’s thinking—with regard to relationship with God. I designed the project for completion over a three year period, working through Chicago Theological Seminary. The insights from program reading and from class work at annual residencies in Chicago were incorporated into sermons. The subject of “wrestling with God” was the theme in the first year, “surrender to God” was the theme of year two, and “congruence of head, hands and heart” was the theme of year three. Each year the given theme was foundational for many sermons. There were eight benchmark sermons, spread over the three year process, which dealt with these issues more directly. These eight sermons were experiments in which I attempted to discover if my preaching was moving people toward a closer relationship with God. You may recall the video camera that appeared in front of the pulpit eight times over the past few years. Those were the eight project sermons, each of which was critically reviewed by a team of professors.
Relationship with God is a subjective matter, and I understood from the beginning that any measurements I took would not stand up to scientific scrutiny. Still, there are accepted research methods for the evaluation of Doctor of Ministry projects, and I chose a pro-active research method, intentionally and personally engaging in the project. Field notes, journaling, interviews and questionnaires were the primary methods of data acquisition.
In order to monitor reaction from church members it was necessary to establish a group representative of the congregation to assist me with the project. This “Parish Project Group,” or PPG, was composed of four men and four women who were demographically representative of the congregation with regard to age and economic status. I met with the PPG before and after each of the eight project sermons. About two weeks before each sermon, I explained the sermon purpose to the members of the PPG and asked for ideas that would resonate with the congregation. Immediately after the sermon, the PPG spoke with as many church members as possible, seeking feedback about the effectiveness of the sermon. The people of this group served as my eyes and ears among the congregation.
I also used surveys and questionnaires with other church groups, such as the adult discussion group that meets each Sunday morning. These surveys helped me chart actual changes in attitude regarding the subject of relationship with God.
Okay, that is probably more than you wanted to know about the process. But I do want to say that the results were very positive. My thesis—that there is a process through which a person enters into a meaningful relationship with God—seems to hold water. But now it’s time to move on and talk about that process itself: wrestling, surrender and congruence.
I contend that an honest relationship with God must begin with some wrestling. I acknowledge that there are a few rare people for whom faith is as natural as breathing in and breathing out. But they are rare. For most of us, to have an honest faith that can hold up to all the questions human life throws at us, we have to do some serious struggling.
Consider some of the claims of the Christian faith: Jesus Christ was a unique person, and his life, death and resurrection changed the course of human history; through Jesus Christ we are made one with God; the body of Christ still exists in this world, and it is comprised of the people who believe Jesus was the Son of God; the Bible is a special book, with a special type of authority; being a follower of Jesus affords us the best way to approach life in this world.
Most of us wrestle with these claims. In fact, many of us reject some of these claims, and still call ourselves Christians. But the fact is we don’t arrive at an honest faith unless we wrestle with these claims. To blindly accept as truth every claim of the Christian faith is not the way to enter into an honest and empowering relationship with God. To be in such a relationship one must think about, pray about, and even agonize over each and every claim of the faith.
This is one form of wrestling with God. But another form of wresting with God involves shaking your fist at the sky now and then. As a minister I see something happen far too often. A person suffers some tragedy, such as the unexpected loss of a loved one, and some well-meaning friend comes to the rescue by saying, “It’s God’s will.”
It’s God’s will. It’s God’s will that your five year old daughter got crushed beneath the wheels of a school bus. It’s God’s will that the plane crashed and killed your parents. It’s God’s will that your loved one died from some dreadful disease.
At the same time, if these things are not God’s will, then what good is God? If God does not have the power to keep such things from happening, then why worship God? Why praise God? What is the point? This is another form of wrestling with God. It is wrestling with what other people say about God. I think back to when Timothy McVey bombed the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City. If God is all-powerful, as many claim, why didn’t God have Timothy McVey hit a pothole in the road as he drove through the country toward Oklahoma City, and blow himself to smithereens? Was it God’s will for all those innocent people, including children at a day care center, to have their lives snuffed out by one man’s misguided hatred?
If we don’t ask these questions, I see no way for us to enter into an honest relationship with God. We’ve got to sort through our thoughts and feelings and come to some conclusions about who and what God actually is. At some point most people realize that God may be all-powerful, and God may be all-loving; but God can’t be both. And we realize that God must surely be all loving.
If we do think of God as all-powerful, we have to rethink what we mean when we say power. The great medieval mystic Julian of Norwich grew tired of hearing people talk about the wrath of God. She said that if God were to actually get angry even for a moment, the universe would simply fall apart, because it is God’s perfect love that holds all of creation in being. That sounds pretty all-powerful to me—but not in the way we usually think about power.
Consider the cross. We say that God conquered evil at the cross, that the crucifixion of Jesus was somehow a victory. Huh? Jesus was laughed at, humiliated, and tortured to a slow and painful death. What kind of victory is that? How did that conquer evil?
And this is such an important point. Jesus conquered evil at the cross not by igniting an atomic bomb and blowing evil to pieces; not by pulling out his mighty sword and slaughtering the evil forces aligned against him; not by miraculously coming down off the cross and floating through the sky in victory. Jesus conquered evil at the cross by entering right into the heart of evil—by entering into the very worst that evil could offer—and never losing his love. He didn’t lose his love. Not for a second. “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.”
And this leads us to the greatest wrestling match of all as we seek a relationship with God. You see, if that had been me at the cross, I would not have said, “Father forgive them.” I would have said, “Father, smite them. Let loose with the fire and brimstone and molten lava and slowly torture these terrible people to death in retribution for what they are doing to me.” “Father forgive them?” I don’t think so.
But we each have that Christ-like person living inside of us, trying to get out. He, she, is deep inside, in the depths of our hearts, hoping to shape us into truly loving creatures, born in the image of God and growing in the spirit of Christ.
And this is the greatest wrestling match of all: the wrestling match between our heads and our hearts. Kierkegaard wasn’t joking when he said the longest distance in the universe is the distance between a person’s head and heart. And this is where the wresting match plays out. We have our egos, centered in our minds, and our egos want what is best for us. We want the biggest piece of pie. We want to be admired. We want to stand out as somebody special in this massive sea of humanity. Each of us finds it quite natural to think to ourselves, “I am more important than the person sitting beside me because, well, because I am me. I am the most important person in the universe.”
We all think that way. It’s part of who we are. It’s in our genes. It’s part of what enabled our ancestors to survive in this very cruel world and pass their genes on to us. But it sets up quite a wrestling match between our head, where our ego resides, and our heart, where God resides.
I believe we are supposed to enter into this wrestling match. We are born to wrestle with the voice of our conscience from deep inside. We are meant to question the claims of our faith. We are supposed to think about life, and death, and our place in the world, and our relationship with God. We don’t enter into a relationship with God by blindly accepting whatever our religious leaders tell us is the truth. This is an internal battle that each of us must fight in our own way.
Now, if you take just a cursory glance at my thesis, you might think I am saying that this wrestling with God is a phase we go through, after which we leave behind our wrestling and move to the next step. If only it were that simple! This process of wresting, surrender and congruence is more of a continuum than a neat and clean step by step process. We all wrestle with God every day. There is no magic time when we say, “Okay, I’ve been wresting with God for the past 10 years of my faith journey—time to move on to the next step.” It just doesn’t work like that.
But in very general terms, I do believe we can look back at our lives of faith and say we were in a particular phase at a particular time. Of the three steps in the process—wresting, surrender and congruence—one of those phases tends to dominate at a particular time, and they tend to occur in that order—wrestling, then surrender, then congruence.
Today we’ve talked about wrestling with God and the many ways of thinking about that. The next step in the process—surrender—proved to be by far the most controversial part of my thesis. In fact, I had to fight for the use of that word—surrender—with the members of the PPG here in Wichita, with my classmates in Chicago, and with the professors and advisors in my doctoral program. I soon discovered that wrestling with God is quite simple compared with wrestling with feminists over the word “surrender!” In fact, I had to change the PPG group in year three of the project so I could hear almost exclusively feminist arguments against the word surrender.
But that is where we’ll take up next week, with the transition from wrestling with God to surrender to God. Between now and then, go ahead and wrestle. Shake your fist at the sky if you feel like it. God can take it.