Among the misconceptions people have about the Christian spiritual life—and there are many!—is the idea that it’s somehow easy. While we have all heard variations of this theme many times, youth seem particularly vulnerable to it. For many young people, when they have had a truly significant encounter with God and begun to explore their relationship with God more consciously, there is an expectation that everything will get better and life easier. After all, didn’t Jesus say that his “yoke is easy and … burden light”?
While there is undoubtedly a sense in which a life with God is better than one without God, it’s not a simple path of magic. Here, ‘better’ has nothing to do with false ‘prosperity gospel’ promises, and it most certainly doesn’t mean that life is easier. It can, in fact, get more complicated and difficult. Jesus also said that following him involved taking up a cross. In one famous phrase, Dietrich Bonhöffer said that when Jesus calls us to follow him he bids us come and die. One biblical writer said that ‘it is a fearsome thing to fall into the hands of the living God.’
I recall one of my youth ministry heroes, Mike Yaconelli, once responding to a parent who asked for help with her wayward child: ‘Yes, I can help ruin his life.’ He meant, of course, that when someone gets involved with Jesus there is no telling where it will lead, only that it will sometimes lead in unknown paths and difficult directions. In the process, it will lead to wrestling with God.
This reality of the spiritual life is clearly pictured in several biblical passages, but perhaps most clearly in the story of Jacob wrestling with the ‘angel of the Lord’ (who in fact turns out to be none other than a manifestation of God). Jacob wrestles with God, is injured in the process, but in the end receives God’s blessing and a new name: ‘Israel’, meaning ‘God-wrestler.’ Eventually not just this one person but all God’s people in the Hebrew scriptures are called Israel—a nation of ‘God-wrestlers.’
Sadly, many young people are unprepared to meet a living God who refuses to dwell in religious boxes, no matter how pretty we try to make them—a God who is a respecter neither of ‘personal space’ nor ‘comfort zones.’ When you expect God always to lead gently like a shepherd, as God most certainly does sometimes, what do you do when this God turns dangerous and wants to wrestle?
To be sure, much of what passes for wrestling with God is not really so much about God as it is with things we think or believe or have heard about God. Sometimes all of us, young or not, confuse things we’ve been told about God with God. Sadly, too often young people are subjected to attempts at ‘discipleship by indoctrination’ and are not taught how to wrestle through issues and beliefs. As Anne Lamott puts it, in a slightly different context: ‘God forbid that you should have your own opinions or perceptions—better to have head lice.’ [Bird by Bird, 110-111]. A theology professor I had one time told me in class that ‘You will find it much easier to live with yourself if you would just stop asking questions and believe what I say.’ What he really meant was that he would find it much easier to live with me if I stopped asking questions.
The unhappy truth is that this approach to discipleship doesn’t stand young people in good stead when beliefs are challenged, either from within or without. Through years of experience working with youth, I have witnessed far too often how it sets them on a course for disillusionment and disaster. It may seem like hard work, but it is far easier to teach basic navigational skills than to rescue those who have shipwrecked.
Many youth leaders and pastors, however, find themselves ill equipped to deal with the real-life questions, fears, doubts and struggles that young people face. In part, the church is to blame for this situation because we just have not invested the time, treasure and talent we talk so much about in either our young people or those who minister most directly among them.
In another way, we have simply not awakened to the illusion that we have to have the answers—that we have to somehow ‘fix’ the beliefs and ‘counter’ the doubts and ‘reassure’ the fears of young wrestlers. As we learned the true nature of spiritual mentoring as ‘walking with someone,’ we realise that integrity means refusing to ‘play-act religion’; it means admitting that we don’t have all the answers, letting them know that we, too, are wrestlers and committing ourselves to discerning together. Wrestling with our beliefs, struggles and faith can be a lonely experience when we are left feeling like we wrestle alone. How much better to know that we are part of a community of wrestling people!
This is even more important when we are not just wrestling with things about God but actually with God. God is just not some Big Idea out there somewhere. God is not just some Star Wars Force. God is the living God, and the living God engages us in living relationships. Living relationships are not just joyful and full of easy blessing. They’re messy, sometimes difficult, and often involve wrestling with the beloved—even the Beloved. I don’t suppose it’s coincidental that the biblical writers use metaphors of friendship, family, romance and marriage to describe our relationships with God.
Many biblical heroes from Moses and Lot through the prophets wrestled with God in different ways. Even Jesus wrestled with God in prayer to the point of sweating blood. The post-biblical saints frequently describe their relationship with God in terms of a phrase I’ve chosen for my tombstone: ‘I had a lovers’ quarrel with God.’
Young people simply cannot be abandoned in their wrestling with God. Even though we can’t spare them the risk of injury in the process, what better than for them to engage our dangerous God—or to wrestle with the sense of God’s absence—in the community of other God-wrestlers?
Is it worth it? Yes, of course, because, as Mr and Mrs Beaver said of Aslan, of course God’s not safe—but God is good.