Struggle and Surrender: Guest Post by Jen Pollock Michel
I am pleased to have Jen Pollock Michel guesting today with an excerpt from her soon-to-be released book, Teach Us to Want. Reflecting on the language of the Lord’s Prayer, Teach Us to Want guides us on a journey of understanding who we are when we want, and reintroduces us to a God who calls us to seek first kingdom and his righteousness.
Often we find ourselves in situations that don’t immediately seem desirable: a surprise pregnancy, as an example, or singleness or childlessness or unemployment or divorce. Struggle is an apt word for describing what happens in between the moments when God meets us with these unwanted surprises and we relent to his goodness—between God’s Word says it and I believe it. Struggle, in fact, is prerequisite to surrender because it necessarily signals that a battle has raged before the raising of a white flag.
If it were true that struggle, even desire, were of no estimation in the life of faith, if that all that mattered to God was obedience, no matter how mechanical, we would have an abridged version of the Scriptures. We could eliminate all the red-blooded men and women who want and pray--men like Abraham, women like Hannah. We could strike from our canon the stories of men and women who struggled to make sense of God’s call, and didn’t, at least initially, want to follow. And while we’re at it, we could do away with the confusion of the Garden of Gethsemane where the Son of God struggled to bear the enormity of surrender, where he prayed with the desire that God remove from him the cup of suffering (see Matthew 26:36-46).
Like it or not, the inspired Scriptures tell these impossibly human stories. These men and women look a lot like us. Their willingness and their wanting to do the will of God never arrived fully assembled. Their life was the making sense of the space between God’s Word says it and I believe it. They struggled to bear the weight of God’s sovereignty and to call it good, just as we do.
In fact, it seems clear that one of the only things we should learn to expect in our life with God is surprise (and struggle). There’s probably no clearer Biblical narrative of surprise than the story of Abraham, whom God called to “go to the land that I will show you,” (Genesis 12:1). This can hardly be considered a call of particular clarity. Abram subsisted on meager details about how God meant to fulfill his promises of land and family.
Although God tells Abram that his offspring will be as numerous “as the dust of the earth,” between the biblical record of chapters 12-14 in Genesis, a time span that surely occupies more years than it does pages, God intervenes with no words of reassuring guidance or clarification. Only after Abram voices his growing despair that his servant, Eliezer, will be heir does God interject to promise Abram a biological son (Genesis 15:4).
This would have seemed an opportune time to clear up the issue of maternity, but God is again silent, leaving it to Abram to walk into the mess of taking rival wife, Hagar, into his bed and producing a son, Ishmael, who promises to be “a wild donkey of a man, his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him” (Genesis 16:12). Only later does God affirm that the promised heir will also be Sarah’s offspring (Genesis 17:16), at which point the suggestion seems so outrageous as to produce outright laughter (Genesis 17:17).
If these major omissions weren’t proof enough of what would seem God’s reckless abandon to Abraham’s potentially missing his plans and purposes, we might also mention that when God first calls Abram to leave his familiarity behind and go to a strange land, he leaves out the inconvenient and messy details of the rites of circumcision, which he will later require of all the male members of Abraham’s household.
Why all this deliberate obscurity? Why does God seem to prefer to leave Abraham to moments of obvious doubt, even despair? Wasn’t this unnecessarily cruel? Could God not have spared Abram the difficulties, the missteps, and provided instead a clearer blueprint of his intended methods?
But clarity and certainty are not the soil in which faith grows, and had Abraham had more advance notice from God, he may never have become the man whose faith was credited to him as righteousness, a faith that was honest enough to admit to God his doubts, yet a faith resilient enough to wait on divine timing. “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). We please God, not by gymnastic feats of pious religion: we please him as we begin actively trusting, in the midst of our struggle, that he is good.
The Psalmist affirms that God’s word is a “lamp to [our] feet and a light to [our] path” (Psalm119:105), reminding himself (and us) that like Abraham, we will receive no more light, no more knowledge, no more certainty than is required for our very next step of faith. What is faith if not a series of hesitating steps forward? What is faith but feeling our way in the proverbial dark, unclear about the direction we’re taking, uncertain about the purpose behind the divine imperative? What is faith but the willingness to believe and act on the smallest, faintest perception of God’s voice and the divine nudge from behind? What is faith but the enormous risk of relinquishing the guarantees of certainty? These are the kinds of questions that challenge us to examine our desires and expose their real nature. Have we trusted—or have we demanded control?
Prayer is a means of bringing our authentic self to God and meeting him in these mysteries. We pray because we hope and believe that surrender can be forged there, on our knees. We pray because sometimes this is all we can do when desire and the undesirable have us knotted inside. We pray because, when the woods have gone dark, when the distance between God’s Word says it and I believe it feels like impossible terrain to travel and our only companions doubt and fear, we need words as simple as these: Your will be done.
Excerpt from Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition and the Life of Faith, by Jen Pollock Michel.
Jen is a regular contributor for Christianity Today’s her meneutics and also writes for Today in the Word, a devotional published by The Moody Bible Institute. She lives in Toronto with her husband and five children. You can find her at www.jenpollockmichel.com or on Twitter @jenpmichel. Taken from Teach Us to Want by Jen Pollock Michel. Copyright (c) 2014 by Jen Pollock Michel. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.comhttp://www.ivpress.com/cgi-ivpress/book.pl/code=4312