Those of us who identify ourselves as activists of various stripes often use our work as a shield against our deepest fears and loneliness. Leery of those who peddle spirituality as self-help and who ignore the "root causes" of injustice and suffering, we can be fearful of admitting our own fatigue and dismay.
Within this tendency lies an interesting idolatry—one that is harder to identify than wealth, security, or even doctrinal purity. More often than not, we understand the gifts we have been given—the prophetic word, the cry of challenge to unjust systems—as something deposited in us, rather than something that flows through us. Thus we interpret our lives according to our faithfulness to this gift, rather than according to our relationship with the God who is the source of our gifts and callings. This severance casts our efforts in a strangely harsh light: It either causes us to interpret ourselves as being of singular importance, which renders us easily threatened, or it increases our already deep sense that we are always failing, no matter how hard we try. In either case, cut off from our life-source, the seed we sow in the world will be born of this fatigued arrogance, and we become just one more force out there imposing its vision on the world.
Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug (Isaiah 51:1).
Kari Jo Verhulst, a Sojourners contributing writer, was an M.Div. student at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass., when this article appeared.
It hurts to watch someone we love feeling stuck. Witnessing that kind of frustration and self-recrimination challenges our hope that our love will somehow make things better. We want to be able to save each other, and it is terribly painful to realize that we cannot. Thus we desperately look for some kind of release—a solution our beloved hasn't considered, someone or something to blame, or we simply try to talk the person into believing that they are okay. But these reactions stem from our need to get out of our own feelings of helplessness, rather than reflecting what the other truly needs.
Paul's unabashed confession of the sin that dwells in his "flesh," and his need to rely entirely on the "higher power" of God in Christ, leaves us little room to assure him that he's fine the way he is. His admission of helplessness in writing "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate" (Romans 7:15) is remarkably free of guilt. The sin he acknowledges is not something he's strained to recognize—rather, he experiences himself to be incapable of doing that which he truly wants to do.
Guilt, that complex emotion we all love to claim as our own religious inheritance, inhibits getting to the freedom Paul demonstrates here. Guilt does not encourage this kind of honesty, but rather preoccupies us with its eradication. So we live waiting for the other shoe to drop—to be discovered as the judgmental, lazy, resentful, jealous, you-name-it person we're deeply convinced we are.
What's more, guilt cripples our capacity to be in relationship, interpreting those around us as beings who might any day discover the truth about us. Guilt inhibits our capacity to genuinely say we are sorry, because it does not permit us the courage to sit in the pain of our own sinfulness and yet apprehend that we are still God's beloved. Thus God, too, becomes someone to avoid, rather than one to approach with a love that longs to know what God desires from us.
The God who rescued Paul "from this body of death" (Romans 7:24) isn't interested in increasing our guilt or shame but in a relationship of love in freedom. To enter into this requires an honest recognition that those "actions" we wrestle with—including self-hatred—increase sin's chokehold on the world. Each moment motivated by clinging to that which is ours—including our addiction to being inadequate, unlovely, and ungifted—leads to moments of meanness, of hatred, of judgment that make it that much easier to resist loving generously.
The "sower" in Jesus' parable is something of an irresponsible, if not incompetent, farmer. Disregarding the visible ground conditions, he tosses seed as if it were not scarce, onto whatever ground he happens upon.
Jesus' interpretation in Matthew 13:18-23 turns our attention to the soil that receives, prompting us to wonder about our own fecundity. But the parable points to more than our questionable ability to grow the kingdom. The imprudent generosity of the sower reveals a God who gives without considering the worthiness of the recipient. This apparent lack of taste travels from the sower and permeates the seed, growing in us a word that uproots our deepest assumptions about what is prudent and who is deserving. God's generous giving of self makes the stinginess of our self-protection that much more evident.
Confronted with this sower, we can turn our heads in shame, or stumble toward God in gratitude. If we embrace God's gratuitous giving, we come to recognize our very selves as lavish gifts from God. The Word sown and grown within sends us out like water onto dry ground as living words of promise and hope. We don't get to choose how and where we bless, and yet we are assured that we will not return to our sender empty.
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it (Isaiah 55:10).
As children, my sister and I spent summers weeding our family's vegetable garden, at times sacrificing a bean or carrot to accomplish the task we'd been given. The hardest work came in preparing a new plot; we clocked hours scratching at hard ground, with blistered hands and adolescent backs straining to extract entire roots intact. The survival instinct evident in the roots whose trunks had grown thick and wooden awed me, their roots turning to a near-perfect horizontal a few inches into the ground, then shooting back down again. More often than not, they defeated us and we'd leave behind reedy remnants, which we knew might one day rise again.
The weeds Jesus invokes are these kinds of survivors. Not harmless stray foliage, but kudzu-like entities that deprive other plants of their share of soil and sun. And yet destroying these deliberately planted predators is less important than leaving open the possibility for the wheat to grow. No potential for wheat is to be sacrificed—the gardeners are to leave them to the harvesters.
The patience of that kind of love to wait requires belief that evil and injustice will somehow be reckoned with, that creation will no longer groan. This is Paul's hope—an assurance of promise that by its very content stands as a guiding vision and roadmap for the present. This hope in Christ is unsettling, not pacifying, because it points out how far our present world falls from the re-creation, and how much we fail in resembling Jesus, our standard bearer. Life in this hope is lived in the "protest of the divine promise against suffering," said Jürgen Moltmann in Theology of Hope. It not only consoles us in the present, but it holds forth the word that God's promised restoration contains within it a strident rejection of suffering.
Prayer—the deliberate act of placing ourselves in the presence of God—is a tremendously difficult endeavor. The large number of books that tailor prayer to personality, piety, and theological framework suggests the desire people have for a felt relationship with God. There are thousands of Christians who live in the hope that there is a direct correlation between one's peace and prosperity and one's prayer life (a current incarnation of which can be seen in the bestseller The Prayer of Jabez). Yet there are also those of us who hesitate to ask for anything at all, and are leery of even thanking God for the blessings of our lives, since those "blessings" can include the spoils of an unjust global order. We tend to focus on seeking the kingdom and allow our lives and labor to constitute our praying.
And yet God asks us, as God asked Solomon, to "ask what I should give you" (1 Kings 3:5). This desire that God has for us is tremendously hard to trust when disappointment has cut us to the marrow—a beloved dies, our loneliness remains, disease rages in our bodies. Here hollow words that exonerate God—by emphasizing either God's sovereign right to say "no" or God's self-limitation in creating a world that is free—are cold comfort. They also interpret the prayer's purpose as achieving some kind of action, attaining a response, rather than that which places us in God's presence.
Relationship, it seems to me, is the purpose of all form of prayer. Even when we intercede for others, our praying for and with them deepens our solidarity with that for which we pray. "The Spirit helps us in our weakness," Paul writes, "for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words" (Romans 8:26). To be able to risk asking for what we need requires a trust that is capable of risking desire and love. This is the very trusting out of which all relationships are made possible—reaching out in hope that the sought-after will reach back.
Confronted with evening's advent, the disciples survey the crowds, observe the isolation of their surroundings, and start digging around in their pockets. Five loaves and two fish won't go very far. Briefly they panic, kick themselves for failing to anticipate a longer, more populous journey than they'd set out for, then stumble upon a solution: Send the crowds back into the villages to buy food, before they notice how hungry they've gotten.
Jesus doesn't let them off that easily. His words "you give them something to eat" force them to confront their deepest fear—soon the crowds will realize what inadequate people they truly are. The threat of being exposed—as lacking somehow—is compounded by the threat of the disgust awaiting us when the ones we've deceived—in the disciples' case, Jesus—realize that we've fooled them into loving us. The day of their calling, they must have appeared unusually smart and of good courage.
Chances are, you think you are the only one who lives in this fear of being found out. That sense of ourselves comes from the same economy of scarcity that makes us fret over how to stretch bread and fish, our selves, and our love. In the face of such want, and of our own failings and limitations, it seems utterly foolhardy to trust in God's abundant gifts, laid out before us and coursing through our veins. Yet this is the presumption God commends us to embody. While we run around readying ourselves—accruing the right skills, the right personality, the right spirituality—God is busy calling us as we are now to become his body distributed in the world.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food (Isaiah 55:2).
Elijah has come to the wilderness to die, certain that he is the only faithful one left in Israel. His orchestration of the upstaging of Baal—when, quite against the odds, the fire of the Lord consumed Elijah's water-soaked altar—caught the attention of Queen Jezebel, never one to suffer humiliation gladly. Now he has a price on his head. Exhausted, despondent, and somewhat resentful over this turn of events, Elijah sits "under a solitary broom tree" and asks to die (1 Kings 19:4).
God's response to Elijah's protest against his very life is gradual, so unobtrusive that Elijah barely acknowledges the bread and water left by his bedside. Having witnessed the cosmic display of might on Mount Carmel, it was easy to be disappointed by God's mundane presence.
On Mount Horeb, wind, earthquake, and fire split mountains and rock, recognizable signs for Elijah, as they were for Moses. But this time, God is not in any of them. God has changed languages—speaking now in the "sound of sheer silence" (1 Kings 19:12).
Peter, on the strength of his master's voice, walks across water toward Jesus. But as he goes, he remembers the wind that had battered the boat all night—those waves he'd forgotten about in the passion of his blind love. Their roar halts his step long enough for fear to take hold, and the sinking to set in.
Peter's conviction that he was about to go under, like Elijah's certainty that he was better off dead, comprise a remarkably certain "doubt." Jesus' question "Why did you doubt?" is both a challenge and an invitation to take notice of what hardened beliefs rise up and obscure our senses so that we cannot recognize God's presence. God knew Elijah didn't need another dramatic demonstration, but a sure presence reminding him that he was not alone. Peter needed to recognize in his friend and teacher the one who could still storms and rescue sinking bodies.
It is very difficult to reconcile Jesus' reaction to the Canaanite woman's cry for help with the Jesus we claim and profess. Jesus has just confronted the Pharisees' preoccupation with ritual cleanliness, insisting that it is what "comes out of the mouth" that defiles because it "proceeds from the heart" (Matthew 15:18). Yet he responds to her not as a mother in crisis, but as a Canaanite woman—her external status, at least initially, determines his response. We want Jesus to get it right.
But do we need Jesus to be so divine that we require him to know more than his historical and cultural location permitted? Might this story's significance lie in demonstrating Jesus' willingness to be converted by the woman, and in the woman's heroic insistence on her right to his ear? Her unrelenting campaign to find an end to her daughter's torment forces Jesus to recognize her as one he has been sent to serve. The courage she demonstrated in setting aside her internalized identity markers—her refusal to accept that she did not even deserve scraps from the table—not only led to her daughter's healing, but revealed to Jesus another layer of meaning behind his own teachings.
Much of our lives are spent worrying about how best to steward our resources. Knowing how much we've been given, and how immense the world's need is, the decisions we make over how to spend our lives can take on an agonizing weight.
These ruminations can fast become a form of paralyzing idolatry. God has not deposited in us a storehouse of gifts only to sit back and watch to see if we use them well. Rather, God's giving of our lives, and of our talents, is a giving-unto-the-body. Our gifts do not exist apart from our relationships with one another, because apart from the body we cease to be.
This means that as individuals we are simultaneously essential and beside the point. We can freely rejoice in another's talents because in doing so, we are rejoicing in God's gifting the world into being. This offers the hope of liberation from the need to be special, that great cultural idol that turns the gifts we've been given into precious commodities to be wielded and protected.
Years ago I heard of a religious order in which community members spent time intentionally doing work that fell outside their area of specialty. Beyond meeting the needs of the community, the practice was designed to break the communicants of their reliance upon their unique gifts—that habit of specialization that identifies the self with one's notable gift.
At the time, I was infuriated at the image of a woman with astounding mathematical ability spending her days doing laundry as a spiritual disciple—religion seeking to erase one's uniqueness. But I now recognize a greater wisdom at play. The luxury of choice—of contemplating how to best use the gifts we've been given—is, it turns out, quite beside the point.
No one's gifts stand apart, nor do they exist for their own sake. All that we have has been given to us, including our particular talents, for the mutual building up of God's kingdom. The only appropriate response to such a gift is gratitude—the kind of thankfulness that propels us outward in self-bestowing love.