When someone is drowning, so we are told, they will struggle against a rescuer, endangering both lives. There is no logic to that, but sometimes we can be our own worst enemies, illogically. That certainly describes the human spiritual path. From as far back as we know, and perhaps even further, mankind has struggled against God’s rescue efforts. The title “Israel,” meaning “wrestles with God” is a deserved one for the whole human race.
The heart of the Bible is the account of salvation history. It records that the earth is the Lord’s, created as a bountiful and beautiful garden to be enjoyed by countless species. At the pinnacle, created to manage the planet, humans were formed. The Divine motivation was love, which always seeks an object for its affections and looks for a responding love. But in seeking a genuine response, the option to reject love must also be there or it is no choice, and thus no real love at all. Alas, at that point the struggle began. Humans did not want to love God, they wanted to be God.
There are a lot of planets. Why at that point, God didn’t simply scrap this one and concentrate on another one, perhaps a more receptive and grateful one, speaks of an extraordinarily patient love. The Bible story continues with the details of how God has gone to great lengths to repair the damage, to rescue mankind and the whole earth from the consequences of the human rejection of his love.
The damage is all around us, in the stories through history and in today’s breaking news, of violence, greed, idolatry, destruction, adultery, abuse, environmental disasters, and more. These actions lead to suffering, starvation, health crises, economic disparity, spiritual despair, heartbreak, loss of habitat, all manner of sad consequences.
God offers his grace, which is to say, his unconditional forgiving, healing and entirely effective love, as a way out of the bottomless pit which is the human condition without that grace. A logical response is the 16th Century English theologian Richard Hooker’s comment of “what else could be in the mind of a faithful communicant [of the Eucharist] other than ‘My God, thou art true, my soul thou art happy.”
Yet looking around, many souls are clearly not happy. Instead of joyfully receiving and celebrating God’s free gift of grace in profound gratitude, multitudes struggle against the Divine solution. For many, pride may be the reason. It is their contention that they can fix the mess by themselves, without help. The solution is to be found in more democracy, more authoritarian rule, more equitable distribution of income, more control by a superior race/ ethnicity/ aristocracy, more freedom from government and regulation, greater direction and legislation from government, better morals, more law enforcement, suppression of criminals/ the rich/ the peasants/ heretics/ other races/ immigrants/ other countries, violently and perhaps completely. Even religious solutions are tried; keep the Law, deny worldly impulses, meditate until you are numb to existence itself. All these solutions, and more, have been tried throughout history. None have fixed the mess.
For many others, it is simply an unwillingness to think through what life is about. Rather than confronting what is happening, it is easier in the short term to drift through the many details of life without worrying about the direction one is headed or the purpose for which one is created. This is like getting in the car and driving off without any idea of where you are going (or even to be like the man who got on his horse and rode off in all directions). Life becomes a series of random kneejerks until one day it is over.
The world is not becoming a better place. To believe otherwise requires ignoring massive evidence to the contrary. It is possible to be accused of spreading gloom and doom by saying this. But it is not a matter of taking my word for it. You can simply check any reliable world news source. It is not to say that good things never happen. Yet, to state the obvious, terrible problems causing much suffering and distress are a dominant part of the real world, both on a personal and on a global level.
Through all this, through all history, through every moment of your own life, grace remains unchanged, unchanging, ever freely and unconditionally offered. That is, in a nutshell, the message of Christianity, the good news of the Gospel.
The puzzle is why it is so hard for us to accept an incredibly wonderful gift, so freely offered. History is replete with prophetic calls to stop trying to save ourselves and accept the free gift of grace. Paul of Tarsus, John Chrysostom, Martin Luther, Richard Hooker, Bo Giertz have all reminded us forcefully of our sole recourse, “that they who do lean only upon the hope of thy heavenly grace may evermore be defended by thy mighty power” (Collect for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, BCP 1928). To be sure, this implies, as the beginning steps of Alcoholics Anonymous put it, that we must admit we are afflicted with a problem that we cannot fix by ourselves. It evens leads to repentance for our foolishness and selfishness in following enticing but ultimately dead-end paths.
Yet the message heard from the Church so often obfuscates or even contradicts the Gospel message of grace. Those who would keep a multitude of rules to gain God’s favor, those who see Christianity itself as simply a moral way to live, those who believe they will be visibly and materially blest by God as a sign of how pleased he is with their piety, all have failed to hear the Gospel. The truth is that we lie in helpless spiritual infancy before God, unable to help ourselves, totally dependent on the milk of his love.
But having accepted that condition and the free gift of grace of the God who is true, we can respond and grow spiritually in his love, reflecting it to others, feebly perhaps but nevertheless able to pass along the glow of loving epiphany, as we gratefully, eucharistically receive the amazing grace offered.