Recently a lady came to see me who was suffering from a curious resentment. She was angry at God. Her feelings were vague and not clearly focused, but she felt that somehow God was to blame for her unhappiness. Life, she felt, was rapidly passing her by and she had already missed out on many chances for really living it. She was, and had been, a good lady, religious, moral, generous, living for others, faithful to her commitments. Now in her mid-50s she felt anger and resentment growing within her, an anger and resentment she was unable to really explain, accept or control. She was confused and unhappy. On the one hand, she did not regret her past life. She had been faithful, unselfish and religious. Yet, with her youth, health, sexual prowess, and opportunities fading, she felt frustrated, unneeded, unfulfilled, used, locked-in, and haunted by the thought that perhaps she had never made a decision for herself in her whole life.
Viewed one way, her virtue seemed like an accident, a conspiracy of circumstances. She wondered whether she had really chosen this or whether it had been forced upon her. Whenever she felt like that then she filled with regret and resentment. She regretted that she had always been so moral, religious and proper. In these moments too she would have to admit to herself that she secretly envied the amoral, the unvirtuous, all those who never felt, as she did, the yoke of domestication that eventually comes with morality and religion. At the root of all this was the feeling that she had been had, seduced by God. God was to blame. He, she assured me, had always been just real enough to hold her, but never real enough to fulfil her, at least not emotionally. So she was angry, and angry with herself for being angry. She was full of resentment and full of guilt for being resentful. Prayer was very difficult for her because she could not admit to herself that she was angry at God and so whenever she did try to pray it seemed artificial and contrived.
What does one say to a person like that? One begins by pointing out that her resentment and anger are already a high form of prayer, at least potentially so. Too often we are under the impression that God does not want us to struggle with him, that he prefers sheep who docilely acquiesce (even as they swallow hard on the bitterness that so spontaneously arises in the emotional, psychological and sexual mechanisms which he built into them). But God wants to be wrestled with. As Rabbi Heschel points out, ever since the day that Abraham argued with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Jacob wrestled with the angel, those close to God have also occasionally engaged in similar arguments. The refusal to accept the harshness of God’s ways in the name of his love is an authentic form of prayer. Indeed, the prophets and saints were not always in the habit of simply saying, “Thy will be done.” They often fought, challenged, squirmed and begged as a way of saying “Thy will be changed!” I suspect that sometimes they did annul divine plans. God wants to be struggled with, especially if we have been living in his house for awhile.
Why? Why would he want this? How can wrestling be a form of prayer? Wrestling can be a form of prayer precisely because it can be a form of love. People who live together in love for a long time must resolve many tensions. There is constant wrestling, much anger and occasional bitterness. But the struggling together, if persevered in, always leads to new depth in love. The lady I was describing earlier was, in fact, standing at the very edges of a new phase of love. She needed to pray through her bitterness first. As she stood at the edges of that new phase bent under the weight of God’s yoke, bitter and with the jealousy of Cain in her eyes, the same Father who had pleaded with the older brother of the prodigal son was also pleading with her, pleading with her to enter a new circle, the circle of those who feel compassion for God. Rabbi Heschel tells the story of a Polish Jew who became bitter and stopped praying “because of what happened in Auschwitz.” Later, however, he began praying again. When asked, “Why?” he replied: “I felt sorry for God.” This man had reached a new phase of love, that of affinity, of compassion. God’s concerns, God’s cause, God’s house, were now his too. But such a point is only reached after struggle, when anger and bitterness are transformed.
God invites and, I dare say, enjoys the struggle. As Nikos Kazantzakis puts it: “Every person partakes of the divine nature in both spirit and flesh. The struggle between God and the human person breaks out in everyone, together with the longing for reconciliation. “Most often this struggle is unconscious and short-lived. A weak soul does not have the endurance to resist the flesh for long. It grows heavy, becomes flesh itself, and the contest ends. The stronger the soul and the flesh, the more fruitful the struggle and the richer the final harmony. God does not love weak souls and flabby flesh. The Spirit wants to have to wrestle with flesh which is strong and full of resistance.”
May we all win…by losing!