Cece and I have had several conversations recently about what the goal of Church is that seem to us to distill into two purposes—to be comforted and to wrestle. This is probably a different articulation of the idea perhaps apocryphally attributed to past prophets, that the Gospel should “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”. We took our conversation to twitter and there were some thoughts there that inspired me to write more (you can read some of the conversation here).
My sense and experience has been that Church largely seems to operate in the realm of comfort, rather than wrestling. That is, the conversations seem almost ritualistic in the repetition that takes place. There’s a sense of community being built and maintained throughout the way we move through Sunday School and other lessons. This has value I think. There’s comfort and stability provided by having these sorts of rituals and rote methods of engagement. There’s power in having these sorts of rituals to establish and maintain community—families have these too, think about morning routines or even phrases that you repeat in response to questions that your mom always asks you.
The ritual of this type of engagement and the community that is built I think can be found in other places and done in ways that also allow for the sort of wrestling that strikes me as being essential to lived faith. I’ll dive in a bit into how I think this can happen and why I believe in a different sort approach to Sunday School as the ideal.
The world is messy and complicated and almost everyone I know closely struggles in some sense with the simplicity of the common, comfort-seeking ritualistic approach. This simplicity seems rooted in a comfort derived from noting that all is well, rather than a faith and hope that through & with God all can be made well (to riff on an idea from my good friend Chris). There’s a danger in leaning into this complexity and wrestling that sometimes descends into smug-feeling critiques and deconstructions, devoid of the hope necessary for faith and belief. There may certainly be a place for these critiques and more purely deconstruction-based comments, but I am not convinced that official Church-settings are it.
I think we all need to be comforted and we all need to wrestle. We need to feel comfort in this wrestling, in the midst of the affliction. It seems misguided to me to break down people into those that are comfortable and those that are afflicted. Aren’t we all comfortable and afflicted? That to me seems to be the nature of life in this cross-pressured, postsecular world (to clarify a world that is marked by a “default” of disbelief and a multiplicity of options in all facets of life, including that of spirituality and religion).
I used to think that we as humans were more clearly broken down into the two camps of comfortable and afflicted (not that any one individual was tied down to one of these categories, but that one or the other was inhabited at any given time). I’m not quite sure why I thought this. In fact, it strikes me now that the moments and life experiences that necessitate comfort are precisely those that frequently draw people into moments of spiritual wrestling. The loss of a loved one for instance is a time that may illustrate this (at least if my experience with losing various close relatives, but particularly with the passing of two of my cousins, is similar to that of others).
We all wrestle. That wrestle may take different forms and be sparked by a variety of different experiences or pieces of information, but I think we all have to wrestle. The Mormon idea of gaining a witness for yourself seems to be one possible articulation of this admission of the need for a universal wrestle. As I’ve interacted with close friends, internet strangers, friends of friends, and local members of my own congregation, I’ve been struck and heartbroken by the pain that so many of them feel. Much of this pain (to simplify and attempt to universalize this wide-array of experiences) seems to be tied to the idea that they could not share the difficulties that they were facing in their lives. They felt unable to share that they were involved in a wrestle with God.
The reasons for this are myriad. I can’t speak for everyone, but I can share some reasons that I have withheld the wrestles that I have faced.
It may be a sense that I don’t have anything constructive or faithful or hopeful to say and that because of that I just need to keep it to myself. Could be a sense of shame, that I should not be feeling the pain and difficulty that wrestling entails, that any expression of such wrestling would engender judgment from those in my congregation. I don’t want to be labeled as “that guy” or otherwise marked as the “outsider”. I was nervous or uncomfortable about the wrestling and could barely really understand internally what was happening, let alone share these things with others. I concern about hurting the faith of others or of disappointing the expectations or ideas that others have of me and my spirituality.
So what do we do? How can we create an environment that is both filled with the hope and faith that all things can be well necessary for the feeling of comfort that must be present as we wrestle with God as any people aspiring to be God’s people, ie Israel, should. I think the answer depends on what our current role is (if we teach classes at Church what we can do is different than if we are members of such classes, for example). I could probably write an entire post about this, but I’ll try to condense my thoughts here. The crux of what I think is necessary is likely, vulnerability—that is, openness of our own struggles may move us to a place where that is more accepted. Also, learning to frame ideas with lenses of faith and hope that still honor the difficulty, the darkness of the glass through which we currently see. Generally, a move towards embracing duality and ambiguity, acknowledging the pain and suffering that may be found in the midst of joy and righteousness. The co-existence of belief and doubt, as we all turn to Christ with the father whose story is found in Mark and say, “Yea Lord, I believe, help thou mine unbelief.”